Manufacturing a Moral Crisis: Media and Refugees

Source: Kontext TV


The so called “refugee crisis” in the European Union seems over. No one in the mainstream debate talks about it anymore. The topic is also off the political agenda. It hat marks a huge turn around. In the three years after the beginning of the so called “refugee crisis” in late summer 2015 the German press for instance referred to “asylum” and “refugees” in the EU around 2 million times. An impressive spike in coverage. To put it in relation to other topics: “Climate change” and “climate protection” were at the same time mentioned only 230.000 times. 

But today one rarely finds a report in newspapers and broadcasts about refugees. Nobody seems to care about them anymore. Why is that? What triggered this shift in political awareness? It can’t be the crisis of the refugees. Because that crisis has in many respects gotten worse in the last years, especially under the spread of the corona virus and its impact all over the world. 

To understand the shift it is important to acknowledge that “refugee crisis” never meant “crisis of the refugees” but crisis of the regime preventing refugees to come to Europe. After the so called “non-entrée”-regime (sometimes referred to as “Fortress Europe”) has been restored by European governments under the leadership of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and proved to be working fine again the topic could be dropped. According to the principle: The “crisis” has finally been solved. We don’t need to care for refugees anymore. That is what has happened in the last years.

But what made this “solution” even possible in the first place? How could the aggressive policies against refugees even been pushed through since most people in Germany as well as in other member states of the European Union are against this kind of “solution”? They want to help and support a fair solution for all, as polls show. They reject a political reaction that worsens the crisis of those searching refuge. The majority of the European people also don’t go along with the “collateral damage” of strengthening “Fortress Europe” in their own countries like stirring up racism and xenophobic violence as well as offering right wing parties a platform to mobilize. 

There are of course many factors that made the anti-refugee policies possible. But a major one was the media coverage that aimed to neutralize moral sentiments and political beliefs. Germany has been in the center of this “educational” process. So, the increase of the number of refugees coming to Germany in 2015 and searching for protection has been framed even by the so called liberal media as a historical “crisis”, telling stories about the import of criminals and terrorists, creating a sexual “Sodom and Gomorra” like in Cologne, vilifying refugees as job-stealers, painting horror stories of an ongoing, never ending “exodus” and so on. At the same time the German government told the public that the crisis could only be contained by erecting even higher barriers (at the EU borders) and pouring some Euros at refugee camps. The press went along, defended the measurements and assured their readers that the containment policy was without “better options” to prevent chaos. 

That is not only false but patently a lie. There are shelves filled with alternatives, better options put forward by a whole range of experts – but governments and media ignored them completely. There even exists a detailed and fundamental reform plan for a global and fair distribution of refugees and responsibilities on the table (worked out under the leadership of the renowned refugee law Professor James C. Hathaway, hammered out by a team of experts in a process over several years and published eventually in 1997). It has been discussed, revised and offered to governments in the Global North ever since. But no response at all.

Such a fair distribution of responsibilities is supported by a great majority of Europeans even if this would mean that more refugees have to be taken care of in each and every EU country. This is what a poll of the Stanford University found out in 2017, so after the huge “shock” of the so called “refugee crisis”. The EU-wide support for more and fair refugee protection is even true for the populations of the Visegrád states in Eastern Europe where governments have built fences against the “Muslim invasion” and militias are hunting down Syrians in woods because, as they proclaim, nobody there wants refugees. Both the reform of the international refugee regime and the Stanford poll on European public opinion have never been reported on once in the German media. I guess that’s more or less true for the press in other European countries, too. 

It is mind-boggling. While the “refugee crisis” has been dominating debates in Europe for three to four years (and influenced politics like the Brexit and election outcomes), climate change and climate policy was no topic at all in the election campaign in Germany 2017 as well as in political TV talk shows over years with dozens of millions of viewers each week – even as only few refugees made it to Germany while climate havoc is getting closer year by year. And it wasn’t her disastrous climate policy also on the European level that forced German chancellor Angela Merkel to transfer the office of Christian Democratic party head to her successor (and not run for office of chancellor anymore) but her refugee policy that actually enforced the political refugee program of the extreme right wing party “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD) that nonetheless was denounced by huge parts of the German political, intellectual and media class as to soft. So Merkel had to go as New York Times’ Ross Douthat warned as early as January 2016 to prevent a “rebirth of 1930s-style political violence”, which was immediately cited by The Spiegel and others to shift discourse and politics to the right.

