[Migration] Refugees and the public opinion

On Tuesday, 3. March 2020, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Berlin under the motto „Open the borders! Save lives! Fight fascism!“1 Obviously, the demonstration was a spontaneous and direct response to the developments at the Turkish-Greek border, and especially on the Aegean islands of Lesbos and Chios. There, refugees live in slum-like camps (Moria, e.g.). It is a well-known fact that the long-lasting, miserable, and inhumane situation for refugees at the borders escalated, after the Turkish autocrat Erdogan had decided to abuse people’s lives as a matter for blackmailing.

The official organizer of the demonstration was the Berlin based NGO Seebrücke e.V. Besides Seebrücke, many refugees, activists (also from Greece) and other NGOs were actively involved. I experienced the event as a powerful, inspiring and important sign of union and solidarity. As ususal, different numbers of participants were reported afterwards: according to the local press (RBB), we were between 3,500 (according to the police) and 8,000 persons (according to the organizers).2 My own impression was that the second number comes closer to the real figures. In any case, we were numerous and loud.

The demonstration started in front of the federal chancellery, marched through Berlin-Mitte, passed by the Representation of the European Commission in Germany (only a stone’s throw away from the Brandenburg Gate), and it terminated in front of the Greek Consolate in Mohrenstraße (close to Checkpoint Charlie).

In front of the Representation of the European Commission in Europe in Berlin. Picture by Thomas Schad, 3.3.2020.

I marched the whole route and listened to all the contributions of all speakers on the small truck of the organizers. What I found most important and impressive about the whole thing was that so many different perspectives were present: there were direct contributions by refugees and activists from Berlin, Greece, Cameroon, other African countries, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iran, and even a former refugee from Bosnia had the word. Some of the perspectives were displayed as audio messages in Farsi from the Greek-Turkish border; the other contributions were in Arabic, French, German, and English. An activist of Mare Liberum, another NGO from Berlin with a ship in the Aegean, reported in German and English from there. Located close to Lesbos, they had to anchor offshore, as they were attacked by locals. 3

Many of the messages at the demonstration would deserve more attention, deeper reflexion, and comments. I personally felt most impressed by the message of a refugee man from Cameroon, named Serge. His central message was: nous tous sommes des humains (we are all humans) – which is, at the first glance, a very banal message. But in the light of what is happening, and given the inhumane treatment of human beings at the EU-borders, it was the most simple and, at once, the most dramatic and meaningful message to send. To stand there as a human being, and to tell the „free world“: „Look at us – I am a human being. They all are human beings. We are all human beings.“ Since he had taken the road to Europe via Morocco, he reminded us that the Aegean shores are not the only border where people are dying, in their thousands. The whole Mediterranean basin has become a wet grave to refugees. He called us to hold a minute’s silence in their memory. „Lives are more important than borders“ was the joint message that we all probably shared.

Solène from Cameroon shares her story with us at the end of the demonstration. Picture by TS, 3.3.2020.

140 communities and 7 mayors want to welcome refugees

But my aim in this contribution is to look beyond the demonstration itself, and to (hopefully) suggest some solutions that transcend the solidarity expressed on the streets of Berlin, Athens, Thessaloniki, and other places in Europe. 4 One of the main „hidden facts“ which was repeatedly expressed at the demonstration in Berlin was the willingness of 140 municipalities throughout Germany to host refugees. Moreover, as an article on Tagesschau.de from 5 March 5 highlights, 7 metropolitan mayors called to rescue children in this very moment of absolute and unprecedented misery at the EU borders. 6

All these signals point to the right (or left) direction. Nothing is more valuable than concrete solutions to the human catstrophe in front of our eyes – in this situation, where, apart from various NGOs, activists, protesters, free-floating liberal minds and public intellectuals, no alternatives seem to be at sight on the level of formal (anti-)politics. This is true for the EU and its single member-states (like Greece, Germany, all Balkan countries), and no less is it true for AKP-dominated Turkey, where the situation is further complicated by the erratic omnipotence of the „one-man-regime“ (tek adam rejimi). 7

So why are there no evacuations of refugees – if 140 municipalities already expressed their willingness to help? Why are refugees not directly brought to German (and possibly other European) local communities, metropolises? Why are people not saved from inhumane conditions, such as on Lesbos, Chios, on both shores of Evros/Meriç/Maritza, caught in the (nearly forgotten) Bosnian deadlock, stuck elsewhere on the Balkan route?

