Even with a single visit to Germany a year ago and regular reviews of data about its economic and social policies, that country has generally struck me as having the most enlightened economic policy but being too timid regarding social policy choices.
In the last week, Germany has shown that it is truly intent on being a leader for Europe in a way that put its dithering European peers to shame.
This one act involved the very difficult decision by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, and it redefined immigration policy by allowing 800,000 refugees from the Middle East and other parts of the world to attain refugee status in the country this year.
This political decision will have weighty political and economic consequences for which this nation deserves credit. To my mind, this is the biggest act of magnanimity that German politicians have achieved since the reunification with the weaker economy of East Germany after the implosion of socialist regimes.
Credit is due because other countries within the neigbourhood of the European Union are using sectarian rhetoric to avoid rising to help helpless human beings escaping conflict and poverty from other parts of the world.
Although it’s true that many smaller countries in the Middle East and Mediterranean region have accepted many more of the Syrian, Iraqi and even Pakistani refugees, Germany stands out because this approach is new and challenges its neighbours in EU to do the morally correct thing even while acknowledging that it is difficult.
Citizens will have to accept short term social and economic adjustments that arise from having immigrant numbers equal to 1 per cent of the existing population.
Should this grand gesture matter for a Kenyan? First, while Kenya prides itself as a regional economic leader, its immigration policy has recently taken on a hardline nativist tinge. Consider the ultimatums issued to the refugees in camps located in the north and northeastern borders of Kenya. Like Germany has realised, when a regional crisis occurs, the largest economy must lead with the more realistic and humane solutions.
Construction of a wall is not the most sensible solution because it victimises refugees a second time. Granted that Kenya’s economy is several times smaller than Germany’s, this situation called for both economic and moral strength and Germany decided to offer both. Kenya should act the same way.
Immigration policy is difficult because nationalism naturally creates the sense of “ foreigners versus the sons and daughters of the soil”. It is difficult in this situation to sell the liberal entry of foreigners under the pluralist reason of “good for the economy and social environment”.
More likely, the rhetoric will be that foreigners will steal the jobs of locals and repatriate money to their countries. This view is politically potent, but reflects a common fallacy of the economics of immigration.
To start with, it assumes that a refugee leaves a familiar home in the search for an easy life at the expense of taxpayers, which is refuted because it would be odd for a person to travel a thousand miles from home simply to retire in a new land.
Studies carried out in Europe and the United States confirm that immigrants are positive contributors to the countries to which they find new homes.
The willpower and positive guile of a person who risks danger in coming to Kenya’s borders, for instance, signals an impressive work ethic. It makes no sense for this person to risk injury and death just to retire.
Given the opportunity to do so, many immigrants are very eager to work and take care of themselves. The argument here is not for allowing any person irrespective of their background into Kenya, but to be alert to the tendency for the rhetoric to overplay the risks and drive a fear of foreigners who have been victims elsewhere.
Acceptance of 800,000 people from different countries with different social attitudes is a risk for the German people. For Kenya, the equivalent of that number would be the assimilation of nearly 430,000 people into the country, all in one year.
Kenya’s lesson is that Germany has planned to offer language lessons, ensure that the young go to school and that those with skills are allowed to use them as quickly as possible. There is no confinement in camps, with restrictions to movement that merely delay assimilation.
May this example embolden Kenya to accept that we may be peacekeepers, yes, but that when it matters, we will not be governed by nativist rhetoric, and therefore fail to protect and help immigrants.
Author:Kwame Owino is the Chief Executive Officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA-Kenya), a public policy think tank based in Nairobi. Twitter: @IEAKwame