This intellectual absurdity has been fabricated right from the beginning of the “crisis”. There is a lot of mythology circulating around the humanitarian “door opening” of chancellor Merkel in 2015. The facts tell a wholly different story. Merkel and all German governments before have never cared about refugees (except for the political “useful” ones from the GDR, communist regimes and Vietnam in the past), but in contrast did everything in the last decades to fight them by keeping them away from Germany and the EU as good and brutal as possible. 

In a conference at the Bertelsmann foundation in 2009 Merkel stated frankly that Germany has done its part in fighting refugees (“Flüchtlingsbekämpfung”). That matches with reality. A well informed study about the German asylum and refugee policy in the EU since the 1980s shows convincingly that Germany was actually the main blocker of further integration, burden sharing and a whole range of improvements for reception procedures, standards, refugee rights etc. in regard to EU asylum and refugee policy while the EU commission and other member states pressed for the dismantling of the dysfunctional Dublin system, progressive politics and more respect for refugee rights. The harsh and nationalistic German EU policy concerning refugees was successful. Even of the tiny minority of refugees that could make it to the EU from 2000 on most of them were shifted to the Eastern and Southern rim of the Union.

But in late summer 2015 a real crisis occurred and alarmed the “Kanzleramt” in Berlin: the partly collapse of the non-entrée regime that had shielded Germany and the EU from taking refugees. The German business class and political elites decided in a “state of emergency” for a “drainage” of the “flows” on the Balkan route to stabilize the Schengen System of free flows of goods (and eventually the single European market) inside the EU which plays an essential role for the export-“world champion” and the economic powerhouse of the Union. At the same time the industrial, business and trade associations of Germany and France demanded in a joint statement stricter and more effective border controls to fend off those seeking refuge and to prevent a cascade of border closings inside the EU. But even on the Left the myth that Merkel, the political establishment and the business class want to “import” refugees and migrants to put pressure on German workers is very common and widespread. 

Immediately after the “outbrake” of the “refugee crisis” additional non-entrée measurements have been put in place (by virtual and real walls) under the leadership of the Merkel-government – with the intellectual hysteria of the European press assisting the proper implementation  –,  some are openly barbaric (like the torture camps in Libya or the concentration camps on Greek islands), to keep those away from the richest continent of the world who seek protection from war and persecution which EU countries have helped to create in the first place. Turkey, central partner of the EU in keeping refugees at arms’ length from its territory, has finished its 746 kilometers long, 3 meters high and with razor-barbed wire protected wall at the border of Syria last year. Another wall to Iran should be fully in place this year. 

The EU has delivered the security equipment for the Turkish border control guards (almost a hundred million Euros worth) who are pushing back refugees and even shooting them, as Human Rights Watch reports. At the same time Syrians are deported back from Turkey into the war zone. The Turkish Interior Minister Süeyman Sylu said last year to reporters that Ankara doesn’t feel responsible anymore for the “migration wave” – which is understandable. Turkey hosts almost 4 million refugees, the whole of the EU only 2.3 million. 

If you search media archives in Germany you stumble over a couple of reports that casually mention the construction of the Turkish wall in the last years, like “Deutsche Welle”, that airs mostly to non-Germans. That’s it. At the same time journalists and intellectuals are furious about Trumps plans to build a wall at the border of Mexico. I guess that generalizes for the entire EU. 

Majorities in Germany have rejected the EU-Turkey agreement to keep fleeing people away from the continent in different polls, even if that means more refugees would come to Germany (explicitly mentioned in the polls). A study found that 32 million Germans donated time and money for refugees in the so called “crisis”. Citizens in all EU member states have shown exceptional and historic mass solidarity, from Poland over Slovenia to Ireland. 250.000 Germans demonstrated 2018 in Berlin for more solidarity with those in need and against xenophobia and nationalism in Europe. This dedication is surely seen as a threat by corporate and political elites and their way of designing policy. So they keep fighting this humane “impulse”, denounce it, turn it into a pipe-dream of the “political correct” do-gooders or push the real crisis of the refugees outside the EU off the agenda. 

That is where we are standing right now. It is an ongoing moral crisis manufactured in large part by mass media refusing to act as the “exception to the rulers” as journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now put it. But it could be different.


David Goeßmann is a German journalist, author, media analyst and co-founder of the independent TV broadcast Kontext TV. His investigative reports appeared among others on the largest European TV station ZDF. He is author of several books, among them “Die Erfindung der bedrohten Republik” (The Invention of the Threatened Republic) published in 2019. The article is based on the findings of this book. 

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