Opinion: In 2016 Germany woke up to the hard reality of the refugee influx

In 2015 hundreds of thousands of Germans gave their time, money and possessions to help people fleeing war. This year they were shaken by the dark side of the refugee influx, argues Jörg Luyken.

Opinion: In 2016 Germany woke up to the hard reality of the refugee influx
Photo: DPA

They called it the summer fairy tale.

As tens of thousands of refugees poured over the border every day in September 2015, Germany felt its most glorious moment of redemption in the eyes of the world since 1945.

At Munich's main train station, volunteers waited to help Syrian families who had fled the horrors of Aleppo. 

Merkel and her cabinet posed for selfies with refugees and the media joyously republished them.

No one likes being the bad guy. And Germany had spent most of the summer being just that, demanding that impoverished Greece start paying up its debts to the rest of the Eurozone.

Now Germany was there for the downtrodden while the rest of the world looked on apathetically.

But behind the headlines the public was always more dubious. Polling showed increased disquiet through the autumn, as refugee arrivals grew and grew.

The turn of the year was the day which flicked the switch on the public mood, though.

Sexual assaults in Cologne, Hamburg and other cities at New Year went unreported at first, as panicked state authorities did not know how to handle mounting evidence they were carried out by North African migrants.

But as news of the assaults emerged via social media this mishandling of the information only added to the scandal. The country had been reassured that asylum seekers, grateful for the protection, would be obedient to German law.

Now crimes were emerging on a scale that was completely unheard of in Germany, and state authorities and the media, seemed to be covering them up.

The government warned people not to cast blame on all refugees, while announcing tougher asylum laws that resulted in thousands of Syrians being split from their families for years.

As the months ticked by stories about sexual harassment and assault kept making headlines.

A report that 30 asylum seekers harassed two teenage girls in Kiel, was followed by an outdoor festival in Hesse, where women reported being encircled and groped by young “Asian looking” men.

In the last few weeks of the year asylum seekers were again repeatedly linked to violent sexual assault in news reports.

In Freiburg a young Afghan man was arrested on a rape-murder charge in November. Days later in Bochum an Iraqi man was arrested on suspicion of the rape and attempted rape of two Chinese students.

This month in Hamburg a Moroccan who should have already been deported was arrested on suspicion of raping a woman in a club toilet. In Meinigen, an Afghan asylum seeker was arrested for the rape of a 14-year-old girl.

In Berlin, the trial of a Pakistani asylum seeker started last week. He is accused of one count of rape and five counts of sexual assault.

The government's response has been to say that rape existed in Germany before refugees arrived. The German public responded by buying pepper spray, blank-shooting guns and anti-rape alarms.

The other thread weaving its way through the news narrative in 2016 was terrorism, or its potential. And again this started on the very first day of the year.

Before news of sexual assaults in Cologne broke, the big story of January 1st was that police had shut down New Year celebrations in central Munich on security fears. But whether there was a substantial threat has never been resolved.

By February 4th the first terror arrests had been made. Police swooped on a 35-year-old Algerian living in a refugee centre in North Rhine-Westphalia. Prosecutors described him as the ringleader of a plot to attack Berlin.

More arrests took place. More worrying claims of brutal attack plots.

Random acts of violence by psychologically disturbed individuals immediately led to rumours swirling on social media of terrorist motives.

Then on July 18th an Afghan teenager entered a regional train in Bavaria wielding an axe and began attacking passengers. He brutalized a family of Chinese holidaymakers before making off into the night and dying in police gunfire.

Police soon found an Isis flag in his home, and the terror group followed up by publishing a video of the young asylum seeker threatening unbelievers.

Six days later in nearby Ansbach a Syrian man attempted to enter a music festival carrying a rucksack packed with explosives.

But, at the sight of security guards he lost his nerve and blew it up next to a cafe. He was the only fatality, but a newspaper report suggested he used the same highly explosive material as that used by bombers in Brussels a few months earlier.

Again Isis released a video which linked him to the attack. The Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that an Isis operative had guided him throughout his failed terror attempt.

August and September were quiet. But it wouldn't last. October saw the first full scale manhunt of the year, as a Syrian refugee suspected of planning an Isis bomb plot escaped the clutches of police.

He was eventually grabbed by some countrymen, but was able to commit suicide in jail, to the outrage of Germany's justice officials.

Isis had managed to save their most deadly terrorist for last, though.

The attack on a Berlin Christmas market on December 19th, almost certainly carried out by a radicalized Tunisian man who arrived in Germany as a asylum seeker in 2015, killed 12 people and injured dozens more.

After four tense days with the attacker on the run and armed, he was finally killed in Italy.

Merkel's response has been to say that terrorism isn't a new phenomenon. Her government has told people to carry on with their every day lives, otherwise the terrorists will win.

The response of the German public has been to start avoiding big crowds and to start voting for the far-right Alternative for Germany.

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What Germany’s plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

To tackle its ever-widening skills gap, Germany wants to encourage talent from aboard to move to the country by introducing a points-based immigration system. Here's what foreigners need to know about the changes.

What Germany's plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

What’s a points-based system?

