Refugees in Germany

Director and editor Joe Sherman/Harvard Staff Videographer

Nation & World

Confronting the refugee crisis

long read

Whether working in camps or at policymaking, Harvard students, researchers, and analysts try to help solve a Rubik’s Cube of concerns in Europe

Third in an occasional series on Harvard’s wide-ranging programs, research, and involvement in Europe.

BERLIN — One minute, Donia Mehu was standing in her kitchen, cooking and puttering. The next she was lying in rubble, horribly wounded and bleeding.

It was 2012, the year that the Syrian civil war came to Aleppo, that troubled nation’s largest city and Mehu’s home. When her husband found her unconscious after the bombing, it was too late to save her leg.

Mehu paused briefly in her story to control her emotions, then continued. Life was good in Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest cities, before the war. She and her husband had no children, yet they did well enough that she was able to stay home and take care of the household. But that world was now blown apart.

She said that these days her wish was to learn German, to better navigate the country in which she lived as a refugee in a center outside Berlin. She wanted to move into an apartment and get new prosthetic leg. The long journey from Aleppo to Germany — navigated by boat, bus, and on foot — had taken its own toll.

When Mehu stopped talking, so did her translator, Ilke Kiral. A recent Harvard Kennedy School graduate, Kiral was back home in Germany just weeks after earning her degree, pursuing her deep interest in its burgeoning refugee community.

Kiral, born near Stuttgart to parents who emigrated from Turkey in the 1980s, is something of a bridge between two worlds: that of native Germans whose welcoming stance is increasingly shifting to dissatisfaction as the number of asylum seekers grows, and that of the refugees, desperate for what Germany can offer: safety, jobs, health care, education, a future.

On this summer day, Kiral was standing with Mehu and a few others in the sparse grass behind a plain white building in Stahnsdorf. The rectangular building was one of two on the property, housing 140 residents, all waiting for decisions from German authorities on whether they could stay or would be returned to the countries they had risked so much to flee.

When Mehu finished, others stepped up to tell their stories. A Palestinian man explained how he had sold a kidney in Egypt to finance his trip — and been paid only half what was promised. He told of his frustration at not being able to work and how he felt he was viewed with suspicion everywhere he went because he was Palestinian. A woman from Chad had fled with her daughter, whom her dead husband’s family wanted to circumcise. And Mehu’s husband, Ali Muslim, filled in details of her story, telling of their perilous crossing from Turkey to Greece, of high seas, Turkish patrols, and traffickers’ threats.

Kiral, who graduated in May with a master’s degree in public administration, had heard such stories before. She spent the summer volunteering at Berlin area centers while engaging in an annual ritual for college graduates: looking for work. In the two years before leaving for Harvard she had worked as a project manager dealing with mosques, migrant organizations, and city governments.

“I was bringing different ethnic communities, language communities, together with the German majority to find solutions, for example, for retired people, for mothers who don’t speak German that well,” Kiral said. “It was very hands-on work, on the ground, giving lessons, speaking to educators.”

The need for bridge-builders like Kiral is high in Germany today. The combination of a strong economy, a perceived need for workers, and relatively welcoming policies has made Germany the top destination for migrants bound for Europe. But rising dissatisfaction among some segments of German society has led to arson at some refugee centers, where migrants wait months to years for decisions on their future. This year the backlash has grown, sparked by reports of assaults on women by young men with immigrant backgrounds during New Year’s celebrations and other incidents, such as July’s Munich mall shooting that left 10 dead.

Harvard affiliates working with migrants

Bridge-building for such a complex crisis can take many forms. A number of Harvard faculty, students, and alumni, like Kiral, are working directly with migrants, while others at Harvard are offering policy advice, doing research, or conducting investigations like those detailed in reports by the Francois Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights (FXB). Still others are taking advantage of Harvard’s convening power to bring together experts, fostering an exchange of views, as Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs did at a three-day symposium in France in June.

“It’s of central importance that we use our training and scholarship and expertise to help solve some of the biggest problems that we’re facing,” said Jacqueline Bhabha, professor of the practice of health and human rights and research director of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s FXB Center. “A great university [should] see itself as part of a global community, as a contributor to improving the quality of life, social justice, and opportunity.”

