The fall of the Iron Curtain and the onset of German unification in 1990 brought hopes that Europe would quickly come to enjoy an unprecedented “peace dividend,” coupled with unparalleled democratization across countries long subject to Soviet domination. Few were prepared for the brutal, three-staged war in Yugoslavia that soon followed, rendering two unshakeable tenets of post-WWII German foreign policy mutually exclusive: “Never again war” versus “Never again Auschwitz.” The nation united was suddenly confronted with hundreds of thousands of GDR resettlers (Übersiedler), so-called re-patriates (Aussiedler), Middle Eastern asylum-seekers, and post-Yugoslav refugees, especially from Bosnia and Kosovo.

Ironically it was the Unity Chancellor Helmut Kohl, ostensibly fighting to secure democratic rights and freedoms for GDR citizens, who deserves blame for Germany’s hardline approach to millions of others fleeing oppression. Although the generous asylum guarantee embedded in the Basic Law made no distinctions regarding countries of origin, asylum practices were long biased in favor of persons fleeing “communism.” Prior to 1980, breadwinners with pending applications (some of which took years to decide) received temporary work permits. By 1987, only East Europeans were exempt from a new five-year work ban, although two-thirds of all applicants were of prime working age (18-50). As of the mid-1980s, applicants had to live at designated sites in hostels, tents, or containers, even if relatives offered to sponsor them elsewhere; all but “breadwinners” were denied language instruction. Thousands who were ultimately “rejected” could not be deported due to international conventions prohibiting their return to homelands that were little more than combat zones. Forced to renew their “tolerated” status every six months, they could not engage in paid labor, fueling taxpayer resentment over their “shameless exploitation” of the national welfare system through 2005.

Conditions worsened over time: buildings already inadequate for families had their kitchens removed to prevent them from cooking. Reduced cash allocations were replaced with benefits in kind, health care access declined. Applicants allowed to work under very exceptional circumstances could not earn more than the equivalent of €1.05 per hour. Unification was followed by the arrival of 450,000 refugees from the former Yugoslavia, as well as by an unprecedented wave of xenophobic violence (1991-1993). Three-fourths of the arson attacks took place on western soil, including the two Turkish homes set ablaze by neo-Nazis in Mölln and Solingen, killing two grandmothers and six children. Kohl refused to attend the victims’ funerals and disparaged anti- neo-Nazi demonstrations as “shameful for Germany.”

Joking that she herself is a person of migration background, Angela Merkel has consistently stressed Germany’s need to become a “welcoming culture” in order to survive a looming demographic deficit. Its aging population may decline by 17 million over the next 35 years, causing a major skilled labor shortage. One of her first acts as chancellor was to personally distribute new passports to twelve naturalized citizens. Merkel pursues the “politics of small steps” but recognizes the need for holistic solutions, e.g., expanding educational and vocational opportunities for youth of migrant descent. She is the only chancellor to have convened a series of National Integration Summits since 2006, as well as a Youth Integration Summit. In 2007 she introduced the National Integration Plan (400 initiatives, 129 stakeholder organizations) and a National Integration Action Plan in 2012, replete with concrete indicators, timetables, and “implementation monitoring.”

Other legislative reforms enacted during her watch add up to a bona fide paradigm shift. Asylum applicants can now seek jobs after three months; those rejected but tolerated (100,000) who have lived in Germany for eight years (six for children) have a “right to remain.” Migrant dependents (15-20) who attended German schools or who have been in the country for 15 months can receive educational stipends (BaFög) and work permits after training. Refugees and asylum seekers now enjoy some freedom of movement after four months, allowing children to accompany their peers on class trips. Some states now allow families to move into apartments after two years. A 2012 law established procedures for recognizing occupational qualifications attained abroad; of the 13,344 cases decided in 2013, 9,969 (74.7 percent) were fully accredited. The Federal Agency for Migrants and Refugees established a Round Table on the “Accepting Society,” with task forces establishing “best welcoming practices and intercultural opening and training”—to re-socialize civil servants into friendlier, inclusionary behaviors vis-á-vis newcomers. The BAMF is helping to professionalize ethnic associations as communication channels as well. Interior Minister Thomas de Mazière is adding 2,000 (long overdue) staff members to process asylum applications. Meanwhile, Germany is facing a renewed wave of attacks and demonstrations against refugee hostels trying to keep pace with the influx, especially given the refusal of other EU states to take them in.

