The Refugee Crisis Germany's Welcoming Culture

In Conversation with Victoria Rietig
In Conversation with Victoria Rietig | Photo:

Wilfried Eckstein, director at the Goethe-Institut Washington, speaks with Victoria Rietig, Policy Analyst at Migration Policy Institute. [Video of the interview at the end of the article.]

Ms. Rietig, you just returned from spending some time in Berlin. You were able to personally witness the breathtaking stream of refugees arriving in Germany. What is your perception?

First of all, thank you for the invitation. I was in Berlin in August and part of September 2015. That was of course an exciting time, because it was when the German government increased its estimate of the number of asylum seekers from 400,000 to 800,000. Interestingly, I personally noticed two trends. On the one hand, the topic of refugees was huge in the media, which meant that wherever you went, regardless in which restaurant you sat, either you were talking about the topic yourself or overhead people at a neighboring table discussing it. It’s in all the media, and also of course all over social media. On the other hand, I had the feeling that it was possible to go about everyday life in Berlin and walk through the city without necessarily noticing the issue. Although the topic was very present in the media, it was possible to close your eyes and go about your normal day-to-day activities. You saw it if you wanted to see it or if you searched for it, as it was in my case.

The media in the United States is full of praise for Germany’s asylum policy and its citizens’ practical support and warmth. On the other hand, it is known that regular arson attacks and violence against asylum seekers occurs. How do you assess Germany’s so-called Willkommenskultur, or welcoming culture, at the moment?

We read everywhere about Germany’s Willkommenskultur [welcoming culture], about how it is strong in Germany and shouldn’t be abused. And that’s definitely true. But I think there’s a deeper point which we shouldn’t forget. Namely, that there are two narratives in Germany right now. On the one hand, there is the narrative of openness, of the Willkommenskultur. That is the narrative of teddy bears at the Munich railway station and the welcoming chants, which are of course organized by hundreds of small organizations and aid agencies that have been established. And then there is the other narrative, the one of the closed and xenophobic Germany, that is supported by, for example, a report which was released a while ago by the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution which shows that the attacks on asylum seeker shelters have increased. In 2014, there were less than 200, whereas in the first six months of 2015, there were more than 200, a huge increase. And I have the feeling that the media present it as if the Willkommenskultur actually represents Germany as a whole and the culture of rejection is just a little part, a splinter group. But I think that when we take a look at the people who drive these narratives, we see that in both cases they are groups which aren’t representative of Germany. Why do I say that? There is a new study, for example, which was published not long ago by the Humboldt University in Berlin and Oxford University. They took a look at the people who provide aid to refugees in Germany. Who are those volunteers who are so engaged? Although it wasn’t a representative study, and the number of persons questioned was small and not random, it showed trends. And one thing we realized or which this study showed was that people who are actively engaged with refugees in Germany are primarily women who are well-educated, most of whom are university graduates. They are financially well-off, and often are first or second generation migrants themselves. This means that although this group is German, it isn’t representative of Germany as a whole. The situation is similar with the other extreme. For example, who is in the group that supported Pegida? There you can see that, although it included all age groups, the fans of Pegida on Facebook – it started out as a Facebook group – were primarily men who were relatively young and geographically situated around Dresden and in Saxony. That is to say, this situation is also not representative for German society as a whole. That’s why I believe we shouldn’t assume that the Willkommenskultur is the real Germany and the culture of rejection and fear is just a small part which we simply have to neutralize. Instead, I think, in both cases the groups that drive the narratives are relatively small. The majority of the German population is between these groups and fluctuates between them.

To ensure that refugees and asylum seekers gain a foothold in the new country, they need to and want to find work quickly; the children need to go to school and young people should be in apprenticeship training. What is awaiting them?

In one sentence we could say: What awaits the asylum seekers is the long way to integration. And what does that mean? Integration means learning a language and often integrating into the job market. And I believe in both areas there is a long - very long - way, probably longer than most refugees are yet aware. But I have to say that Germany introduced a lot of policies which support both of those areas very well. So language acquisition, for example, has been the center point of integration in Germany since the 2005 immigration law. A lot of money is being put into this, and people have begun to realize that asylum seekers can use the time while their case is being adjudicated, while their application is being considered, for active language acquisition, so there are more and more opportunities for this. So that is good, I think. In the area of the job market, it is a little bit more difficult. There are more and different kinds of obstacles which have to be overcome: first of all, the legal obstacles, the permission to work. Then there is the obstacle: Will my skills and my education be recognized? Then there is an obstacle in terms of the attitudes of employers: Do they want to hire refugees? In this area, I think Germany has made a lot of progress. In the area of legal preconditions, a law was enacted in winter 2014 which makes it easier for asylum seekers whose applications are being considered to start working after three months instead of nine months as it was before. That’s an improvement. Then in the area of recognition of qualifications, Germany has been laying a good groundwork since 2012 with the so-called recognition law, orAnerkennungsgesetz, which has created strong structures so that it is easier for foreigners of all kinds – whether immigrants or refugees - and people who graduate from foreign universities to have their credentials recognized. And now there is a new project designed especially for refugees by the Ministry of Education which recognizes the special situation of refugees because they often have no certificates with them. They understandably didn’t take all their credentials when they fled. In such a case, there is the possibility of taking a test, for example, and being recognized by a professional association which can certify, Yes, this person has the skills to work here. A lot of money is being invested into this. Many people have spent a lot of time thinking about how to resolve this issue. And now we are slowly seeing that this change is bearing fruit, I think. And to the last issue: The employers’ way of thinking has changed a lot, I believe. We can see that, for example, in a proposal that was published a few months ago by the DIHK, the Deutsche Industrie- und Handelskammer [German Chamber of Industry and Commerce]. They proposed: as an employer, we want to hire more refugees, but we can only do that if we know that our investment will pay off. That means if I know that I can employ them in the end, once they have graduated. These are all positive signs. We have to be careful not to overrate them. There’s still a long way. And it will be a long way which will be a lot more rocky for some than for others, but in general we can say that Germany really has been making and continues to make promising adjustments to its system. 

