iassw logoSocial Dialogue #17
A line of Syrian refugees crossing the border of Hungary and Austria on their way to Germany, 6 September 2015. Photo: Mstyslav Chernov

Dr. Chaitali Das
Faculty of Health and Social Work, Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences Professor

The rhetoric against migration and asylum seekers in Germany: implications for social work.


The rise of conservatism and nationalism is a visible trend around the world and this is often argued to be a response to rising levels of migration and an increasing influx of refugees and asylum seekers in almost all parts of the world. In this paper, I will present how this conservatism and nationalism finds political expressions in Germany, particularly in view of the recent incoming of refugees and asylum seekers since 2015 in Germany and the implications of this for social work.

Immigrants, Refugees and Asylum seekers in the political Landscape:

In 2015, Angela Merkel opened Germany's doors to Refugees and Asylum seekers, in response to the Syrian crisis. Since then, Germany had received 441,899 applications for asylum, a sharp rise compared to 41,332 asylum applications in 2010 (BAMF, 2016). As Chancellor, Angela Merkel has stood firm on her politics of leaving Germany's doors open, even as the mood in other EU countries (Hungary, Austria, Poland, UK) was largely negative with many rejecting the call for solidarity and to sharing the task of accommodating refugees and asylum seekers. The mainstream reaction to refugees/asylum seekers has however not been as negative and most Germans seem to support their country's commitment to provide refuge to people fleeing from war and persecution. Germans has matched their attitudes with action with huge numbers of Germany participating in supporting refugees with housing, helping them to integrate, offering voluntary services as well as donating resources. Nevertheless, it is also clear that this refugee influx has also led to soul searching, recognition of problems and the difficulties of integration and perhaps not surprisingly, while the welcome culture still exists, there is also an increasing concern about the implications of this on the welfare state, housing and infrastructure (Studie Deutsche Willkommenskultur, 2017).

In 2015, at the height of the crisis, asylum seekers had to be accommodated in emergency shelters temporarily set up in sport-halls, churches, schools and hotels across the country. There were clearly not enough resources to offer language courses or even to support unaccompanied minor asylum seekers appropriately. Minor unaccompanied asylum seekers spent days in tents and temporary shelters without any access to education or other facilities. It was clear that the administrative capacity was at its limit and faltering. Merkel had famously said 'wir schaffen das' (we will manage this) but a clear strategy of how this was to be managed was unclear.

In an attempt to further streamline asylum seekers, a pact with Turkey was made to limit unaccounted refugees from entering Germany and other parts of the EU. Furthermore, to further manage the asylum seeking process, administratively and financially, Merkel's government further limited support for asylum seekers and laid down additional conditions and responsibilities on asylum seekers an d refugees in terms of where they could live, who could access support for education and living, and under what conditions as well as conditions under which punitive measures could be taken for example: reducing support for lack of participation in integration / language courses. Furthermore, attempts have been made to categorise countries as 'safe' or 'unsafe', such that persons applying from Asylum and Refuge could be identified and processed accordingly. Finally, there has been increasing commentary in terms of what 'Asylum' under the law means, including 'who can be legally given asylum' and attempts have been made to categorise different reasons for immigration such as: those seeking refuge, those seeking asylum and those seeking protection. According to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), those fleeing political persecution can be granted asylum while those fleeing war are eligible to apply for refuge and protection but not necessarily asylum. There are thus three different kind of protection that Germany offers ranging from Refugee protection, Entitlement to Asylum and Subsidiary Protection (BAMF, 2016a). Recent developments indicate that applicants are more likely to receive subsidiary status rather than asylum status (Neue Asylpraxis beim BAMF, 2016). Subsidiary status, however, limits the period of stay in German, access to resources as well as the right to bring families to join persons who are in Germany. These measures, however, have received much criticism as failing to recognise the context of asylum seekers, categorising persons in terms of 'who is and should be protected' and who does not need or should not be protected' and criminalising or punishing them.

In either case, voices criticising Chancellor Merkels 'open door' (open to refugees and asylum seekers) policy as well as her attempts to manage the situation have become louder.