As for Germany, the reason is clear. The federal German government voted not to allow refugees to enter the country. The initiative to act urgently and to accept refugees was launched by the Green party. However, the decisive ‚No‘ votes came from the CDU/CSU (Merkel’s party, the „Christian Democrat Union“, 214 nays), the SPD (the „Social Democrats“, equally in quotation marks, 134 nays), the FDP (the „Free Democratic Party“ – basically Germany’s hardcore, neoliberal moment, 73 nays) and the AfD (the so-called „Alternative for Deutschland“ – which is the most recent, neo-right-wing, far right-party, 71 nays). According to Filiz Polat from the Green Party, only the Greens (63 yea) and the Left Party (49 yea) voted in favor of a humane solution to the drama. 8

Germany is a federal country, consisting of sixteen partly-sovereign states (Länder, in English often refered to as federal countries), and each one of these states retains a far-reaching measure of sovereignty. Some of them, like Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Hessen or Hamburg, are comparably rich, while others, especially all states in the east (the former GDR), count for quite poor states (in German terms). Here, it is important to stress another difference between the states: related to the level of economic wealth, but also due to the historic sociogenesis of their population, the texture of its social fabric is either more immigration friendly – or not.9

Wealthy western länder are in general more welcoming and affirmative regarding immigration, and quite recently, the legal regulations for immigration were further relaxed. A very recent study, as quoted in Handelsblatt,10 forecasts the need for at least 260,000 immigrants per year. These immigrants can’t be „recruited“ from EU-countries, since demographic ageing is a problem that is very widespread in Europe and not limited to Germany (although Germany is reportedly the world’s second-oldest country, after Japan). In 2019, new incentives for immigration of skilled workers were initiated in the Philippines, Kosovo and Mexico, especially targeting nursing staff. 11

This economic assessment may (rightly) raise the reader’s eyebrows: isn’t this economic context totally misplaced? Should refugees be seen as some sort of demographic ‚material‘, which may be accepted (or not), according to the economic ’needs‘ of the market? What about human rights, humanity, and asylum? What about the often quoted European values?

It is complicated.

In any case, it is not at all my personal position that the acceptance of refugees should depend on the question of how thriving an economy is. Human lives are human lives, period. The priorities should be clear: independent from the income of the host country’s inhabitants, refugees must be given their right to shelter in democratic countries. However, the world that we inhabit is primarily a capitalist one, and so attitudes and wealth are deeply intertwined.

In Germany, there is a correlation between economic wealth on the one side, and the distribution of total numbers of people who had immigrated themselves, or whose parents or grandparents did. These numbers vary significantly from state to state, whereas the eastern states of Germany have the lowest numbers of foreigners and inhabitants with a so-called „migration background“.12

Now, my personal opinion (or prejudice) would be that more diversity leads to more tolerance of „others“: the wealthier the people are, the less greedy they will be; the closer their biographies are to the experience of immigration or refugeeness, the less they have racist attitudes towards newcomers.

But is that true? What about facts and figures? How are economic wealth and attitudes really correlated, according to studies and surveys?

