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Kamil Frymark  29 października 2020

Germany has succeeded in dealing with mass immigration

Kamil Frymark  29 października 2020
przeczytanie zajmie 13 min
Germany has succeeded in dealing with mass immigration Markus Spiske / Unsplash

The last cumulative influx of migrants to Germany after 2015 left behind deep social divisions, which will affect not only the next parliamentary elections in 2021 but also the debate on the future of Germany. The rise in extremist tendencies and the great distrust of sections of society towards accepting new migrants will be a point of reference for politicians, regardless of their party affiliation. However, for some voters, accepting new refugees remains the highest humanitarian duty, while the relatively efficient accommodation solutions and the assistance provided to refugees who arrived 5 years ago proves that Germany can cope with even such a great challenge.

The right to asylum is guaranteed in German Basic Law in Article 16, and after 1948 it was introduced to be a way into West Germany for all politically persecuted people. This was one of the lessons learned from history.

Between 2003 and 2013, the number of people applying for asylum in Germany was on average 34,000 annually. In 2014, the number of applications increased drastically to 173,000, but at that time Berlin believed that the problem of migration was primarily a concern only for EU border states, mainly Italy and Greece.

However, as a result of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision not to close the border with Austria in September 2015 for another year, over 1.4 million people applied for asylum in Germany. Since the situation stabilised at the end of 2016, mostly as a consequence of the tightening of the Balkan migration route and the implementation of the EU-Turkey migration agreement, much fewer migrants came to Germany, although it was still an average of 15,000 people per month.

According to data from the Federal Statistical Office in Wiesbaden, as many as 21.2 million people living in Germany in 2019 did not have German citizenship at the time of their birth, or at least one of their parents did not have a German passport at that time. Approx. 65% of inhabitants with a migrant origin have their closest ancestors in one of the European countries, 22% are from Asia.

Social consequences are not just divisions

The migration crisis has reinforced the trend of dividing German society into two dominant groups, which is also observed in other countries. On the one hand, there are supporters of the widest possible opening of borders to refugees. The opposition is the defenders of the restrictive asylum policy, who saw the new arrivals primarily as social migrants, on the prowl for German prosperity. The dispute over interpretative superiority has become an element of the electoral landscape in Germany.

The political consequence of this dispute was the revival of Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party that was never meant to enter the German political system. In a short time, a feeble group of professors criticising German tributes to save Greece during the eurozone crisis, transformed into a major anti-immigrant force in the parliament and the largest opposition party in the Bundestag.

The AfD’s entry to parliament has not only led to a fragmentation of the political scene but has also intensified the tone of the public debate. This was very clearly visible in the election campaign before the 2019 local elections in the eastern federal states of Germany: Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia. Unlike in the west of the country, the AfD is becoming a mass party in these areas.

The increase in support for the AfD, especially in eastern Germany, results not only from resistance to an open migration policy. It is also influenced by the mechanism described by some sociologists as the so-called double shock of transformation. It resulted from a decrease in the sense of security among the inhabitants and the impression that the state had lost control as a result of the effects of the global economic crisis of 2008 and the migration crisis of 2015, which additionally overlapped with vivid memories of the results of the German reunification.

However, radicalisation is not only about the political debate but is also reflected in the rise in politically motivated crime. The report of the Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Criminal Office (BKA), published this May, shows that the number of politically motivated crimes in Germany in 2019 increased by 14.2% y/y – from approx. 36,000 up to 41,000. Aggression against politicians and state officials has been intensifying since at least 2016. According to the testimonies of the perpetrators and the previous BKA report from March this year, Crime in the Context of Immigration, this was influenced by the migration crisis and the involvement of local authorities responsible for providing care to refugees. It is worth noting, however, that politically motivated crime was already present in a very radical form, especially in the early 1990s.

Despite the increase in political extremism, there is still a relatively high acceptance for aiding refugees and admitting asylum seekers into German society. This has recently become apparent in a German discussion in response to the fire in the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. The government of the Federal Republic of Germany decided to accept around 1,500 refugees and, at the same time, spoke out in favour of creating a coalition of European countries willing to take similar actions. The decision of the authorities was supported by the majority of Germans.

According to a public opinion poll for ARD television (Deutschlandtrend of 18 September this year), 87% of respondents support the admission of new refugees from the Greek islands, with 44% agreeing to it, provided that other EU countries also accept some asylum seekers. 10% of respondents were absolutely against accepting new refugees. Local government officials associated with the Seebrücke initiative have long been calling for immigrants to be admitted, and more than 170 cities have already submitted their offer of assistance to asylum seekers.

Migrants crucial for the economy

The last wave of migration to Germany hit a period of heated debate about the need for new workers in connection with Germany’s unfavourable demographic structure and the dynamic development of the German economy. This influenced the perception of migration movements by both the political class and a large part of the business sector as an opportunity for the German labour market.

According to reports by German foundations and the European Commission, in order to maintain the current development model and level of wealth, Germany will need from 140,000 to 260,000 skilled migrants annually over several decades. Thanks to Merkel, some of these people are already in Germany.

According to research published by the Labour Market Institute (IAB), more than half of the people who came to Germany from 2013 to 2016 are working or participating in qualification-raising courses. Meanwhile, there is a big difference between the employment of men (57%) and women (29%). In addition, migrants perform less complicated jobs much more often than Germans (44% compared to 13% of Germans), usually also working below their qualifications. Moreover, 23% of adult migrants from 2013–2016 entered school, apprenticeship or university.

