The refugee crisis is a battle for the soul of Europe

Laurie Penny reports from a refugee centre in Berlin.

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It’s not just a question of numbers. Not any more. This week, EU ministers are hammering out an agreement on the “refugee crisis”, but the more that world media outlets speak of 500 people arriving in Berlin in a day, or Germany taking 800,000 people this year, or four million people fleeing Syria with nothing, the more those figures blur into a faceless mass of humanity in the imagination for those of us lucky enough to wake every morning clean and safe in our own homes.

This is the reason journalists like to tell individual stories when we report. It’s actually easier to get you to feel something for one stranger than it is for a thousand.

For example: if I tell you that I’m standing outside the Department of Health and Social Affairs, known as the LaGeSo, in Berlin in a chill September drizzle, listening to a young man, a boy really, tell me how he fled forced conscription in Syria, how the boat carrying him to Greece capsized and he had to swim to shore, you might feel something. If I tell you that his name is Omar, that he left his family behind to come to Germany with nothing and sleep on the street, you might feel something.

But if I tell you that a thousand people just like him are waiting in a pounding summer rainstorm for the basic papers they need to build a new life, you are unlikely to feel a thousand times as much compassion. That’s not your fault. The human heart can’t take it. If we were able to scale up our emotional responses to suffering so easily, the strongest of us would shatter. Of all the hurdles that Europe faces when it considers its response to the 500,000 migrants who have crossed its borders this year alone, with more on the way, this is one of the hardest. 

News outlets are calling it the biggest humanitarian disaster Europe has seen since the Second World War. Nobody knows how many refugees are coming to Europe. Nobody knows exactly how many families have been forced to flee their homes in Middle Eastern nations torn apart by war and social breakdown. But we know that it’s a lot of people. The four to six million souls who have escaped Syria are just the start. The coming decade will see millions more seeking sanctuary in the global north from climate change and political persecution. How can the citizens of the developed world muster the moral and logistical resources to shelter them? How will any of us face ourselves in the mirror if we fail?

I meet Omar at the LaGeSo just before the storm starts in earnest. It took him a month to cross Europe. “Train, bus, walking, swimming,” he says. “But the ship, the plastic ship…everyday a person died by the ship. The ship bumps. Before the Greek beach I swam for a kilometre. I was lucky. In Syria, there is nothing for you, unless you become a soldier.” Omar’s story takes a while to confirm because, even though English is at least his third language, he won’t stop cracking the sort of jokes that only sound funny when you’ve just been through hell. “I’m happy to be in Germany,” he says, “but I prefer Holland. The women there are all beautiful, like models.” 

I laugh because it’s the one thing I can actually give him, and he puts his arm around me and squeezes, without permission. For a second, I catch a glimpse of the soldier Omar might have become had he not managed to escape – all this brash, terrified swagger twisted into violence.

Omar was facing a choice between conscription and death. Now, weeks after he arrived in Germany, he’s organising warm coats and handing out bottled water to the new arrivals. The LaGeSo is the processing point for hundreds of refugees who turn up in Berlin daily with nothing but the dirty clothes they’re walking in and a simple question for the governments of the cosy west: can we live?

For most of northern Europe, the so-called refugee crisis is a moral and ethical one. Progressives have condemned the use of the term “crisis” as scaremongering by states approaching the arrival of needy people from the middle east as a cultural problem. The true crisis, however, is logistical. The truth is that Europe would more than able to cope with an extra six million people even if it weren’t facing the demographic time bomb of a rapidly ageing population. Without migration Europe would be facing negative population growth – more deaths than births – in the next decade. But right now, hundreds of thousands of people are showing up, and they need more than words of welcome: they need food, and shelter, and documents, and a place to stay; they need translators and teachers and work and money to live on while they look for that work; they need help to learn the language and integrate into the communities that have taken them in; they have come with nothing, and now they need everything, from tampons to trauma counselling. 

This year, Germany expects to take in 800,000 refugees. Getting here from Syria is dangerous, but less dangerous than staying in Syria, so the people keep coming, on foot and by train and by boat, hoping against hope for a safe place to land. Many of them came through Hungary, but now that the borders are closed, they come through Croatia. They face resistance at every border, in every nation, as Europe struggles to develop a united policy on refugees. In Berlin, they land at the LaGeSo.

