Five years on: How well did Germany handle the refugee crisis?
"Wir schaffen das (We can do this)" – That's what Angela Merkel famously said five years ago as she tried to get Germany on board with accepting refugees. But how well did the country manage the crisis?
More than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015 from countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea, sparking a crisis as nations dealt with the influx in different ways.
But Germany stood out for its action. August 31st is the fifth anniversary of Merkel’s statement that was to shape the country and her chancellorship: "We can do this," she said.
Merkel allowed people fleeing war to enter Germany, even though EU law stipulates that asylum seekers must be registered in the first safe EU country they enter.
Just a few days later on September 4th, Germany and Austria started to take in refugees who were stuck in Hungary, with volunteers holding welcoming signs, bouquets of flowers and giving out sweets to arrivals at Munich's Hauptbahnhof (main station).
The photos of these moments captured Germany's "Willkommenskultur" (welcome culture), and the country became the most desirable destination for asylum seekers in Europe.
But the open door policy has not been plain sailing. Just a few weeks later, Germany began to strengthen border controls with Austria as small towns in Germany struggled to deal with the number of people.
In the following weeks and months, the refugee crisis hit Germany with full force – authorities reported a total of 1.2 million asylum seekers in 2015 and 2016.
Many commentators believe Germany has achieved an amazing amount during five years, with high numbers of refugees now in jobs, education and settling into life here.
But the crisis has left scars.The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has gained a huge amount of support over the last five years, particularly in eastern regions, as many people have lost confidence in the government and Merkel.
"What remains is a division of society into those who consider the 2015 path to be fundamentally wrong and those who defend it despite all the criticism," the interior ministry at the time,Thomas de Maizière, told Handelsblatt.
Integration thanks to jobs
Fleeing unstable conditions and integrating into Germany has been a success story for many, such as Ahmad Alsermani, a 21-year-old Syrian, who arrived in the country during the crisis. He has been working for a Berlin removal company for about two years.
Alsermani told Handelsblatt how he came to Germany in 2016 with his parents and six younger siblings from a village in the province of Idlib.
Via the Balkan route, like so many others at that time: by rubber dinghy from Turkey to Greece, then on to Germany, sometimes by train, mostly on foot. The precarious journey ended in a Berlin refugee home. There he was taught German for six months and then he began to work.
Optimists saw in the refugees who came to Germany in 2015/16 the skilled workers of tomorrow. With a lack of people to fill jobs, many industries in Germany have been desperate for workers.
So what do the number say?
"By the end of 2020, slightly less than half of those who moved in in 2015 will be in work,” said Herbert Brücker, researcher at the Institute for Employment Research (IAB)
Apprentice baker Ghebru Aregay, who was a refugee, with master baker Marcus Staib in Ulm on September 16th 2015.
If it wasn’t for the coronavirus pandemic “we would have reached the 50 percent mark”, he added.
However, the Federal Employment Agency (BA) stats also show how far the road still lies ahead: in July, almost 460,000 refugees were looking for jobs. Of the nearly four million Hartz IV (unemployment) recipients capable of working, about one in seven came as asylum seekers.
Of those who have already found jobs, 44 percent are working in lower positions such as assistants and trainees.
Women in particular have a lot of catching up to do, according to IAB data. Only 29 percent of women refugees have found a job so far.
"Despite the corona crisis, we want and have to keep up with integration courses and educational measures, especially for the women who have fled," said BA Board Member Daniel Terzenbach.
The initial optimism of prominent business leaders at the height of the refugee influx was also due to the fact that young people in particular were coming. According to DIHK President Eric Schweitzer, more than 50,000 of them are now in training – almost twice as many as two years ago.
However, the coronavirus crisis now threatens to slow down integration. For most companies, new hires are currently "not an option", said Schweitzer. Many refugees also work in the hospitality industry, logistics or as temporary workers – sectors that are particularly affected.
What about the costs?
Handling the refugee crisis in Germany hasn't been as expensive as authorities feared. The Kiel Institute for the World Economy estimated that refugee costs in 2015 would be €55 billion per year. The IfW economists based their calculation on the assumption that one million asylum seekers would come to Germany every year.
Things turned out differently and the number of refugees coming to Germany fell.
So costs turned out to be lower than initially expected by experts and government officials. The special 'refugee reserve' in the federal budget remained untouched.
Finance Minister Olaf Scholz finally turned the reserve, which had recently grown to €48 billion, into a general reserve that can also be tapped into for other purposes.
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The fact that expenditure remained controllable was mainly due to the positive economic situation and the high tax revenues, say business experts.
But the sums are considerable. Since 2016, the total refugee costs for the federal government have amounted to €87.3 billion. Added to this are the expenses of the federal states, which are responsible for the care of people. Their expected costs for the years 2018 to 2025 is a total of €50.7 billion.
Part of this is reimbursed by the federal government. But the burden sharing between states and the federal government is a constant source of dispute.
Lower Saxony's interior minister Boris Pistorius of the Social Democrats, has slammed the federal government for cutting integration costs due to declining refugee numbers: integration does cost money, "but no integration costs much more money", he said.
Fears over crime
Germany is becoming safer. The number of criminal offences is going down, statistics show. But the everyday perception of many Germans doesn't reflect this fact.
The murder of teenager Susanna F. from Mainz by an Iraqi asylum seeker, and the Berlin Christmas market attack by a failed asylum seeker from Tunisia, are just two of the cases that have stirred up debate and fear. The country may be safer than it has been in decades. But it does not feel that way to some.
"The gap between the subjective feeling of security and the objective security situation is not a new phenomenon," said Lower Saxony’s interior minister Pistorius.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel poses for a selfie with a refugee in Berlin on September 9th 2015. Photo: DPA
These crimes have resulted in opponents of Germany's refugee policy, including the AfD, protesting on the streets, firing up more anti-immigrant sentiments.
But doesn't data show that refugees/asylum seekers actually commit more crimes than Germans in relation to the proportion of the population? Yes. However, it must be noted that the group disproportionately represented among refugees is the one that is particularly prone to criminal offences in general: young men between 16 and 30.
Meanwhile, deportations have also been a touchy subject, particularly when someone who should have left Germany commits a violent crime, like in the case of the Susanna F. murder.
There are about 200,000 people in Germany who are obligated to leave the country.
But the truth is that in the vast majority of cases there are good reasons why deportation is not carried out. Some of those affected are ill or pregnant, others are in training.
The need for action is undisputed, but there are no simple solutions.
If you take the number of refugees as a yardstick, Germany and the EU has made considerable progress since the 2015 crisis.
According to Eurostat, some 600,000 people sought asylum in the 27 EU states in 2019, 142,500 of them in Germany. For this year it is becoming apparent that the numbers will continue to fall. So is everything under control?
Free Democrats interior policy expert Konstantin Kuhle said it's not that simple. "The current stability is fragile," he warned. Adding to this are the unsuitable conditions in refugee camps, such as those on the Greek islands, he added.
"When I look at the situation on Lesbos, I have to say: no, we haven't succeeded."
It's becoming even more clear that Europe needs to agree a solution among all countries and share the burden in the coming years. But that's easier said than done.