Europe and the Refugee Question, January 2016

I get to talk to lots of different people when I’m traveling around the world. Many have a great picture of Germany, whether it’s because of renewable energy or the openness to refugees. However, just like the Energiewende has been slowly coming under scrutiny by outside observers, I think it’s time to look at how open we actually are when it comes to welcoming refugees, the mismanagement of the entire issue, the consequences thereof.

Denmark has come under criticism for planning to seize assets from refugees to ‘cover the cost of each asylum seeker.’ What often goes un- or undermentioned is how that the same is happening in Switzerland, and yes, Germany: Possessions above €750 can be and are confiscated by the police. Even the Green MP Beck agrees to the confiscation measures, as long as they ‘don’t create the impression this is done in an authoritarian way.’ Meanwhile, the Left party is the only one to condemn this practice both from a legal reasoning point as well as by principle: ‘A basic human right should not come at a financial burden to the person seeking justice.‘

I’m appalled at the justifications that this is for financial reasons, to help offset the costs and ensure equality between the Hartz-IV recipients. So we are ripping off of one group just so the other ripped-off group feels that they are being treated fairly?

Giving financial support for basic necessities to refugees (or those suffering under Hartz-IV) doesn’t have any real macroeconomic consequences: It doesn’t hurt the economy since the money is actually spent in the local economy. This is much better than money in the accounts of the super-wealthy, which is not circulating and thus not contributing to the economy.

Secondly, proportionality. How much money do you believe you’re going to make from this? Here’s a quick thought experiment: There seems to be no statistical data, so let’s use some very high assumptions: Say as much as 10% of asylum seekers would need to give €2000 of the money they arrived with. Let’s use the widely-circulated yet inflated number of 1M refugees arriving to Germany last year. That would amount to €200 million. (more realistically we’re talking about 0.1% and €1000, leading to a mere €1 million).

Compare this to the €310 billion of the federal budget, or against the ‘financial predictions’ circulating in German media that refugees will cost €20 billion even though it was only €1.5 billion in 2013 (nevermind that this prediction comes from Hans-Werner Sinn, one of the economists in favor of the takeover of Greece, which was communicated as a bailout). And let’s not forget how quick we were to give the banksters a €650 billion bailout that cost the tax payer upwards of €50 billion.

Those banksters would probably call the potential ‘earnings’ peanuts. There are several orders of magnitude between the ‘taking away stuff from refugees’-measure and the real scope of the issue. Taking away a few possessions is not going to make a dent, financially. It’s not in line with German tax policies either, as we tax income and not wealth (I agree with Piketty that we should have a global tax on wealth, just probably not for those with less than €10K in assets.)

Why then do decision-makers condone this practice? Is taking away from the poorest really the measure we want to be taking? Or might this be exactly what those who lead this country want?

If you take a look at the dehumanizing situation e.g. in front of Berlin’s LaGeSo, you start to wonder whether these are just unintended consequences. Today, there were reports of an Syrian Asylum seeker that died after waiting for several days in the cold for his papers [EDIT: this information is still unconfirmed]. I know a lot of refugee initiatives, organizations and even municipalities whose work is obstructed by German regulations and suffer from a lack of funding and resources from the federal and state governments. The friendly and welcoming image of Germany last summer rests on the shoulders of private people who decided to act, while the states and governments provided too few resources. Yes, I am happy that our Chancellor stood up and said ‘wir schaffen das’, but from the official side, it has mostly been words, not action so far. At the same time, this mismanagement led to an enormous surge of right-wing extremists and a rising fear in the general cultural climate. It’s the worst basis for smart decisions, and it’s a real threat to the European continent – so much that even the WEF is concerned.

Everywhere I go, especially in Europe, I hear people calling BS on the narrative that we cannot help refugees or that it is a burden for our continent. They are calling attention to the mismatch between the words and actions of our governments, and that this should not be called a ‘refugee crisis’ but a ‘political failure’, perhaps the largest in the last 50 years.

Europe’s people may be united by culture or a moral guideline, but our political leaders certainly aren’t. It keeps on reminding me of George Carlin’s words, who I miss dearly.

Liberinantes – an Italian Inspiration

Today, I experienced another one of those moments that make me love what I do. It’s not about the glamorous moments speaking to powerful people, but rather the people who are strong in their principles and ideals, make things happen on the ground, and remain humble even while moving mountains.

I had the immense pleasure to meet Alberto Urbinati today. He and 8 friends were huge football fans but could not stand the prevalent racism anymore, and wanted to do something practical about it.