On July 16, 2015, Merkel visited the Paul Friedrich School in Rostock for a discussion with youth as to what it means “to live well in Germany.” Among the 29 students in attendance was sixth-grader Reem Sahwil, who had arrived four years earlier from a refugee camp in Lebanon. She told Merkel how hard it was to watch her peers who “are able to enjoy life,” knowing that she could not; already fluent in German (the best in her class,) she wants to attend university. Her family nonetheless faces potential deportation. Her father, a trained welder, is not allowed to work, given their uncertain legal status. As Reem began to cry, Merkel left her official position up front to offer a little comfort, telling her she had “done a great job”—explaining her own situation in a way that highlighted many things that are still very, very wrong with German migration and asylum policies.

Merkel’s personal gesture, as a Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung headline declared, “landed her in a shitstorm” (17 July 2015). She was mocked from top to bottom in the Twitter-sphere for having shown too much or too little “emotion” during this exchange: Would pundits offer the same response to a male chancellor? We now know that Reem Sahwil was born two months early in a Palestinian refugee camp, where a lack of oxygen rendered her 30 percent disabled and wheel-chair dependent; she was then seriously injured in a traffic accident at age six, requiring multiple surgeries. Germany granted her family a medical visum to allow for six further operations. The mayor of Rostock has declared that the family will not be expelled, on humanitarian grounds. But what about the other hundreds of thousands seeking refuge this year? The number of asylum applications filed in Germany rose from 18,278 in 2008, to 169,166 in 2014, growing by another 129 percent by May 2015. As many as 800,000 migrants are expected to enter by the end of this year; over 20,000 are unaccompanied minors under 18. Despite its size and wealth, Germany is not the biggest per capita recipient, falling midway between Sweden and the UK. It has the dubious distinction of hosting the greatest number of undecided cases, however.

Two other images have been very hard to shake. First, there is the one-legged man on crutches, setting out on the Budapest M-1 Autobahn on the 170-kilometer trek to the Austrian border—with a photo of Angela Merkel hanging around his neck. Then there were the photos-gone-viral of three-year old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Mediterranean beach. I believe that these images, putting a human face on asylum, have stuck with the chancellor, as the numbers drowning at sea and overwhelming camps in Greece, Italy, Austria, Serbia, and Croatia have continued to rise. Just as moving are the pictures of countless “average citizens” showing up at German train stations and shelter locations to welcome, supply, and support these newcomers with water, food, and offers of places to stay—illustrating a moral and metaphorical sea-change among Germans, compared to the 1980s. Local and state authorities are pushing Merkel to qualify her declaration, Wir schaffen es, but the real problem here is one of financing (local governments are responsible for food, clothing, and shelter until cases are decided); a second problem derives from a complicated internal distribution “metric” that send most newcomers to already overcrowded urban areas.

As head of a parliamentary democracy, Merkel cannot change the rules on her own. Although Bavaria has profited immensely from 91,000 skilled laborers from abroad over the last two years, CSU leaders are the strongest opponents of citizenship, migration, and asylum reforms. Minister President Host Seehofer plans to house “poverty migrants” from the Balkan states in facilities close to the border to expedite their deportation. Merkel has proven to be more humane, if not more “emotional” than all previous chancellors. She accepts the fact that Germany must become a land of immigration and integration. The rest is up to the democratically elected lawmakers, who at least are being forced to reconsider the millions of human faces trapped behind their self-serving, partisan-populist declarations that “the boat is full.”

Joyce Marie Mushaben is a Non-Resident Fellow at AICGS. She is Curators’ Professor of Comparative Politics & Gender Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the author of The Changing Faces of Citizenship: Integration and Mobilization among Germany’s Ethnic Minorities (Berghahn Books, 2008) and Becoming Madam Chancellor: Angela Merkel and the Berlin Republic, 1990-2015 (forthcoming).