Different studies offer answers to these questions, but I will quote here from only one of them. It is the 2018 Leipzig Study of Authoritarianism (Leipziger Autoritarismus-Studie 2018).13 Interestingly, the study does reveal significant differences in attitudes towards foreigners, chauvinism, authoritarianism, etc. between the eastern and the western states. These differences seem to approve of the assumption that more diversity leads to more tolerance. Yet, the study also reveals that these attitudes can be found across the country – and it shows another, probably more important finding in the context of the current refugee issue: anti-Muslim attitudes have increased across Germany throughout the past years. 14

This is of particular importance, as most of the refugees are perceived of as ‚Muslims‚ in the public opinions. The tropes ‚Islam‚ and ‚Muslims‚ have, for multiple reasons, an increasingly negative standing in the public opinions: they are often associated with terrorism, gender inequality, female veiling, sexual violence (against women), the so-called ‚Islamic State‘ (IS), Erdogan, and similar topics. 15 As Kai Hafez, professor for international and comparative communication at the University Erfurt holds, „Islam gets a bad press“.16 These stereotypes were propelled and deepened by racist public opinions, like those in Thilo Sarrazin’s bestseller „Deutschland schafft sich ab“ (Germany Abolishes Itself) from 2010.17

The fear from public opinions

But let’s not forget that not the entire reality is shaped by these stereotypes and attitudes: remember that there are 140 municipalities and seven metropolitan mayors who spoke out on behalf of the refugees. But if they are ready to help, why did the federal government disable them to act? The reason is simple and inseperable from the above-mentioned stereotypes and fears: the members of the Bundestag are either driven  by these attitudes themselves, or they are driven by fear from the social media-produced public opinions – which, again, feed on people’s fears, phobias and racism. In other words: it’s not only the attitude itself, it’s also the vehicle, the medium that produces these attitudes. Attitudes like racism.

The demonstration didn’t happen in a void: as the organizers themselves have put it, there is a context between the recent racist, terrorist and murderous attack in Hanau on the one hand, and the inaction, passivity, and denied help for refugees on the other hand. Racism, as it is being discussed throughout the past weeks in Germany, doesn’t mean that one person/group/nation is, by nature, racist – while another person/group/nation is, by nature, not racist: racism is a structure, it is a mode of how we (I, you) perceive of „others“, of the „unknown“, of „foreigners“; of how the problematized „other“ is being received by the majoritarian „other“ or „other others“. In that sense, everyone is a potential racist. Racism can be latent, inactive or activated, and every society can turn into a full-scale racist society, if the „right messages“ are sent, perceived and multiplicated.

The vehicle for these messages today are social media, there cannot be any doubt. And as we witness day by day, people who do not have the foggiest notion (co-/re-)produce and share public opinions – even though they may not know at all what is happening „on the ground“. People who don’t know who the „foreigner“ is, what (s)he thinks/feels/needs/believes etc. claim to know exactly what it is all about. Facts check? -That doesn’t matter. In the social media, everybody is free to utter, forward, like, comment whatever (s)he thinks.

In the past weeks, I read the weirdest, identitarian public opinions: about the refugee issue, about Hanau, about the Syrian conflict, about Turkey – about everything. I saw people sharing fake pictures, and when I hinted at overly obvious falsifications,18 some people told me:

„Why should that even matter? The pictures reflect the situation very well, so no matter if a picture is from an archive, from another locality, or from the year 2015, as long as it raises awareness.“

Really? Are we really at this stage? I was disappointed to see that even some people with an academic education (re-)acted in a similar way. To argue that false pictures are okay, as long as their message is okay, equals the surrender to the machinery of propaganda, to the principle of carelessness, to the absence of quality control. It means to give up the professional ethics of journalism. Under these circumstances, everybody seems to be an expert on everything: just do a bit of desktop research – and here you go with your great, esteemed and helpful public opinion. Crowned by a hashtag, of course: available to millions of people! Because I am so great and sophisticated! Because I will earn so many likes and hearts! Yeah! Why should I bother about the content of a shared article, if the headline says it all?

But wait: what if senders or redistributors of fake pictures – given that these pictures actually „fit“ the context – do actually have a certain point? Isn’t it productive, in the end, if a picture draws our attention to a situation which badly needs our attention – like the refugees, like Idlib?