So 8 years ago, they started Liberi Nantes, a football club for refugees. The team consists only of refugees and they are actually playing in the official Italian league. They are pushing for the regulations to allow them to move beyond the lowest league- imagine a refugee Serie A team!

I got to spend some time with Alberto and he even invited me to join lunch with him, the players, and the other involved people. It was a special atmosphere – I could feel much he was revered by the players and other team members while he himself remained entirely down to earth and did not accept any special privileges. I was really moved when he talked about his influences, e.g. an annual tournament without referees where it is all about the love of the game and the community, not about winning. This translated into the spirit of Liberi Nantes, in which every player knows two basic rules: smile and respect people – even in the face of hate speech or racism.

I wish I had all of our conversation on video, however, we only filmed a short version. I’ll have the interview with him online soon, until then check out the excellent guardian video above.

What a climate guy has to do with refugees

“You’re a climate guy – why are you jumping on the refugee bandwagon now?”

“Aren’t you instrumentalizing the refugees for your climate message?”

I was a bit shocked at these types of accusations when I brought up the topic of refugees in the context of climate at a few events recently. Initially, I didn’t think that mentioning this would cause a ruckus, but some people (who didn’t know me) didn’t see the connection and felt it was too far-fetched. I hadn’t realized that the links are not so well-known in the public eye yet.

To me, climate change has always been strongly linked to the displacement of people: In the simplest terms, it’s the people in coastal areas affected through the sea level rise. However, it goes a lot deeper. Climate change will fundamentally change our life on this planet, and with more extreme weather patterns will lead to less inhabitable and farmable land, which will change where on this planet people can live (well).

Back in 2010, when we hosted the German premiere of “The Age of Stupid” in Berlin, we invited Hermann Josef Hack, an artist who visualizes the looming climate refugee crisis if we fail to solve this challenge. I’m not concerned about climate change because of a romantic idea of a healthy planet – I’m pretty sure the planet and nature will survive whatever happens. The question is if we will survive, and how we will. Will we stick to our ideals of human rights when we are tested in tough times?

With so many people fleeing Syria at the moment, many don’t see that even in this case, climate change underlies the tragedy. For more than 4 years, a drought forced more than a million farmers to flee into the city. It has been well documented by the Washington Post in 2013, made easy-to-understand by this comic, and already in 2003 the Pentagon recognized the security and migration implications of climate change.

Once we understand this connection, I think it’s time to ask the question: What the hell is an “economic refugee” anyway?

Why do we choose to only help people fleeing from military conflict (and only if we recognize it as such) and not help people fleeing from extreme poverty or loosing their land? Island states such as the Maldives have been pretty vocal about the question of their future when their islands will disappear. How do we deal with these questions? When the inhabitable parts of the world shift, how do we justify our perceived right to the land we currently live on and our reflex to defend it against ‘intruders’?

I’m passionate about climate change because I believe it is the largest challenge we are facing, and I think it’s the calling of our generation to solve it for future generations. I’m passionate about solving the refugee crisis because it is the most urgent humanitarian crisis we face, and I believe that it is in times of crisis that we have an opportunity to prove that we really do stand by our values. These two causes are linked, and my engagement in both of them comes from caring for humans and the desire to make the most impact I can to leave behind a better world for us, humans.

Germany and the Refugee Question, August 2015

70 years ago, germany only managed to get back on its feet because of the goodwill and $$ of other countries, even after having just cause an atrocious amount of death and destruction. today we are the 3rd largest weapons exporter and actually making $$ from death and destruction in the world.

yet we’re showing none of the goodwill that put us in this comfortable position: we let the victims of our weapons exports drown in the mediterranean to deter others from coming and we remain silent about police violence at our boarders, illegal push-backs, right-wing terrorism against asylum centers, violent racist attacks on people, and burning refugee homes. just the official support structures are kept understaffed, and there’s a very tangible move to the right in the air and on the ground. even in berlin, usually a pretty tolerant place, there’s ugliness: to pick just one example, on saturday two known neonazis threatened and urinated on children in the subway.

our politicians are busy with a weird competition on delivering the most pathetic reaction instead of getting anything done to help. instead of trying to solve the causes of the problem or even just properly helping the victims of their politics, they side with and protect those openly defying international law and the humanitarian values we love to display so proudly. all while demanding crippling austerity from our greek brothers and sisters so that the banks that made foul bets get away unscathed. it gets even more absurd considering that sooner or later, we need migrants to keep our entire social system running and that we have been the biggest profiteers of the european union.

blood on our hands, everywhere we look. is this still not enough to make a generation stand up and say ‘no more’?

thx for the reminder, bayanat!