Questions Surrounding Migration in Germany: The Integration of Public Opinion and the Media

Written by: Emily Janicik

Migration has been and still is an urgent issue in Germany. From guest workers in the 1960s to the so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015, many newcomers have been welcomed with open arms. But not all Germans are excited to become a “migration state.” This discontent comes from many factors, but one of the biggest is how radical right-wing media organizations report on refugees. Public opinion in relation to migration has changed over time and this is no accident. The media chooses to “deal” with refugees in certain lighting depending on their firm’s political affiliation, which has the potential to influence public perception. The media and public opinion together form a national narrative about refugees in Germany that impacts politics, public policy and more.

Context of the “Refugee Crisis”

Before discussing German public opinion, it is important to establish the historical context of refugees in Germany. The movement of people is not a new concept for Germany; looking back on WWII, many of its citizens fled to other states as refugees. After WWII, the federal government recruited guest workers to rebuild their economy. Although the original idea was that the “guest” workers would return to their home countries, many stayed and started families in Germany. Looking forward, “In 2014, 20.3% of the German population [has] a migratory background,” to which the settlement of guest workers partially contributed. In 2015, the refugee crisis in Syria brought migration to the forefront when almost 1.5 million refugees arrived at the German border. The most important countries of origin for refugees were Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Due to the high demand volume, “almost 10 percent of the population took part in various voluntary activities aimed to help the asylum seekers.” On the other hand, “…Germans had started to doubt the government’s open door policy…The threatened majorities fear that foreigners are overtaking their countries and threatening their way of life and they are convinced that the current crisis is brought on them by a conspiracy between cosmopolitan-minded elites and tribal-minded immigrants.” This dissonance in thought between volunteers and those who fear refugees is an issue that needs to be explored in relation to public opinion.

Refugees in the Media

The framing of the ideas is extremely important in determining how certain issues are perceived by the public. First, the term “refugee crisis” creates a sense of urgency and association with words with meanings that are not necessarily applicable. According to an article in the Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies, the use of the term crisis, “implies larger facets of, in most cases irrevocable, sociopolitical and politico-economic change.” Although there may be an urgent need to help refugees with the supplies they need, crisis creates a sense of concern that has a specific political function. By politicizing the term crisis, this establishes room for debate; human rights, refugee rights and decency are not up for debate, although some politicians seem to believe so. By politicizing the refugee crisis and immigration, “governments and other political actors would want to present themselves as “in control” of immigration, which they would ideologically view as a certain ‘problem.’”

One of the most important factors in refugee media is the concept of framing. There are eight different types of refugee representation in the media:

  • “representing asylum seekers as illegal immigrants or economic migrants,
  • exaggerated numbers (“we take too many”),
  • asylum seekers as a burden on the job market and the welfare system,
  • asylum seekers as potential criminals and terrorists,
  • advocating stronger controls and deportation of failed refugees,
  • positive impacts of immigration on economy and culture,
  • problems and suffering faced by migrants, and
  • the role of the West and its responsibility in the refugee crisis.”

One can see that many of these frames put refugees in a negative light, especially from an economic and security perspective. The frames “Asylum seekers as victims,” “The role of the West,” and “We take too many/exaggerated numbers” are used most frequently in the German and Austrian media. All three frames force refugees to the edge of the narrative rather than focusing on individual experiences. According to further studies, “these findings indicate that the way refugees, migrants, and/ or asylum seekers are portrayed in news media directly (by frame-setting) and indirectly (by forming judgments on the topic) influences attitudes toward these minority groups among media audiences.”

Although the majority of refugee frameworks are negative, there is one group that often gets an exception, namely children. An example of this, which is synonymous with the refugee crisis, is the story of Aylan Kurdi. In September 2015, the body of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee, was discovered on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey. This picture was sensational and became a symbol of the refugee crisis and the (lack of) reaction by the European Union. In general, this story raised a lot of sympathy for refugees and humanized them in the eyes of many Germans. But right-wing politicians tried to use these images against refugees; “Alexander Gauland, a representative of the newly rising right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) argued that Germans must be able to withstand the plight of ‘children’s eyes.’” The public did not respond well to this, especially because Gauland implied that the images were falsely produced.

