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Migrants in Germany

January 18, 2019

A “river of migrants” moved to Western Europe and especially Germany in Fall 2015. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Afghanis, and Iraqis left Turkey’s western coast by inflatable boat for nearby Greek islands, and traveled north through Greece, Serbia, Hungary before arriving in Austria, Germany, and Sweden. The EU’s Dublin Regulation required migrants to apply for asylum in Greece, the first safe country they reached, but the bankrupt Greek government allowed migrants to pass through.

After Hungary erected fences on its borders with Serbia and threatened to detain asylum seekers who wanted to continue to Austria and Germany, German Chancellor Angela Merkel in August 2015 announced that Syrians who passed through safe countries such as Greece and Hungary en route to Germany could apply for asylum in Germany. Merkel said “wir schaffen das,” meaning that Germany would succeed in integrating Syrian refugees. Time magazine called Merkel the Chancellor of the Free World and named her Person of the Year for 2015.

Merkel’s announcement opened the floodgates, and over a million migrants set out for Germany, Sweden, and other countries, with a record 12,000 arriving in Munich September 12, 2015. Most Germans welcomed the newcomers, volunteering at shelters that housed them and sometimes opening their homes to them. However, there were also arson attacks on housing meant for asylum seekers.

After terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 and attacks on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve in 2015 that included some new migrant arrivals, EU leaders took steps to stop the influx. In March 2106, the EU agreed to provide E6 billion to improve conditions for migrants in Turkey so they would not try to move to Greece. The Turkish government discouraged illegal exits to Greek islands and accepted the return of migrants who reached Greek islands without proper documents.

At home, the German government sped up the process of determining whether foreigners need asylum in Germany, and whether those who needed protection would be deemed full refugees and allowed to unify their families in Germany or receive only a temporary protected status that permits the migrant to stay but does not lead to immediate family unification. About half of the 2015-16 asylum seekers were recognized as refugees, and most other applicants received temporary protections that allow them to live and work in Germany.

Many of the asylum seekers were young men under 30 who had not completed secondary school. Germany is grappling with the challenge of helping newcomers to find jobs. Frank-Jurgen Weise, then head of Germany's employment agency, said in 2016 that the migrants "are not the work force that the German economy needs," and predicted that 10 percent might be able to find regular jobs within a year and half within five years.

Available data make it hard to assess the labor market integration of the 2015-16 wave of asylum seekers. Three fourths of the 15 to 64 year old asylum seekers in Germany in 2018 were from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria. Of those who arrived after 2014, eight percent were employed at the end of 2015 and 28 percent were employed in mid-2018. Smaller shares, six and 23 percent, were employed in jobs for which employers and workers contribute payroll taxes for social insurance.

The gap between total employment and employment in jobs covered by social insurance reflects the fact that some of those considered employed are in paid internships and other forms of on-the-job training.

Asylum applications in Germany peaked at 745,500 in 2016.

The share of asylum seekers who entered Germany after 2014 and were employed in mid-2018 was 28 percent. Blue line is all employed, yellow is employed in jobs covered by payroll taxes.