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Stratified Belonging, Layered Subjectivities

Zong Yao Edison Yap

1. Introduction

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“I say simply: Germany is a strong country. The mindset in which we tackle these things [the 2015 so-called “refugee crisis”] should be: we have achieved so much – we can do this! We will manage this and what stands in our way will be overcome and worked on.”

(German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Sommerpressekonferenz on 31 August 2015)

1“Wir schaffen das” or “we will manage this” has come to be one of the defining statements of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political career. It marked the ushering into Germany in 2015 of more than one million refugees from the Middle East – particularly from Syria – and it also, arguably, ended her longest reign as the chancellor of the Germany.

2Days after the 31 August press conference, Germany opened its borders to thousands of refugees who were stuck at the Keleti station in Budapest, Hungary. At Munich’s main train station, Germans held cards reading “Refugees Welcome” and greeted incoming refugees with bouquets of flowers, food, and other supplies (Dockery, 2017). The imagery fed perceptions of a Willkommenskultur (or “welcome culture”) that quickly made Germany the most desirable destination for asylum seekers in the European Union (EU) (“Asylum statistics—Statistics Explained”, 2019). Yet, the heart-warming imagery of hospitality and open borders was short-lived as, weeks later, Germany’s immigration policies took a U-turn: border controls were strengthened, the right to family reunification was suspended for asylum seekers under subsidiary protection (this suspension was lifted in August 2018) (“Family Asylum and Family Reunification”, 2019), and asylum laws defining “safe countries of origin” were amended to make it easier for asylum seekers to be returned (Dockery, 2017).

3The sudden influx of refugees into Germany had paralysed the country’s public facilities, fuelled the rise of radical right-wing movements such as the anti-immigration Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident (PEGIDA) movement and the Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) party, and triggered public outcry over the government’s poor management of the “refugee crisis” (Gedmin, 2019). One year later, in September 2016, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) saw its worst electoral performance in Berlin since World War II and the anti-immigrant AfD made its strongest political gains yet (Oltermann & Connolly, 2016). Then in October 2018, after another disastrous showing in the regional elections in Hesse and Bavaria, Merkel announced that she would not seek another term as chancellor at the 2021 federal elections (Blond, 2018).

4Since the 2015 “refugee crisis”, immigration has remained a top concern for Germany. In a 2018 survey conducted by the European Commission, Germans ranked immigration as the most important issue for Germany and for the EU (European Commission, 2018). Further, a study performed by “More in Common”, a non-profit organisation, found that one of the biggest concerns among the German public is refugees’ integration into German society: 46% of Germans expressed doubts that refugees will integrate successfully. The research also found that two crucial factors contribute substantially to positive or negative perceptions of immigrants: first, whether immigrants are considered to have made an effort to integrate and, second, whether refugees are perceived as contributing to or extracting value from German society (Helbling et al., 2017). Consequently, and in response to the above, what obstacles do refugees face when they settle down in Germany? What factors affect their willingness and ability to integrate or contribute to German society?

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5This dissertation seeks to understand the complexities associated with refugee and migrant integration in Berlin by exploring its multiple facets – social, cultural, religious, economic, institutional, and geopolitical – across time. Through qualitative interviews with 15 refugees and migrants1 in Berlin, I show how integration is a highly complex process with multiple moving parts and turning points, each contributing to a refugee’s or migrant’s eventual integration into or dissociation from German society.

6I have situated my investigation in Berlin for a number of reasons: the capital city housed the highest density per square kilometer of refugees in 2015 (Garrelts, 2016), has the largest Turkish diaspora outside Turkey (Davis, 2015), and received a significant number of refugees as a result of the Lebanese civil wars in the 1980s (Abdulrahim, 1992, p. 98). These characteristics of Berlin are later revealed to be significant vectors in influencing refugees’ choice of settlement in this location and in their integration trajectories. Using insights gained from refugees’ and migrants’ responses to discrimination and integration in Berlin, I question the extent to which Berlin upholds its reputation as a cosmopolitan city against the background of experiences of refuges and migrant