In addition to the work of its faculty, students, and alumni, Harvard brings scholars from other nations to Cambridge through a variety of fellowship programs, providing them the perspective of distance and the resource of time to engage with new ideas. Mahmoud Hariri, a Syrian surgeon, is one of this year’s Scholars at Risk at Harvard. Hariri lived and worked amid the fighting in Aleppo for years, seeing hospitals bombed and watching civilians die. He puts some of his hope for the future into a new university whose aim is to give Syria’s young people a third way, an alternative to the otherwise stark choice of fleeing or taking up arms.

Though an ocean away from Syria, Hariri, hosted by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Department of Global Health and Population, expects little rest this year. After all, he says, the war goes on and his friends and colleagues are in harm’s way.

“It’s not a real break for myself because I still involve myself with Syria,” Hariri said. “You have to go and help. It is an emergency.”

The dimensions of the refugee crisis

Though the Syrian civil war is a major driver of the refugee crisis, it’s hardly the only one. Continued violence in Iraq and Afghanistan also push people from their homelands, as does poverty and strife in other nations in the Mideast, Africa, and even Europe. Refugees at the Stahnsdorf center come from 17 nations, including Vietnam, Chechnya, Pakistan, Cameroon, South Africa, Iran, and Eritrea, according to its director, Thomas Kaminsky.

Figures from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) show that 65.3 million people have been forced from their homes worldwide. Though the migration to Europe grabs headlines, the nations hosting the most refugees are Turkey, with 2.5 million; Pakistan, with 1.6 million; Lebanon, with 1.1 million; and Iran, with 979,000.

Those who flee to Europe can spend thousands of dollars and months on the road just to reach the shores of Turkey, according to an April report by the FXB Center. There, depending on their route into Europe, they often face a dangerous sea crossing.

The report put a spotlight on one overwhelmed destination, which saw 507,000 refugees in 2015 alone: the Greek island of Lesbos. Lesbos, with a population of just 86,000, became favored because of its location just six miles from Turkey. Earlier this month, the UNHCR honored Greek volunteers from Lesbos with the Nansen Refugee Award for their work helping thousands of refugees.

The April FXB report details how traffickers send refugees to sea, often in inflatable dinghies 20 to 30 feet long, with passengers far exceeding the vessel’s capacity. Traffickers charge about $1,200 for the crossing, more for a rigid-hulled boat perceived as safer, less if the crossing is made in bad weather. The report lauded Greece’s open-borders policy and the efforts of Lesbos natives to help, though it faulted Greece for not preparing better for the onslaught.

“Ultimately, the consequences fell on the shoulders of the native populations, who were forced to shoulder the burden for caring for hundreds of thousands of migrants without proper preparation or infrastructure,” the report said.

That situation is changing, however, Bhabha said. A March agreement between the European Union and Turkey to send migrants reaching Greece back to Turkey has shifted preferred trafficking routes west. Instead of the relatively short crossing between Turkey and Greek islands, a longer and more perilous route from North Africa to Italy has gained popularity.

“The war in Syria continues unabated; truth and peace are still elusive; cities are just emptying out,” Bhabha said. “People … continue to flee, but getting to safety is harder.”

Three tries to cross the Mediterranean

The bombing that took Donia Mehu’s leg had been preceded by fighting between pro- and anti-government groups, said her husband, Ali Muslim. He rushed home that day when he heard that his house — indeed his whole street — had been hit.

“I heard from others that my house got bombed, so I went home and saw my wife lying in the kitchen, unconscious and injured,” Muslim said through translators.

So the couple left Aleppo and made their way to their home village, where they stayed while Mehu recovered. It became clear, though, that Mehu needed additional care. So after six months, they left for Turkey, where she got an operation and a prosthetic leg.

For two years, they relied on help from Turkish aid organizations before deciding to continue to Europe. Traffickers loaded Mehu and Muslim onto a boat with other refugees and brought them out onto the Mediterranean Sea. It took three tries to cross. They were intercepted by Turkish forces the first time. The second, the seas were so high they turned back. Finally, they made it.

The journey from Greece to Germany took another 10 days, Muslim said. When the bus they were riding in reached the German border, the driver stopped and ordered them to get out. After they walked across, they were picked up by German police and taken to a registration center to begin the process that led to Stahnsdorf. 

The general European narrative about World War II focuses on the Holocaust and Germany’s military defeat. Less prominent is the dislocation of ethnic Germans, who fled west ahead of the advancing Soviet army and who were expelled from former German territories and Eastern European nations by the millions in the years that followed.

