The responsibility of the wealthy in the refugee crisis

Plea for a refugee solidarity tax

In view of the refugee crisis in Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel should enlist the services of high earners and the wealthy when addressing this acute issue of national importance. This would send both a necessary and shrewd political signal that could have immense significance for the preservation of social stability, says Stefan Buchen

Harvestehude is one of the more affluent districts of the city of Hamburg. It is home to business people, doctors, showbiz celebrities and those with inherited fortunes. The best houses afford an uninterrupted view over the idyllic Outer Alster. Any visitor strolling along the streets and paths between these villas is struck by an aura of social complacence.

Residents of a part of Harvestehude known as the "Sophienterrassen" believe that refugees from Syria, Afghanistan or Eritrea would only disrupt things here. They have brought a successful lawsuit against the utilisation of an empty former administrative building in their neighbourhood as accommodation for 220 refugees. City authorities have been forced to halt work on converting the former German army district recruiting office into a refugee hostel. This was in line with a decision taken in June by the Hanseatic Higher Administrative Court.

The residents gave a presentation in court, referring to the fact that their district had been designated as a "specially protected residential area" during the Third Reich and that this "area preservation entitlement" had been confirmed in a 1955 urban development plan. Use of a building for "social purposes" was not appropriate in such a neighbourhood, the petitioners maintained. And the accommodation of refugees was, they claimed, a "social purpose".

The case is especially sensitive at a time when Germany′s municipal and regional authorities – wringing their hands in search of places to accommodate refugees and "prevent homelessness" – are increasingly having to erect tent and container camps as an emergency measure. The case also shows that, as well as the uncouth and incendiary neo-Nazi mob, others are also putting up "resistance" to the absorption of people seeking shelter in Germany. It throws up the question of the role of the wealthy in this refugee crisis.

Overcoming the refugee crisis a "national duty"

In view of the 800,000 refugees predicted to arrive in Germany in 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel has stressed that "we cannot act as if it were business as usual." This was Merkel's way of declaring a state of emergency. Merkel compared the forthcoming "national duty" with overcoming the financial crisis of 2008, with the renunciation of nuclear energy initiated in 2011 and with the "Aufbau Ost" reconstruction programme for the former East Germany following German reunification in the 1990s.

A refugee hostel is to be built near the Sophienterassen site of the army′s former district recruiting office (l) close to Hamburg′s Outer Alster (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Refugees not welcome: in October 2014 Harvestehude residents brought a successful lawsuit against the utilisation of an empty former administrative building in their Sophienterassen neighbourhood as accommodation for 220 refugees. The Hanseatic Higher Administrative Court found in their favour and worked has stopped on converting the building

As for what the government intends to do to get a handle on the refugee crisis, Merkel plans to give the public more detailed information during September. What is clear is that new housing will be needed quickly, and that a plan to integrate these people, many of them traumatised, into both society and the labour market is urgently needed. This "national duty" will undoubtedly cost money. In her summer media conference, Merkel spoke casually of "several billion".

But where is the money coming from? From state coffers, just as it did for the banking bailout package? It seems inevitable. But the time has come to consider new ways of raising money above and beyond the ubiquitous and well-trodden routes to new debt. Ways that befit a situation that Merkel has described as far from normal.

Before Germany′s finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, takes the balanced budget out of the black, he and the chancellor should enlist the services of high earners and the wealthy for this issue of national importance. This would send both a necessary and shrewd political signal that could have immense significance for the preservation of social stability in the face of the refugee crisis.

Germany needs a "refugee solidarity tax" paid by the financial heavyweights. The "several billion" mentioned by the chancellor could easily be raised, for instance, if all those earning more than 150,000 euros per annum were to divert 0.5 per cent of their annual income to refugees, and those with a personal fortune of more than 1 million euros were to commit to an annual contribution of 0.2 percent.

The government could draw up the details of the refugee solidarity tax to comply with Germany′s constitutional principle of equality, limiting it in the first instance to a period of five years.

High conflict potential

Neither the public spirited actions of many Germans who are bringing water and bread to the heaving stations and reception camps, nor the widespread dismay at the violent acts of racists should blind us to the fact that the integration of large numbers of refugees in the towns and cities brings with it a high potential for conflict. Homes are in short supply in urban areas, and affordable decent housing for the economically weak members of society is practically non-existent.

It is inevitable that economically vulnerable, long-established residents of this country, whether Germans with migrant roots or otherwise, will find themselves competing with refugees – most of them without means – for affordable housing. This could potentially stoke racism and violence, lending an ugly new momentum to notorious statements blaming foreigners for taking away jobs and homes.

Pro-refugee demonstration in Berlin (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
"The government must now take dramatic action and do what the judges at the Hanseatic Higher Administrative Court in the small, smart district of Harvestehude refused to: it must demand solidarity from the upper classes", writes Buchen

Company bosses and lobbyists are arguing quite liberally in favour of "openness" in the refugee crisis. Senior voices have been heard to say that refugees could be trained up as skilled personnel, thereby helping to alleviate sector shortfalls. That is all well and good, but we need to watch out! Cotton plantation owners on the other side of the Atlantic were also in favour of "migration" 250 years ago. These days, "migrants" can no longer be enslaved, they need proper training. What′s more, they are entitled to decent housing.

Make the contribution mandatory

Should the regular tax-paying community foot the bill for all this in the first instance? It seems obvious to demand that entrepreneurs and the wealthy, those who stand to gain the most from the influx of refugees, should make a particular contribution in this regard.

This contribution cannot be made solely by the philanthropic efforts of individuals such as the actor Til Schweiger. The state must, if it wants to demonstrate courage, make the contribution mandatory. In the process, it would solve some acute problems and send a de-escalating message into the heart of society. It cannot close its eyes to the fact that the refugee crisis is occurring at a time when the gap between rich and poor is widening at an ever-increasing pace.

The idea is certainly both social and democratic in character. Regrettably, no party has the power and the creativity to make this idea its own, least of all the "social democratic party". But the timing could hardly be more crucial.

Refugees stranded in Budapest chant "Germany" and make their way on foot to this "land of hope" (Angela Merkel). Recalling just where Germany sent "the journey of the others" from Budapest 71 years ago, that is something of a turnaround. But it would be a mistake to rely solely on the currently "buoyant mood".

The government must now take dramatic action and do what the judges at the Hanseatic Higher Administrative Court in the small, smart district of Harvestehude refused to: it must demand solidarity from the upper classes.

Stefan Buchen

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Stefan Buchen works as a television journalist for the ARD news magazine show ″Panorama″

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