Manfred Schmidt, the President of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, recently resigned and the post has been filled by Frank-Jürgen Weise, president of the Federal Employment Agency. What do you think of this development?

For a lot of observers, it was a huge surprise. Of course there has been criticism of the Federal Office of Migration and Refugees for a long time now, about how they have handled the crisis. One can argue whether the criticism was justified. What was interesting about this process was that it revealed the strategy of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, which is that the Employment Agency, which Weise also heads, will be more closely intertwined with the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. In concrete terms this means, for example, that they are thinking about the establishment of an IT system to connect the two agencies, and also take the data of the Federal Police so that refugees who have to register at the Federal Office of Migration and Refugees don’t have to register again at the employment agency some months later. There is a great statement that goes to the heart of this: Today’s refugees are the clients of tomorrow’s job agencies. Choosing Weise reflects a change of thinking, away from viewing refugees as only needy to seeing them as people who also possess qualifications and skills which are needed in Germany and have to be supported. 

It appears that Eastern Europe’s willingness to receive refugees is lower than in Western and Northern Europe. How do you explain this?

The readiness to receive refugees depends on a lot of different factors. Basically we can say that what definitely plays a role is the economic situation of a country, the population of a country, the size of a country, its capacity to absorb refugees, the history of the country - which of course in Germany’s case is a big contributing factor - and the country’s experiences with integration. Is integration recognized as a success or failure? So there are a lot of different factors which play a role, and we can’t say that any one factor is decisive. What you said, that there is a division between European countries, that’s true. I think the division isn’t exactly East versus West. You are completely correct that there a lot of eastern European countries which have shown less willingness to receive refugees in the last few years, and which have pursued more aggressive, isolationist policies. One of them is Hungary under Orbán, and there is also Slovenia. Although I have to add that Slovenia has fewer citizens than Berlin. Slovenia has 2 million citizens. This creates a different perception of the ability to receive refugees. It’s the same with the Czech Republic. But this isn’t just an Eastern European phenomenon. We also see that in Western Europe, for example in the UK. The UK has definitely shown less willingness to receive refugees. We can look at some numbers. For example, in 2009, 12% of all asylum seekers in the European Union applied for asylum in the UK. That was the same share as in Germany. Between then and 2014, the share to the UK fell sharply, to 5%, while that to Germany has increased immensely, up to 32%. So a third of all the asylum seekers in Europe in the last year applied to Germany. There is a huge variation from country to country, which depends on all those different factors. And I think, especially because there are so many factors influencing each country’s willingness to receive refugees, that it is so important that at this week’s summit of the European Union they are discussing the possibility of a distribution quota inside Europe, which also expresses European solidarity. And if a distribution quota can’t be agreed upon, then at least compensation payments should be considered. And this is being discussed today at the European Union Interior Ministers’ Meeting, and tomorrow at the meeting of the heads of government. 

What is the biggest challenge for the German federal government in the next months (in terms of the refugees)?

My boss always says: I forgot my crystal ball at home. Maybe I should say that. But I believe we can look at this on three levels. First, there is the international level. There is a big challenge for the international community to recognize that this isn’t just a European problem. It is a global challenge which requires global answers and the engagement of other countries outside of Europe. On a European level, as we just discussed, I think the biggest challenge is to reach a bigger consensus than we’ve managed so far. For instance, 160,000 refugees are to be distributed inside of Europe. Once a quota is determined, that will be a big step in the direction of consensus. This won’t solve everything, but it will be a big step because this is such a big challenge. And on the third level, there’s Germany, the national level, where there’s so much that could be said, that’s the challenge… But I think if I had to pick one, then it would be that Germany should manage to find a more balanced debate about the issue of migration and asylum. At the moment, I have the feeling that it’s a lot about extremes. Either someone says that we have to accept many, many more refugees, and as soon as someone else says we have to deport, that person’s labeled as right wing. Or the opposite. If someone says we have to make exceptions, then that person is labeled as left wing. I think what we need is rhetoric, especially from the parties, which is more balanced and which makes clear that working migration and asylum systems always include integration, a welcoming culture, and openness as well as deportation, border controls and dealing with the concerns of the population. That’s what Germany should aim for in the long-term.

Thank you so much for this great talk.

Thank you


Victoria Rietig
is a Policy Analyst at Migration Policy Institute, where she works for the Regional Migration Study Group and the Transatlantic Council on Migration. She is also a Nonresident Fellow with Migration Policy Institute Europe.