Following the story of Aylan Kurdi, images have proven to be a very powerful tool in the refugee media. Navid Kermani, a reporter for Der Spiegel, writer, author, and social commentator, traveled from Budapest to Izmir and documented the refugee experience in the article Der Einbruch der Wirklichkeit (The Break in Reality). That work eventually became Kermani’s book, Einbruch der Wirklichkeit: Auf dem Flüchtlingstreck durch Europa (Upheaval: The Refugee Trek through Europe), published in 2015. In the foreword of his book, Kermani describes how Germany’s reaction to the refugees in 2015 differs from other parts of Europe. He leaves “a strangely soft Germany” that takes special care of refugees by bringing communities together. Kermani describes leaving a Germany covered with powdered sugar; something to sweeten the situation and mitigate the incoming refugees but can easily be blown away to expose xenophobia.

Kermani shows the journey of the refugees using photos and texts, with photos by Moises Saman. The photos show both the pure humanity of the refugees on their way to Europe and a clear sadness that is emphasized by black and white filters and the loss of hope in some of the refugee’s eyes. During his time in Budapest, Kermani notes that the Hungarian government deliberately used images of refugees to turn their citizens against them: “The government intentionally left the refugees in the parks and the railway stations, with no way to take care of themselves, to make them look degenerate…to make them stink, so that people would be afraid of them, especially of the young men at night.”  Images in person and text have a great influence on the perception through the design of journalists. Journalists “often generically write about refugees or asylum seekers, while photographs necessarily show concrete individuals or groups. The space of “imagination,”—that is, whether we associate “victims or villains” when we read about refugees—literally depends on what we are shown.” Here, too, associations and media consumed by the public are so important because the “room for imagination” is essential for the interpretation of images.In addition to photos, journalists and newspapers can use symbols and metaphors to frame refugees and influence public opinion. The boats that refugees would arrive in quickly turned into a symbol for media sources. In the 1990s, the boat “was a metaphor for capacity,” which has turned into the question: “Is the boat really full?” More recently, this has shifted into the idea of sinking or drowning, inciting fear for the reader, which creates an association of fear with refugees. As seen in Vollmer and Karakayali’s analysis, “Depending on the political spectrum of the newspaper outlet, the meaning of threat had been explicitly used already in March 2015 (e.g., Junge Freiheit, a far-right weekly newspaper) or less explicitly and yet exposing more frequently the reader to the expression “the boat is full” in February 2016 (e.g., Der Focus, center-right weekly magazine).”

Influence of Social Media

In addition, social networks have enabled right-wing extremist ideas to spread in recent years. Social media allows ideas to spread quickly with little regulation, which can lead to the formation of “echo chambers.” Right-wing extremists successfully spread their “exclusionary anti-immigration messages by providing simplistic explanations to complex socioeconomic and political phenomena, indeed, particularly via online and social media. This normalizes the politicization of refugees and right-wing ideas, which influences public opinion even more.

Social networks also offer right-wing extremists a platform to discuss and even mobilize ideas. In Sweden, a right-wing vigilante network called Soldiers of Odin has used social media to coordinate “racist street policy.” Social media has allowed SoO to spread, and they “appeared in several European countries during 2016, propagating similar anti-refugee sentiments and rhetoric—thus feeding off the political turmoil within the EU and the profound consequences of the EU crisis on contemporary forced migration into Europe.”

