Germany’s phony debate on refugee caps

refugee apprenticeships germany
Seeking opportunity. Source: DPA

A fight over whether to cap the annual intake of refugees has flared up again among Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives ahead of difficult coalition talks — and it risks distracting attention from the far more important task of integrating the 1.3 million that are already here.

A leading economist on Wednesday attacked demands voiced by Bavarian conservatives for an annual limit of 200,000 refugees, calling it a “phony debate” because the intake is already well below that, currently 124,000 so far this year.

The number of migrants reaching Germany had already fallen sharply to 280,000 last year from 890,000 in 2015, due to the closure of borders by countries along the so-called Balkan route and a deal with Turkey to stop illegal migration across the Aegean.

Lars Feld, an economic adviser to the German government and the author of the report on migration commissioned by the Malteser Hilfsdienst, a Catholic aid organization, urged authorities to accelerate the processing of asylum claims and make it easier for refugees to get qualifications and job training.

“I’ve got the impression that companies in Germany are waiting for decisive action in this regard,” said Mr. Feld, presenting the report Wednesday.

The Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, saw its support slump in Sunday’s election, with many of its voters switching to the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party. That led CSU leader Horst Seehofer to repeat his demand for an annual cap on refugees, reigniting a dispute with Ms. Merkel, who has steadfastly refused such a limit because she said it would run counter to Germany’s constitutionally-protected right to asylum.

They had shelved the disagreement ahead of the election. But Mr. Seehofer is under pressure to harden his stance. “There is an open flank on our right, and we have to close this flank with a clear position and clear limits,” he said after the election.

It could prove to be a major headache for Ms. Merkel, whose only option is to form a government in a coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats and environmentalist Greens. Both strictly oppose a refugee limit.

In a further sign of the CSU’s hard line, the party criticized plans announced by the EU Commission on Wednesday to resettle at least 50,000 refugees over the next two years, mainly from northern Africa, to battle human trafficking.

“Without progress by the EU in creating reception centers in North Africa and in reaching agreements with North African countries similar to the one with Turkey, a German involvement in the new EU resettlement measures is very difficult,” Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann told Handelsblatt.

We need really quick decisions on whether someone can stay.

Mr. Feld compiled a wealth of research and statistics on migration for his Malteser report in an attempt to counter the AfD’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. He said that while crime committed by immigrants was a problem, it was wrong to attribute it solely to the refugee influx since 2015.

The refugees didn’t magically solve Germany’s chronic lack of skilled labor or stabilize the creaking pension system. But they weren’t an excessive burden on the welfare state either, he said. Giving refugees a secure status in Germany and enabling them to find work as quickly as possible would lessen the likelihood of them drifting into crime or becoming a drain on the welfare system.

He pointed out the average processing time for asylum claims had increased again lately, to 10.8 months by the end of August, from 7.1 months in 2016 and 5.2 months in 2015.

germany refugee integration

The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, which registers refugees and processes their asylum applications, said the increased delay was due to tackling older, more difficult cases after speeding through straightforward ones. The office said people applying for asylum this year received a decision after two months on average.

Mr. Feld said Germany urgently needs to cut the red tape blocking entry into the labor market. Refugees applying to become paramedics, for example, were being rejected because they didn’t have the required police certificate of good conduct.

The head of personnel for luxury automaker Porsche, Andreas Haffner, said authorities need to introduce standardized tests for refugees to give prospective employers a proper idea of their skills and of the German equivalent of their school qualifications. “Companies can’t do that, it’s up to the migration office,” he told Handelsblatt.

In addition, authorities must reach faster decisions on asylum applications because the limbo of waiting is a major obstacle to recruitment, he said. “We need really quick decisions on whether someone can stay. And if someone does an apprenticeship they must be allowed to stay long term,” Mr. Haffner said. “Currently it’s just two years — that’s not enough. It’s not worth the effort for companies.”

For refugees who want to work at companies such as Porsche, Daimler or Bosch, “We have to make clear to them that there are many apprenticeship vacancies at smaller firms, especially in skilled crafts and trades.”

Porsche just wrapped up the second year of its a nine-month training program for refugees. “In the first year we had 13 participants. In the end we recruited seven, and two started an apprenticeship,” Mr. Haffner says. “That doesn’t sound like much, but we don’t lower our standards in comparison with other applicants.”

David Crossland adapted this article for Handelsblatt Global. Till Hoppe reports on politics for Handelsblatt, with a focus on defense, domestic policy and cyber issues. Frank Specht is at Handelsblatt’s Berlin bureau, where he focuses on the German labor market and trade unions. To contact the authors: and

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