Abdulela Alhajjar is a big fan of Angela Merkel, which is simultaneously the German chancellor’s finest tribute and her biggest threat. Like many others crowding a refugee processing center here, the 21-year-old Syrian saw pictures of Merkel taking selfies with migrants and took her message of welcome to heart.
“We will be treated good here,” Alhajjar, a civil engineering student, told me as he waited to register, a step still not accomplished a week after his arrival.
To speak to Alhajjar and other refugees is to grasp the magnitude of the challenge facing Merkel and the kaleidoscope of migrants drawn here at a rate of 10,000 a day — many fleeing violence and persecution, others simply seeking a better life in this prosperous country:
An Iraqi man, 53, who says he worked with U.S. troops and can no longer live there safely. A Serbian woman, grasping her toddler’s hand, who pulls down her collar to display bruises from her abusive husband. Three Palestinian brothers, unable to find work. A 20-year-old Afghan man whose father was killed by the Taliban, worrying about where his mother will sleep that night.
This deluge presents an enormous logistical undertaking, but even more, a societal and political test in a country devoted to orderliness.
On a societal level, the question is how to integrate these diverse people into a relatively homogenous and very different society — a task Germany fumbled decades ago with Turkish guest workers.
The United States, for all the clamor over illegal immigration, is a nation of immigrants; the metaphor of the melting pot is foundational. In Germany, immigration “is not part of the narrative,” said Astrid Ziebarth, migration fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
On a more immediate, political level, the question is how to tamp down the anxieties, and the consequent political risks, posed by the migrants. The initial reaction to Merkel’s approach was largely positive, with Germans flocking to train stations with food and clothing. That charitable instinct remains on display at the center here, with its bustling village of volunteer services.
It is easy for U.S. observers to interpret this reaction as atonement for World War II atrocities. The better explanation is that it illustrates Germans’ pride in their country’s emergence as the continent’s leader. Germany is no longer the post-reunification sick man of Europe.
“It’s the ‘Generation Merkel,’ ” Ziebarth told me. “People have been faring quite well economically and feel that they want to give something back.”
Yet as the flood shows no sign of abating, that positive stance has given way to increasing alarm and, occasionally, violence. Public polling has flipped, with a majority now saying they fear the influx; Merkel’s job approval has plummeted 26 points since April, albeit from an astonishing 75 percent. In Bavaria, which has received the bulk of the refugees, Premier Horst Seehofer, normally a Merkel ally, has sharply criticized her migrant policy.
Merkel’s boldness has surprised Germans because she is notoriously cautious, even spawning a verb, “merkeln,” meaning to be indecisive or withhold opinion. Merkel’s background — a pastor’s daughter, an East German empathetic to those fleeing oppression — may explain some of her uncharacteristic passion on the migrants.
Still, even in this instance she may have been something of an accidental humanitarian, having failed to grasp how her soothing words — and those selfies — would be instantly transmitted to cellphone-toting refugees.
Likewise, her statement that Germany expected 800,000 migrants this year — the final tally could be close to a million — was seen as a welcoming invitation, rather than a statement of reality.
In recent weeks, Merkel has been careful to emphasize that Germany’s generosity, and capacity, have limits. While the country has a legal obligation to shelter refugees, she said, “we don’t have the task of keeping everyone here for life.”
Last week, Merkel reached a deal with Seehofer to establish “transit zones” at borders to process asylum requests, only to face a revolt from her liberal Social Democrat coalition partners, who denounced the proposed sites as prisons. Instead, there will be “reception centers” inside Germany, quicker removal of those from “safe” countries, primarily the Balkans, and limits on family reunification.
The turmoil has raised inevitable questions about dangers to Merkel’s political future. Perhaps, but the chancellor, now in her third term, is a dominant figure, with no obvious successor or rival. “Wir schaffen das,” she likes to say of the refugee crisis: We can do it, but, more precisely, we can manage this. Betting against Merkel’s managerial skills is never the wisest course.
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