One of my favorite cartoons shows two Native Americans standing on the shore near Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts watching the Pilgrims on the Mayflower sail into the harbor. One of the Indians turns to the other and snidely remarks: “Oh, oh. There goes the neighborhood.”
The events in Cologne have turned attention to the implications of the massive influx of asylum seekers into Germany. While the initial reaction was positive to the generosity of Angela Merkel in opening the borders to those fleeing violence, the behavior of a significant number of newly-arrived has called into question the welcoming policy. Why allow people into your country who behave criminally? Why allow people into your country who come from a different culture?
Voluntary repatriation is considered the primary durable solution for refugees. People who have been forced to flee their country of origin are expected to return when the conditions are appropriate. Having asylum is supposed to be a temporary situation. When the status quo ante has been established, people should go back home.
This classical guideline has difficulties. The definition of appropriate is not simple. For example, many Palestinians have been in refugee camps for generations – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) began operations in May 1950 and its latest mandate has been extended to June 2017. The Palestinian refugees have remained in limbo for over 60 years.
The situation of those fleeing wars in Syria or Afghanistan is complex. It is difficult to imagine that they will quickly be able to return home. The status quo ante is not possible in the near future. Germany opened its doors in a crisis. Temporary housing was made to alleviate suffering. Much attention was given to accommodate those who had been traumatized in the long journey from their country of origin. There was an immediate need for shelter.
Many of those accused of the crimes committed on New Year’s Eve are among the asylum seekers. They are part of the million who fled or are among those who have recently arrived. Those who are calling for the end of the generous asylum policy are saying that the perpetrators come from a different culture, a culture that does not respect women. They want them sent back or sent somewhere besides Germany because they are not integrated into German societal norms.
How does one become integrated into another society? Certainly those fleeing wars in Syria and Afghanistan who have just arrived on German soil cannot be expected to be fully integrated. There is no magic wand or button. Even knowing the native language is not enough; it is necessary but not sufficient.
Integration is a two-way street. The newly-arrived must adjust to their new environment, including obeying local laws. The country of refuge must adapt as well. Somehow, there must be an evolution on both sides. The Carouge of today, for example, is very much different from the neighborhood previously inhabited by first generation immigrants. Similarly, the neighborhood where I grew up in the Bronx is very different today from when my parents first moved there in 1949 when it was inhabited by one homogeneous ethnic group.
The Native Americans standing on the shore near Plymouth Rock were prescient. Their neighborhood drastically changed. They were eventually driven from their lands. The relationship between Native Americans and the newly-arrived settlers turned out disastrously for the indigenous population, something those decrying Europe’s “Islamization” are worried about. What will happen in Germany and other receiving countries will depend on successful integration. The evolution towards that end remains to be seen. The process has only just begun.