S: I’ve been giving my brain a break from ‘the news’ over the last couple months after a year of following it closely. But I’ve started tracking it again as the new year rolls into motion, and no surprises. Bombings, shootings, unstable financial markets. Zika. Sarah Palin popping up in support of Donald Trump brought the ‘murica weird. What’s it like living in Berlin at the moment? It seems like animosity is on the rise in Germany, towards refugees and migrants, following the sex attacks on women across the country on New Year’s Eve.
E: Given that I only speak the most rudimentary German, I am somewhat cushioned from media reporting on the pressure of the rapid influx of refugees into Germany and the attacks that happened, mostly in Cologne, on NYE. But from what I’ve read, and from talking to friends, it appears that many crimes are being used to justify the right-wing position of anti-immigration. The perpetrators of the crimes are up front in many articles, identified as being from cultural or religious groups outside of mainstream German culture.
When the Paris attacks occurred, my first fear wasn’t a terrorist bombing in Germany, but mounting support for neo-Nazi parties here. I knew that the systems required to integrate so many people into Germany so quickly would cause friction in society, and terrorist attacks on civilians across the world have provided further ammunition for these groups to launch anti-Muslim rhetoric into mainstream media.
But, the recent bombing in Indonesia – a predominantly Muslim country – is a good example of how the West vs Islam debate is a far too binary position on international relations. Just as the sex attacks in Cologne have distracted from the factor of pervasive violence against women, and turned this into a ‘refugee problem’.
When I write about this from my cosy couch in my nice neighbourhood here in Berlin I really am commenting from a distance about life in Germany. However, recently I have become very aware of being a brown woman. It’s a kind of hyper-alertness to being ‘different’ here in Germany.
S: Right, and we’ve talked a lot about your own migration experience. Relocating from New Zealand to Berlin has had its trickynesses, and your choice to move there with your family was motivated more by a desire to explore, try something new – rather than to escape civil war, for example. Returning to the sex attacks, have you felt unsafe personally in Berlin, or is it more of a general sense that tensions are rising in many forms?
E: I think you nailed it by suggesting that there is a sense of tensions rising in many forms. That’s how it feels for me anyhow. I haven’t experienced any subtle or explicit forms of aggression from men towards me, but I do feel like people, men and women, look long and hard at me, trying to figure out where I come from. To be noticed in this way is very unnerving, and it is really indicative of feeling on the outer of a seemingly homogenous society. Berlin is a city that has changed so rapidly in recent history, and the resettlement of refugees here will change the city – and the country – once again. How prepared Germany, and Germans are for this change is really up for debate.
I’m a New Zealand-born Cook Islander, so living on a continent feels weird, even after a few years, and the idea of people walking into Europe makes me think about the varied permeabilities of nations. When you grow up on an island with borders shaped by the ocean we understand migration in such different ways. Can you tell me what it’s like in New Zealand right now? How sheltered is New Zealand from the events in Europe?
S: In a lot of ways it feels really sheltered, in the sense that it’s summertime, people are in holiday mode, and we’re geographically distant from where the events you and I are talking about are taking place. That said – and maybe it’s who I’m hanging out with – but we’re still having conversations about migration, there are still fundraisers and protests aimed at raising the quota of refugees that NZ welcomes, albeit by a small margin, and there’s a lot of talk around the possible TPPA deal at the moment too. Not to mention Australia and New Zealand both marking their national days within the same fortnight, which sparks the usual debate around nationality, ownership of land and the like. People are talking about borders, we’re talking about migration, we’re talking about who gives who the right to be where, and to be honest I don’t think anyone really knows what the answer should be. The threat of terrorism complicates the issue. And, without overstating it, it is a real threat. Climate change exacerbates things too.
I stopped for a bite at a restaurant the other night and a guy sat down next to me who’s from Cologne. When I said, Oh right, he smiled and said, Yeah everyone knows where Cologne is now. It was interesting to hear a first-person take on the impact of the NYE sex attacks. He said that, although there’s still a lot of media coverage of the issue, fear has died down amongst residents of the city itself. Though he did say that, within a couple of days of the attacks it was pretty impossible to buy pepper spray, everyone was sold out. He emphasised the fact that similar attacks happened in a number of other cities around Germany on the same night, and that people shouldn’t be afraid to travel through Cologne. It was his opinion that Merkel’s government hadn’t managed the influx of migrants to Germany well overall, and he’s frustrated by that.
My default opinion is that ‘safe’ countries should welcome and resettle asylum seekers, but I know it’s not as straightforward as being for or against. A lot of people are likely to harbour both empathy for those seeking refuge, and realistic concerns about the varied implications of providing that – complexities that are often swept over by those at both extremes of the spectrum. It’s not just a matter of taking everyone who’s looking for shelter, not all countries have the capacity to handle that. The crisis needs to be managed in a sustainable way – for those seeking asylum, and the countries that are taking them in. Screening entrants is clearly important given the likelihood that some migrants may be involved in terrorist activities. BUT this needs to be done in a way that doesn’t stigmatise those who are innocent civilians trying to escape a devastating situation. However it’s done, the thousands of people that continue to arrive to the shores of Greece and elsewhere make it imperative that a real solution is found. Conflict-driven migration isn’t an issue that’s going to disappear all of a sudden and, particularly given that the world is globalising and interconnecting at an increasing rate, a pragmatic, global solution needs to be found.
Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.
Evelyn Marsters has a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Auckland and is currently based in Berlin. Her focus is global health and migration, and she is Deputy Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Evelyn.