German Chancellor Angela Merkel faced a social media storm Thursday after an awkward encounter with a Palestinian girl threatened with deportation, who broke down in tears during an televised discussion of the country’s asylum policies.
After telling the teenager identified only as Reem that she could not stop her family’s possible deportation, a video clip of Merkel attempting to comfort the sobbing girl went viral.
In a week in which Germany has confronted international criticism for a hard line on debt-mired Greece, Merkel was hit with fresh accusations of coldness, just as others leapt to her defense.
Merkel was attending a public discussion with teenagers in the northern city of Rostock as part of a government-initiated series called “Living Well in Germany.”
As seen in the video broadcast on public television, the Palestinian girl named Reem told Merkel that her family had been informed they would have to return to a camp in Lebanon imminently, only to receive a last-minute residency permit for Germany, but it is only temporary.
“I would like to go to university,” Reem, who has spent four years as an asylum seeker in Germany, said in fluent German. “It’s really very hard to watch how other people can enjoy life and you yourself can’t … I don’t know what my future will bring.”
Merkel expressed sympathy before defending her government’s asylum policies. “Politics can be tough,” she said.
“You are an extremely nice person but you also know that there are thousands and thousands of people in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.”
She added that Germany would be unable to shoulder the burden of all the people fleeing war and poverty who would like to move to Europe’s top economy seeking a better life.
“We couldn’t manage,” she said.
The group discussion continued for a few minutes until Merkel noticed that Reem was crying.
“But you did great,” the 60-year-old chancellor said, gingerly stroking Reem.
The moderator interjected: “I don’t think, Madam Chancellor, that it’s about doing great but rather about a very difficult situation.”
“I know it’s a difficult situation — that’s why I want to pat her,” Merkel fired back. She said she had wanted to express to the girl, “that you indeed have it hard and that you described the situation of many, many people very well.”
While Merkel does not project the image of a glad-handing politician, after nearly 10 years in power she still enjoys impressive popularity ratings of around 70 percent.
But the video drew a powerful backlash, with detractors saying the German leader lacked empathy.
#Merkelstreichelt (Merkel strokes) became the top trending hashtag on Twitter in Germany.
“If you have the problem that you find Merkel too likeable, watch this video and pay attention to the end,” blogger Sascha Lobo said.
“This week has been fantastic for German public diplomacy. All that was missing was Merkel making refugee children cry,” Belarusian-born writer Evgeny Morozov tweeted.
However Merkel also had defenders. “She was honest and certainly not cold,” prominent leftist journalist Ines Pohl said.
Pohl said it would have been crueler to make false promises to the girl or evade her question, and noted that until a majority of Germans begin to back far more liberal asylum policies, Merkel’s hands were tied.
Germany took in 200,000 asylum seekers last year and expects as many as 450,000 this year.