Germany has become an immigration country without ever having a genuine public debate about the issue.
On one hand, it is encouraging that hospitality has prevailed over xenophobia in the most recent wave of immigration. But politicians still have a hard time accepting that Germany ultimately needs immigration laws.
What is dangerous about the current political discussion is that it does not distinguish between two groups of immigrants – those who come to Germany to find work and prosperity, and those fleeing civil war, persecution and hardship. Instead, political and economic elites are increasingly lumping the two groups together.
We see this almost daily on TV news: One program might feature young Africans busy in a training workshop, and then the president of a commercial association calling for giving asylum seekers easier access to the labor market. Politicians also use the economic utilization of asylum seekers as an argument.
This is where the economy’s wish to combat a future lack of qualified workers dovetails with politicians’ ambition to maintain a favorable climate for accepting refugees.
But this well-meant line of reasoning is no substitute for an open, fact-based discussion about a new immigration policy.
Arguments about the economic benefit of refugees are detrimental to those fleeing countries hit by civil war.
Let’s look at the facts. In 2014, 1.15 million foreign nationals immigrated to Germany and 472,000 emigrated, according to the Central Register of Foreign Nationals. That’s a net immigration of 677,000 – the highest total ever – and a 30 percent increase over 2013.
Of those immigrants, 55 percent came from 27 other European Union states. About 11 percent came from outside the E.U. for studies or training. The largest groups are Chinese, Indians and U.S. citizens. The same applies for qualified workers obtaining residence permits for work or for those coming to Germany with E.U. Blue Cards to take jobs.
The big increase in immigration, however, is due to two other groups: people from other E.U. states, especially from eastern and southern Europe, and the growing number of asylum-seeking refugees.
In 2014, their numbers increased by 60 percent to 203,000. In the first half of this year alone, the number of asylum applications increased by 132 percent, to 179,000. This is due in part to the increasing number of civil war refugees from Syria and also from Iran, Afghanistan and Eritrea.
But the number of applicants from the western Balkan region – Kosovo, Albania and Serbia – has also increased sharply. People from these countries are, generally speaking, not being persecuted. They try, often in vain, to use the asylum application system to be allowed to live and work here.
A sound immigration policy must make clear distinctions between the different groups of immigrants.
Arguments about the economic benefit of refugees are detrimental to those fleeing countries hit by civil war. They should be accepted because they need protection – regardless of whether they will work in the foreseeable future or receive social benefits. Anyone who makes an issue of their economic benefit will only provoke a discussion in the next recession about whether we can afford refugees who don’t work.
As far as asylum seekers from the western Balkans are concerned, that is probably a temporary problem. If these states become E.U. members, the problem will take care of itself. They can be integrated into the labor market, as has been the case with immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria since the beginning of 2014. And their rate of unemployment is only 9.9 percent.
Working migrants from outside the European Union is an immigration issue best regulated at the E.U. level. The E.U.’s migration agenda, which was introduced in May, is a beginning.
But Germany should not just wait – it should decide its own immigration law. That would also make it possible to set out clear criteria: People who are needed in the labor market can come.
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