Germany Reaping Benefits of Seizing Refugee Opportunity

September 08, 2020

When, five years ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel said “Wir schaffen das” (We’ll manage this), she encapsulated her approach to handling the refugee influx into Germany. She believed in Germany as a “strong country” and she also believed in the newcomers. Refugees fondly nicknamed her “Mama Merkel.” Half a decade on, one has to wonder how well Germany and its European neighbors — as well as the refugees themselves, many of whom were fleeing war-torn Syria — have fared.

For a few weeks in September 2015, Europe’s conscience was pricked after three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on a beach in Turkey. Celebrities and others called for countries to open their doors to Syrian refugees. Merkel was even named Time magazine’s Person of the Year as Germany took in a million refugees. This generous mood did not last long, as compassion fatigue quickly set in.

The media and many politicians in Europe have tended to present the refugee issue as a crisis, one to be surmounted, and not an opportunity. It is a sort of a “wish they were not here approach,” which was soon reinforced by “not too many, thank you very much.” Terror attacks in Europe also shifted public opinion, even though the Syrian refugees from 2015 were not responsible.

Contrary to what the naysayers predicted, Germany enjoyed its lowest crime rate for 18 years in 2019. All the fears that the refugees were extremists ready to wreak havoc in Europe also did not materialize, even though Daesh did try to exploit the migration routes. The flip side of the coin is that violence often emanated from the far right and refugees faced deep-seated racism, often being scapegoated for everything wrong with society, from unemployment to any rise in crime. In 2016, there were an average of nearly 10 attacks on refugees in Germany a day, although this thankfully dropped by a third the following year.

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Few leaders other than Angela Merkel — save perhaps Justin Trudeau in Canada — saw an opportunity. Germany’s ageing workforce needed an injection of youth; although the same could be said for most European countries. The Syrian refugees tended to be well off and university educated. Embarking on the hazardous journey out of Syria, through Turkey, maybe across the Aegean Sea and up through the Balkans into Central Europe required considerable funds. The poorer and less physically able refugees were left behind in camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, where of course the vast majority continue to eke out a form of existence. It says something when the entirety of Europe considers 1 million refugees a crisis, yet Lebanon — a country of 6 million — is expected to host the same number on its own. 

Those who really saw the opportunity and for the most part seized it were the refugees themselves. This is the untold story. Many chose Europe for the opportunities and rights that the continent offered. Contrary to the thumbnail sketch of migrants as lazy and exploitative, most are determined to rebuild their shattered lives. It is striking, when meeting with refugees, how much importance they attach to the rights that so many Europeans take for granted. Many are aghast at how complacent Europeans are about the threats to democracy and freedom of speech currently seen on the continent. They know where this could end.

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As for the accusation that refugees do not feel loyal to their new home, research shows that 80 percent of refugee children show a strong sense of belonging to their German schools. And refugee pupils time and time again achieve outstanding results with their schoolwork. For those bothered to look, so many powerful stories of achievement and positive integration exist. Many set up businesses. One Syrian in Germany, Kheder Hussain Al-Arej, registered 16 patents in the fields of clean energy and agriculture. Nassim Al-Khalil, originally a vet from Aleppo, arrived in Germany in 2016 and invented a smart mattress that helps people with backache.

The culinary sector is another prime area of success. Razan Al-Sous, who fled Syria with her family in 2014, founded Yorkshire Dama Cheese, which produces halloumi. She won a World Cheese Award gold prize in 2016. Malakeh Jazmati from Damascus set up a major catering business in Berlin, having honed her skills at a refugee shelter in the German capital. Mohammed Ghnaimi set up a bakery in Cork, Ireland, having fled Syria with nothing at all.

In Germany, about 10,000 refugees who arrived in 2015 have earned places at university, having mastered the language and gone through integration courses. More than half of the refugees who arrived in Germany between 2015 and 2019 now have jobs and pay tax, showing that they are contributing to the economy.

Barriers still exist. The top one is clearly language, something Syrian refugees in France were at pains to emphasize to me, especially when applying for a job. Many work hard, watching endless TV and internet videos in an effort to improve their language skills. Racism and anti-immigrant attitudes are appalling, but many refugees also report how welcoming their host communities have been. Considering all the challenges and the traumas many have suffered, it is remarkable how so many have picked themselves up off the ground.

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Germany has benefited and Merkel’s popularity has rocketed, in part at the expense of far-right parties such as Alternative for Germany. It may be some time before we can definitively determine the success of Merkel’s policy; we must wait until the balance sheet is clear and the debate can be based on fact, not fear.

Many refugees have prospered, others have found it tough. While it is far from paradise and returning to Syria safely is a distant dream, it is a long way from hell. They deserve our respect. Despite the odds, they are managing.

Wriiten By Chris Doyle


Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. (Twitter: @Doylech). He is also a contributing columinist writter for the outstanding middle east regional newspaper known as ArabNews.