In Germany, are some refugees more equal than others?

Family gatherings can be a pleasant but occasionally dreadful experience. At one such dinner three weeks ago, my grandmother’s cousin complained to us about the, in her opinion, never-ending flow of refugees and asylum-seekers to Germany and, in particular, her local municipality. “It’s only a matter of time before these young men start raping our girls”, she declared shamelessly. “But, of course, I don’t mind Syrian families, they can stay here!”, she added apologetically. In Germany, this reveals a simple truth: all refugees are equal, but some refugees are more equal than others.

Under international humanitarian law, states are expected to grant asylum to people fleeing from war and persecution, regardless of nationality, race, gender, religion, or political opinion. In reality, this principle is often ignored or actively thwarted, as in Germany’s current discourse on migration. It is not only private spaces that offer a platform for racist and xenophobic propaganda. Bavaria’s premier Horst Seehofer bluntly denounces people in need of protection as “asylum abusers”, while right-wing movements warn against Germany’s creeping Islamization through uncontrolled immigration and lax asylum laws. These claims seem to target one asylum-seeker group that is considered particularly undesirable: lone traveling, young African and Arab men. They seem undeserving of state protection and are branded as potential criminals, idlers or parasites, as exploiting the welfare system, threatening state security, and encroaching upon “our” women. After all, over 65%of Germany’s asylum-seekers are men. Part of this irrational antagonism stems from deep-rooted racism.

For centuries, racialized knowledge about colonial subjects, so-called ‘orientals’ and ‘negroes’, was at the heart of Europe’s imperial vigour. Black and non-white bodies were at once despised and fetishized, mystified and sexualized, displayed and hidden from view. Nonetheless, intimate contact between European men and non-white women was often tolerated as a perfidious way of appropriating conquered societies, cultures, and subject bodies. In Europe’s male-dominated social order, the reverse was a strictly-policed racial and cultural taboo. As Cynthia Enloe argues, “affairs between colonial women and local men were threats to the imperial order”. Black bodies were ascribed an exotic, boundless, and violent sexuality. Yet, colonial subjects were also deemed lazy, lustrous, barbarous, and irrational. With a flare-up in Germany’s migration debates, these racist resentments come again to the fore.

Protests against asylum-seeker homes are no rarity in German cities today. Right-wing demonstrations in Freital (Saxony) and a steep increase in reported assaults targeting refugees and asylum-seekers nationwide echo the murderous arson attacks of Rostock-Lichtenhagen and Solingen in 1993. By appealing to nationalist and xenophobic sentiments, conservative politicians condone and incite such hate crimes. And yet, all political panic reactions seem disproportionate to both the number of asylum-seekers/refugees in Germany and the country’s strong capacity to accommodate them. According to the European Commission (EC), around 185,000 people applied for EU asylum in the first quarter of 2015. Around 73,000 applications were submitted in Germany. Meanwhile, conflict-affected neighbouring countries in Africa and the Middle East are bearing the brunt of global displacement. In Lebanon, every fourth inhabitant is now a refugee. Ethiopia alone hosts 665,000 refugees, the highest number in Africa. Kenya comes a close second with over 600,000 having escaped civil wars in Somalia and South Sudan.

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by Hanno Brankamp

Photo Credit: Flickr/Die Linke