Merkel the migrant chancellor and how she redefined what it means to be German

Merkel the migrant chancellor and how she redefined what it means to be German

When Mohammed Alikaj casts his vote to choose Angela Merkel’s successor in German elections on Sunday, in its small way it will be a moment that defines her legacy.

Mr Alikaj came to Germany as a refugee, after fleeing the civil war in his native Syria. He was one of the 1.3m who streamed into the country in 2015, when Mrs Merkel threw open the borders at the height of the migrant crisis in the most controversial decision of her career.

Today Mr Alikaj is a German citizen. He pays his own way and has not needed any financial help from the state since 2017. He applied for German citizenship under a special fast track scheme for exceptionally deserving cases, and received his passport three weeks ago — just in time to cast his vote on Sunday alongside millions of his fellow Germans.

He is part of a remarkable success story that has remained largely untold, yet which may prove to be Mrs Merkel’s most lasting legacy as she steps down after almost 16 years in power.

“Angela Merkel faced crisis after crisis as German chancellor,” he says. “In the 2015 migrant crisis she said ‘We can do it’. Everyone was against her. Even her own party turned against her. But she did it. We will never forget what she did for us.”

In the days and weeks to come commentators will pore over Mrs Merkel’s record as chancellor and her stewardship of the German economy. But there is a case that none of that compares in significance to September 4, 2015: the day Mrs Merkel changed Germany.

That was when she stunned Europe by throwing open Germany’s borders to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi migrants who were streaming into Europe.

To call it controversial would be an understatement. Her fellow European Union leaders were aghast. Mrs Merkel, the champion of solidarity, had acted unilaterally and divided the bloc in the midst of a crisis.

At home, her Christian Democrat party (CDU) almost split over the decision. Her once seemingly unassailable approval ratings collapsed, while anti-migrant sentiment fuelled a resurgence of the far-Right in the form of the Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which became the largest opposition party in parliament.

Wir schaffen das,” she told the German public. We can do it. But when more than 600 women were sexually assaulted by migrants in the Cologne New Year sex attacks at the start of 2016, she found herself politically isolated. A year of Islamist terror attacks followed, culminating when a rejected Tunisian asylum-seeker drove a lorry into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12. Even Mrs Merkel’s most diehard supporters began to fear she had got it catastrophically wrong.

Six years on, there has been no repeat of the Cologne sex attacks, and the jihadist threat has receded in the wake of the defeat of Islamic State.

More than half of the asylum-seekers who arrived in 2015 now have jobs and pay taxes — and that doesn’t include the thousands who are studying or training for new careers. There are now more Syrians working as doctors in Germany than any other nationality after Germans — including Europeans.

When Mrs Merkel took power in 2005, Germany was overwhelmingly white, and mainstream politicians spoke quite openly about keeping it that way.

“We have never been a country of immigration and we’re still not one today,” Wolfgang Schäuble, Mrs Merkel’s most powerful minister, told a conference on integration in Berlin in 2006.

Mr Schäuble was just trotting out an old slogan from the Helmut Kohl years, and at the time no one had reason to suspect Mrs Merkel would one day turn it on its head.

But this year Frank Walter-Steinmeier, the German president, stood before another conference on integration in Berlin and said: “Germany is an immigration country. It used to be difficult for us to say that, even in the years when we had long been one, to judge by the numbers. It’s not about just the past. We will continue to need immigrants in the future, people who can tackle and help build the future of this country.”

Germany’s ageing population has left it with a pension time bomb. The national employment agency warned recently that the country needs 400,000 immigrants a year if it is to fill the gaps in its labour force as older workers retire.

But a country that is economically dependent on immigrants needs to be at ease with immigration.

Nobody knows what was going through Mrs Merkel’s mind when she made that fateful decision in 2015. Although it now seems an integral part of her story, at the time it was so out of character many Germans were blindsided.

Just a couple of months before she opened the borders, she infamously reduced a teenage Palestinian refugee girl to tears on television when she told her she couldn’t stay in Germany.

There have been so many different sides to Mrs Merkel. There was Helmut Kohl’s Mädchen, or girl: the protege who stabbed him in the back and seized control of the CDU in 1998.

There was the “climate chancellor” who persuaded the G8 to agree to CO2 reduction targets in 2008 and ordered the phase-out of German nuclear power in the wake of 2011’s Fukushima disaster.

There was  the “crisis chancellor” who steered Germany through the financial crisis of 2007 and the Euro crisis of the early 2010s.

But no one saw the “migrant chancellor” coming.  The one thing Mrs Merkel was never seen as was soft. In 2012, she was so tough with debt-laden Greece they hanged her in effigy in Athens.

The image that had emerged was of a hard-headed pragmatist with no particular values beyond keeping the German economy going.

When Germans started calling Mrs Merkel Mutti, or Mum, the reference was to a suburban housewife who took care of the household budget, not the caring mother figure who would emerge in 2015 to save the refugees.

Nobody knows what prompted that startling change of heart. She has never spoken about it. Some believe it was that encounter with the Palestinian teenager. Reem Sahwil and her family were facing deportation to Lebanon and she begged Mrs Merkel to let her stay so she could go to university in Germany.

“Politics is sometimes tough,” Mrs Merkel told her. “You’re standing in front of me and you’re a nice person. But you know there are thousands in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and if we were to say you can all come… we just can’t do it.”

Ms Sahwil broke down in tears. Two months later Mrs Merkel made a dramatic U-turn and said: “We can do it”.

There are others who argue the reasons lay in Mrs Merkel’s own past growing up in communist East Germany. “I lived for 34 years behind the Iron Curtain,” she said in 2019. “I know what it means when walls fall, when boundaries disappear.”