The doors of the LaGeSo itself, a squat, stern concrete building in the upmarket district of Moabit with a concertina queue of wet, weary people waiting outside, remain shut. In the complex of tents and outhouses around the department, hundreds of hungry, anxious people are being offered food, clothing and help processing their asylum claims – but crucially, not by the government.

“The government here, they failed. We have people sitting on the ground here with nothing. They expect 4,500 refugees a month. Where can we put them?”

For the governments of Europe, this is a political question. For Christiane Beckmann, it’s a practical one. A month ago, the 49-year-old German office worker began helping Syrians arriving in Berlin to find food, medicine and a place to sleep. Now she’s in charge of a hundred local volunteers, she hasn’t had a day off in months, and the people keep coming.

When we ask what it is that makes Germany different when it comes to its attitude to refugees, we should not confine ourselves to what the government is doing. The German state makes a show of welcome – but it has just reversed its decision to fast-track asylum applications through its border with Hungary and closed that border down, imperilling the entire principle of the free movement in the Schengen area in the process. The German state has committed itself to welcoming hundreds of thousands of needy people in principle, but in practice, the infrastructure on the ground is not quite there yet.

Beckmann’s organisation, Moabit Hilft, started as a group of five or six neighbours with free time to help refugees in the area. “We started to call out for help, for people to support us. It started with neighbours taking care of refugees here. There’s a building where the refugees live. … You can’t leave them on their own. We need to help them get in touch. Help them get the paper work done, learn German, help support the women. We made a whole infrastructure here,” says Beckmann. 

Once the call went out, things started happening quickly. “We had medical care, we had food. We had all the donations like clothing. We had the sanitary for women and babies, pampers and lotions – I mean the babies here, they had their diapers on for a couple of days. The butt was dried, red. They had nothing. There was…I mean, shampoo, toothpaste….simple, simple stuff.”

States are designed to cope with demographics, but they can only do it in cold blood. It may be that just one thing can respond appropriately, with empathy and pragmatism, to a large, loosely organised, fast-moving group of people in need, and that thing is: another large, fast-moving group of people. In other words, a network.

After three weeks, the LaGeSo now has an emergency medical centre, a store-room and a dining hall; a clothes bank and a relief room and an area for nursing mothers. “Many Arab women won’t breastfeed the babies in public,” says Christiane. “The milk stops. It was a problem.” 

Now the problem is being solved. Donations are just the start. It’s not enough simply to give. The supplies have to be distributed, the people organised. And that’s where German efficiency really kicks into gear.

The storm is gathering, but as soon as it started, volunteers mobilised to get the children warmer clothes from the stores; within five minutes, a man with a shaved head is handing out plastic ponchos. Even Christiane isn’t sure where he came from. “It’s good, but it’s causing a rush,” she says, as we shelter together under her orange umbrella, watching the clamour for raincoats, which is only slightly chaotic. Soon I’m unable to pick out a single child who isn’t wrapped in a disposable mac.

A boy in a dirty brown hoodie is standing shyly beside our umbrella, getting wet. He approaches tentatively when Christiane motions for him to come under our canopy. There’s plenty of room.

“English?” asks the boy quietly. “Arabic?” He digs in his pocket to show me a piece of paper with his name on it; he owns this, a fistful of Euros and the clothes he is standing in. In the tents, everyone wants to know where they’re supposed to go next. The trouble is that many of the instructions are in German, which not all the refugees speak. I have about as much German as this kid has English, so we communicate in single words and impromptu sign language: he is Abu, he is 18, he is alone, and he doesn’t know where he’s supposed to go. 

Christiane switches into Mother Hen mode. It takes her minutes to locate a volunteer translator. Abu is taken by the hand and sorted out with a dry place to stand whilst someone works out what his documents actually say.

“If there’s someone on the street bleeding, I help,” she says. “If there’s a pregnant woman in the street, she doesn’t feel good, I help. It doesn’t matter. What if those 4,500 people would be Germans? Wouldn’t we help? What’s the difference? They come from a war. We’re just born here. We’re just lucky. There’s nothing else. I could have been born in Syria.”

The people arriving at the LaGeSo have been humiliated twice: once by the desperate indignity of war, and a second time by the pride of Europe, which has obliged them to arrive here dirty, cold and frightened, as second-class citizens, sleeping on the streets if they must. On 17 September, just after Germany closed its Hungarian border, refugees who had been braving the elements at the LaGeSo for three weeks got tired of waiting. Two hundred people staged a protest, chanting “we want justice” as the police pushed them back. 

