On Selfies with Refugees

Selfies with refugees is the new “kissing babies”, at least for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She has emerged as a hero embodying the matriarch “saving” Arabs from their leaders. The message is not lost on those suffering in Syria or Iraq—the reality is just too dire because their states have failed them miserably.

Merkel has a selfie taken with a refugee during a visit to a refugee reception centre in Berlin, Germany, September 10, 2015. Bernd von Jutrczenka/EPA/Corbis

Selfies with refugees is the new “kissing babies”, at least for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It’s a stark image to see Europe’s most powerful leader so comfortable with “Third World Looking People”—anthropologist Ghassan Hage’s caustic name for how politically (in)correct western progressives would like to talk about asylum seekers, but hold themselves back. The selfies were taken at a refugee centre in Berlin as Merkel was basking in the godlike adoration given her by recently arrived asylum seekers.

Germany has already taken in nearly 450,000 refugees of various nationalities this year, more than any other European country, and is expecting a total intake of 800,000. The numbers are impressive in comparison with other countries such as the United States, which has had a dramatically bigger hand in creating a colossal refugee crisis in the Middle East. But there’s more at play here.

The raging Syrian civil war has created one of the biggest refugee populations in decades: four million Syrian refugees are registered with the United Nations, and thousands more are off the record. Iraqis, recently forgotten in the saturated news media cycle, also account for one of the biggest refugee populations worldwide.

In a region of impossibly entangled politics, it’s no surprise that refugees are fleeing towards Europe, where some modicum of dignity is afforded after a life filled with indignity where scarce other options have run their course. It’s not out of choice that a European exile is desirable.

Iraqis and Syrians have experienced years of ravaging conflict, hundreds of thousands have died with complete callousness. Any hope of a humanitarian respite is dead in the water—much like Alan Kurdi and his tiny lifeless body on a Turkish beach.

Other Arab states such as Jordan and Lebanon already host millions of Iraqi and Syrian refugees but their juridical status is precarious, the economic opportunities are few, and treatment by their hosts is marred by racial violence that is often deadly. Criticism has been levelled at Gulf states for not accepting refugees in recent days, not taking into account the deplorable conditions of slave labor that these regimes have instituted. What’s more, Gulf governments, through the funnelling of weapons and funds with tacit western support, have directly contributed to rising instability and armed violence in the region—pushing more families to flee conflict.

Across the region and beyond, Merkel has emerged, visually and politically, as a hero embodying the matriarch “saving” Arabs from their leaders. The message is not lost on those protesting in Baghdad or suffering in Syria—the reality is just too dire because their states have failed them miserably.

In Baghdad, there have been weekly protests against the rife corruption of an inept government marked by daily power cuts, spiking food prices, and a lack of security. Iraqis held placards thanking Merkel for her country’s sudden “open door” approach to hosting asylum seekers.

Beleaguered Syrians, meanwhile, heaped social media love on Merkel—or “Mama Merkel” according to one Facebook page—when she declared that the Dublin regulation would be temporarily dropped allowing for refugees to not be deported back to European Union countries such as Italy and Greece after perilous journeys across the Mediterranean. In short, Merkel allowed for thousands of refugees to settle in Germany.

One of the most popular hashtags in Arabic dubbed “Merkel the Ethiopian” appeared instantly alongside images that had her face superimposed on the German flag. Likening Merkel to the compassionate Ethiopian ruler Ashama Ibn Abjar, who gave refuge to Muslims in his Christian lands during the time of the Prophet Mohammed, Syrians online crystallized how Merkel became an overnight heroine. The religious reference is sublime given how sectarianism has been employed as a political tool by western and Arab states in the dispersal and dispossession of entire communities.

The euphoria surrounding Merkel’s political benevolence has died down this week with the grim status quo returned (read: Fortress Europe). Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and the Netherlands have tightened their borders for “security reasons”, and in order to institute a more orderly processing system for the refugees attempting to cross.

Mother Merkel may have saved Europe’s conscience for a week, but it remains to be seen whether Berlin’s policy signals a long-term shift in the EU—and whether it is even sustainable for Germany. The political vocabulary around the mass of humanity fleeing wars and destruction has been inconsistent and morally dubious at best. Terms such as burden and crisis are easily intermingled with refugee and migrant.

European leaders have so far failed to reach a consensus on more humane policies to deal with the influx of refugees. They should take into account more than ever that those fleeing bloody conflicts in the Middle East are first and foremost uprooted and dispossessed from their homes and are ready to die for a better life and freedom.

Farid Farid is a journalist based in Cairo. He has been published in the New York Times, The Guardian, and VICE News. On Twitter: @FaridYFarid.