Behind the headlines, Merkel's refugee policy is working for Germany


Picture of Markus Heinrich
Markus Heinrich

Cementing a legacy as one of the country's great leaders

Markus Heinrich is a political analyst and international relations researcher who has written on a wide variety of topics relating to European and international security issues and EU policy

Refugees are often used as scapegoats, but the success stories of Germany’s refugees paint a very different picture.

Angela Merkel has come under fire from many directions for her so-called ’open door‘ refugee policy. But apart from the usual suspects – domestic and foreign right-wing politicians, groups and parties – criticism has come from moderates as well.

Merkel is by no means an infallible stateswoman. She doesn’t get it right all the time. But her decision to allow more than one million refugees into Germany when others refused to take them is up there with greatest humanitarian acts in history. So how is it possible that it has made her life so difficult? And will it cost her a fourth term as German chancellor?

Those who oppose her may argue that she should not have made that decision so unilaterally; that more than a million is too many; that the right thing to do is not always the right thing to do. Perhaps. But has the result been so catastrophic for Germany?

The pressures – economic and cultural – have been well documented. The success stories have been publicised, but not to the same degree. But these success stories are vital in forming public attitudes towards refugees.

Upon hearing of a country taking so many refugees, many people ask how they will be cared for, housed, fed, clothed and educated. And how much this will cost. But this question is often based on the assumption that these million refugees will be forever dependent on German taxpayers.

Merkel’s decision to allow more than one million refugees into Germany is up there with greatest humanitarian acts in history

Providing the refugees’ basic needs has indeed been a burden on the German taxpayer. But it is an investment in Germany’s future labour force. There are many highly-educated people among the refugees, bringing with them skills and experience that make them valuable human capital that can be readily absorbed by the German labour market.

To help bring this about, Germany has introduced legal measures requiring migrants to integrate into German society. These include the first-ever integration law, designed to make it easier for asylum-seekers to gain access to the German labour market. The German government has also promised to create 100,000 new working opportunities for asylum seekers.

According to a study by the Federal Employment Agency’s Institute for Employment Research, 50,000 refugees found work between September 2015 and September 2016. By September 2016, 30,000 were already earning enough to make them subject to social security contributions.

While these figures are still low, and statistics never tell the full story, they do show progress. The gloomy picture some like to paint is not accurate. With an ageing population and a marked labour shortage, Germany must do something if it wishes to remain Europe’s largest economy. This is not only a question of economics, but of geopolitics.

But it is often not big-picture statistics that shape public perceptions; rather the actions of individuals. There are many positive stories to tell.

Muhannad M., a Syrian refugee in the town of Minden, returned €150,000 that he found in a second-hand cupboard he had been given.

Yusra Mardini, a teenager who left Syria when her house was destroyed in the country’s civil war, swam for three hours in the Aegean Sea pushing a sinking dinghy to safety, saving the lives of nineteen people. Settling in Berlin, she swam for the Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Rio Games, winning the first heat of the women’s 100m butterfly. She is currently studying, working to change people’s perception of refugees and hopes to compete in Tokyo in 2020. Perhaps, one day, she will win a gold medal for Germany.

It is often not big-picture statistics that shape public perceptions but the actions of individuals

Taking in these refugees is a success in another sense too. Their gratitude to a country that helped them in their time of need will surely have a positive impact on how their friends and relatives in their home country view Germany and, by extension, the West. This comes at a time when positive bonds between the West and the Muslim world are more important than ever.

Of course the picture is not all rosy. Recent events have shown that Merkel’s policy also brings with it security risks and cultural challenges. Dismissing any anti-refugee argument as racism is not only over-simplistic but also a form of intolerance, as many people have legitimate concerns. Lessons of the past must be learned, integration given priority, and security services given the tools and resources they need.

Integrating Germany’s refugees will be challenging, it will cost money, and it will take a long time. In the shorter term, Merkel’s opponents will benefit from her refugee policy. But if the policy is properly managed, it is Germany that will benefit in the longer term.

And it is a policy that could cement Merkel’s legacy as one of Germany’s great leaders: one who looked ahead, beyond her own term of office – making her a rarity in the politics of today.

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