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Letter from Berlin: The Challenges of Successful Refugee Integration     Print Email

markusziener2015Europe is struggling with a refugee crisis of epic proportions. Whether the various efforts to stem the tide will bring about a significant drop in the number of immigrants is yet unknown. But what already is clear: Germany, which has taken the brunt of the immigrants in Europe, has a Herculean task. A successful integration of the refugees may even decide over the political stablity of the largest country in Europe's center.

At recent elections on a regional level the newly founded xenophobic party “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) garnered so many votes that they were able to make the leap into all three regional parliaments that were at stake. In the East German state of Saxony-Anhalt the right-wing AfD collected almost a quarter of the votes. Support for the AfD is an expression of the uneasiness many Germans show when they think about the way the German society may change due to the many immigrants. In order to stop that tectonic political shift, integration has to work. Otherwise the AfD will become even more powerful.

Many German communities are already suffering under the weight of the immigrants. Some 1.1 million refugees came into Germany in 2015. Even if a substantial number will not be allowed to stay and sent back home (which is in doubt) the integration task is huge. In addition, many of the asylum seekers already in Germany want to bring their relatives. Therefore, the number of immigrants will very likely multiply.

The key element for integration is learning the (somewhat complicated) German language. Some estimates put the number of teachers needed at 20,000. But where will they come from? In a society that for decades was experiencing a decline of its population, becoming a teacher was not considered a particularly safe bet. Now all of a sudden it is teachers Germany needs. At the same time, establishing a fast track for training and promoting inexperienced or retired teachers encounters bureaucratic hurdles. Efforts to increase the salary for teachers of integration courses so far have fallen flat.

At one of the many Berlin language centers one recent Friday morning, two teachers were sitting in a room doing interviews with refugees. They have fifteen minutes for each applicant. The refugees outside the room are waiting to be called in. During that time the teachers have to find out which course level is appropriate. Many refugees, illiterate in any language, have be sent to what is called an "alphabetization“ course. Another group has oral knowledge but is missing writing skills. And then there are few who know English or German well. This is specifically true for refugees from Syria who have often enjoyed a rather good education. "Some of the refugees do not even show up for the appointment", one of the teachers, who does not want her name published, says. "Others come here with a very demanding manner. The are convinced that they are entitled to immediately get what they want."

After the traumatic experiences the refugees have gone through, learning a foreign language turns out to be much more difficult. During the language classes emotions may flare-- and teachers need to know how to handle. In addition, for those who have lived for years under the conditions of a civil war or in refugee camps, it is hard to relate to the concept of learning: To concentrate and focus, to understand and implement. Time is required - very often much more time than the administrators of the language courses anticipate.

Among the refugees, one group causes the most concern: the unaccompanied youth. Their number is estimated at roughly 67,000 - and they are almost all male. These young immigrants are between 14 and 18 years old, not accompanied by parents or relatives, and have risked everything to make it to Germany. They have the clear-cut mission to either pave the way for other members of the family to follow suit or at least to quickly earn money and send their earnings back home. Johannes Fischer, head of a regional youth office in Rosenheim, Bavaria, in an interview, recently said of this group: "Initially we had been somewhat euphoric." Euphoric because those young refugees are motivated and willing to learn. A couple of months later he was disillusioned. "Today we know: Even many of the best ones do not succeed."

Why? Many of the immigrants coming from Somalia, Eritrea or Afghanistan are uncompletely uneducated. Therefore, only a handful can cope with the challenges of integration. Will this group help overcome Germany's demographic problems? Fischer's answer is unambiguous: "No, not this generation".

All of this is happening with the backdrop of the fact that Germany should be well aware of the trouble a lack of language knowledge can cause. Of the more than three million Turks living in Germany since the 1970’s, at least 20 per cent do not have sufficient language skills. A possible future scenario is this: Immigrants stay within their communities, do not mix much with Germans and build a ghetto-like subculture. A subculture which - in the worst case - can become the perfect breeding ground for radicalism as one can observe in the Muslim dominated quarter Molenbeek in Brussels

Hoping to avoid the above, the German government is spending billions of Euros to finance integration efforts. According to the German Ministry of Finance, integration efforts in 2016 will cost roughly 10 billion euros.

After arriving in Germany, every asylum seeker undergoes the same procedure. He or she applies for asylum, the application is examined and it is decided whether the applicant will receive asylum status or not. If accepted, persons granted asylum and those granted refugee status receive a temporary residence permit and are given the same status as Germans within the social insurance system. Those immigrants are entitled to social welfare, child benefits, integration allowances and language courses among other things. If an application is turned down, the refugee can object and ask for a review of the decision. If again unsuccessful, the refugee must leave Germany.

During the time leading to a decision in the asylum process, refugees get housing, food, clothing and a monthly allowance of 143 Euros.

Eligibility for language instruction is dependent on multiple factors. It makes a major difference whether an immigrant is from Syria or, say, Kosovo. Because Syria is considered unsafe, Syrians do not face repatriation - no matter their status in the asylum process. For migrants from Kosovo, Albania, Serbia and many other countries, the situation is different. Those refugees also get welcome perks but they do not automatically qualify for state funded language courses, work permits or better housing.

Will those not accepted for asylum status be sent back? So far, the number of returned refugees is low. Official figures are difficult to obtain but probably did not exceed 25,000 in 2015. To increase that figure, politicians are asking to add more names to the list of countries considered safe. Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, for instance, are slated to be labeled safe. Now here comes the catch: Even if those countries are determined safe, the respective governments may be unwilling to take their own people back.

Although the German government has started to exert pressure on those governments by threatening to cut development aid – until now the results of these actions have not proven to be very effective. So what to do with immigrants that are not entitled to stay in Germany but cannot be returned? Refugees from the Maghreb countries are causing additional concerns since their cultural background vary so much from European norms that integration is considered especially difficult.

Much hope now rests on the German job machine to do most of the integration work. Having a job is seen as the best integration tool. As long as the economy runs smoothly, a large number of the refugees can probably find a job. Critics, however, claim that unskilled immigrants are not what the German labor market is looking for. Clemens Fuest, president of the well-known Ifo-Institute for economic research in Munich, is constantly sending out warning signals. "We should not live under the illusion that we can turn the refugees into skilled employees any time soon." And he has another warning: "Let's not water down our worldwide acknowledged education system."

Markus Ziener, Professor of Journalism in Berlin and former Washington and Moscow Correspondent for German Business Daily Handelsblatt.