In a study conducted in Germany, researchers found that an increase in hate crimes against refugees can be linked to increased use of Facebook by AfD supporters. Almost all major political parties in Germany have Facebook pages as a way to interact with potential voters, but AfD differentiates itself by actually allowing their users to post on their “wall.” In addition, “AfD is also the only party that does not explicitly outline rules of conduct, e.g. by threatening to remove racist, discriminating, or otherwise hateful comments.” Because of this (lack) of rules, hate speech and threats against refugees occur much more frequently on AfD’s Facebook page compared to other political parties. Local AfD pages also allow users to discuss events, which can lead to the coordination of hate crimes. This was proven through looking at Facebook outages compared to other online platforms on a local level. During Facebook outages, “higher anti-refugee sentiment is not associated with a differential increase in hate crimes in areas with high Facebook usage. These results suggest that social media might play a propagating role in translating online content into offline violence. As seen in figure two, the correlation between AfD Facebook use and hate crimes against refugees is concerning.

However, not all coverage of refugees on social media is negative. A noteworthy example of this is the YouTuber, documentary filmmaker, and author, Firas Alshater. Alshater was born in Syria and was studying acting in Damascus when the Arab Spring began in 2011, and quickly supported the free Syria demonstrations. After spending over nine months in jail, Alshater fled Syria to stay with a friend in Germany, and has not left since. As a part of his integration process, Alshater began to make Youtube videos to show what it is like living as a refugee in Germany.  His most popular video was made as a reaction to the anti-refugee protests in Dresden. The 2016 video shows him standing in the middle of Alexanderplatz holding a sign that says „Ich bin syrischer Flüchtling. Ich vertraue dir. Vertraust du mir? Umarme mich! [I am a Syrian refugee. I trust you. Do you trust me? Hug me!]” For hours, nobody hugged him, until the camera man hugged him, which prompted others to join. This video went viral and has made him one of the most well-known refugees in Germany. Since then, Alshater has written a book and has continued to advocate for refugees. The lighthearted nature of Alshater’s videos serve as a bridge to connect the German public with the reality of refugee life.

Public Opinion towards Migration

Public opinion on migration and refugees in German society can be presented in a wide range. Factors such as economy, religion, race and more play a role in the way Germans view migration issues. Political parties have used some of these factors to influence public opinion. A prominent example of this is PEGIDA (Patriotic European against the Islamization of the West), and the movement “attracted international attention by mobilizing citizens based on stereotypes of Muslims’ lack of integration ability combined with fear about the alleged foreignization of German society and linked with the accusation that politicians are simply sitting idly by and ‘betraying the nation.’” However, the influence of PEGIDA strongly depends on the location and demographics in Germany. In the city of Frankfurt, which has a high degree of ethnic and religious diversity, PEGIDA has not gained any attraction and has been heavily criticized. In Dresden, a less diverse city, PEGIDA became popular and did not meet great resistance. Factors such as low ethnic, religious and class diversity, as well as low education, lead to higher resentment towards refugees and migration. Overall, however, sentiment against immigration is relatively low, with 40 percent of Germans saying that immigration has neither positive nor negative effects on them.

A prime example of how demographics influence opinion is the city of Dresden, Germany. Since 2015, many anti-immigration rallies have been held in collaboration with PEGIDA, which can be partially attributed to the city’s population. Only eight percent of Dresden’s population comes from “foreigners,” and even then, only three percent of these foreigners are asylum seekers. This lack of diversity has allowed PEGIDA to infiltrate the city’s politics. In January 2015, over 18,000 people attended a demonstration, which protested the “islamization” of Europe. Although counter protests were held in Dresden, Berlin, and Cologne, the scale of this event shows how xenophobia can penetrate a population.

PEGIDA has held 200 rallies in Dresden since 2014, though opposition has grown larger in recent times. At a protest in February 2020, over 2,500 people showed up in opposition of PEGIDA and AfD. Both the CDU and FDP have encouraged standing up to this hate through creating the slogan “Democracy needs backbone.” Although the rallies are smaller and opposition is increasing, Dresden still lacks the “Willkommenskultur” that Chancellor Merkel calls for. 

