What Should Have Angela Merkel Done For This Sobbing Refugee?

Indrani Sengupta
Was it heartless of Merkel to tell the young woman that not all refugees get to say? Was her stroking the girl's shoulder kind or condescending?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared on a televised event titled “Good Life in Germany,” held before the students of Paul Friedrich Scheel Support Centre for physically disabled students.

Here she was accosted by a Palestinian teen named Reem. The young girl told Merkel that her family had taken refuge in Germany four years ago from Lebanon, but is now facing the threat of deportation. 

“I have goals in life like everyone else. I want to go to university, that's a goal I want to achieve. It’s very unpleasant to see how others can enjoy life, and I can’t myself.” 

Merkel responded that “politics is sometimes hard.” She explained that there are too many people seeking to immigrate to the country, and there simply isn’t enough room for them all. Germany has received 495,000 asylum applications so far this year, twice the total number in 2014. Authorities have resorted to using soldiers’ barracks, empty school buildings, camping sites, shipping containers, and sport halls to accommodate such large numbers of people. 

“You’re right in front of me now and you’re an extremely sympathetic person. But you also know in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are thousands and thousands and if I we were to say you can all come ... we just can’t manage it.” 

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Merkel began to explain that the process of deciding which refugees would stay or return would be sped up soon, but for question, for Reem, was far too personal to be sated by political diplomacy. The chancellor stopped mid-sentence, muffled “oh Gott,” as she realized the girl had begun to sob. 


She walked up to the teen and began to stroke her back, in a rare gesture of intimacy, in an attempt at consolation:

“You were great ... I know it’s difficult for you and you presented extremely well the situation that many others find themselves in.”

A moderator of the discussion intervened at this moment to explain that Reem was crying because of her situation, and not over fears of presenting well before a camera, to which Merkel responded:

“I know…still, I want to stroke her.”

Response to the incident, which quickly went viral via the hashtag #MerkelStreichelt (Merkel strokes), was divided

Some called Merkel “heartless,” “an ice queen,” and some even claimed she had made the girl cry.

Others argued that the Chancellor had made a compassionate gesture in a difficult situation. The moderator of the forum, Felix Seibert-Daiker, felt Merkel had reacted in a “humane manner,” and that other politicians may not have done so.

“Many colleagues would have talked around it.”

Regardless of the quality of Merkel's response, one thing is clear: if the current conditions of the country, of any country, render it incapable of providing for the numerous human lives that depend on it (native or immigrant), then neither momentary kindness nor unremitting generosity will provide an actionable solution. A true overhaul is needed, though easier said than done.

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