A points-based system is an immigration model where foreigners have to score above a certain threshold of points in order to obtain a residence or work permit in a country. The exact scoring system is set by the government, but can include factors like language skills, family connections to the country, specific qualifications or work-related skills, or the amount of money in your bank account. 

Points-based systems can also be known as “merit-based systems”, because there tends to be a pretty big emphasis on what you can offer a country in terms of education or skills. 

The model was first introduced in Canada way back in 1967 as the country tried to move past a system based on race and nationality to one that favoured language fluency, youth and educational or vocational background. A similar step was taken in Australia just a few years later in 1972 and, since Brexit, the UK has also introduced its own points-based model. 

How does this relate to Germany?

When the new ‘traffic-light’ coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) took office last December, the parties pledged to reform Germany’s immigration system and bring a fresh cohort of workers into the country.

“In addition to the existing immigration law, we will establish a second pillar with the introduction of an opportunity card based on a points system to enable workers to gain controlled access to the German labour market in order to find a job,” the coalition agreement read.

This would apply to third-country nationals who don’t otherwise have the right to live and work in the country. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What Germany’s new government means for citizenship and naturalisation

German language course poster

A sign advertising German courses. Language skills can count towards points in a points-based system. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Bernd Wüstneck

FDP migration specialist Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch, who is working on these reforms, says the policy is driven by Germany’s desperate need for workers. 

“The Liberal Party (FDP) is convinced that we need more labour migration,” she told The Local. “We do have a lot of options for coming into Germany as a labour migrant – but it’s a bit complicated – and if you want to come to Germany to search for a job and you don’t come from an EU country, it’s much more difficult.”

That’s why the coalition is aiming to offer a second route for people who don’t have job lined up in Germany, but who otherwise have the skills or talent to find one. 

What will this look like?

The plans for the points-based system are still at an early stage, so the exact criteria haven’t been worked out yet.

What’s clear at this stage, however, is that the points-based option would run parallel to the current model, which generally permits people with a concrete job offer in a skilled profession to come and work in the country. 

“It’s about (people having) a good opportunity to come to Germany when they have either a job offer in sight or a direct job offer,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) said in response to parliamentary question in January. 

“Next to that, we want to achieve a further possibility for talent – for qualified men and women whose skills we need in Germany, who still don’t have a work contract but, if given access, could use that opportunity. That’s what we’re talking about with this Canadian points-based system. It shouldn’t replace our current system, but rather improve it.”

In short, that means that people with a job lined up won’t be disadvantaged – but there will be alternative routes for those without them. It also won’t affect the EU blue card scheme

READ ALSO: ‘I finally feel at home’: How Germany’s planned changes to citizenship laws affect foreigners

Will people need formal qualifications? 

Probably not – though it will obviously depend on the sector someone works in and their level of experience in their chosen field.

“I personally am convinced that you shouldn’t place too much emphasis on formal qualifications, because it’s very complicated getting your formal qualifications recognised in Germany,” said Jurisch.

“A medical doctor, for example, is one where you can’t say, ‘Okay, you’ve got some experience so we don’t need to see your papers.’ But there are a lot of other jobs which do not have this restriction and they are not formalised but rather based on practical experience.”

Carpenter wood

A carpenter sands down a block of wood in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

The issue of recognising qualifications is also a problem that the traffic-light coalition has set their sights on solving during their time in office.

At the moment, the process of getting qualifications officially recognised in Germany is done on a state-by-state basis, so somebody who gets their degree recognised in Brandenburg may have to redo the entire process again in Bavaria, for instance.

According to Jurisch, there have already been conversations between the Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education on the issue, and Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) has also promised to take steps to solve it.

But, she said, it’s complicated: “I’ve started to dive into this issue, and the more I dive into it, the more complicated it becomes – so there are no silver bullets.” 

How many workers are needed – and where? 

In order to plug its labour shortages, Germany needs around 400,000 new workers every year, according to the Federal Employment Agency. In 2020, Germany’s net migration was just 200,000 and 150,000 people of working age entered retirement – which means the country is currently falling well short of its targets. 

“We have shortages everywhere,” Jurisch said. “We need 400,000 new workers every year, and these people won’t be born in Germany – or if they are, they won’t grow up for another 20 years.

“We haven’t managed to get more women into the labour market, or they work part time, so I don’t think this will make a big difference, and I don’t think we will close the gap by training people.”

In this sense, it seems that immigration is the only option for filling major staff shortages in almost every profession. 

“Whoever I talk to, be it nurses, nannies, IT workers, industrial workers, teachers, lawyers – everywhere we have a shortage,” Jurisch said.

staff shortages Germany

A sign outside a restaurant informs customers of a closure due to staff shortages. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

When will the points-based system be introduced?

Unlike with the plans to reform citizenship, which the SDP-led Interior Ministry wants to achieve by the end of the year, there’s no firm timeline in place for the points-based system.

However, the FDP is fighting for the policy to be given higher priority and would like to introduce the new visa system before the next federal election in 2025. 

“I hope it will be done in this legislative period,” said Jurisch. “I’m pushing to get it a little bit higher up on the agenda.” 

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: ‘Changing German citizenship laws is a priority’