A 2017 report by More in Common analyzed attitudes towards national identity, immigration, and refugees in Germany. The results showed that the German population can be divided into five segments: Liberal Cosmopolitans (22%), Radical Opponents (17%), Economic Pragmatists (20%), Humanitarian Skeptics (21%), and Moderate Opponents (18%). Liberal Cosmopolitans are the most refugee-friendly and open-minded. Generally, LCs live in larger cities and have a university degree. Radical opponents are on the other side of the spectrum, with high anti-migration sentiment and are usually one of the “‘left behind’ groups identified as the most likely supporters of far-right populist parties around the world.” ROs are usually older, identify with the AfD or no political party and live in small communities in eastern Germany. The Economic Pragmatists believe that immigration is a positive asset for the German population and culture, but are concerned about the economic impact. EPs usually live in East Germany and they have a medium to high level of education and income and a migrant background. Humanitarian Skeptics feel obliged to accept refugees, but are concerned about the integration process, which means that they believe that refugees should only be accepted temporarily. HSs are older, live in medium-sized cities, have a higher level of education, but have low incomes. Lastly, Moderate Opponents question the validity of refugees coming to Germany and have anti-Islamic feelings. They are the part of the population who believe refugees pose a security risk and exhaust public aid programs. MOs are of all age groups, live in medium-sized cities, and have an intermediate level of education. One can see that the German population has complex divisions around attitudes towards migration and refugees.

Another issue that people have complex feelings towards is the “islamization” of Germany. Many Germans have a hard time distinguishing between Muslim people and refugees, even though they are not mutually exclusive. Although many Germans feel an obligation to accept refugees, they are not necessarily willing to accept the religion and culture that comes along. In a study, “43.3% of [the] German population perceive[s] it as unpleasant when a Muslim would marry into their family. Opposition towards Catholics as [a] potential new family member lies at 4.8% and towards Protestants at 5.7%,” which is an incredibly significant difference. Moreover, 49% of Germans have a hard time believing that Muslim people would be willing to live under German law rather than Sharia law. Clearly, these statistics are alarming for Muslim people living in Germany.

Another way to follow national opinion on a broader scale is through the timeline of the refugee crisis. Immigration became the number one concern of Europeans in 2016, ranking only fourth in 2014. Although concerns had increased, Germans were quite friendly in the summer and fall of 2015. In combination with the coverage of Aylan Kurdi and refugee children, this represented “the philanthropic relationship, in which German citizens performed acts of welcoming.” However, public opinion had changed over the winter when terrorism increased across Europe. The attacks in Paris and Cologne allowed the media to label migrants as “evil-doers” and those who opposed Merkel’s refugee plan rose from 46% to 60%. In addition to the change in public opinion, the media had also cast their reporting in a more negative light. These shifts are reflected in the increasing popularity of AfD, which had 92 seats in the Bundestag in 2017.

Since then, public opinion has shifted back towards the middle, with “59% concerned about the negative externalities of immigration but also open to its potential economic benefits and supportive of the moral obligation to protect refugees” in November 2019. It is expected that by 2021, refugees will contribute more to the economy than they cost the federal government, which should also help public opinion.


It is important to acknowledge the fact that the media is not the only source of information that influences opinions of refugees in Germany. Literature, films, art, personal experiences, and more all contribute to how people view refugees. Although the media can have a very large impact on this issue, people also have to be willing to educate themselves and change preconceived notions. As seen throughout this paper, if someone is only willing to read a far-right newspaper, then they will most likely form negative opinions about refugees compared to a mainstream newspaper or magazine. This is why standing up for the integrity of journalism is more important now than ever. 

As already shown, public opinion and the media influence one another, influencing elections and attitudes towards the federal government. Refugees and migration are difficult topics that, depending on the demographic background, affect the entire German society, and “most Germans do not have simplistic attitudes towards the incoming refugee population. Instead, responses reflect a complex combination of feelings of obligation, skepticism, fear, empathy and guilt.” We can see that the framing and representation of refugees in the media and social media has a real world impact, from policy to increases in hate crimes. It is up to us, journalists, and the media to represent refugees in an authentic way to give them the respect they deserve.