A Question of Humanity

refugees waiting with luggage in Passau in july 15_dpa_distorted
A group of refugees who wait in the German town of Passau for their first registration.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany can and should be a moral role model in finding humane solutions to the current refugee crisis, says Handelsblatt’s deputy editor in chief.

  • Facts


    • The number of refugees worldwide has climbed to more than 50 million, with hundreds of thousands fleeing to Western Europe in recent years.
    • Reem Sahwil was born in a refugee camp in Lebanon and has cerebral palsy, in addition to other health problems. In 2010, she applied for a medical visa for treatment in Germany.
    • Germany has taken in more than a third of asylum seekers coming to the European Union so far this year.
  • Audio


  • Pdf

Immigration policy now has a face – a pretty one even.  That can only help as the hyperventilating media turn their attention to Europe’s most pressing issue.

Last week, 14-year-old Palestinian Reem Sahwil became a symbol of the immigration debate when she discussed her dreams and objectives in her new home of Germany with the country’s chancellor.

Angela Merkel – in her dispassionate, chancellor-like demeanor that is so praised elsewhere – repeatedly pointed out to the teenager that Germany cannot accommodate all asylum seekers.  When the girl started to cry, Ms. Merkel tried, awkwardly, to comfort her – and outrage exploded on the Internet about the supposedly hardhearted head of government.

The criticism is both cheap and inaccurate, because it diverts our attention from the real problem. It really isn’t about the chancellor’s lack of empathy.  It’s not even about the nicely integrated Reem, who probably needn’t worry about being deported ever since her public tears.

After all the “Grexit” debates, Germany can show it is not just a financial disciplinarian – it can also be a moral role model.

The encounter between child and chancellor created such a stir because it highlights a bewilderment that prevails among politicians, society and immigrants themselves when it comes to dealing with the issue at hand.

Refugees?  At first, they were anonymous masses stranded somewhere in the Mediterranean region, assuming they even survived the odyssey. Then came Syrians, fleeing war in their country. Then Iraqis, Afghans, Kosovars…

For the first time since the end of the Second World War, the number of refugees worldwide has climbed to more than 50 million. But now they are not just landing on the Italian island of Lampedusa, but in wealthy German cities like Duisburg, Garmisch and Hamburg’s fine suburbs.

In the first quarter alone, they were joined by 185,000 new asylum seekers in Europe. Germany took more than a third of them. The government expects at least 400,000 new applications by the end of the year, which is not least a logistical challenge.  But the refugee problem is not just a domestic political issue – it has an overriding European component.  


Video: The image of Chancellor Merkel comforting a Palestinian girl sparked a social-media firestorm.


E.U. interior ministers are currently arguing about who should take how many refugees. Greece and Italy are being overwhelmed and urgently need assistance.  For that reason alone, there must be a clear allocation plan, to which all E.U. states should sign up and do everything within their power. It cannot be that Spain and Portugal – and also the Baltic States and large parts of Eastern Europe – simply refuse to accept refugees for fear of the costs involved or social tension.

Europe is a community of values and responsibilities – just like the Federal Republic of Germany and its states. Here, too, there are arguments about allocation between states, a matter that seemed to be covered by the so-called “Königstein” plan, drawn up in 1949 to regulate the German states’ respective financing obligations. This plan is outdated, because it only takes two criteria into account: population size and tax revenues.  

For city states like Hamburg, that is a problem, because there simply is not enough space for new homes, despite the great offers of help coming from there.  

On the other hand, there would be space and demand for workers in many regions of eastern Germany, and also in rural areas of Bavaria or Baden-Württemberg.

So why not, for example,  Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in eastern Germany?  Because of fears relating to right-wing extremist mobs?  The arguments of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, whose agitation against asylum seekers threatens to outdo that of his country’s right-wing radicals, are similar – that is, similarly squalid.

Of course, the federal government has to take people’s reservations and fears seriously. Of course it needs new ideas, like the “blue card” (a measure to bring in highly-qualified non-E.U. citizens) currently being discussed, along with faster asylum procedures.

And of course, not all new arrivals are beacons of hope with a thirst for knowledge, like Reem Sahwil. But we Germans have a responsibility for them, too.

Because we are better off than all the other E.U. states.  

Because, after all the “Grexit” debates, Germany can show it is not just a financial disciplinarian – it can also be a moral role model.

And also because Germany can attribute some of its post-war “economic miracle” to the support of cheap guest workers who came from abroad.  

“We called for workers, and human beings came,” Swiss writer Max Frisch said sarcastically at the time, when the initial economic jubilation gave way to debates about integration along the way.

And now human beings are on the move again. Great numbers of them, only this time, we didn’t call for them. And not all of them are as convincing as 14-year-old Reem.  But that is no reason to immediately turn them away.  Solidarity and humanism are two of the pillars of the European idea.  


To contact the author:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!