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Tim Stafford

Fear, Compassion, and a Massive Bureaucratic Challenge

An interim report on the European refugee crisis.

Editor’s note: The May/June issue of Books & Culture will be a special theme issue on international migration, broadly construed, past as well as present. The anchor piece of that issue will combine reporting by Tim Stafford with photographs by Gary Gnidovic. Here’s an interim report from Germany, where Tim and Gary have spent the first week of their two-week trip.

Photographer Gary Gnidovic and I have been in Germany for a week, talking to refugees and those who help them. We've been in three cities, Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich. Each city is distinct in the way it handles refugees, but they all share a fundamental duality. On one hand, life goes on in its prosperous way. Contrary to impressions generated by the New Year’s Eve events in Cologne, there is no discernible fear at walking the streets at night, nor does one encounter roaming bands of young immigrant males. At the same time, you do not have to dig very deep to see the immense and sometimes clumsy effort that is being expended to deal with over one million new arrivals. It's not every neighborhood that has a "camp," as they infelicitously call the places where refugees are sent, but it sometimes seems that way. Refugees are domiciled in hastily erected pre-fab dormitories, in huge tents, in warehouses, in converted office buildings, in steel shipping containers. We have seen all these styles of residence, erected wherever there is space.

In Berlin, refugees are put into the echoing spaces of the Tempelhof airport hangers, gigantic Nazi structures that seem to come out of a Steven Spielberg movie. We attended a protest march there, a ragged group of hundreds marching in the freezing snow, dwarfed by size and space, calling for more humane treatment of the refugees. It's true that many Germans are deeply worried about whether their nation can successfully absorb so many refugees; but it's also true that a strongly compassionate impulse is broadly felt and expressed. Many Germans seem to oscillate between these two: fear and compassion.

The government takes responsibility for the migrants, to an extent that is nearly unthinkable in America. Every one of them must be sorted out by a legal process, as to whether they are genuine refugees. The process often takes months, and the bureaucracy is fierce. This is what migrants complain about the most. They have come through hell, often at astonishing cost and pain, only to be met by paperwork. They rarely grasp the nuances of the system, and they lack language skills to appeal to it. But it is not only refugees who feel sometimes victimized. In Hamburg, we visited a camp of army tents set down in the very middle of a wealthy neighborhood. One resident said people went for vacation in August and came back to find an encampment in the field where their children played soccer. The juxtaposition of lovely, expensive homes and a fenced-in clutch of white tents is remarkable. According to the resident, there was no notice given to the neighbors, and apparently they have no power of appeal.

The camps are all tightly guarded, and it is impossible to enter them without permission—which is usually very hard to get. This is a protection for the migrants, who might otherwise be victimized or treated like zoo animals. Perhaps it is also for the protection of the government, which is scrambling to handle this huge tide of refugees and does not welcome the critical eye of the press. The end result, however, is that refugees are cut off from the rest of Germany. They cannot work, and as nobody can easily visit them, it is up to them to go out into society and mingle. That is not an easy thing to do as strangers in a strange land. In turn, most Germans don't have any experience with refugees personally. They know where the camps are, but they can't enter them. They know more from watching TV—which naturally features troubles like the events of Cologne—than from firsthand encounters with their new neighbors.

This is fertile ground for politicians, who are trying to leverage the situation to win votes. But regardless, it is an open question where this unprecedented migration and Germany's attempt to absorb it will end. A lot is riding on it: perhaps the future of Europe as a unified place, perhaps the character of the German people as generous or primarily self-interested. How this turns out may depend less on the extremes of "Migrants Go Home" and "Refugees Welcome" than the more mundane question of whether the bureaucracy is capable of handling the flood tide.

Tim Stafford is the author of more than 20 books, both fiction and nonfiction, including Shaking the System: What I Learned from the Great American Reform Movements (InterVarsity Press).

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