How should Christian churches respond to the unique and urgent challenge of the refugee crisis? What is the special responsibility of the body of Christ – including the major churches, religious orders and communities, and individual Christians – one year after the opening of Germany’s borders, which resulted in the influx of more than a million refugees and migrants? And what does the New Testament have to say about what the church’s political witness should be and how it can be lived out?

Where We’re At Today

Before tackling these questions, it would be good to review the events of the past year from a political perspective, and explain the role churches have played so far.

Though the refugee crisis in Europe may seem to have burst out of the blue, already in 2012, when the civil war in Syria escalated, relief organizations and political experts were warning of a looming humanitarian disaster including mass displacement of populations. There had been similar warnings about Libya since 2011, when its government disintegrated into factional violence following the Western military intervention. Because of Libya’s continued instability, it became the launching ground for refugees making their way to Europe across the Mediterranean. Human traffickers organized crossings in overloaded and haphazardly constructed vessels; each year thousands of refugees lost their lives making this journey.

Italy was left with the burden of receiving the refugees who survived the crossing, with precious little help offered from other European Union nations. No country was more emphatic than Germany in rejecting Italy’s pleas for a quota system that would distribute refugees among EU member states. Instead, Italy’s neighbors insisted on enforcing the so-called “Dublin system,” whereby the first EU country that receives a refugee must accept responsibility for his or her future.

At the end of summer 2015, the refugee situation was worsening dramatically. Drastic cuts were made to monthly food rations in the refugee camps in the Middle East supported by the United Nations. This threw camp residents into total hopelessness, compounded by a lack of access to education or jobs. Now in addition to the main Mediterranean route, refugees also started traveling into Central Europe by way of the Balkans. Their way led through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary as they sought to reach Germany, Sweden, Austria, and (to a lesser extent) the Netherlands.

“Germany is a strong country. We can manage this.” Angela Merkel, September 2015

By early autumn, the Dublin system had largely collapsed. Italy began allowing refugees arriving on the small island of Lampedusa to continue northward without registration. Likewise, Greece, Croatia, Hungary, and Austria started sidestepping refugee registration, contravening the Dublin rules. The horrifying image of the drowned two-year-old refugee boy Alan Kurdi, whose boat capsized while crossing from the Turkish mainland to the Greek island of Lesbos, shocked the world and became a symbol of the need for humanitarian action.

It was about the same time, in September 2015, that ten thousand refugees from Syria became stranded in Hungary. The Hungarian police rounded them up and held them at a train station in Budapest. In the midst of what had become an extremely explosive situation, German chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to allow these ten thousand refugees into her country. The floodgates had opened.

Initially, Merkel probably intended her decision as a one-time humanitarian gesture aimed at encouraging a generous policy by other European nations. News photographs of trains arriving in Munich filled with the refugees from Budapest went global. The chancellor welcomed the refugees and encouraged her fellow Germans to stand ready to help them: “Germany is a strong country. We can manage this.”

Many Germans embraced this Willkommens­kultur (culture of welcome). Throughout the country, ordinary people opened their hearts and their homes. Volunteers and authorities worked together with surprising efficiency and effectiveness, despite the inevitable problems that arose as ten thousand people crossed into Germany each day between October 2015 and early February 2016.

In real terms, the border was now open; border controls were extremely minimal. What had been intended as a one-time humanitarian gesture became a lasting state of affairs. Public discussion pivoted from Willkommens­kultur to the less rosy term Kontrollverlust (loss of control).

The influx only slowed when, as a result of prompting from Austria, first Macedonia and then the other Balkan states closed their borders to refugees. (Hungary had already cordoned off its borders to Croatia in mid-winter, a move that earned a sharp rebuke from the German government.) April 2016 saw the implementation of the European Union’s deeply problematic and much-criticized agreement with Turkey to reduce the number of refugees fleeing via Greece and the Balkan route. By that time, in the period between September 2015 and March 2016, about 1.3 million people had entered Germany. The exact number is still unknown because many failed to register with the authorities (some perhaps deliberately), while others continued their journey toward Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

By the summer of 2016, the once-overwhelming support for Merkel’s policy of Willkommenskultur was giving way to deep divisions. Polls in July showed that 83 percent of Germans regard the influx of refugees as the nation’s biggest political problem. The refugee crisis has become a key issue in regional elections for those who favor the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AFD).

Germany has taken in 1.3 million refugees – an event that will permanently transform the country. 

The symptoms of the breakdown of Willkommenskultur have a kind of symmetry. On one hand we see an alarming number of attacks on refugees and their housing, and on the other hand there have been the New Year’s Eve assaults on women in Cologne by immigrant young men and terrorist attacks committed by migrants. Worries that the German state was losing control were only underlined when, after July’s coup attempt in Turkey, voters watched as mass demonstrations of immigrants battled out domestic Turkish political disputes on the streets of German cities.

The polarization of German society comes at a time when the institutions of the European Union, which could play a fruitful role in the refugee situation, have become increasingly paralyzed. The EU debt crisis, an outgrowth of basic flaws in the European monetary union, is far from over; the European Central Bank’s current policy of quantitative easing is only postponing the day of reckoning. Meanwhile, youth unemployment in Southern Europe is stagnating at a level that jeopardizes the legitimacy of the entire political system. Europe is also split over how to address the war in eastern Ukraine and how to confront Russia. And increasing centrifugal forces within the EU are threatening to divide it further, as Brexit demonstrates; several other European governments are anxious about upcoming elections in 2017.

Germany’s place within the EU is marked by increasing isolation as a result of Merkel’s response to the refugees. Her policies have met with rejection, ranging from cool rebuffs from the French and British to the enraged, resentment-laden protests of Eastern European nations. These countries argue that they cannot be expected to share in bearing the consequences of a crisis that they regard as caused by Merkel’s recklessness, pointing out that Germany neither consulted them in advance nor involved them in decision making.

Many of the 1.3 million refugees will likely seek to remain in Germany, a demographic shift that will transform the country. What’s more, asylum law permits family members to join an eligible asylum seeker in Germany. It’s not surprising that some German citizens react to the prospect of the coming social shift with withdrawal, fear, aggression, or an exclusionary stance. From their perspective, the already painful pressures that the globalized economy has brought to bear are now being aggravated by the mass influx of refugees.

Between this position and that of the Willkommenskultur runs a fault line along which German and European politics will play out for the foreseeable future. Political elites will do well to offer policies that are plausible to a broad base of their electorates rather than reacting with their own forms of exclusion toward those unwilling or unable to follow the liberal mainstream.

Pro-refugee demonstrators protest a right-wing populist march in Berlin (July 2016).
Photograph by Jörg Carstensen / EPA.