Furthermore, sexual harassment during new Year's at Cologne, terrorist actions perpetrated by supposed asylum seekers/refugees have further sensitized the German public to the risks of letting refugees into the country where complex administrative and legal systems make it often difficult to recognise possible terrorists and to take action against them. Finally, the very real difficulties of integrating people from a different culture and land are increasingly coming to the fore, posing central questions about German identity, culture, what 'outsiders' need to adapt and should integrate to. This has led to interesting calls for debates and ideas of 'what is German' and 'what should be German'. However, these debates have become increasingly polarised and laced by the influence of populist ideas that tend to present a German as a mono-culture with a particular culture, history, tradition and religion, rather than accept Germany as a multicultural place with a complex history that many diverse people of different religions and ethnicities have shaped.

Based on these ideas, Merkels party colleague and Germany's interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, has called for a 'deutsche Leitkultur', in which he calls for a recognition of particular social norms and actions along with the constitution and respect for human rights, that, according to Maziere, forms the fundamental basis of Germany. Within this context he makes it clear that Germans are not 'Burkha' (de Maizière, 2017). This was heavily criticized with some maintaining that German culture is laid in the constitution and others seeing this as a guise to further monitor right and Islamist groups and stress integration. Merkel's own statement of what German culture is, highlights a multiplicity of cultures, historical and regional influences (Merkel, 2017).

With the ruling parties and its members emphasis on drawing sharp differences between practices of Muslims and the general majority population of 'Germans', it is clear that populism is increasingly becoming visible in mainstream politics in Germany, as it is everywhere else in the world. A turning point in German mainstream politics is also the rise of the extreme right wing party, the Alternativ Für Deutschland (AFD). The popularity of AFD has risen so much, that polls predict that they will enter the German parliament as an opposition party in the 2017 German elections in September. AFD leaders envision a 'Germany of Germans!' They oppose immigration, and believe that Germany needs to protect its borders from immigrants, including refugees. Furthermore, they fear the usurpation of German values, culture and history through the influx of Muslim migrants and refugees, particularly since most of the refugees arriving in Germany from Syria and Afghanistan are Muslims. Thus AFDs agenda is not only racist but very clearly Islamophobic. AFDs leader Frauke argued for shooting at refugees at Germany border to halt entry of refugees into Germany (German right leaning AfD, 2016). AFDs rhetoric often emphasises points of difference between Muslims and Christian/ German ways of life, and propagate fear of a cultural takeover by Islam. They have argued for a ban on the head scarf and an insistence that immigrants pledge their loyalty to German law and acceptance of German ways of life.

The next upcoming elections in September 2017 in Germany, clearly thematises populist notions with regards to immigrants, Islam, Asylum seekers and so on. Immigrants are portrayed as criminals and persons threatening the security of the nation. AFD posters juxtapose 'German' culture and society against 'immigrant' and 'Muslim' societies, they celebrate Bikinis as opposed to Burkha's and hail the reproduction of 'German' kids instead of 'immigrants' (Kamann 2017). Other parties such as the Left and the main ruling party CDU, also vie for resistance against the hate rhetoric and seek to promote tolerant living respectively. The issue of increasing deportations and definitively managing Asylum seekers is also a political manifesto for the current ruling party Christian Democratic Party (CDU) (Merkel's party) that is set to win. Though right wing parties like the AFD are keen to link migration, refugees and asylum seekers to security issues, other parties have resisted this simplistic connection, even though issues of Security, taxation, and benefits remain important issues in this election.

