In Germany, are some refugees more equal than others?

Family gatherings can be a pleasant but occasionally dreadful experience. At one such dinner three weeks ago, my grandmother’s cousin complained to us about the, in her opinion, never-ending flow of refugees and asylum-seekers to Germany and, in particular, her local municipality. “It’s only a matter of time before these young men start raping our girls”, she declared shamelessly. “But, of course, I don’t mind Syrian families, they can stay here!”, she added apologetically. In Germany, this reveals a simple truth: all refugees are equal, but some refugees are more equal than others.

Under international humanitarian law, states are expected to grant asylum to people fleeing from war and persecution, regardless of nationality, race, gender, religion, or political opinion. In reality, this principle is often ignored or actively thwarted, as in Germany’s current discourse on migration. It is not only private spaces that offer a platform for racist and xenophobic propaganda. Bavaria’s premier Horst Seehofer bluntly denounces people in need of protection as “asylum abusers”, while right-wing movements warn against Germany’s creeping Islamization through uncontrolled immigration and lax asylum laws. These claims seem to target one asylum-seeker group that is considered particularly undesirable: lone traveling, young African and Arab men. They seem undeserving of state protection and are branded as potential criminals, idlers or parasites, as exploiting the welfare system, threatening state security, and encroaching upon “our” women. After all, over 65% of Germany’s asylum-seekers are men. Part of this irrational antagonism stems from deep-rooted racism.

For centuries, racialized knowledge about colonial subjects, so-called ‘orientals’ and ‘negroes’, was at the heart of Europe’s imperial vigour. Black and non-white bodies were at once despised and fetishized, mystified and sexualized, displayed and hidden from view. Nonetheless, intimate contact between European men and non-white women was often tolerated as a perfidious way of appropriating conquered societies, cultures, and subject bodies. In Europe’s male-dominated social order, the reverse was a strictly-policed racial and cultural taboo. As Cynthia Enloe argues, “affairs between colonial women and local men were threats to the imperial order”. Black bodies were ascribed an exotic, boundless, and violent sexuality. Yet, colonial subjects were also deemed lazy, lustrous, barbarous, and irrational. With a flare-up in Germany’s migration debates, these racist resentments come again to the fore.

Protests against asylum-seeker homes are no rarity in German cities today. Right-wing demonstrations in Freital (Saxony) and a steep increase in reported assaults targeting refugees and asylum-seekers nationwide echo the murderous arson attacks of Rostock-Lichtenhagen and Solingen in 1993. By appealing to nationalist and xenophobic sentiments, conservative politicians condone and incite such hate crimes. And yet, all political panic reactions seem disproportionate to both the number of asylum-seekers/refugees in Germany and the country’s strong capacity to accommodate them. According to the European Commission (EC), around 185,000 people applied for EU asylum in the first quarter of 2015. Around 73,000 applications were submitted in Germany. Meanwhile, conflict-affected neighbouring countries in Africa and the Middle East are bearing the brunt of global displacement. In Lebanon, every fourth inhabitant is now a refugee. Ethiopia alone hosts 665,000 refugees, the highest number in Africa. Kenya comes a close second with over 600,000 having escaped civil wars in Somalia and South Sudan.

But, with racism and xenophobia again on the rise, not only numbers matter. A conservative audience fearing “asylum abusers”, “economic refugees”, and “Islamic extremists” has found easy scapegoats in young Arab and African men, some of whom have lost their homes and families. In contrast, Syrian refugee and asylum-seeker families are seen as more agreeable. Besides offering welcome photo opportunities for German politicians, they are frequently co-opted as “poster families” to embody “the good refugee life”. Particularly for conservatives, Christian or secular families are the “safest bet”: the more educated and integration-prone, the better. They seem to pose little risk to the cultural comfort zone of more right-wing voters.  Further, these media celebrations of refugee families who “know their place” reinforce an illiberal notion of family as the building block of society, while simultaneously delegitimizing asylum claims of single men (and women).

Unsurprisingly, this hostile social climate is a European-wide phenomenon. Eastern Europe’s Visegrád governments – Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – declared their unwillingness to accept Muslim asylum-seekers. Petty diplomatic wrangling over the European Agenda on Migration, the EU resettlement scheme for 40,000 refugees, and an equitable quota system for member states is a clear sign of Europe’s moral destitution. Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec cautioned that EU quotas for asylum-seekers could mean the “collapse of [Czech] society”. Many European governments therefore favour “culturally close[r]” refugees and asylum-seekers, preferably white, educated Christians. But, pick-and-choose asylum systems are both unethical and unlawful. In fact, asylum regimes must per definition respect people’s rights and needs without prior discrimination. A 2013 article in The Atlantic alluded to the discriminative practice of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan and its bias towards assisting Syrian rather than Sudanese refugees, and provocatively asked “How do you rank refugees?”. Whether in Germany, in my grandma’s cousin’s municipality, or elsewhere, there is only one right answer: You don’t.

Further Reading

I, Surya

The story of Surya Bonaly, and her unwillingness to yield to racist demands and expectations in the sport of figure skating.

Blind to the matatus

The future of Kenya’s matatus (commuter buses) and their inherent place in the capital Nairobi’s culture and society, is all but absent in the government’s neoliberal vision for urban planning.