German bureaucracy will not be hurried. Perhaps this is a sort of hazing ritual to see who can really cut it as a German citizen: just how long are you prepared to wait for someone to fill in the right form?

A child waits outside LaGeSo on 18 September. Photo: Getty/John MacDougall

This is a disaster zone, right in the centre of the capital of the largest economy in Europe. Germany has crisis relief charities, but the crises they are used to handling have all been overseas until now. Germany doesn’t have a serious equivalent of the US’s FEMA, or any other state disaster response organisation. Why would it? There are no earthquakes here, no wildfires, no typhoons to prepare for. But the storm battering Europe is a human one, in part of its own making, but nobody wants to take on that responsibility. Particularly not if their jobs depend on public opinion.

“It’s impossible not to fail here,” says Beckmann. “The charities know it. So they turn us down.”

In Berlin, networks have stepped in where the state has failed by choice and individuals fail by definition to cope with this new humanitarian crisis. It took the state three solid weeks to organise food and bathrooms for the people waiting outside in forty-degree heat – but every day for a month, a local Muslim youth group has shown up at dinner time with a van full of seven hundred hot meals, all sourced and funded via donations sourced online. They arrive just before the buses are leaving to take those who have been processed for a few hours’ sleep in makeshift accommodation.

The volunteers have a system in place for ensuring that everyone gets fed and nobody takes too much: within minutes, the meals are stacked in shopping trolleys and teams wheel them off to different parts of the relief centre. A woman in full burqa and an enormous jolly white man in a pink jacket and sparkly stud earrings pair up to push a cart laden with rice, beans and chicken towards the hospital area.

In the food hall, parents with faces drawn with exhaustion are chasing small children who still have energy to toddle through the bushes after three weeks of perilous travel. The rain is coming down hard; the whole place smells of mud and wet tarmac, and the people are packing into the tent. The volunteers hardly have time to speak to me, but they’re constantly apologising for how disorganised everything is. This is an extremely German response to a crisis: what’s happening at the LaGeSo is the slickest feat of spontaneous social organisation I’ve ever witnessed.

But there’s not enough food. 

The volunteers have brought seven hundred hot boxed meals, but it’s not enough. Over a thousand hungry people are gathering into some sort of line, trying as hard as possible not to shove and scramble for the meals of boxed rice, beans and chicken.

The people here are not rude, or pushy, or demanding. They are simply cold, and hungry, and exhausted, and struggling visibly not to beg for the things they need. I’m sheltering from the rain outside the volunteer center, which also serves as the makeshift storeroom, when an eleven-year-old girl in a transparent plastic poncho steps right up to me with her finger extended, pointing at my face. She giggles and pokes herself in the nose and I see what she’s saying - I have a nose stud. She has a nose-stud, too. Hers is red and mine is blue. This connection established, we shake hands like grown-ups: never mind the language gap, the age difference, the fact that she has just crossed thousands of miles fleeing a war which has killed ten thousand children: we are fellow members of a worldwide club of girls with nose-studs.

“Jacqueline,” she says, flashing a gap-toothed grin and pointing at herself. 

Not everyone in Germany is pleased to see little girls like her. There have been arson attacks on refugee centres, street protests in Dresden, and even the LaGeSo has hosted small historical re-enactments of a much darker time in Berlin’s history, as clutches of Neo-Nazis waved signs outside the gates. But unlike elsewhere in Europe, they’re far outnumbered by the tsunami of support.

The phrase repeated on jackets and posters and pamphlets, the phrase spray-painted in foot high letters all over Berlin is “refugees welcome”. Those words, in English. It is a political statement, and a global one. Refugees who speak almost no English know what those words mean. And as for the Nazis, the local anarchists chased them away.

Hundreds of features have now been written about the refugee crisis in Europe. Journalists like myself with papers that allow us to move freely between borders have interviewed thousands of Syrian and Afghan families, and the world is now well aware of the dangers involved in the journeys they make to relative safety in the West: the perilous boat crossings, in which 2,500 people have drowned in 2015 alone. The route-marches through the roasting southern European countryside, boiling in the daytime, freezing at night, soaking in rainstorms, carrying your children and everything you own. 

What’s less clear, after all this time, is why, exactly, it has to be like this. Why is Europe making people who have already been through hell go through it again? 

There is only one reason that people are suffering and dying at Europe’s borders. The reason is the borders themselves. It should not have to be this hard to get to Germany from the Middle East. It’s a journey that takes about two and a half hours by plane, as opposed to a month on foot, in the sweltering summer heat. Given the right papers and a basic amount of help at the border, the children of Syrian and Afghanistan and Eritrea could be starting new lives in less than a day.