That history, coupled with a strong economy and an official commitment to human rights, are at the root of Germany’s liberal policies toward refugees, according to Kiral, Klaus Zimmermann, a visiting professor from Bonn University who is currently at Harvard’s Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, and Harvard sophomore Adrian Weickart, who spent last year working with refugees.

“The German relationship with refugees … is very personal in many ways,” Weickart said. “The expectation of many Germans is that they’d help people coming from a life-and-death situation and starting with nothing.”

Kaminsky, the director of the Stahnsdorf refugee center, attributed Germans’ generally welcoming attitude to a strong economy and a belief that those doing well have an obligation to help the less fortunate. Whatever the cause, Kaminsky said, the support of many ordinary Germans has been an important factor in the center’s success.

The center, originally used for vocational education, was bought by the local government in 2014 for use as a transition point for refugees. It has seven staff members whose efforts are augmented by community volunteers. Local families host families from the center to provide personal attention. One woman singlehandedly set up and manages a children’s playroom. Others help with language and enrichment programs, which are keys to helping refugees manage their uncertainty and wait for official action, Kaminsky said.

“I have to say that the situation for a lot of refugees is very challenging,” Kaminsky said. “Processing procedures take a long time, and it’s important to fill that time with things that make sense, like learning the language.”

Hands-on help

A year ago, Adrian Weickart wanted to pitch in. Weickart, born in Frankfurt and a German citizen, was just beginning his sophomore year at Harvard and was following coverage of the expanding crisis. He had spent the previous summer as an intern in Germany’s legislature, the Bundestag, and reached out to contacts there to find out if he could help. He took leave from his studies and headed back to Germany.

“It was a hard decision because it was an uncertain situation that I was going into,” Weickart said recently, now back on campus to resume his studies.

While in Germany, Weickart worked at several refugee centers in various roles. Like Kiral, he acted as a liaison with broader German society, accompanying refugees to doctors’ appointments and court dates, and making sure they received donated clothes. His work, which lasted through May, left him with the enduring impression that much of the tension between refugees and some German citizens comes not from clashes of religion and ideology, but from mismatched expectations.

Migrants believed — at least in part because of traffickers’ pitches — that Germany needed more workers, and many refugees thought jobs and houses would be waiting for them. Migrants who paid dearly for their journey were frustrated when they arrived and wound up waiting in refugee centers.

“The expectation of many refugees was that Germany needed them,” Weickart said. “I heard from Syrians, Kurdish Syrians, and Afghans that there were rumors within cities that we needed 800,000 people. So they interpreted the call for aid as a call for manpower, [due to] shrinking labor.”

Zimmermann, an authority on migration, said the labor-shortage narrative isn’t entirely untrue. Immigration is needed to solve Europe’s labor shortage, but immigrants’ skills have to match the demand.

“We need more people in the long term to fulfill our demands,” Zimmermann said. “On the other hand, the current refugee stream is not necessarily fulfilling the qualifications, the needs.”

Zimmermann also disputed the opponents’ narrative that refugees are overwhelming the capacity to handle them, because Europe has handled similar numbers in the past. The fundamental problem, he said, is that programs to handle refugees have atrophied, and there’s little cooperation to spread migrants — who are concentrated in Germany, Sweden, Austria, and Hungary — across more nations.

“The major problem I have with the term ‘crisis’ is that it’s not so much a crisis of the refugees, it’s a crisis of policymaking. The numbers may sound large, but we had similar inflows over the years. It’s just that we were not prepared,” said Zimmermann, who wrapped up his stay at Harvard over the summer. “Europe in general is not prepared at the moment for joint decision-making. The solution would be joint decision-making.”

Building a knowledge base

One way to build a deeper understanding of the crisis is to bring together experts with different points of view. That was the aim of the Weatherhead Center’s June conference in Talloires, France, which attracted officials from frontline organizations, like the International Committee of the Red Cross; political decision-makers, like a representative of Sweden’s prime minister’s office; legal experts, like those from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Justice; and European and American experts on international affairs and sociology.

“There’s an element of cross pollination of the knowledge,” said Weatherhead Director Michèle Lamont, the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies and professor of sociology and of African and African American studies. “People walk out of there understanding much better the dynamics of European solidarity, the desire to be humanitarian, and the internal interests of individual countries. … You get a composite portrait of what’s happening now that is very clarifying and enriching.”