If we take into account all people of non-German origin working in Germany, we get an interesting employment pyramid across various industries. 55% of all people in the cleaning sector are immigrants. They make up around one-third of employees caring for the elderly and sick. This ratio is 28% for all grocery retailers. In healthcare, 21% of employees have a migrant background, and among teachers only one in ten employees was not born in Germany. The lowest number of people with a non-German origin are employed in the police and judiciary – 7%.

The need for migrants on the German labour market is demonstrated by two government initiatives adopted in recent years. In 2018, a skilled worker recruitment strategy was approved. It consists of three elements: more effective use of the potential of German human resources, recruitment of labourers from EU countries and liberalisation of the labour market for people from outside the EU. In the third element, the strategy was transformed into laws facilitating economic migration for people without an EU passport. The laws entered into force in July 2019, but due to the pandemic, they did not lead to mass applications for a work permit in Germany.

Another example of the implementation of this strategy is the intention to extend the employment opportunities for people from the Western Balkans until the year 2023. Last year, 27,000 people from this region started work in Germany. According to IAB research, 54% of workers from the Western Balkans are employed as skilled workers, specialists or experts. According to the economic daily „Handelsblatt”, in certain industries (e.g. construction) some specialists come almost exclusively from the Western Balkans. Around 50,000 people from the region work in the entire sector.

The success of winning the majority of refugees for the German labour market is only one side of the coin. The tangible costs of Germany’s broadly understood migration policy are also visible. In total, EUR 87.3 billion has been spent on migration policy since 2016. In 2019 alone, a record amount of EUR 23.1 billion was spent from federal funds for this purpose.

The funds were allocated, for example, to the fight against the causes of migration (EUR 8.2 billion), social benefits (EUR 4.9 billion), integration courses (EUR 2.8 billion) and targeted subsidies (EUR 6.3 billion) from the federal budget for local governments and federal states, which are largely responsible for the direct executive aspect of refugee integration, including accommodation.

The expenditures were socially approved, mainly due to the prospect of maintaining Germany’s economic and political strength. Allocating them was more uncontroversial seeing how it coincided with the period of economic prosperity in Germany. The situation may be changed by the pandemic crisis, which will increase social tensions in Germany and limit the willingness to spend significant funds on migration policy.

EU negotiations under Berlin’s pressure

Limiting the inflow of migration to Germany was possible thanks to the agreement with Turkey and the sealing of the Balkan migration route. Despite its success, in the long run, Germany continues to define the limitation and control of migration processes from Africa to Europe as one of the greatest challenges in its policy. To this end, Africa has already become a priority in Germany’s development policy (over 1/3 of the budget of the federal ministry responsible for granting development aid (BMZ) flows in that direction).

From the German perspective, the apogee of the migration crisis in 2015–2016 showed that the long-term regulation of the influx of migrants and refugees to the EU is not possible without the involvement of other European countries.

The German government positively responded to the proposals presented by the European Commission on 23 September concerning the Pact on Migration and Asylum. This was indicated, for example, by the Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU). He emphasized that they contained some of Germany’s proposals, such as initial asylum proceedings and deportations directly at the EU borders.

Opposition to the accelerated asylum procedure at the EU’s borders announced in the EU migration pact has been reported by the SPD as inhumane for a long time, which may lead to disputes in the government coalition. All opposition parties have also criticised the EC’s proposal, albeit for various reasons. For the Greens and the Left, their implementation would be, as for the SPD, a manifestation of the lack of a humanitarian approach to migration. The FDP indicates that the EC’s plan does not take into account the demands of legal access to the labour market for migrants. The AfD, on the other hand, emphasizes that the proposal will attract new migrants, rather than discourage them from coming to the EU.

From the German perspective, apart from maintaining the EU’s cohesion during its presidency, it is particularly important to improve the system of organising return trips for illegal immigrants. In Germany, the capacity of the states responsible for deportation is declining. In 2016, 25,400 people were sent back, while in 2019 this indicator was only 22,100. Currently, there are 272,000 migrants in Germany who should leave the country.

The fundamental problem of the reforms postulated by Germany for a long time is the diversity and inconsistency of regulations not only in the entire EU, but above all at the level of the German federal states. Different standards and practices in individual federal states have a negative impact on the effectiveness of the German asylum system, and the introduction of the same regulations at the level of the entire federation arouses opposition by the states, which see this as depriving them of another exclusive competence.


One year before the parliamentary elections in Germany, the migration policy and the consequences of accepting refugees after 2015 continue to be decisive in the German debate. Despite the high costs of integration, the inclusion of the majority of refugees and migrants into the German labour market and educational system is a significant success of Chancellor Merkel’s decision in 2015. However, its consequences were the emergence of extreme attitudes in German society and the return of the debate on identity, and the Germans have been trying to avoid this discussion for a long time. The issue of immigration is not only an essential part of Chancellor Merkel’s political legacy but it also influences the election of the next CDU chairperson and possibly even Germany’s chancellor. The attitude to the migration crisis still defines the political dividing lines in the Federal Republic of Germany and nothing seems to indicate that this will change any time soon.

Polish version is available here.

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The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.