DAS BOOT IST VOLL: Willkommenskultur and Refugee Policy


(By Daniella LaFerrie, Queen’s University)


It was World War II when Switzerland turned away 25,000 Jewish refugees, leaving their fates in the hands of the Nazis. “Das Boot ist voll”, they were told. The boat is full. This phrase became an icon of the failing international refugee policies during World War II. Fast-forward generations, and almost eerily, that phrase is being repeated as Europe faces the largest number of asylum seekers since World War II. Everyday, asylum seekers are making the dangerous trek in search of a better life—a trek that has caused 3,257 migrants to drown in the Mediterranean this year to date. Das Boot ist voll.

Europe faces a serious political and humanitarian crisis. By the end of today 42,500 more people will be refugees.  Most of these people will be from Syria, followed by Afghanistan and Somalia. Most people are fleeing violence and over half of these people will be children (UNHCR Global Trends 2014).

For most refugees it is the dream to arrive in Germany, which is where I currently reside under a student visa in the city of Köln. The country has emerged as a moral leader in Europe’s crisis, with Angela Merkel establishing an open door policy for refugees, as Berlin is expecting at least one million refugees. My exchange experience here has given me the opportunity to witness firsthand the Willkommenskultur, or welcome culture, a term that describes the welcome refugees receive when they arrive: Germans bringing food, blankets, and holding welcome signs. My business school has posters advertising fundraising campaigns to gather donations for the newcomers. The local burger joint, Die fette Kuh, voted the number one burger shop in Germany, developed a specific burger with all proceeds going to the refugees. The line was out the door to purchase it.

However, not every German has been pleased with Merkel’s policies. From an administration standpoint, some worry that Germany cannot process so many immigration requests at once. Other worry Germany’s generosity is being taken advantage of and that German money should be spent aiding poor Germans. For some, and I genuinely believe it’s a small few, it’s for xenophobic reasons. A few weeks ago, during Köln’s mayoral election, a politician named Henriette Rekker was stabbed in a hate crime prompted by her pro refugee stance. I’m happy to say she survived and won the election regardless.

Merkel’s decision to take in so many refugees ripples out to affect every country in the European Union. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has accused Angela Merkel of moral imperialism, for imposing her beliefs on all of those around her. Countries like Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia were acting as transit countries for refugees on their trek to Germany until they began building walls around their borders. These countries by no means have the same economic power as Germany and are overwhelmed by the sheer number of asylum applicants.

It was not that long ago that the Berlin Wall came down—as an endless flow of refugees from the east wanted to escape to opportunities in the west. Now, it is a flow of refugees that is prompting eastern European countries to put up their walls again—calling into question the sustainability of the bloc and the purpose of regulations such as the Dublin Regulation.

Many European economists recognize that countries should be more focused on the consequences of turning refugees away. Europe is in dire need of immigration to support their demographic trends—today fertility rates are approx. 1.5 (the rate for a stable population is 2.1) and Eurostat assumes that by 2030 three quarters of all Euro regions will have no alternative to immigration. Without an influx from abroad the population would shrink by roughly 50 million. While migration is a bonus in demographic terms, positive economic effects can only be realized if migrants can find meaningful employment and contribute to national income. And while the German Willkommenskultur is morally admirable, there is doubt regarding its sustainability. The truth is that refugees will eventually want more than a shared tent and a brötchen. While the economic question may be whether they have the skills necessary to contribute to the pristine German economy, the ethical question is whether it ultimately matters.

There needs to be more support for the developing countries that are also hosting the refugees. 20 years ago developing regions were hosting 70% of the world’s refugees, but this has grown: in 2014 it was 86%. There is an evident lack of funding and failure of developed countries to shoulder the basic needs of people in this humanitarian crisis. In December 2014 the UN launched an appeal for $8.4 billion, which in a year was still under half funded. While economic and political policies are bantered, remembering the humanity of these refugees is paramount. People need food, shelter, security, and dignity.

My perspective on the refugee crisis holds a bias: I am the daughter of a refugee. Forty something years ago, my mother and her family were expelled from their birth home in Kampala, Uganda in an ethnic cleansing. They were given 90 days to leave the country, and all of their belongings and wealth, or face imprisonment in a military camp. Had Prime Minister Trudeau the senior not appealed to Canada’s humanitarian past in welcoming the Ugandan refugees, I would not be alive. If my family’s presence in Canada contributes anything to this issue, it is that refugees are not parasites looking to feed off of wealthy states. We are people: your future neighbours, soccer teammates, students, and employers.

When Canada took in the Ugandan refugees—who was at the time the largest number of refugees from a non-European, non-Christian country—people expressed fears similar to those expressed in Europe. But Canada implemented a holistic approach to welcoming the refugees. They were educated on Canadian history and given coupons for winter clothing, and even skates. The Ugandan refugees became a success story in Canada’s history. This is the kind of approach Europe needs to take to ensure a smooth transition for the families arriving.

There is something powerful in holding a welcome sign, sharing a meal, and celebrating life with those who come here looking for a better one. Soon the months will grow cold for the newcomers. I hope that Germany’s Willkommenskultur holds strong through the winter, and remains consistent as the flow of refugees continues. I have learned a lot about politics and economics here, but my most valued lesson is that a true demonstration of wealth and stability is the willingness to share it with others. Das Boot ist nicht voll.