In Summary

Klaus Neumann, Swinburne University of Technology
This article appeared in The Age. Read the original article.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott is in favour of increasing the number of Syrian and Iraqi refugees brought to Australia for permanent resettlement. But make no mistake: "stepping up to the plate," as Abbott put it on Sunday, would not result in an increase of the number of visas for refugees. That number stands at around 6000, or a modest 3 per cent of Australia's migration program. More visas for Syrian refugees will simply mean fewer visas for refugees from other countries, including those in our region. 

In Germany, by contrast, around 15,500 displaced people arrived from Hungary, where they had been stranded, last weekend alone. The German immigration service expects to receive a total of 800,000 new asylum applications this year, and many of the new arrivals will be allowed to stay.

This doesn't put Germany quite in the same league as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which are accommodating close to 4 million displaced Syrians between them. But 800,000 is a frighteningly large number, and accommodating that many people is stretching the capacity of Germany's local governments and NGOs. In comparison to other affluent countries, Germany can claim with some justice to be doing more than its fair share.

What explains the willingness of the German government, and also of the majority of Germans, to welcome such a large number of displaced people? The reception is all the more remarkable because it's not too long since the arrival of half that number of asylum seekers triggered a public outpouring of hatred and eventually prompted the German parliament to water down the right to asylum enshrined in the national constitution, the so-called Basic Law. That was during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of people fled to Germany from the former Yugoslavia.

At the time, refugees were frequently referred to as Scheinasylanten – "pseudo asylum seekers" – and told to go back where they came from. On at least two occasions, angry mobs tried to burn down hostels in which asylum seekers had been housed.

We shouldn't idealise Germany's current response. Arson attacks and xenophobic demonstrations have occurred this time, too, particularly in the south-eastern state of Saxony, and there has been much racist chatter online. But these responses have been dwarfed by an overwhelmingly welcoming attitude.

The reasons for the differences – between then and now, and between Germany and Australia – are illuminated by a recent statement by Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

For months, while a small minority of xenophobes had become increasingly vocal and violent, Merkel did what she does best: she adopted a policy of wait-and-see. Or, to use a term that is likely to be voted the youth slang word of 2015, she merkelte, appearing to dither about an appropriate response both to the refugee crisis and to the racism with which some Germans greeted the new arrivals.

Last week, she finally spoke up. And when she did, she didn't mince her words:  "Es gibt keine Toleranz gegenüber denen, die die Würde anderer Menschen infrage stellen". (There will be no tolerance towards those who question the dignity of others.)

That word Würde – or dignity – had also been used by interior minister Thomas De Maizière, who had said that three principles ought to guide the approach to refugees: dignity, security for those seeking Germany's protection and decency. 

Würde resonates powerfully in Germany. Article 1(1) of the Basic Law of 1949 begins with the words, "Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar" ("Human dignity shall be inviolable"). This and the next 18 articles of the Basic Law constitute a German bill of rights; and for West Germans, in particular, the rights enshrined in the Basic Law have been an important part of what it means to be German.

Merkel's and De Maizière's emphasis on Würde signals that any debate about how to respond to the thousands of migrants arriving every day in Germany will not just be about Germans' compassion or anger or fear but will also be about the rights of the new arrivals.

This is the vital difference between the discussions going on in Germany and Australia, where an outpouring of public support for Syrian refugees didn't happen until viewers and readers were shown the heart-wrenching image of a drowned boy on a Turkish beach.

The second sentence of the Basic Law's Article 1(1) is also relevant here: "To respect and protect [human dignity] shall be the duty of all state authority." Merkel – as well as about every other mainstream political leader in Germany – has been unambiguous: the government will come down hard on anybody who does not respect the human dignity of those seeking Germany's protection.

German political leaders agree that in dealing with xenophobes there is no alternative to the zero tolerance approach. This consensus is not least the outcome of the racist rhetoric and violence towards asylum seekers in the early 1990s. The genie of a populist xenophobia was briefly let out of the bottle, and mainstream politicians empathised with Germans who said they were afraid of being swamped by foreigners. It took many years and the concerted efforts of the political establishment and civil society groups to put it back in.

In the second half of the 1990s, Pauline Hanson claimed to speak for millions of disaffected Australians when she railed against asylum seekers and Indigenous people. Our mainstream leaders tried to accommodate some of the views of her followers, and publicly empathised with those who feared that "boat people" would take their jobs or that their front gardens would become subject to native title claims. 

As long as the Australian conversation about refugees and asylum seekers is guided by feelings rather than by a human rights framework, and as long as mainstream political leaders try to gain electoral mileage by condoning views and policies that don't respect the dignity of all human beings, citizens and non-citizens, our response will differ starkly from that currently on show in Western Europe.

Klaus Neumann is Professor of History at Swinburne University. His latest book is Across the Seas: Australia's Response to Refugees: A History. A longer version of this article appears in Inside Story.