The Refugee Crisis at Ground-Level

Having made myself at home in Edinburgh, I have taken advantage of Western Europe’s relative proximity to travel outside the country and into the continent. One such trip allowed me to travel to my birthplace, Hamburg, Germany, which is the country’s primary shipping hub for the North Sea, as well as its second most populous metropolitan area. As I made my state near the harbor’s northwestern fringes, I found myself in a neighborhood quite removed from the gentrification of the Elbphilharmonie area and the cheap attractions of the St. Pauli district. Rather than stumbling across the beer halls and Lutheran churches, as I had come to expect, my immediate wandering led me past Arabic-speaking travel agencies, East African cafes, and even a towering green mosque. As I rounded a corner near the graffiti-covered tracks of the Deutsche Bahn, I uncovered the neighborhood’s center of cultural gravity: a refugee housing compound, complete with chain-link fencing and upturned earth. Faced with columns of alabaster shipping container dormitories, I sensed a state of alienation emanate from their sterile facades and, assumedly, austere interiors.

Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis and Germany’s outsized role in dealing with it has garnered deafening media coverage for well over three years now, but witnessing it at the ground level allowed for me to approach the issue with greater empathy. Imagining the experience of an impoverished dark-skinned individual rendered mute by a foreign vernacular, in the same city that raised eyebrows in response to my own American-accented German, posed difficult questions for me. Was their newfound security, sans livelihood, any more fulfilling than the turbulent lands they left behind? Aside from geopolitical pragmatism, what obligation did Hamburg have to take on the second densest German refugee population (~37 per sq. km.)? Does the erection of refugee compounds in historically impoverished neighborhoods perpetuate the dearth of opportunity refugees face and obstruct attempts at assimilation? Indeed, the astute onlooker can surmise the operational issues plaguing Germany’s refugee system without ever having to engage with any of the policy debates raging in either the country’s, or the European Union’s, legislature.

Like many other European countries, the United Kingdom has taken a constrained approach in bearing the burden of the ongoing refugee crisis. For instance, whereas Germany took on nearly a million refugees in 2015, the United Kingdom only accepted around 19,000, roughly 45 percent of cases received, despite the fact that the United Kingdom still has a population equivalent in size to four-fifths of Germany’s and was militarily engaged in countries of refugees’ provenance, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. The reason for the country’s lackluster commitment, which falls short of even Poland and the Netherlands, stems from the same continued resentment of both EU undertakings and immigration in the age of the Schengen Zone that boiled over in the Brexit referendum. Unfortunately, this attitude serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy in that the unwillingness of the United Kingdom and EU member states to bear their share of refugee relocations shocks the public infrastructure and labor markets of the countries that subsequently overcompensate.

Even more troubling are the domestic policies regarding the distribution of refugees in the United Kingdom. With little rhyme or reason, refugees are placed into often disadvantaging circumstances. For instance, the allocation of refugees across councils skews heavily away from the country’s economic hubs: Scotland took on a third of accepted refugees, whereas London and its population of 8.6 million took on 2 percent of 2016’s 1,602 asylum seekers. Moreover, even once refugees settle themselves in their approved domiciles, they then find themselves barred from seeking employment, a regulation that leaves them dependent on welfare and alienated from their local economies. This resistance toward refugee assimilation, systemic throughout the U.K. asylum system, can strike one as almost self-sabotaging, an unfortunate reality when juxtaposed with that of its continental neighbor, Germany. This is due to the fact that, for Germany, a country struggling with labor shortages and an aging population, an apprehension against refugees becomes economically, not just morally, negligent. Indeed, the true test of the United Kingdom’s existing paradigm will come when the economic fallout of an initiated Brexit forces policymakers to decide what they value more: their isolationist platforms or the continued prosperity of their country.

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