In the UK, with UKIP in the ascendant stoking up its anti-immigration message, we hear both Labour and Conservative politicians, running scared of a section of the electorate, tacking daily towards UKIP’s positions. But what if our politicians were brave enough to take on the racists and the narrow-minded? That’s what the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has done in her new year address to the nation.
Context first: in Germany as in the UK, mainstream parties are being challenged by a populist ant-immigrant movement, the right-wing, racist Pegida, or Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West). It has been gaining support in Germany generally for several months, but especially in Dresden, where rallies have taken place every Monday for the last two months. Tomorrow the eleventh demonstration is due to take place, with another rally planned for Cologne, where the lights of the cathedral will be turned off in a mark of the church’s disapproval of Pegida. (You can read about Pegida in today’s Observer).
As with UKIP here, the growth of Pegida has led to calls for the government to tighten asylum rules and speed up the deportation process to appease voters. But in her new year speech, Merkel’s responded boldly, saying that when Pegida demonstrators chant ‘we are the people’ (co-opting a slogan from the rallies that led up to the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago), ‘What they really mean is: you are not one of us, because of your skin colour or your religion’. She continued:
I say to all those who go to such demonstrations: do not follow those who have called the rallies, because all too often they have prejudice, a chilliness, even hatred in their hearts. It goes without saying that we help them and take in people who seek refuge with us.
Angela Merkel making her televised new year address
Merkel pointed out that Germany has received more than 200,000 applications from asylum seekers this year, making it the country accepting the largest number of refugees in the world. The reason for this, she added, is that the number of refugees in the world this year hasn’t been so high since World War II. Merkel insisted that children of persecuted parents should be able to grow up in Germany under peaceful circumstances – this was something the country could be proud of.
Merkel’s words come on the same weekend when we have seen the two crew-less ‘ghost’ ships arrive in Italy, carrying hundreds of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war and the advance of Isis. As the Guardian reports, they are just part of the largest wave of mass-migration the world has seen since the end of the second world war:
Wars in Syria, Libya and Iraq, severe repression in Eritrea, and spiralling instability across much of the Arab world have all contributed to the displacement of around 16.7 million refugees worldwide. A further 33.3 million people are “internally displaced” within their own war-torn countries, forcing many of those originally from the Middle East to cross the lesser evil of the Mediterranean in increasingly dangerous ways, all in the distant hope of a better life in Europe.
“These numbers are unprecedented,” said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration. “In terms of refugees and migrants, nothing has been seen like this since world war two, and even then [the flow of migration] was in the opposite direction.”
Angela Merkel addressed this in her speech:
One consequence of these wars and crises is that worldwide there are more refugees than we have seen since the second world war. Many literally escaped death. It goes without saying that we help them and take in people who seek refuge with us.
Pointing out that the German population is ageing rapidly, she called immigration ‘a gain for all of us’. Speaking about the case of a Kurdish refugee who had settled in Germany, she said that it is ‘perhaps the biggest compliment’ for Germany to call itself a place ‘where the children of the persecuted can grow up without fear’.
I would be mightily impressed if Cameron, Miliband, or another British politician expressed such views so clearly.
Inside the ‘ghost ship’ Ezadeen – formerly used for transporting cattle.
Update 6 January: In a three-page special in Bild, 80 prominent Germans – politicians of all stripes, faith leaders, business managers and trade union leaders, entertainers, football managers and top athletes say NO to Pegida and state the case for a cosmopolitan and tolerant Germany. Gurdian report here. See also: How Germans documented Pegida’s far-right protests on social media.
Footnote: for an example of a brilliantly imaginative protest by German villagers against neo-Nazis, see this: German town tricks neo-Nazis into raising thousands of euros for anti-extremist charity (Guardian, November 2014)