Loving the migrant but perhaps not migration policy

As immigration politics now dominate in Europe, attacks on refugees have led to grass-roots efforts to meet the basic needs of migrants. Compassion over politics is a needed step to resolve social tensions.

AP Photo
Refugees attend a German language course at a first admission refugee facility in Berlin, Germany.

With Donald Trump’s help, immigration now dominates American politics, while in Europe, a wave of migrants this year has put the topic front and center. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warns the migrant crisis – caused by those fleeing war, persecution, and poverty – could “preoccupy Europe much, much more than the issue of Greece and the stability of the euro.”

In Europe, however, the politics of immigration is not only about policy issues, such as which migrants should stay or how to prevent the flow of refugee boats across the Mediterranean. Social tensions have led to hundreds of attacks on refugees and refugee centers. In Germany, the number of assaults has escalated over the past year. In 2015, the number of new asylum seekers in Germany is expected to reach more than 500,000, double the number from 2014 and more than in any other nation in Europe.

Yet the wave of migrants that triggered this wave of attacks has led to another wave: one of public compassion to assist migrants with their basic humanitarian needs – no matter how one views immigration policy. In a number of countries on the front lines, private groups have formed to provide temporary housing, language training, clothing, and health services to supplement the services of overwhelmed governments. 

“While attacks against refugee homes dominate the headlines, a new movement to aid asylum seekers is taking root in Germany,” declares the German publication Spiegel. “From Munich to Berlin, Dresden to Hanau, tens of thousands of people are standing up to help refugees: high school and university students, workers, retirees.” One survey shows a quarter of Germans would share their homes or offer housing to a refugee. 

These efforts require an ability to keep the politics of immigration (a topic) separate from the treatment of immigrants (real people). Welcoming a stranger does not mean one must accept his or her entry into a country as legal and permanent. 

Perhaps the best illustration of this approach was a TV encounter in July between Ms. Merkel and a 14-year-old Palestinian girl, Reem Sahwil, a refugee vulnerable to being deported. After telling the girl that not all asylum seekers can stay in Germany, the girl began to cry, prompting Merkel to try to console her with words of comfort and warm pats on her arm and head.

Merkel wants the European Union to come up with safe places for asylum seekers where they would not feel threatened while their applications are processed. The EU has already begun to provide more money to Greece, the country bearing the initial brunt of boat refugees.

In early August, a respected TV broadcaster in Germany, Anja Reschke, called for a public demonstration in favor of treating migrants with “decency” in their daily lives. A protest may not be needed as more Germans, along with other Europeans, show compassion toward migrants, no matter their politics.

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