Opinion: Angela Merkel's 'we can do this' refugee mantra lives on

Two years ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel uttered her now famous refugee crisis mantra, "we can do this." She no longer uses that phrase, but it still speaks volumes about Germany, says DW's Christoph Strack.
Christoph Strack
Christoph Strack

"A year like that cannot and should not ever happen again," Angela Merkel tells her supporters at campaign appearances around the country. She's talking about 2015, the year hundreds of thousands of refugees came to Germany at the peak of the migration crisis. Last week alone, she said it at stops in Bayreuth and Bad Kissingen, both in Bavaria, in Fulda in the state of Hesse, in the northern German city of Vechta, in Quedlinburg in the Harz mountains, and in Annaberg, Saxony. North, south, east and west - she is saying it to all of Germany.

Merkel is portraying herself as the tough-talking head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). And it comes across as though Merkel the conservative party leader is trying to bury the Chancellor Merkel who delivered the brave, some might even say bold, message on August 31, 2015: "Germany is a strong country. We have done so much - we can do this!" She inspired thousands of people with those words. They reminded us of what is both necessary and possible; they reminded us of our shared values.

Read more: How are refugees settling into Germany, two years on

Quick catchphrase

"We can do this" quickly became a catchphrase, even though Merkel used the sentence sparingly, only in key speeches. When that happens, the words can also quickly lose their meaning. The context changes, and they're used ironically, or when delivering biting criticism. Around a year on, Merkel distanced herself from the phrase, saying that it had "practically become a cliché."

DW's Christoph Strack

Merkel first made the emotional appeal two years ago at her traditional summer press conference. Two years on at the same event, there was no mention of it. Instead, Merkel talked in her typically pragmatic way about many aspects of the migration crisis, how to clamp down on the criminal business of human trafficking and options for controlled immigration.

One of the problems during those exceptional weeks of September 2015 was the expectation on the part of many that integration would happen quickly, within the space of a few years. Integration is hard work; it's a project for generations. And it requires changes on both sides - the new arrivals as well as the society they're arriving in.

Successful integration takes time

Integration happens locally, in the towns and city districts where immigrants live. The era of the big reception camps full of refugees is over. And despite all the hurdles, there are already success stories of students showing us that the younger generation is finding it easier to gain a foothold here. In the labor market, experts remain convinced that, after initial high unemployment among refugees, a positive overall effect on the economy will be evident after three to 10 years. From the very start, experts showed their relief at the positive effect immigration would have on Germany's strained pension system.

On the other hand, parts of the population reverberate in fear with every terrorist incident, no matter the background of the perpetrator. Merkel's decision to open the gates, and her "we can do this" mantra, may not have divided Germany, but it did cause some fragmentation.

"We can do this" will remain a quote for the ages; evidence that, when need be, words can inspire emotion among the usually cool, reserved Germans. No one knows whether there will be a comparable situation in future. What would happen if hundreds of thousands of people in the Baltics suddenly felt the need to leave their homes? If there were a Fukushima-type incident somewhere in Europe? Anything seems possible given the current friction in the world. That makes "A year like that cannot and should not ever happen again" sound like wishful thinking. And "we can do this" like an important rallying cry to keep on the back burner.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

The goal: Survival

A journey combined with misery as well as dangers for the body and the soul: In their escape from war and suffering, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from Syria, traveled to Greece from Turkey in 2015 and 2016. There are still around 10,000 people stranded on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos. More than 6,000 new arrivals were recorded this year from January to May.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

On foot to Europe

In 2015 and 2016, more than a million people tried to reach Western Europe from Greece or Turkey over the Balkan route - through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. The stream of refugees stopped only when the route was officially closed and many countries sealed their borders. Today, most refugees opt for the dangerous Mediterranean route from Libya to Europe.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Global dismay

This picture shook the world. The body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi from Syria washed up on a beach in Turkey in September 2015. The photograph was widely circulated in social networks and became a symbol of the refugee crisis. Europe could not look away anymore.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Chaos and despair

Last-minute rush: Thousands of refugees tried to get into overcrowded buses and trains in Croatia after it became known that the route through Europe would not remain open for long. In October 2015, Hungary closed its borders and installed container camps, where refugees would be kept for the duration of their asylum process.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Unscrupulous reporting

A Hungarian journalist caused uproar in September 2015 after she tripped a Syrian man who was trying to run from the police at Roszke, near the Hungarian border with Serbia. At the peak of the crisis, the tone against refugees became coarser. In Germany, attacks on refugee homes increased.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

No open borders

The official closure of the Balkan route in March 2016 led to tumultuous scenes at border crossings. Thousands of refugees were stranded and there were reports of brutal violence. Many tried to circumvent border crossings, like these refugees at the Greek-Macedonian border shortly after borders were closed.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Symbol of horror

A child covered in blood and dust: the photograph of five-year-old Omran shocked the public when it was released in 2016. It became an allegory of the horror of the Syrian civil war and the suffering of the Syrian people. One year later, new pictures of the boy circulated on the internet, showing him much happier. Assad supporters say the picture last year was planted for propaganda purposes.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

The unknown new home

A Syrian man carries his daughter in the rain at the Greek-Macedonian border in Idomeni. He hopes for security for his family in Europe. According to the Dublin regulation, asylum can be applied only in the country where the refugee first entered Europe. Many who travel further on are sent back. Above all, Greece and Italy carry the largest burden.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Hope for support

Germany remains the top destination, although the refugee and asylum policy in Germany has become more restrictive following the massive influx. No country in Europe has taken in as many refugees as Germany, which took in 1.2 million since the influx began in 2015. Chancellor Angela Merkel was an icon for many of the newcomers.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Emergency situation in the camps

In France's north, authorities clean up the infamous "jungle" in Calais. The camp caught fire during the evacuation in October 2016. Around 6,500 residents were distributed among other shelters in France. Half a year later, aid organizations reported many minor refugees living as homeless people around Calais.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

Drowning in the Mediterranean

NGO and government rescue ships are constantly on the lookout for migrant boats in distress. Despite extreme danger during their voyage, many refugees, fleeing poverty or conflict in the home countries, expect to find a better future in Europe. The overcrowded boats and rubber dinghies often capsize. In 2017 alone, 1,800 people died in the crossing. In 2016, 5,000 people lost their lives.

World Refugee Day: Iconic images of the refugee crisis

No justice in Libya

Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Sub Saharan Africa and the Middle East wait in Libyan detention camps to cross the Mediterranean. Human smugglers and traffickers control the business. The conditions in the camps are reportedly catastrophic, human rights organizations say. Eyewitnesses report of slavery and forced prostitution. Still, the inmates never give up the dream of coming to Europe.

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