There is no logical reason for half a million people to be toiling their way across southern Europe, watching their children drown in the Mediterranean, or choking on teargas at the Hungarian border. All any rich nation has to do is provide the papers and allow people to buy plane tickets instead of giving their life savings to people smugglers.

The solution is to give the people papers, provide them with safe transport, and let them through. There is no reason that no government in the world has yet seriously considered it, because what’s at stake is politics: the position that Europe is a fortress and those wishing to enter must do so on their knees, begging. What’s at stake is pride: the pride of Western nations wishing to make it as difficult as possible for even the most desperate to slog their way to safety. What’s at stake is principle: the principle that the West will not, cannot help the victims of war and despotism climate change who will surely keep coming if it looks even remotely easier than living another day in Aleppo, or Kabul, or Baghdad. We can be compassionate, but not enough to create that dreaded ‘pull factor’. Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande urged the EU told this month that there must be a bar for real need: “those who don’t require protection have to be consistently sent back right out of the reception centres”. I’d like to see them explain to the hungry, exhausted people waiting outside the LaGeSo exactly how they’re going to decide who is needy enough not to be sent back to Syria, or Eritrea, or Afghanistan.

There are limits to the human imagination. We find it hard to hold scale and suffering in our minds at once. One Omar, one Abu, one Jacqueline, that’s comprehensible. Ten thousand children like Jacqueline murdered in Syria, six million people like Omars on the road, lost and hungry and homeless and in need, that’s incomprehensible. Individually, our hearts won’t handle it. But together, we have a human duty to try.

It isn’t just about numbers, but sometimes numbers do matter. The influx of  people from Syria, Iraq and other countries ravaged by war and despotism is not quite like the Jewish refugee crisis of the 1930s, but that’s only because when you get down to it, nothing is quite like anything else. Commentators have been tiptoeing around the eerie historical connotations of this new test for Europe, right down to the number of people who have been made refugees by the Syrian war, which many estimate at six million. That’s a figure that brings up a lot of feelings for Europeans, and particularly for Germans.

What if today’s politicians were given the chance to go back in time and decide how many Jews to save from the Nazis? How many would they decide was politically convenient? Ten thousand? Twenty? The British government has offered to shelter twenty thousand Syrian refugees, just as it offered to shelter a few thousand Jews in the 1930s. It isn’t enough.

Some years ago, on my daily commute through Liverpool Street Station, I walked past a small statue of a girl and boy clutching suitcases. The statue commemorates the children of the Kindertransport, Jewish refugees who were taken in by the British state in the 1930s. Britain likes to congratulate itself today on its generosity in taking in tens of thousands of boys and girls. 

We prefer to forget that the project was called the “Kindertransport” only because the state refused to shelter their parents. It was felt that the voting public would not appreciate tens of thousands of adult Jews, so those people were abandoned to torture and murder. Most of the children of the Kindertransport never saw their parents again.

As rain pounds the LaGeSo, eleven-year-old Jacqueline waits outside the storeroom for what she came for. Her mother sent her to ask, please, for some body wash. Jacqueline crossed Europe with her mother. She doesn’t answer when I ask her where her father is.

A volunteer comes out with two bottles of cheap shampoo. Jacqueline accepts them with a smile, looks at the bottles, and hands them back politely. Jacqueline’s mother didn’t ask for shampoo. She asked for body wash, and while it is perfectly possible to wash your body with shampoo, these small things do not matter any less when you have just walked hundreds of miles across Europe and are living in a strange hostel in a foreign country and you don’t speak the language and you’re only eleven years old. In fact, they matter a lot more. 

Jacqueline’s mother has asked for body wash, and so Jacqueline will wait patiently until the nice lady brings her some. Until the state of Germany decides that she deserves a safe place to stay, Jacqueline has nothing to do but wait. She touches her nose-stud again, and grins at me.

It is not a question of numbers. It is a question of justice. It is a question of what is owed to those who have been made homeless and desperate by war and climate change. When a stranger is suffocating at your feet, you do not help them because you are a good person, or because it is politically expedient to do so: you help them because to do otherwise is morally repugnant. In the 1930s, the question that preoccupied the democratic West was surely “how many should we let in?”. In hindsight, we ask the same question that will be asked of notionally democratic governments in another seventy years – “how many did you let die?”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.