I would argue: no. It is never good to distract from reliable and verified pictures – and especially not in days where communication technologies allow for direct communication, more so than ever before in human history.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if you show to the world how „good“ and „moral“ you are in your thought and opinion if your attitude can’t contribute to concrete solutions, to change. Mostly, I believe, the signifance of a „good“ or „moral“ speech act in the social media is nominal, completely insignificant, or event deteriorating the whole picture.

Many liberal minds have not understood that the primitive binary of [either/or], [good/bad], [black/white] and nothing in between, the there-is-no-alternative-style, are the in-built generative grammar of „social media“. In analogy to the „social“ German „Social Democrats“ (SPD), or the „Christian“ German „Christian Democrats“ (CDU), „social media“ deserves quotation marks. As Anke Domscheidt-Berg from Europe’s biggest hacker-NGO Chaos Computer Club (CCC) had couched it accurately: there is nothing „social“ about advertising rostrums; and a social media like facebook (twitter, instagramm, youtube, you name it) is, first and foremost, an advertising rostrum. The outcome of this binary ‚running to and fro‚ and its market logic are phenomena like the Trump and all of his ugly, concomitant brothers-in-mind: this is the empirical truth about the so-called „social media“. But why is that?

The main problem that I see in this binary ‚running to and fro‚ of public opinions is not that liberal – in this case: refugee friendly – public opinions are ‚bad‘; because they are not. The problem is that negative headlines will always win, and in order to grow, they need polarization, which is their lifeblood: always. Or at least as long as this world is a capitalist world. Just draw on Domscheidt-Berg’s observation that „social media“ are advertising rostrums: this means that there is a market of public opinions, with an inherent, capitalistic market logic. And on this market, there are people with a lot of money, whereas others have little or no money. Like refugees. Like precarious academics. Like „the subaltern class“. Illiberal public opinions and their producers are, on the contrary, heavily funded. They have armies of bots, trolls and factories in their back, they build on manipulated sentiments, they are part of desinformation campaigns, and they can count on – let’s call it by its name: widespread digital illiteracy.

Digital illiteracy is a very complex problem. One of its main features is that people are deprived of their ability to distinguish between ‚true‘ and ‚false‘, ‚humane‘ and ‚inhumane‘; what they believe, in all their earnest, to be ‚humane‘, ‚right‘, ‚good‘ and ‚true‘ can and will be instrumentalised and used for manipulation. Manipulators, on the other side, know how to play their cards: just say identity, identity, and identity. And you will get „the popular vote“. Always.

Partakers of the binary ‚running to and fro‘ primarily vote in favor of their identitarian preference, and they construct their ‚pseudo-environment‘ accordingly. The more illiterate they are, the more reliable the public vote. ‚Pseudo-environment‘ is a notion coined by Walter Lippmann in the early 20th century: it means that ‚reality‘ doesn’t necessarily consist of ‚real things‘, but rather of ‚pictures in our heads‘, how we imagine reality to be, how we feel it should be. [19] If the sender addresses people’s identitarian sentiment ‚coherently‘, it/he/she will win the reciever’s minds, and the present-day receiver can not only construct a ‚pseudo-environment‘ which will be resistant against any kind of truth „from the ground“: as a prosumer, (s)he can also send and reproduce the constructed pseudo-environment. And the basis of this construct is the good old primitive binary.

But if the assumptions on racism from above are true, then such a binary-generated and binary generating truth/reality/pseudo-environment can never be antiracist and/or solve a conflict. The ‚truths‘ of this dis-currere of the discourse lead us nowhere but straight into deepend conflict.

Excellent proves for this can be found on random social media posts by Al Jazeera Balkans that address the EU-Erdogan conflict, just to give you one example (unfortunately non-Jezik speakers won’t understand the posts). Al Jazeera Balkans is a particularly fitting media outlet, because it is prosumed by new-media-prosuments from different identitarian parties: Non-Muslims, Muslims, ‚Others‘. E.g., from the comment columns, you will have the impression that there is a huge Erdogan fanclub in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia, and practically all of the Erdogan fans have Muslim names (there are also non-Muslim names amongst them, but I am refering to absolute numbers). On the contrary, opponents of Erdogan will have non-Muslim names (and an increasing number of Muslim names).

