The great floods which recently decimated parts of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands were much more than a warning on the perils of climate change. They also revealed some truths about political and social trends in Europe.
In Germany, images of the "Syrian Volunteer Helpers" wading through mud and clearing rubble were both a reminder of the fundamental humanity of refugees and a vindication of Chancellor Angela Merkel's open door policy.
Back in the summer of 2015, Merkel removed a legal EU barrier outlined in the Dublin rules which required Syrian and other refugees claim asylum in their first country of arrival. The rules were clearly not fit for purpose because if applied in letter and spirit, countries like Turkey, Greece and Hungary would have received a disproportionate number of refugees.
Faced with mounting criticism at home and abroad, Merkel famously assured the German people, "We can do this!" By the end of 2015, 476,649 people had applied for asylum in Germany. The vast majority were Syrians. Today, more than 700,000 Syrians are being integrated into Germany's 82 million population.
Under Merkel's leadership, Germany heeded the warnings sounded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), that if zero-migration policies prevail, most developed countries, with the exception of Ireland and New Zealand, would not have growth in their working age population by 2025. Therefore, one way to avert the decline or stagnation in population growth is to open the doors to legal migration.
In 2020, more than three quarters (78.7 per cent) of the first-time asylum seekers in the EU were less than 35-years-old, while almost one-third (31.0 per cent) of the total number of first-time applicants were minors aged less than 18.
Although the record numbers of refugees to the EU during 2015 and 2016 had subsided by the end of 2017 and 2018, only 14 per cent of the world's refugees are hosted by developed countries. Apart from Germany, the countries hosting the largest number of refugees are Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan and Uganda.
To claim that everything is rosy for refugees in Germany would be disingenuous, this is simply not the case. There was the push back from far-right white supremacists and Islamophobes. Yet, it must be said that Angela Merkel had the foresight and human empathy to realise that a great many of the refugees who poured into her country in 2015 were not economic migrants seeking to scrounge on the German state. Indeed, many were highly qualified and skilled professionals, others were forced to abandon their tertiary education in search of safety and security.
Admittedly, some refugees have lamented the paternalistic attitudes of the German authorities, to the extent that food is provided for them, and they are not allowed to cook their own meals.
Moutasem Alkhnaifes, a Syrian who completed his master's in urban planning in Berlin, decried the overall approach to refugees by German officials as a "one-way conversation." Hence many feel a sense of being programmed and not being allowed to use their initiative and develop their own capabilities. "You just live and you don't do anything. Because everybody is doing everything else for you." He observed that Europeans throughout history have treated immigrants as "either evil people coming here with crimes, or people who are completely helpless."
On the whole, Syrians, as do other refugees, remain grateful for the safety, financial support, education, and job opportunities provided by Germany. They may differ about the methods, but they do acknowledge the efforts made by the German authorities to integrate them into society.
Of course, not all refugees will become engineers, doctors and technicians. Some like Bashir Abdi who arrived in Belgium as a 13-year-old refugee have taken a different path. He won a bronze medal for his adopted country at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Abdi Nageeye, also of Somali origin, arrived in the Netherlands as a minor. He won the silver medal in the same marathon.
When all is said and done, refugees are normal human beings. They have the same hopes and fears as Europeans; they also yearn to live in peace and security, to develop their capabilities and realise their fullest potential. Had it not been for the vicious wars that tore their countries apart, they would have remained in their homelands.
For those European governments which erected barbed-wire fences and deployed dogs to keep the refugees out, the images of the floods in Germany, Belgium and Netherlands, and more recently fires in Turkey and Greece, should serve as a wake-up call – that the time to bury the age-old myths about refugees has come. Surely, no man is an island. In this age of seismic climatic change no one is immune. We are all in it together.
Syria and Somalia's loss has been Europe's gain. The thousands who were resettled in their new abode have now begun to deploy their skills and sense of civic duty. With its ageing population and falling birth rate, Europe's resettled refugees have already proven themselves well capable of becoming productive and esteemed citizens.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.