On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood in front of a live TV camera and told a sobbing teenage girl that she couldn't stay in Germany.
The 13-year-old girl had, years earlier, fled a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon with her family. They settled in the German city of Rostock where, four years later, she ended up as one of several local teenagers on a TV program called "Good Life in Germany," meeting Angela Merkel.
"I have goals like everyone else," she explained in fluent German to a visibly shocked Merkel. "I want to go to university, that’s a goal I want to achieve."
But instead, she explained, she faces deportation along with the rest of her family. It was terribly difficult, she said in a shaky voice, to see others enjoying their lives in Germany but feel she could not participate.
Merkel seemed momentarily speechless, at first responding with nothing more than a stern "Hmm."
Although she collected herself after a moment, the response she came up with wasn't much of an improvement: "Politics is hard sometimes."
In what was presumably an attempt to be friendly, Merkel told the devastated teen that "when you are standing in front of me, you are a very likable person," but that "there are thousands and thousands more in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. And if we say ‘you can all come here, you can all come over from Africa,’ we can’t cope with that."
Merkel pivoted to a dry discussion of her plans to speed up processing times for refugee cases, but by then the stricken teen had begun to sob. Merkel walked over and patted the girl on the shoulder, but couldn't console her.
Merkel's response feels wrong, because it is
If it feels unjust to see one of the most powerful people in the world tell a crying child that her future dreams have to be destroyed because "politics is hard sometimes," that's because it is unjust. Germany's attitude toward refugees is wrong, and it's hurting innocent people. And Merkel knows that — she's just not used to being confronted with evidence of it on live TV.
In her response, Merkel was trying to imply that if Germany treats this girl and her family leniently, it will somehow be obligated to accept the entire world’s refugees. But that’s disingenuous. There is no mechanism by which that would happen. There is no rule that says that if Germany grants asylum to a family in Rostock then it has to accept every Palestinian in a Lebanese camp, or everyone from "Africa." There is no slippery slope here because there isn’t a slope at all. Right now, Germany has a legal obligation to protect refugees who are inside its borders, and no legal obligation to protect those who are outside them. Granting this girl and her family refugee status, visas, or even just temporary relief from deportation wouldn’t change that in the slightest.
What Merkel really means is that there are currently millions of people in the world who could have valid asylum claims, and she's worried they'll all come to Germany if it seems even slightly welcoming. So Germany deports people like this young Palestinian and her family to set an example that's just cruel enough to serve as a deterrent.
But that is also deeply unjust. Refugees exist. They are already desperate, already fleeing their homes, and they have to go somewhere. Germany may think it's facing a refugee crisis, but the truth is that it's hosting only a tiny fraction of the people who are fleeing war or other persecution.
Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon are hosting millions of refugees. This is a global problem and Germany is doing remarkably little to shoulder its share of burden, though it is far more capable of doing so than is, say, Lebanon. What Merkel is arguing isn't that she is incapable of doing more, but rather that her country — like other European countries — is somehow exempt from the responsibility of giving shelter to vulnerable people.
The implication of this is that far poorer and less stable countries must carry Germany's burden for it, and because they have no other choice, they are. Because refugees are unable to reach countries such as Germany or know they face possible deportation once they reach there, they are stuck in what are often underfunded or unsafe camps.
Sure, "politics is hard sometimes." For Merkel, it's hard because she might lose an election. For refugees, it's hard because it leaves them vulnerable to persecution or death.
I can see how she would expect a desperate, sobbing child to understand that.
Of course Germany could "cope" with more refugees
Even if it were somehow true that treating existing asylum seekers more leniently would force Germany to accept much greater numbers of people, it's simply nonsense that Germany "can't cope with that."
Of course it can.
Germany is one of the wealthiest nations on earth. Its GDP is the fifth-largest in the world and the largest in Europe. If there were a commission somewhere making an objective evaluation of which countries have the resources and stability to handle an influx of refugees from humanitarian crisis, Germany would surely be high on the list. It would certainly be higher than the countries actually hosting large refugee influxes such as Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey, which are not only poorer (ranked No. 85, 86, and 17 by GDP respectively), but also face greater political instability and are threatened directly by the conflicts on their borders.
More importantly, the question of "coping" assumes that taking in more refugees would be a burden on the German economy — but there's no compelling reason to believe that they would. As my colleague Dylan Matthews points out, the economic case that immigration harms receiving countries is very weak. While there could potentially be some narrow negative effects, such as unskilled wages falling because of an influx of unskilled labor, there's no reason to believe that more immigration, humanitarian or otherwise, is a net negative.
Germany also, by the way, is suffering from a demographic decline. Not only can its economy handle more people, but it is imperiled by having too few people. Letting this girl and her family stay in Rostock wouldn't be some burden on Germany, but a boon to it.
Merkel simply wasn't telling that crying teenager the truth. Germany can cope with taking in more refugees, and would probably even benefit from doing so. It just doesn't want to.
Germany's shameful treatment of asylum seekers
The televised encounter between Merkel and the sobbing girl was especially upsetting because it was so personal, and so unexpected. It's not every day that one watches a world leader coldly tell a vulnerable child that she'll need to take her concerns elsewhere because "politics is hard."
But the truth about the situation of asylum seekers in Germany is actually much uglier. Arson attacks on refugee hostels are a growing problem across the country. Just today, arsonists burned down a building outside Munich that was supposed to house 67 refugees. In April, there was an attack on a building in the city of Tröglitz. Before that, Der Spiegel reports, there were similar attacks in and around Hamburg, Munich, Berlin, and Sanitz. Right-wing groups committed more than 500 violent xenophobic attacks last year.
One neo-Nazi group has created a searchable online map called "no refugee center in my backyard" that shows refugees' homes as well as other refugee facilities. In the context of the other arson attacks, that cannot be taken as anything but a threat that they should be next.
Imagine, for a moment, how it must feel to be a refugee living with that kind of fear: knowing that you fled persecution in your home country only to be confronted by xenophobic violence after you thought you had reached safety.
It would be ridiculous to argue that governments should make policy based on what a sad child asked for during a televised town hall. But in this case, Merkel was confronted with the human face of the inhumane, unsound, and hypocritical policies she already has in place, and couldn't come up with a better response than "politics is hard."
Sure, politics is hard. But while that might be a reason for doing the wrong thing, it isn't an excuse for it.