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American Academy Hosts International Panel Discussion on Humanitarian Migrations

On 9 January, the Berlin-based institution once again opened its doors to the public to discuss the salient issue of global migration.

October 24th, 2019
Mae C. Müller, News from Berlin
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Under the moderation of Deputy Editor-in-Chief Anna Sauerbrey from Der Tagesspiegel, six international experts exchanged their perspectives and knowledge about transatlantic migrations to the United States and the European Union.

Among the panelists were the Director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility T. Alexander Aleinikoff; Director-General for Foreign Affairs Thomas Bagger; Director of the German Center for Integration and Migration Research Naika Foroutan; contributing writer to the Marshall Project Julia Preston, and Professor Roberto Suro from the University of Southern California.

During the forty-minute discussion, all participants used their own expertise to shed light on the challenges and opportunities that the current mass influx of displaced individuals entails - be it at the US-Mexico border or at European shores. When debating the similarities and differences between migration politics in the US and Germany, the panelists’ contributions helped to complicate the traditionally one-sided narrative of Merkel as the humanitarian antidote to Trump’s closed-border, anti-immigrant approach. Contrary to Bagger’s predominantly positive outlook on the status quo of migration in Germany, it was Preston in particular who remarked that Merkel’s EU-Turkey refugee agreement in 2016 had been one of the “biggest moments of closure” in the last decade.

The controversial deal with the Turkish government aimed to limit the number of refugees travelling to Europe by returning asylum-seekers who arrived at the Greek islands without official permission or passage back to Turkey. What has been deliberately ignored by EU member states, however, is the fact that Turkey cannot necessarily be deemed a safe country for refugees and asylum-seekers. In this context, panelist Foroutan also made an important observation: “Germany has replaced its humanitarian approach towards migration by a utilitarian perspective. We no longer ask the question of who needs our help and how can we provide it. Instead, the political level is more interested in the question of what kind of immigrants our labor market needs.” Foroutan and Preston’s critical remarks successfully challenge the philanthropic image that Europe - and Germany in particular - is trying to uphold in the face of the European migrant crisis. Similar to the United States’ immigration politics, Europe’s liberal values of international cooperation and providing help to those in need is overshadowed by an increasing prioritization of national interests.

Despite these justifiable points of criticism against Germany’s current way of dealing with the continuous influx of migrants and refugees, American Professor Robert Suro also pointed out the strengths of Germany’s structural support of immigrants: “in America, we have a ‘sink or swim’ mentality. In contrast to Germany, we simply don’t think about the fact that immigrants also need our assistance after they arrive”. Throughout the discussion, the debaters therefore not only reflected on the most pressing challenges of immigration in the 21st century, but also used the panel discussion as a chance to carve out the ways in which both countries can learn from each other’s past mistakes.

In the spirit of the former American ambassador to Germany Richard Holbrooke, who founded the American Academy back in 1194, the debate ultimately became a space of intercultural dialogue between American and German intellectuals that enlightened the audience on the future obstacles and opportunities that migration entails. With more than 25% of the German population having an immigrant background today (as noted by Bagger) it is safe to say that Germany will gain a new sense of identity over next decade. Just like the United States, Germany, too, is becoming a nation of immigrants. It remains to be seen how well Germany - as well as the rest of the European Union - adapts to their new role within the transatlantic network of human migration.

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