7Chapter 2, the literature review, is organised into four parts. The first part centres on Hartmut Esser’s integration theory and clarifies the definitions of assimilation and integration (Esser, 2001). The second part briefly discusses the discrimination-integration nexus through Uslucan and Yalcin’s contextualisation of this in Germany as well as Skrobanek’s study on the relationship between perceived discrimination and in-group identification (Skrobanek, 2009; Uslucan & Yalcin, 2012). The third part first defines Appiah’s cosmopolitanism before delving into Ruth Mandel’s Cosmopolitan Anxieties (Appiah, 2006; Mandel, 2008). The fourth part then situates the paper and explains how the findings could contribute to the academic literature.

8Chapter 3 describes the methodology and serves as a juncture for a critical reflection of how my positionality (i.e. ethnicity, linguistic abilities, and so on) influenced the process and results of this research undertaking. It first discusses the sampling method used and how my positionality came into play; then, in the second section, I elaborate on the semi-structured interview process and how, again, my positionality and subjectivities helped drive conversations with my 15 interlocutors. The third section briefly examines the grounded theory method, showing why the method is crucial in allowing data to determine the insights gained. The fourth and final section of this chapter enters into a discussion of limitations of the research: what insights I excluded as a result of my research methodology, what biases and issues of representativeness exist in my sample of 15 refugees and migrants, and how I would have conducted the research differently in hindsight.

9The next two chapters present the findings from my qualitative interviews as well as my own experience. They form the analytical core of this dissertation and centre on the dominant themes of my research – that is, discrimination, integration, and cosmopolitanism – all of which are either closely intertwined or can be put into conversation with one another, and which form a substantial part of refugees’ and migrants’ experiences in Berlin.

10Chapter 4 discusses the 15 respondents’ experiences with discrimination and is organised into two parts: the first highlights six common forms of discrimination faced by refugees and other migrants and the second examines factors which sustain or fuel discrimination. In this chapter, I demonstrate how wide-ranging and cross-cutting are the experiences of discriminations felt by refugees and migrants and also highlight instances of discrimination which I found were peculiar to refugees. By highlighting these encounters, I show how refugees and migrants struggle to be socially integrated in the labour and education sectors (structural integration) and suggest reasons for their aversion to Germans or German culture.

11Chapter 5 is divided into four sections. The first three sections delve into three aspects of refugees’ social life in Berlin: their cohabitation experience and how that influences their perception of an impermeability between German and Arab cultures, how the makeup of their social circles changes over time and the reasons for that, and refugees’ and migrants’ strategies of fitting in and standing out against the German dominant culture and society. The fourth section then juxtaposes the insights hitherto gained to those gathered from the literature; it responds to Esser’s integration theory and examines two of my major findings: the first is the ramification of poor integration on subsequent generations of immigrants and the second is the issue of whether or not to treat refugees as a special group of people to be integrated.

12Using the findings obtained in my research, Chapter 6 critically reflects on Berlin’s cosmopolitanism and concludes the paper. Appiah states that the idea of cosmopolitanism contains two strands: “one is the idea that we have obligation to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship,” and “the other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance” (Appiah, 2006, p. xv). The supposed Willkommenskultur of 2015 seemed to reflect these cosmopolitan ideals – but what do my findings reveal about the city’s cosmopolitanism? Is it mere tolerance without genuinely taking an interest in others’ differences? Or is it what Appiah calls a “partial cosmopolitanism” – or perhaps, what Mandel calls “selective cosmopolitanism”?



While the term “migrant” is an all-encompassing word to which refugees and asylum seekers belong, I shall in this paper refer to “refugees” as those whose asylum requests have been successful and thus have been granted refugee status. Further, “migrants” in this paper shall refer to all other residents in the host society who do not have citizenship. Individuals such as German-Turks (used interchangeably with Turkish-Germans), Arab immigrants (or even economic migrants), or other non-white, non-German residents can be referred to as people with migration backgrounds.


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