In the weeks before the conference, Harvard Kennedy School student Shanoor Seervai was in Europe researching information to better understand the treatment of migrant children, a focus of the FXB Center and a 200-page report it plans to release this fall. Seervai visited Germany and Sweden for a closer look at model programs for unaccompanied migrant youth in Sweden and for integration through education in Germany.

Seervai said she was impressed with the programs she found but that she’s torn between pessimism and optimism about the crisis’ course. On one hand, the violence driving it shows no sign of abating and nations are making it harder for refugees to enter. On the other, seeing the personal impact of programs like Germany’s education of migrant children provides hope.

“To witness firsthand the response in these two countries that are doing it well and are doing the best job they can is very powerful,” Seervai said. “It’s a very difficult, very complicated crisis, but if you think … what it means for this one child — it doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and give up.”

Seervai’s work is included in a report, “Children on the Move: An Urgent Human Rights and Child Protection Priority,” which examines the legal framework for protecting child migrants, and the risk factors and responses to sexual abuse of children on the move.

“This report is quite comprehensive, quite illustrative of some of the problems that arise and challenges in child protection and recognizing rights,” said Bhabha. “We make recommendations in it about the importance of attending to the needs of a child before their status is determined.”

Seeking solutions to the crisis

Long-term answers to such a large and diverse crisis are hard to come by. Ending the fighting would help enormously, of course, but the path to peace in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan is torturous, if not nonexistent.

Zimmermann and Bhabha agreed, however, that steps could be taken both to improve the prospects of people in their native lands and allow them to flow more freely between countries for education and work, then return home to brighter futures. In some ways, Zimmermann said, that is already happening. Though the perception is that migrants settle in, that’s not true for most, he said.

“Certainly the public opinion is that migrants come and stay forever,” Zimmermann said. “This is a misunderstanding because most migrants leave again.”

That trend, he said, should be recognized in immigration policy. Those seeking economic opportunity should be allowed to come, work for a few years, and return home. That would be beneficial to both the migrants and their employers, especially if they have skills needed in Europe.

“Circular migration, where people can come temporarily, legally, for jobs and leave when they are no longer needed, [would be] a long-term advantage,” Zimmermann said.

Bhabha suggested similar policies, focused on education and training, as a way to create a “virtuous circle” for the next generation and to discourage young people from becoming refugees because of a lack of opportunity. If they were safe and able to travel freely to gain skills and then return home, fewer might join the flow of refugees, she said.

“We should be creating many, many more safe routes, legal mobility options for young people,” Bhabha said.

Another way to create economic opportunity would be to establish a Mediterranean economic development zone, Zimmermann said. That could boost the economies of North African countries, and create a demand for labor that might stem the flow across the Mediterranean.

“This would include Turkey and Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, and other states, and deal also with migration that comes from Senegal, for instance, where there’s no conflict, just illegal migration for the purpose of finding jobs,” Zimmermann said.

In the near term, Bhabha said, improving conditions in holding centers is badly needed. Some camps are overcrowded, and residents’ frustrations feed unrest. In some cases, a lack of resources for migrants’ needs has caused conditions to deteriorate to the point where reports are emerging of children selling sex and entering into other abusive situations, she said.

To guide policies toward the most vulnerable, Bhabha helped draft guiding principles on the rights of child migrants. The principles assert, in essence, that young people should be treated as children first and migrants second. Among the principles are that children shouldn’t be detained just because their parents are, that their care should be handled by those skilled at dealing with juveniles rather than immigrants, and that they shouldn’t be separated from parents or other caregivers unless it is in their own interest.

“One in two refugees is a child. … This phenomenon is completely unprecedented in its magnitude and gravity,” Bhabha said. “You can’t [merely] assess whether someone is eligible for refugee status when they are clearly hungry or clearly stressed or clearly traumatized.”

While solutions to the broader crisis remain elusive, said Bhabha, two things do appear clear. First, deportations, resettlements, building walls, chasing traffickers, and intercepting refugee-laden ships aren’t the answer. Second, nations should think deeply about the downstream effects of efforts to destabilize regimes like those in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, which may lead to enormous suffering.

Bhabha also believes more thought has to be given to how migrants are defined. Currently, those who leave for economic reasons are treated differently than those who undertake “forced migration” due to threats to their physical safety. Bhabha believes a broader concept of “distressed migration” should be more fully developed.

“Forced migration begs the question, ‘What is forced?’ Is it just someone shooting at you, or can it mean there are no drugs for medical treatment, no food on the table?” Bhabha said. “It’s not coercion, but it is survival.”