As my research has proved, the reason for this is that Erdogan, in all his public speech acts delivered in the Balkans (or on the Balkans, but also on Palestine, on the Rohingyas, on India, on the Uyghurs, on Muslims in the EU, etc.), addresses Muslims, Muslimness, Muslim victimhood, Muslim martyrdom and his own Muslimness. His Muslimness is eminent: he stages himself and figures as the „Muslim savior“, and people believe him. He addresses the „right sentiment“. Another reason is that many people crave for a führer-figure, in their confusion. There is no empirical evidence or prove why the belief in Erdogan as a savior should be justified. But empirical evidence is not important in the realm of sentiment. True is, what is believed to be true. And more importantly: the experience of anti-Muslim violence in the 1990s, combined with the present-day anti-Muslim racism makes such a figure even more credible.

The situation nowadays is so complex and complicated that addressing these problems and contradictions is somewhat risky. You will automatically receive infuriated reactions by identitarian, sentiment-driven followers if you dare to do so nevertheless. I know what I am talking about, because I tried it. You can try it, too: just go for countering a sentiment-driven „argument“ with an empirical counter-argument „from the ground“: I can nearly promis that you will lose. Not only that you won’t get any ‚likes‘ and ‚hearts‘: you will eventually end up in the doghouse, or even be put in a corner of the political spectrum where you don’t fit, and nobody will believe you that you don’t belong there. So you better don’t try to play their game; its hopeless. However, all this only approves of the correctness of the observation that sentiment, not truth, will win.

Towards a solution to the impasse

[To be continued]

1. Open the borders! Save lives! Fight fascism!, Homepage of Seebrücke, 3.3.2020, URL: https://seebruecke.org/events/open-the-borders-save-lives-fight-fascism/ (last retrieved 6.3.2020).

2. Tausende demonstrieren in Berlin für Öffnung der EU-Grenzen, RBB, 3.3.2020, URL: https://www.rbb24.de/politik/beitrag/2020/03/demonstration-berlin-oeffnung-eu-grenzen-gefluechtete-seebruecke-kanzleramt.html (last retrieved 6.3.2020).

3. Berliner Flüchtlingshelfer auf Schiff in Griechenland attackiert, Der Tagesspiegel, 5.3.2020, URL: https://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/angriff-mit-benzinkanistern-berliner-fluechtlingshelfer-auf-schiff-in-griechenland-attackiert/25610854.html (last retrieved 6.3.2020).

4. Griechenland: Tausende von Menschen marschieren für Solidarität mit Flüchtlingen und Migranten, Pressenza, 6.3.2020, URL: https://www.pressenza.com/de/2020/03/griechenland-tausende-von-menschen-marschieren-fuer-solidaritaet-mit-fluechtlingen-und-migranten/ (last retrieved 6.3.2020).

5. Auch Städte wollen Kinder aufnehmen, Tagesschau.de, 5.3.2020, URL: https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/fluechtlinge-aufnahme-105.html?fbclid=IwAR0RtSOFewavcV40nR4POEPRYLBG4sFXCctgnXmOwTjuoZE8i-X_82-b2z0 (last retrieved 6.3.2020).

6. On a personal note, I have to add: I wonder how and why they will rescue children without their parents? Under no circumstances, children should be divorced from their families.

7. Can Dündar: Tek adam rejimi Türkiye’nin sultanı ve Batı’nın sorumluluğu, Die Zeit, 11.7.2018 [aktualisiert: 14.7.2018], URL: https://www.zeit.de/kultur/2018-07/recep-tayyip-erdogan-tuerkei-alleinherrschaft-wahl-praesidialsystem-tuerkisch (last retrieved 6.3.2020).

