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Immigration

Shifting Social Constructs: The Rising Villianization of Refugees

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© AP Photo/ Juergen Schwarz

Headlines detailing the fallout of refugee migration throughout Europe appear in major news sources almost daily. While discussion around countries and organizations being overwhelmed by sheer numbers remains the same, the sentiment toward refugees appears to be shifting from benevolence to something entirely different.

As a nation, Germany serves as a case study for this hypothesis. In 2015, Germany accepted over a million refugees, larger than the amount the United States has in a decade, as well as the highest number accepted by any European country for the calendar year. The open-door policy authored by German Chancellor Angela Merkel toward refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq last fall sanctioned the influx.

During the initial months of the policy being in effect German citizens actually came to train stations where refugees were arriving and applauded them as they arrived. However, this widespread welcoming attitude has since been abandoned. Events like mass sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, alleged high crime rates within refugee camps, and infiltration of terrorists amongst refugees contributes to the recasting of refugees within Germany as deviants.

CNN reporters recounted how in the city of Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015 there were ninety criminal incidents recorded reported with a smaller number of such instances in Hamburg. Of those incidents, twenty-five percent were reported as being sexual assaults including one instance of rape. All victims described the individuals as “gangs of Arab or North African men”. At that point in time, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas “warned against linking the assaults to the immigration issue” but with the description of the perpetrators broadcast, connections were drawn and the public outraged.

Additionally, German authorities announced on May 11 that there were 40 open investigations regarding believed Islamic militants who immigrated to Germany with the refugees. The announcement confirmed and built upon already present fears regarding terrorist attacks. Instances like the July 19 axe attack, one of three violent acts by refugees this month, aboard a German passenger train by an individual identified as “teenage Afghan refugee”  continue to fuel fear and provide further evidence to solidify the relegation of refugees’ social construct, within Germany’s perceived popular opinion, to the deviant category.

Aljazeera went as far as to label this the emerging image of “the rapist refugee as Germany’s boogeyman”. It is an image which will inform future immigration policy and popular opinion. It is already noted in the decreasing support for two term German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she continues to support immigration and is experiencing a drop in polls with almost two-thirds surveyed saying she should not run again in 2017.

The focus on the miscreant minority casts a shadow over the refugee majority’s potential. It is a potential that economists assert could be the answer to Germany and Europe’s aging workforce. The labor market needs an influx of young workers to make up for the millions reaching retirement age. It is a need which roughly one third of the refugees within Germany’s borders can fill. Yet, the success of refugee integration into the German labor market hinges on more than just age. It encompasses language, education and skill levels, qualification recognition, legal right to work, and employer openness.

Successful integration into the labor market does not operate in a vacuum where only the listed criteria apply. Instead it will be steered by society which begs the question: will a criminal minority shift the perception of the refugee population at large? The fallout politically, socially, and economically for refugees in Germany and in other receiving countries is yet to be determined. However, the swinging social construct will impact millions of lives globally.

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Alice is currently a MSW student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a focus on Community, Management, and Policy Practice. She is interested in working with immigrants and refugees domestically and internationally.

          
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