The role of social workers:

Dealing with needs of special groups such as immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers has never been an easy task. These are cohorts of people with multiple needs, little social/emotional support, often traumatised and who must navigate their way in a foreign land without clear legal status or secured long term perspectives. I, myself worked with unaccompanied minor asylum seekers for a year, when the initial rise in asylum seekers took place in 2015 in Germany. The work was challenging, sometimes contradictory and got me to self-reflect on the intersection of immigration, culture, differences, communication, multiple times. I experienced internal racism, frustration, questioned myself multiple times when Muslim colleagues and Muslim young people who were my clients refused to shake my hand explaining that their religion did not allow them to do so as I was a woman and that this was a sign of respect that they had for me. I participated in discussions as to whether a female colleague could wear shorts in summer during Ramadan. These led me to self-critique, to question my own values, to talk with others, to work constructively to find solutions. Whilst this was challenging for me, I can imagine that it may be equally or even more difficult for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Such persons are often voiceless and have little access to express themselves in the mainstream culture without the potential for being misunderstood. It is not only important to hear these voices but also to be able to contextualise them. In my opinion, this space is missing. It is clear that the road to integration is not easy and there are possibilities, successes as well as challenges. There is little room to understand these in their totality; the view on these issues from multiple perspectives is missing. Social workers can and should play a role in creating these spaces for such dialogue because they are often the ones in direct contact with persons in vulnerable situations and are in a position to provide a contextualised narrative rather than a seemingly fact based argument. I do not think that a one size fits all solution is possible. We are all too post-modern for that. But I do think a dialogue and working together constructively is possible. We will definitely not always agree and we may need to have multiple arguments over the same theme without finding resolutions but hopefully we will learn to live together with our differences. I think, as social workers, we should encourage participation in these encounters.

News such as the establishment of a 'liberal mosque' in Berlin and more recently planning of a 'culturally sensitive toilet' in Cologne had become newsworthy. For both topics, I believe a contextualisation is necessary to understand what happened and the reactions that ensued. In my naiveté, I asked an acquaintance who is Muslim what she thought of the liberal mosque. She asked me what I meant by 'liberal', which from what I had read meant a mosque where men and women could pray together and where a female Imam led the services. She answered that her mosque is also 'liberal' where men and women pray together, though they do not have a female Imam, and they had not felt the need to refer to themselves as 'liberal'. This interaction highlighted to me the importance of being aware of how the mainstream or those in power often defines the 'other' or the 'minority' in very limited and problematic ways, limiting the agency of minorities to self-define or express themselves beyond structures and boundaries imposed by the majority.

Perhaps because of, or even irrespective of political personalities and their ideas, I suspect there is a genuine desire to understand the 'other' and to provide 'support'. However, I suspect that it is not the language that holds people and communities apart but simply different lifestyles. Indeed, how would I learn about Goths, or Punks, if I do not belong to the scene or do not have friends who are part of it? I hardly have any idea what the lifeworld of German teenagers is, given that no one in my circle of acquaintances is a teenager. Acceptance of difference is crucial in multi-cultural societies -- be it different ethnic, social or religious. Social workers can play a very important role in bringing people together for dialogue, simply by creating spaces where people can come together. It is clear that it is not one space or one format that is required but rather multiple formats and multiple spaces at multiple levels.

I hope social workers can further engage to enable reflection in the population. Social workers do not need to provide answers - these answers have to be found together in democratic dialogues (Parekh, 2006) that may be fundamental to a participatory and deliberative democracy.


BAMF (2016) Das Bundesamt in Zahlen 2015: Asyl, Migration und Integration, Nürnberg: Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge. Retrieved from bamf.de, accessed on 15.8.2017.
BAMF (2016a). Refugee protection Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Retrieved from bamf.de
de MaizieĢ€re, T. (2017, April, 30). "Wir sind nicht Burka": Innenminister will deutsche Leitkultur. Zeitonline. Retrieved form zeit.de
German right-leaning AfD leader calls for police right to shoot at refugees (2016, Jan, 1). Deutschewelle. Retrieved from dw.com
Kamann, M. (2017, April, 7). Was setzt die AfD gegen Burkas -- Alkohol oder Frauenrechte? Welt. Retrieved from welt.de Merkel, A. (2017, April, 22) Was ist Deutsch?.BILD. Retrieved from bild.de
Neue Asylpraxis beim BAMF: Immer mehr Syrerinnen und Syrer kriegen nur subsidiären Schutz (2016, April, 5 Pproasyl. Retrieved proasyl.de
Parekh, B. (2006). Rethinking multiculturalism: cultural diversity and political theory. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
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