How are refugees in Germany doing five years after ‘Wir schaffen das’?

It’s a phrase that Angela Merkel will haunt throughout her career: “Wir schaffen das”, we can do that. Merkel said it on 31 August 2015, the culmination of what we now know as ‘the refugee crisis’. A total of 1.2 million asylum seekers came to Germany in 2015 and 2016. Now – five years later – the question is: did Germany actually do it?

A good indicator to gauge integration is work. Research by the Institute for Labour Market and Vocational Research (IAB) shows that almost half of the refugees who came to Germany around 2015 are employed. In this area, integration is going better than what was expected on the basis of previous studies on the integration of refugees.

The figures were even better at the beginning of this year. “Without the corona it would have been more than half,” says Herbert Brรผcker of the IAB. Because asylum seekers often have temporary jobs or are in apprenticeships, and also work a lot in the hospitality industry, there have been disproportionately many redundancies in their group.

Hope for the future

Fifty percent of those in work means that there are also a lot of unemployed people. In June this year, 460 thousand refugees were registered as unemployed. Over fourteen percent of all people receiving social security benefits in Germany are asylum seekers. Female asylum seekers in particular do not work much, according to data from the IAB only 29 percent of them have a job.

Many applications go wrong, because the applicant’s German is not yet good enough. Especially in the beginning there were long waiting times for language courses. Also, the level of education of many people is not high enough to keep up with the courses.

In 2019, barely half of the participants of the compulsory language course reached the desired B1 level. There is hope for the future. Der Spiegel surveyed the percentage of young refugees who spoke predominantly German with their friends. Among 17-year-olds, this is 70 percent, while 12-year-olds are already at 90 percent.

Success of the AfD

Politically, Merkel’s ‘Wir schaffen das’ and subsequent welcoming policy has divided the country. Whereas in the beginning the Germans were massively clapping at the train stations in Munich to welcome refugees, the mass assaults during the New Year’s Eve in Cologne were a turning point. More and more people were worried about the large number of asylum seekers coming to Germany. Eventually, 120 perpetrators were identified, including a number of asylum seekers, but also many (illegal) migrants who had been in Germany for some time.

There is no doubt that the right-wing populist party Alternative fรผr Deutschland (AfD) has benefited from these concerns. At the beginning of summer 2015, the party – which until then has mainly been Eurosceptic – fluctuates around four percent in the polls. In the following months, the party will change leadership and make the refugee issue almost the only item on the agenda. Their critical attitude catches on.

With 12.6 percent they will become the largest opposition party in the 2017 elections. They are especially popular in the east of Germany. With 27.5 percent, the party will not be the largest in Saxony’s federal state elections. Meanwhile, the AfD is no longer often about refugees, but mainly about coronavirus measures. The party has become an integral part of the German political landscape.

In April a film appeared about the refugee crisis, a kind of Wir-schaffen-das The Movie. Correspondent Wouter Zwart spoke to the author of the book on which the film is based and the actress who plays Merkel

What’s really not going well? There is dissatisfaction about, among other things, not deporting asylum seekers. At the moment there are approximately 200,000 people living in Germany whose asylum applications have been rejected, but who are not being deported. The reasons for this vary: illness, pregnancy, missing papers or the country of origin that refuses to take them back.

In recent years, it has happened several times that these ‘tolerated asylum seekers’ were involved in serious crimes, such as recently a man who deliberately hit people on the Berlin highway.

The integration of this group of people is also difficult. Many of them have been in this situation for years and will remain in Germany for a long time, but their status as ‘tolerated asylum seekers’ means they are only allowed to travel and work to a limited extent.

Not out loud

Whereas in 2015, on some days a day, 6,000 asylum seekers will cross the border between Austria and Bavaria, the numbers are certainly not that high anymore. Mainly due to the closure of the Balkan route and the deal made with Turkey, the number of migrants coming to Germany is decreasing significantly. Last year 142 thousand people applied for asylum in Germany. This number will not increase significantly in 2020 either.

In the meantime, there is growing criticism of the Turkey deal and the conditions in which refugees are trapped, for example in the Greek camp Moria on Lesbos. You won’t hear Merkel say out loud that Germany did it. What she has emphatically said several times is: “A situation like this in the summer of 2015 may and will never happen again