The German Reaction to the European Migrant Crisis: An Over-excited City, a Divided Public, and an Exhausted Civil Service

Ashley Mantha-Hollands

In 2004 Klaus Wowereit, Berlin’s former mayor, coined the ultra popular saying “Berlin is poor, but sexy.” In truth, there is no phrase that more accurately describes the city’s rampant nightlife, dark grunge fashion, and decrepit street art-covered buildings scattered among neoclassical architecture. Berlin has long distinguished itself through its novel policies from the rest of Germany and Europe. As the centre of Germany’s academic and research, Berlin is the “start-up” capital of the world and governed on the basis of the two guiding principles of the commitment to the common good and the concept of an open, socially just, and environmentally friendly city.

Berlin is one of three city-states (“Stadtstaaten”) in Germany, alongside Hamburg and Bremen, and is geographically the largest city in Europe. Currently, refugees seeking asylum in Germany are evenly distributed upon entry to each of the city-states for registration based on a proportional formula. This is a drastically different migration policy than other countries, such as Canada, where mobility rights are constitutionally enshrined. By registering with German cities, the German government can manipulate urban density. Naturally, due to Berlin’s size, youthful population, and power in German politics, a very distinct perspective on the refugee crisis in Europe has emerged.

The first noteworthy mention is that in Berlin, the popular discourse has framed individuals escaping the conflict in Syria as “refugees” rather than “migrants.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also carefully articulated the difference in German policy towards “migrants” and “asylum seekers,” a distinction that has not been pronounced so clearly in other European states’ discourse. This is an important difference as under the UN Convention on Refugees, to which most Western democracies are signatories, states cannot refuse an individual asylum if they are fleeing persecution from their home state. Popularizing the use of the term “migrant” allows states to evade responsibility towards the Convention.

Over the past few months, Germany has been at the forefront of the refugee crisis, announcing that the country would accommodate 800,000 refugees per year. In Berlin, this policy has been received with countless “refugee parties,” where grungy Berlin bars host events for hip Berliners, greeted with mason jars at the door to collect donations to support various refugee aid initiatives within the city. Berlin-based group “Refugees Welcome,” which matches refugees with Germans offering rooms, has been flooded with over 800 offers. Even the ever-popular German band Deichkind sported “Refugees Welcome” apparel at their show at Lollapalooza Berlin on September 12, 2015. “Refugees Welcome” banners have appeared at the home games of German football teams. Berliners are welcoming refugees into their homes and holding “welcome fests” at refugee centres when new people arrive.

The realities for refugees in Berlin are not quite as hip or glamorous as the underground party scene. Empty hospitals and the abandoned airport at Tempelhof are at maximum capacity trying to accommodate the increasing demand. Rooms are filled with 6 to 8 individuals sleeping in cots, often separated hundreds of kilometers from their families. Despite the abundance of abandoned buildings in the city, the supply of habitable infrastructure does not meet the demand.

Furthermore, the 16 German federal states have exhausted their capacity and are asking Berlin for support of an extra EUR 1 billion in 2015, and EUR 3 billion in 2016. This has created a tension between the public and policy makers and a tension between the federal states and Berlin. Policy leaders from the federal states, on the one hand, are burdened with the policy challenges of finding enough resources to meet the overwhelming demand of newcomers. On the other hand, the sympathetic public has astoundingly high expectations that the public service will integrate refugees seamlessly into German society. However, there has also been a surge of momentum from the far right in some states and furthermore, more than 200 arson attacks against homes of asylum-seekers, and anti-refugee riots in the Saxon villages of Freital and Heidenau. Far-right protesters have called Merkel “the people’s traitor.”

The celebrations welcoming the hundreds of thousands of refugees to the city is in fact somewhat surprising due to the city’s history with past migration and the negative sentiments during the reunification of the German Democratic Republic. In the 1960’s, Germany saw a massive arrival of Turkish immigrants who still face forms of racism in all parts of the country despite the popularity of the Doner as the best afterhours meal.

At 10pm on September 13, 2015, German chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany would be closing its borders to the flood of migrants entering the country from the Southeastern border. This strategic decision has been speculated to be in preparation for negotiations between Germany and the UK scheduled to be held the following day. Critical eyes have met the UK’s anti-migrant stance from across the European Union; David Cameron has agreed that the UK will only take 20,000 refugees over the course of his parliament.

At the beginning of September, Europe faced an international humanitarian emergency with over 200,000 refugees entering Germany alone between July and August. On Wednesday September 23, 2015, EU leaders agreed to an initial plan for mandatory quotas, a plan that originated in Berlin, and to improve border controls and registration processes. The implications of the negotiations for the establishment of quotas among EU member states are wide-ranging. First, refugees are going to experience drastically different welcoming parties from each European country, and policies of integration. Despite Germany’s aging population and the country’s economic need for young workers, the massive flow of people will change the political landscape of the country. Furthermore, European cities are going to carry the burden of the influx which, given the lack of sustainability of dense cities, is going to spur a host of new policy challenges for these municipalities. European leaders have thus far, focused on policies that would equally distribute refugees among member states; now, individual states are going to have to innovate domestic policies that will support migrants in succeeding in their new societies.


Ashley Mantha-Hollands is a collaborative degree student at the School of Public Policy and the Department of Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. Ashley holds a Bachelor’s degree Honours Political Science Minor History from Concordia University. Her academic and career oriented interests are in building and maintaining healthy systems and efficiency in organizational behaviour.