The promise of open arms

Germany’s economy needs immigrants to counter an ageing demographic. This could be the deciding factor driving the country’s integration policy

June 02, 2016 12:39 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:05 pm IST

Struggling: “Angela Merkel is under attack for doing too much for the refugees, and for not doing enough.” In this photo, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel is seen greeting people at a refugee camp in Gaziantep, Turkey. Photo: Steffen Kugler -  via Getty Images

Struggling: “Angela Merkel is under attack for doing too much for the refugees, and for not doing enough.” In this photo, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel is seen greeting people at a refugee camp in Gaziantep, Turkey. Photo: Steffen Kugler - via Getty Images

A Turk running a Doner kebab outlet in Germany is a cultural stereotype. But for the casual visitor walking the streets of Berlin or Hamburg, the stereotype leaps into life — a visual comment on Germany’s mixed record in integration.

In April, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a new law on refugee integration. The draft bill makes learning German and attending job training courses compulsory for refugees. Not doing so would attract penalties in the form of benefit cuts.

The bill has provoked contrasting reactions. The government is projecting it as a ‘historic’ legislation that will streamline the integration process. But activists involved in refugee integration are unhappy. They say the penal provisions send out the signal that it is the refugees who are uninterested in integration. It betrays a ‘blame the victim’ mentality that gives fodder to far-right parties such as the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD).

In 2015 alone, 1.1 million refugees entered Germany. Around 4,76,000 asylum applications were registered in the country in 2015 — more than all the other EU countries combined. It is expected to receive 8,00,000 asylum applications this year.

Getting refugee integration right

All this means two things. First, the manner in which the Merkel administration addresses the refugee situation will impact how the issue plays out politically at the European level. German politicians and bureaucrats privately expressed fears about the refugee influx toppling the European project, and that seems to be one big reason why Germany is keen to get refugee integration right. For instance, the recent move by Hungary, Croatia, and Austria to tighten border controls to check the flow of refugees has threatened to set the clock back on freedom of movement within the Schengen zone — something neither the German economy nor the EU can afford at this point.

Second, in Europe, Germany has the best track record on the security front. There have been Islamist terror attacks in Madrid, London, Paris, and, most recently, in Brussels, but none on German soil. This impressive record is linked to Germany’s relative success in integration of migrant minorities — as compared with, say, Belgium, which has recently been dubbed “a top exporter of jihadists to Syria”.

This does not mean that Germany’s immigrant population of 16 million (one-fifth of the total population of 80 million) is properly integrated. The Turks, who comprise the largest immigrant group, numbering 1.5 million, score consistently below ethnic Germans on most socio-economic indicators, including education and income levels. But on the positive side, the German government seems to be aware of this, and is trying to make amends.

The inflow of refugees is not a new problem for Germany. What is new, perhaps, is the volume of the recent arrivals, and the under-preparedness of the country’s political class towards the inevitable.

Walking a tightrope

Now, in the spring of 2016, the heady days of ‘Wilkommenskultur’ (culture of welcoming) seem a distant memory. The anti-refugee party AfD has made an electoral comeback. Stuttgart and Berlin have witnessed competing demonstrations by both xenophobic and pro-refugee protestors. With Germany getting polarised between the two camps, Ms. Merkel is under attack from both sides — for doing too much for the refugees, and for not doing enough.

But the astute politician that she is, the German Chancellor has tried to cater to both. The deal being brokered with Turkey is a strong signal to the angry right — and the worried centre — that the days of Wilkommenskultur are over. At the same time, the new draft integration bill is a bid to assure the pro-refugee constituency that she is committed to refugee welfare and that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.

Germany’s refugee integration process rests on three pillars: one, weeding out economic migrants from those fleeing persecution, and sending the former back home; two, ensuring refugees learn the German language and ‘German values’; and three, ensuring those granted asylum/residence in Germany possess the skills necessary to be integrated into the labour market — this is the logic behind the compulsory attendance of job training courses.

Apart from these measures, German municipal authorities have aimed to disperse refugee housing and shelters across neighbourhoods so as to prevent the formation of ghettoes. But they have had to contend with resistance and even law suits from citizens opposed to construction of refugee shelters in their neighbourhood. Also, there is a cultural fear, fuelled by the right, of a creeping Islamic take over of Europe that is particularly pronounced in eastern Germany.

Other challenges have emerged from the social matrix of the refugees themselves — for instance, sexual violence against women and minors in refugee shelters. That Germany doesn’t have the manpower to process the volume of paperwork of asylum-seekers also means that refugee youth are forced to remain in camps for several months, just waiting. This is a recipe for frustration that could be tapped by radical elements.

Amid all this, a steady source of optimism and energy has been the 60 per cent or so of ordinary Germans who are still committed to the official values that Europe claims to stand for: human rights and democracy. It is they who turn up on the streets to counter every anti-refugee rally by PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Occident)), or AfD with a pro-refugee one; serve as volunteers at refugee shelters; and hold the German state to its constitutional mandate, which requires it to treat every asylum-seeker with dignity.

At any rate, the German economy desperately needs immigrants to counter an ageing demographic. This practical consideration could even trump humanitarian concerns as the deciding factor driving integration policy, for there really is no other way to address the looming labour shortage facing Germany. Germany needs its immigrants to be doing much more than making doner kebabs — it needs them in its banks, its government offices, universities, and IT companies.

Given that many of these factors are common to the rest of EU as well, it won’t be surprising if Germany leads by example, and perhaps prevails upon other EU nations to accept their quota of refugees. To be sure, that’s an ideal scenario. But given the German aptitude for persistence and pragmatism, it is not an impossible one.

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