In August of 2015, while local news broadcasts were showing long lines of refugees making their way across Europe, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, tried to reassure an anxious public watching those pictures. “Wir schaffen das,” she said: “We can do this.”
In Europe’s wealthiest economy, the refugee crisis remains the defining political issue. Fewer people are arriving in Germany than in 2015 – mostly due to closed borders in the Balkans and an agreement with Turkey to provide regional aid. But may still are. Almost 187,000 came just last year.
And a sense of unease remains. Newspaper have been running hysterical headlines about two fights between refugees and young Germans in the city of Cottbus. The relatively peaceful city was a “war zone,” the pundits claimed. In Cottbus, a city with a long history of right-wing extremism, such perceptions made the Alternative for Germany, a populist party on the right. the second-most popular. Authorities thus have to worry not only about the logistics of integrating a refugee population of almost a tenth of the city’s population but also about local attitudes.
According to an Infratest dimap poll for Handelsblatt, only 12 percent of German citizens are confident that efforts to integrate refugees will succeed. Nearly a quarter say the country isn’t up to the task. More than 60 percent say it can be done, but only with an open and honest discussion about the problems involved.
There is plenty of evidence that Germany is still struggling to master the basics of integration. Below, we look at five key areas where Germany could do better.
About 95 percent of refugees arrive in Germany not able to speak German. The German government is spent about €1.2 billion ($1.49 billion) last year on language courses for immigrants, but only about half of those who took a German "Test for Immigrants" in the first half of 2017 – an exam that immigrants take if they want to qualify naturalization - passed the exam. About 37 percent did not pass but managed a lower level of German.
A report by the Federal Audit Office blamed declining class attendance on the poor quality of the courses and said that much of the money spent since the end of 2015 ultimately “amounted to nothing.”
The main problem here is that if a migrant cannot speak the language, it is obviously very difficult to get a job. That remains one of the core challenges to the stated objective of building up a German workforce with the refugee influx. “If a refugee hasn’t yet mastered our written and spoken language, and for example can’t read safety instructions on the job, then employment is difficult,” says the head of the Federal Employment Agency, Detlef Scheele.
Helping refugees find work is an obvious cornerstone of any successful integration policy, but the government’s official figures paint a distressing picture. Among recipients of long-term welfare benefits (including dependents), nearly one in six is from one of the eight countries of origin that most asylum seekers come from (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia and Nigeria). Of Germany’s nearly 1.4 million refugees, only 202,000 have jobs that make social security contributions. Of those receiving the long-term social welfare benefits in Germany, almost every sixth recipient is from one of t. So that is the statistic includes men, women and children.
For the companies interested in hiring refugees, there are additional hurdles, according to a survey late last year by the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry. It polled companies participating in its “Businesses Integrate Refugees” network and found that the language barrier, while problematic, wasn’t the top concern. Instead, complicated rules and procedures associated with residency and work permits, as well as the threat of deportation, were listed as the main obstacles to hiring.
For non-Germans, there is also a long and difficult process to get professional qualifications verified. The Federal Employment Agency has launched a pilot project that would help refugees who lack formal documentation of their professions, but it has been met with resistance from trade associations eager to maintain control over the certification process.
Bureaucratic hurdles have only exacerbated the underlying problems associated with integrating refugees in Germany. In deportation cases, authorities might have to wait on missing paperwork or cooperation from home countries. The best known of these cases was that of Tunisian asylum seeker, Anis Amri, who drove a truck into a Berlin Christmas market in 2016, killing 12 people.
“The police often have to pick up families for deportation who are well integrated here, while it’s difficult to get criminals out of the country,” said Oliver Malchow, head of the police officers’ union. “The priorities there have to change.”
Faced with young refugees in their classrooms, many German teachers have had to develop new methods. And, as Tobias Klaus of the Federal Association for Unaccompanied Refugee Minors, says: “We’ve made major progress in Germany over the past two years. But we can’t stop there.”
From 2015 through the first half of 2016, more than half a million people between the ages of 6 and 25 sought asylum in Germany. And of the 173,500 people who registered as asylum-seekers last year, an estimated one-quarter are between 18 and 25 years old.
As an example, in Bremen alone some 850 refugees, most of whom arrived in Germany just two years ago, are old enough to leave school – but many lack a diploma and don’t speak German well enough to apply for other training and education programs. A “forgotten generation” could result if the system fails to equip young refugees for life in Germany, according to education experts, who have urged states to keep these students in school for longer.
Lack of investment in Germany’s education system has only grown more critical over the past few years.
Those concerns have prompted the German Association of Towns and Municipalities to recommend that refugees who still need help with reading and writing should stay in school until the age of 25. Bavaria has already implemented similar rules that require young refugees and asylum-seekers without a diploma to attend school through to the age of 21, or even 25 in certain cases.
Lack of investment in Germany’s education system, a pressing issue even before the refugee crisis, has only grown more critical over the past few years. Thousands of additional teachers and social workers are needed. Another problem is the policy of having young refugees with vastly different educational backgrounds attend the same preliminary classes – say a child from Afghanistan that never went to school next to a grammar school student from Damascus. That keeps many migrant students from advancing at the proper level.
Meanwhile other children are losing months out of their education, after possibly months away from the classroom due to war or crisis. In seven German states, compulsory schooling only begins once a refugee family has been assigned to a certain community, a process which can also take months. Institutes of higher learning should also be doing more to accommodate refugees. According to one university association, just 1,140 refugees in the country started degree programs in the spring of 2017.
Germany’s health care system has struggled to care for refugees. In some instances, medical facilities located near refugee centers were caught off-guard by the number of new arrivals.
“At the time, it brought many a hospital to the limits of capacity,” said Georg Baum, CEO of the German Hospital Federation. Many patients also needed translators, something Mr. Baum said local authorities and health insurers were usually unwilling to pay for. He estimates the extra costs of this at about €100 million.
In a larger context, Mr. Baum said, the German health care system should view refugees as an opportunity. That includes recruiting asylum-seekers for jobs as nurses’ assistants, an effort that has expanded in recent months. In December, labor and social affairs ministers at the state level came out in favor of granting a two-year residence permit to refugees who complete the training.
This story was prepared by Handelsblatt staff: Lazar Backovic, Diana Fröhlich, Michael Scheppe, Frank Specht, Peter Thelan, Simone Wermelskirchen, Christian Wermke. It was adapted in English by Amanda Price for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]