Some say it was simpler, that Mrs Merkel was just trying to deal with yet another crisis. Thousands of migrants were trapped in Hungary with nowhere to go, and Mrs Merkel expected other EU leaders to follow her lead and take their share. When they didn’t she found she had painted herself into a corner.

Support for the far-Right has ebbed as the situation has calmed, and the AfD has fallen back to fifth place in the polls ahead of Sunday’s election.

Stories like Mr Alikaj’s are prompting some in Germany to ask whether Mrs Merkel might have got it right in 2015 after all — and if her most important and lasting legacy could prove to be that she redefined what it means to be German.

Mr Alikaj is studying to become a social worker, but his grades are so good he has the option of staying in academia. He works as a part-time translator, and his studies are funded by a private scholarship.

His is just one among many refugee success stories.  Sami al-Kurdi had already completed his qualifications as a pharmacist before he fled his native Aleppo to Germany when Mrs Merkel threw open the borders in 2015, but he had to take a new exam to get a license to practise in Germany — at the same time as learning German from scratch. He learnt it to professional standard and got his license in less than two years.

Today he works full time as a pharmacist and earns more than €50,000 (£43,000) a year. He has already paid back more in taxes than he ever received in benefits as a migrant, and he has applied for German citizenship.

Salah Hajji Mustafa was offered an apprenticeship at Bayer, the pharmaceutical giant, after he fled to Germany when his village in northern Syria was captured by Islamic State, but he turned it down when he won a scholarship to study social work.

Today he is studying for a master’s degree and hopes to become a diplomat for the German foreign ministry or work for the United Nations.

“We will always be grateful for what Angela Merkel did for us,” he says. “She is an example to the world. She gave us a chance. But it is one thing to be given a chance. You still have to take it.”

Like Mr Alikaj, he got German citizenship via the fast track reserved for those who can prove they have made an exceptional contribution to national life.

Prof Matt Qvortrup, one of Mrs Merkel’s biographers, has argued Mrs Merkel’s 2015 decision was influenced by business leaders who told her it was an opportunity.

“They were talking about the way Jews who fled the Nazis in Germany became such a successful core of the economy in the US and saying Syrians could do the same and Germany should take the opportunity,” Prof Qvortrup told The Telegraph in 2017.

It is a thought that is echoed by Mr Kurdi, the Syrian pharmacist. “What Germany did for us was incredible and we will always be grateful for that. No question,” he says.

“But Germany got something out of it too. There is a serious shortage of pharmacists in this country. That’s why I was able to find such well paid work. Germany has a lot of shortages the refugees were able to fill. It was a win-win situation.”

There are now more than 2,000 Syrian pharmacists in Germany and more than 9,000 Syrian doctors, and Mr Kurdi is working to set up a professional association to represent their interests.

Mrs Merkel’s detractors argue it has come at too high a social cost. As recently as 2018, anti-migrant riots saw far-Right protestors giving the Hitler salute in the centre of the eastern city of Chemnitz.

Mr Mustafa, the refugee who hopes to become a diplomat, counters that it is a question of integration. When he arrived in Germany, he started Cologne Brings Us Together, a support community for refugees to meet Germans. When the city was hit by the New Year sex attacks of 2016, he was one of the organisers of a rally under the banner “Syrians Against Sexism”.

“I work to show people how refugees here really are,” he says. “The media always wants to show the negative side, because it’s dramatic, but that’s only a minority. The majority want to work hard and integrate.

“We are Germans now. We can never go back to Syria. It has been taken from us. But Germany has given us a new chance. So we have to work hard to make a life for ourselves here and become a part of German society.”

Mrs Merkel’s government has worked extensively to integrate those who came in 2015 and the years that followed. There are now more than 800,000 Syrians in Germany. They are the second largest immigrant population after people of Turkish heritage, who account for 1.4m.

The Turks came as low-paid workers in the days when Germany was “no immigration country”, and they were not offered the opportunity to become citizens, or even permanent residents.

They could come only as Gastarbeiter — guest workers. The expectation was that they would work, pay their taxes and retire to Turkey. They were never encouraged to integrate — on the contrary, it was actively discouraged. The result was that for decades the Turks  lived in their own communities, cut off from German society.

Today German Turks are entitled to citizenship and many have become highly successful. But Mrs Merkel’s government was determined to avoid making the same mistakes with the migrants who arrived in 2015 and the years that follow.

In 2016, a new integration law was passed to encourage the Syrians and other refugees to embrace German society. The results are striking. Unlike the Turkish community, who long lived in exclusively Turkish neighbourhoods, the Syrians are already living cheek by jowl with their German neighbours.

Mr Kurdi, the pharmacist,  lives in a middle class apartment block in Bergisch Gladbach, a commuter suburb of Cologne. “We have learnt so much from the Germans,” he says. “Punctuality. A respect for order. But most of all a respect for others.

“In Syria I never imagined I would meet a homosexual, it was something unthinkable for us. Here in Germany, one of my flatmates told me he was gay. And I thought, okay, it’s something different for me. Just like it’s different for Germans when they meet a refugee. I have to respect him and understand him, and accept him the way he is. That’s something I learnt from the Germans.”

Mr Mustafa and Mr Alikaj share pizza in Mr Kurdi’s living room and discuss who they will vote for on Sunday. Mr Kurdi, whose citizenship has not been granted yet, will have to wait till the next elections.

Ask Mr Mustafa what he thinks Mrs Merkel’s legacy will be and he smiled. “Before 2015, if you asked anyone around the world what they thought of when you talked about Germany, most of them would have said Hitler,” he says. “Now they say Merkel. Think about that. That’s something.”

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