The decision to open Germany’s doors to more than 1 million refugees and asylum-seekers is arguably one of the boldest moves that Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was re-elected for a fourth term on Sunday, has made in her 12 years in office.
It has reshaped the demography of a country suffering from an aging population. It positioned Germany as Europe’s most humanitarian nation, especially at a time when anti-immigrant factions are becoming more and more mainstream across the continent.
Yet it has required the government to make investments in people that take years to pay off, experts say, carving out a new platform for the emboldened far-right in the meantime. It’s up to Merkel to make integration work in the years to come.
Why so many people sought asylum in Germany
A mass migration wave took place in 2015 and 2016 across Europe, but Germany was center stage. Refugees from the Middle East began traversing the Mediterranean Sea in droves, paying thousands of dollars to smugglers who would attempt to bring them from Turkey to Greece in cheap rubber dinghies. Thousands would land on Europe’s southern shores every day, and for a time would attempt to make their way westward until countries began to shut their borders.
More than 1 million headed for Germany, a country with some of Europe’s most favorable asylum laws.
Germany’s federal migration office, BAMF, wasn’t equipped to handle the load at first, Dr. Thomas Bauer, chairman of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration, which provides research-based and actionable policy advice on integration and migration, told HuffPost in an interview. “At the beginning it took a while, but they hired a lot of people, speeded up the procedures so that in principle the asylum process takes only 48 hours for most refugees.”
However, approximately half of those who have applied for asylum in Germany are still waiting for a decision, according to a Pew Research study released last week.
“There’s always a tradeoff in this process. Hence, some difficult cases still have to wait for a decision,” Bauer said. “And we should take this time in order to have a really secure process and make a legally correct decision.”
Mixed feelings on refugees in Germany
Merkel made the conscious decision to keep her country’s doors open throughout 2015 and 2016, even if it cost her politically. She put in place a welcome package system with financial assistance, she had more reception centers built and she spearheaded language and job training opportunities.
The country, she argued recently on a re-election campaign stop, has coped well with the results, though she did insist that such an influx wouldn’t happen again.
German public opinion on the refugee question has remained divided for the last few years. About 37 percent of Germans feel the country can tackle the migration issue, whereas about 32 percent are more skeptical, according to an Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) poll from May.
The primary concern is security, noted Bauer. Refugees were responsible for attacks in both Cologne and Berlin in the last couple of years, even though they represent a minuscule proportion of the total refugee population. Those who fall into the anti-refugee camp are moving further to the right, even though the scale of the problem is much smaller than in other European countries like France or the U.K.
This shift is perhaps most evident in the meteoric rise of the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, the extreme-right party that sees no place for refugees in Germany ― and once even suggested shooting at them from border posts.
The AfD was propelled into Germany’s parliament, called the Bundestag, in Sunday’s elections for the first time. It’s unlikely that any of their policy proposals will gain much traction ― Merkel is expected to form a coalition government that excludes them. But the fact remains that they now possess a certified, mainstream platform for spreading their ideas.
Bauer doesn’t think we can expect any major policy reforms courtesy of Merkel in the coming years, but the refugee issue will continue to be front and center in policymaking spheres – not only in Germany but throughout the world.
Some parties like the AfD but also the Bavarian CSU, he said, are advocating for a limit on the total number of refugees that can be let in annually. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union has stated its opposition to this proposal, choosing instead to focus on tackling the root causes of migration.
The path to integration
Political differences aside, those who have been granted asylum in Germany aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s now imperative to find ways to weave people into the German fabric of society as seamlessly as possible, without making them feel like they must relinquish their heritage and culture, Bauer said.
“I think it’s pretty clear to most of the observers that integration simply takes time,” he said. “Our experience in the past is that integration into the labor market takes about five years. First they have to learn German, then you have to train them for skills applicable to the German labor market and then they have to look for a job.”
So far, about 17 percent of refugees in the country are employed, official labor statistics show.
“In the past, we put people very quickly into jobs where they didn’t need to speak, and 40 years later people asked them — how come you still can’t speak German?” Aydan Özoğuz, the country’s immigration commissioner, told The Financial Times in June. “We don’t want to repeat that mistake.”
The next item to tackle, Bauer said, will be family reunification. Because of the size of the inflow, Germany stopped family reunification temporarily, even though international refugee charters, even though international refugee charters recommend that governments adopt one.
“From an integration perspective, the best kind of policy would be to allow family reunification because all our experience shows that if you’re worried about your family members that influences integration a lot,” he said.