Thursday, September 10, 2015

Refugees a lifeline for ageing West

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and German Chancellor Angela Merkel find themselves at different ends of the argument when it comes to dealing with the greatest movement of people since World War II – perhaps even since Genghis Khan spread his terror throughout Eurasia in the 13th Century.

While Mr Abbott did not actually say that stopping the asylum-seeker boats was helping Australia to a sustainable surplus, as the headline of his interview with Leigh Sales suggests, it is clear that he regards any influx as a detriment to the economy and a drain on national resources.

Ms Merkel is of a completely opposite opinion. Among European Union leaders she stands along with her commitment to take a massive 800,000 refugees from the throngs currently making their weary and often dangerous way into the continent — that’s nearly one per cent of Germany’s total population.

But while she is being hailed by refugee supporters and humanitarian agencies across the globe, there is method in her generosity from which all Western leaders should take note.

For a start, the Chancellor is not alone in welcoming the refugees to Germany. Business leaders say they are needed to fill jobs and to boost the economy, and they have very good reasons for making those statements.

Germany desperately needs an injection of young people – particularly if they have skills that can quickly be translated into the domestic workforce. The nation is ageing and its generous pensions system is buckling under the strain. With one of the world’s lowest birth rates, it is facing a contracting labour force with more taking out than are putting in.

In winning the 2013 election, Ms Merkel promised to find a solution to the demographic problem during her term. She had absolutely no chance of doing so until this year’s refugee surge from the Middle East dropped a solution right into her lap.

At the same time she gains international prestige by offering compassion and dignity to the displaced masses, by stressing it is Germany’s obligation to take in people fleeing the horrors of war. A win-win situation? Well, not quite.

Ms Merkel still has to deal with virulent opposition from the far right — opposition which has resulted in sporadic violence towards refugees already in the country. But in this case it seems she is ready to face her opponents down.

She did not mince her words in a recent speech when she said the experiences of 2015 were going to change Germany forever, but she also asserted the country was strong enough and ready enough to cope with those changes.

She also had words for those who oppose her Government’s refugee policies: “There will be no tolerance towards those who question the dignity of others.”

Asked to elaborate the Chancellor said there would no dialogue, no concessions to the far right. “The key is not to show even the slightest bit of understanding. Nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies their stance.”

In saying this Ms Merkel shows a determination to keep the anti-refugee lobby on the fringe of the debate. This is in direct contrast to Australia where those who oppose asylum seekers are given at least equal time, in Parliament and in the media, with those who welcome them.

In contrast to Ms Merkel, Mr Abbott stresses only the cost to Australia of refugees – and of course keeping them under guard in offshore detention is expensive. Germany minimises the cost of camps by releasing refugees into the community as soon as their needs have been assessed.

However, it is prepared to spend billions on language training, upskilling and reskilling the people it has taken in. It appears that the majority of Germans are with Ms Merkel in seeing this as an essential investment in the nation’s future.

Yes, it will mean change, but change has been the one constant throughout human history. Past generations have coped with it. Should we expect to be any different?  


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