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Winter is Coming for Refugees in Germany

On the humanity vs. the organization of refuge

It’s getting cold in Germany. It’s actually hard to believe that it has only been weeks since warm images of the “good” German went around the world, of thousands of people welcoming even more thousands of refugees with food, toys, and clothes at train stations throughout the country. It was only a few months ago that Angela Merkel transformed from the dictator of financial austerity into “Mother Angela,” who welcomed every refugee stuck in front of Budapest’s main station or along the Balkan route. Today we again speak of borders, transit-zones, and faster deportations.

It is getting cold, not only in Germany. Winter is coming. We see people in shorts swimming across rivers, standing in the freezing night, waiting at borders that were supposed to be mere lines on maps. We see refugees being beaten, arrested, and detained. We also see these images in Germany. Many still feel that this is not right, but the brief moment of empathy is vanishing in the cold.

For decades now the German state neatly insulated itself from refugees coming by foot, train, or car by declaring all neighboring countries “safe.” The human moment of Angela Merkel, when she said “let them come,” changed that. Now people come, they are shuttled through Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, and Austria. They keep coming after the welcome is over. The applauding citizens have gone home; only the organization of the state is left to “greet” the refugees.

The humanitarian crisis has turned towards an organizational crisis in Germany. That sounds dehumanizing, and unfortunately that is exactly the case. Today in Germany we barely speak about the nightmare of children drowning in the sea, of people fleeing their bombed homes, of fathers without children, children without mothers. We speak of capacities, protocols, processes, and categories. We speak about “how many more?”; about “deserving and not deserving.” It is an absurd spectacle that today is played out every day in the German media, as politicians and representatives of the police and civil society try to make sense of what is going wrong.

It seems ridiculous that if millions of refugee can somehow survive in tents in Lebanon and Turkey, that Germans feel their organizational capacities are overloaded. For me, a sociologist with interest in organizations, the organizational crisis of Germany is more than a practical joke, it is a tragedy. The tragedy is that the organization of refuge is becoming more important than the humanity of giving refuge. The relation between the two is as simple as dangerous if reversed. It is basically the difference between taking in the bleeding and hurting no matter how many more might be coming (and then adapting the organization to be able to help whoever comes) vs. making your help conditional upon how many more bleeding and hurting people are still out there.

The organization of refuge is for once about giving proper shelter. It is unfortunately also about policing, registering and processing refugees and declaring others as non-refugees. But the organization is also about enabling routes out of these shelters into a new home, out of the abject into society (through schools, work, etc.). The German organization of refuge is actually designed and has the function to fulfill all these three tasks. But the current situation produces more and more images that do not show how the organization works, but how it (temporarily) fails. We see people running through fields, people shivering in unheated tents, and people fighting over clothes. We hear the police union complain that there is not enough police, we hear municipal administrators complain that there is not enough money, housing, or administrators. It is on this basis that today the public debate over the refugee crisis in Germany has turned from the humanitarian crisis of how to help refugees to finding solutions for the organizational crisis of giving refuge. Today, we seriously debate maximum quotas for accepted refugees or “transit-zones,” basically non-territorial spaces for ten-thousands of people, at the border. These organizational fixes dehumanize refugees, which is absolutely coherent with the organizational perspective of refugees not as humans, but as units to be processed.

The tragedy here is that proposed organizational solutions do not take into account the humanitarian dimension of humans seeking and having the right to refuge (also by law). This seems reasonable to some and the constant discussion about it makes it seem like a solution to the refugee crisis in Germany. But this is not the case, as the only function of the organization of refuge is the humanity of giving refuge. In my not-cynical moments, I hope it was the awareness of this normative imperative that made Angela Merkel proclaim to “let them come,” that made thousands of Germans welcome refugees in person and millions donate for them. In either way, the imperative of the humanity of giving refuge over its organization cannot be negotiable. Otherwise, the coming coldness will be more than just a change of seasons.

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Tim Rosenkranz

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