As Syria collapsed into a civil war, Omar, who had a comfortable life as an insurance analyst in the Syrian town of Latakia, decided to leave.
He came to Germany. Europe’s biggest economy is now only second to the United States in the number of immigrants it welcomes. The United Kingdom had traditionally been one of the most popular targets for migrants, but the government responded to popular pressure to tighten controls on immigration. Germany is now the place to head for.
Omar, who declined to give his real name because he had entered Germany illegally, could have settled in Dubai – many Syrians go there to study and to work, and the country had made it easy for well-educated citizens to settle here, but he wanted to come to Europe. It was safer, more prosperous and he had a chance of using his qualifications: he holds a degree in finance.
“There is no doubt that the increasing number of immigrants since 2010 have highly contributed to Germany’s great economic growth”
In 2013, he applied for a work permit. He told authorities he had come straight from Syria when in fact he had, like so many citizens fleeing the violence, spent time first in other countries including Dubai and France.
Omar received his work permit and is now working at a Berlin start-up company. The asylum process was relatively speedy – it took only 4 months, but was not pleasant. He had to wait out the process in one of the country’s overcowded asylum centers, Eisenberg, situated in the sparsely populated eastern part of Germany with high unemployment rates. The center was unpopular with the local population, and inhabitants lived with curfews and mandatory bag checks. Some inhabitants were stuck in the system for years.
“I was really lucky, because I had a strong educational background and German friends who supported me,” he said.
Omar was determined to start working and paying taxes: a pre-requisite for acquiring permanent residency. He is one one of 1.2 million immigrants who came to Germany in 2013 and is one of the beneficiaries of moves by the German government to streamline and speed up immigration processes.
A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that Germany is now second to the United States in the number of immigrants it receives. In 2013, the country saw an increase of 72 percent of new immigrants, whilst in the United States the number fell by 2 percent.
Traditionally, Germany is widely perceived as rigid when it comes to immigration, closing its borders to new guests. But a recent Handelsblatt research report shows that Germany, whose aging population and low birthrates will lead to economic challenges in the near future, has opened its doors and welcomed an increasing number of newcomers.
“Immigration remains to be the best way to tackle our demographic challenges,” said Herbert Brücker of the German research institute for Germany’s labor agency.
According to Handelsblatt Research institute, current immigration is at its highest level in 20 years, and the country says there is a net inflow of people arriving in the country.
In the past five years, the number of immigrants arriving has risen sharply. In 2009, a total of 721,014 people came to Europe’s biggest economy, while this number almost doubled last year.
Mr. Brücker said that if Germany continues that pace of immigration, the country will have a younger demographic.
Many experts, including Professor Bert Rürup, who heads the Handelsblatt Research Institute, say the euro crisis in southern European states has also pushed up immigration to Germany. When unemployment levels plummeted in Spain and Portugal, many people were forced to look for work elsewhere.
His study shows that back in 2009, there were less people coming to Germany than leaving the country. In 2013, this number increased to 437,000 people, making Germany the second largest immigration hub after the United States, overtaking traditionally immigrant-friendly countries like the United Kingdoms.
A Deutsche Bank report points out that immigrants have made an important contribution to Germany’s current economic success. The average age of newcomers was 28 with 43 percent of them holding a higher education diploma.
“There is no doubt that the increasing number of immigrants since 2010 have highly contributed to Germany’s great economic growth,” Mr. Rürup said.
The question now is what happens when these immigrants leave. Southern Europeans may well decide to move home when their economies improve, and peace in Syria may also lure people away.
“I hope to keep working here and to get my permanent residency in three years,” Omar said, referring to the minimum required time of work in Germany, until immigrants are eligible permanent. “But as soon as the war will be over, I will go back home to Syria.”