8. Wie stimmte der Bundestag ab?, Facebook post by Filiz Polat, 5.3.2020, URL: https://www.facebook.com/Filiz.Polat.Bundestag/photos/a.167301217064910/870613196733705/?type=3&theater (last retrieved 6.3.2020).

9. I won’t deepen this point here. Stating that the eastern countries are more racist than the western countries, which in relative numbers is an empirical, social truth, can be the reason for „hot words„, especially if this is expressed by a „Wessi„ (westerner), as in my case (I am from the west).

10. Warum Deutschland Zuwanderer aus Nicht-EU-Ländern braucht, Handelsblatt, 12.2.2019, URL: https://www.handelsblatt.com/politik/deutschland/studie-warum-deutschland-zuwanderer-aus-nicht-eu-laendern-braucht/23975946.html?ticket=ST-3717936-MOWbwuhKKswtsLtuAecG-ap4 (last retrieved 6.3.2020).

11. Jens Spahn in Mexiko: „Ich freue mich über jede Pflegekraft“, Handelsblatt, 21.9.2019, URL: https://www.handelsblatt.com/politik/deutschland/gesundheit-jens-spahn-in-mexiko-ich-freue-mich-ueber-jede-pflegekraft/25040888.html?ticket=ST-3799163-HTuRz56fgsv0i0c7VhfE-ap4 (last retrieved 6.3.2020).

12. According to the figures of the Federal Statistic Office in Germany (Statistisches Bundesamt) from 31.12.2018, Berlin had the highest share of foreign population (21,8 %), followed by the western states of Bremen (19,2%), Hessen (17,4%), Hamburg (16,2%), Baden-Würrtemberg (16%), Nordrhein-Westfalen (14,8%), Bayern (14,2%), Saarland (12,4%), Rheinland-Pfalz (11,8%), Niedersachsen (10,2%), and Schleswig-Holstein (8,8%). They outnumber the eastern states by far, where the highest share is found in Thüringen, Sachsen, Sachsen-Anhalt (5,1% each), Brandenburg (4,9%) and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (4,8%). However, the quoted figures don’t comprise people with so-called „migration background„, which means that parents or grandparents were immigrants. According to the same source, every forth German has roots outside Germany. Migration und Integration, Destatis, 31.12.2018, URL: https://www.destatis.de/DE/Themen/Gesellschaft-Umwelt/Bevoelkerung/Migration-Integration/Tabellen/auslaendische-bevoelkerung-bundeslaender.html (last retrieved 6.3.2020).

13. Oliver Decker, Elmar Brähler (Hg.)(2018): Flucht ins Autoritäre. Rechtsextreme Dynamiken in der Mitte der Gesellschaft. Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag. URL: https://www.boell.de/sites/default/files/leipziger_autoritarismus-studie_2018_-_flucht_ins_autoritaere_.pdf?dimension1=ds_leipziger_studie (last retrieved 6.3.2020).

14. Die Deutschen werden immer intoleranter, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 7.11.2018, URL: https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/auslaenderfeindlichkeit-muslime-studie-rechtsextremismus-1.4199261 (last retrieved 6.3.2020).

15. Bettina Köster: Islam in den Medien. Geprägt von Stereotypen und Vorurteilen, Deutschlandfunk, 18.6.2015, URL: https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/islam-in-den-medien-gepraegt-von-stereotypen-und-vorurteilen.1148.de.html?dram:article_id=322995 (last retrieved 6.3.2020).

16. Kai Hafez: Der Islam hat eine schlechte Presse, Die Zeit, 21.2.2017, URL: https://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2016-12/islam-verstaendnis-medien-berichterstattung-populismus-gefahr (last retrieved 6.3.2020).

17. Germany Abolishes Itself, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germany_Abolishes_Itself (last retrieved 6.3.2020).

18. Many pictures shared on facebook showed refugees and police in front of green trees and meadows; other compilations of pictures showed the „man with the bleeding face„, reportedly a manufactured picture by a Russian troll factory.

19. Walter Lippmann (1922): Public Opinion.


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