Second Wave

New Reports Stir Refugee Debate

refugee family dortmund november 2015 dpa bernd thissen
A refugee family arriving in Dortmund in northern Germany in November 2015. A report on Wednesday said Germany's refugee population could surge as asylum seekers send for their families back home.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Reports released Wednesday estimating a 45 percent increase in refugees in Germany, and increasing criminal activity are likely to stir the political debate over migration.

  • Facts


    • The German Migration Office is estimating that another 500,000 refugees will arrive through legal channels in Germany over the coming months as family members of recognized asylum seekers, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
    • Refugees committed 70,000 criminal acts in Germany in the first three months of this year, according to the German Federal Criminal Office, which implies that refugees are three times more likely to break the law as the general population.
    • Refugee experts and advocates downplayed the criminal statistics report, saying that refugees are more likely to be cited for “crimes” for leaving designated residence areas or having false identify papers.
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The debate over refugees was stirred again on Wednesday in Germany with the release of twin reports that tied a possible rise in criminal activity to the new arrivals, and predicted a surge in their numbers as many used existing laws to bring in family members to Germany.

According to a report in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, the German Office for Migration estimates that up to an additional 500,000 family members of Syrian refugees will be legally bought into the country over the coming months. The newspaper said it obtained a copy of an estimate prepared based on 2015 figures by the government agency, which has struggled to cope with the influx.

The migration office, in a statement, declined to comment to Handelsblatt Global Edition or confirm the statistics reported by the newspaper.

Germany admitted an estimated 1.1 million refugees last year, most of them from the war-torn regions of Syria and Iraq, but also from northern Africa, Afghanistan and other crisis-ridden parts of the Middle East.

The rapid and sudden influx of refugees arriving through what is known as the Balkan route has roiled the political debate in Germany, and led to the rise of a right-wing party, the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which is polling at 12 percent to 15 percent nationally.

The size of a second wave of refugees’ family members has been actively debated in Germany, with some experts predicting that Germany’s generous asylum laws would permit each officially recognized refugee to bring in three to four additional family members, which would bulge the country’s refugee population to more than 4 million, or nearly 5 percent of the population.

But the migration office report cited by the Munich-based newspaper said the government agency expected each legal asylum seeker to bring on average only one family member, not three or four. Of the 1.1 million people admitted as refugees last year, only an estimated 40 percent will obtain legal asylum status and have the right to bring in additional family members.

The rapid and sudden influx of refugees arriving through what is known as the Balkan route has roiled the political debate in Germany, and led to the rise of a right-wing party, the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which is polling at 12 percent to 15 percent nationally.

Olaf Kleist, a researcher at the Institute for Migration and Intercultural Studies at the University of Osnabrück in northern Germany, said it was difficult to estimate accurately how many family members refugees will typically try to bring in after receiving asylum status in Germany. Many of the first wave of refugees who arrived last year were complete families, Mr. Kleist said, so it may be they bring in fewer family members than usual.

“I think it’s very difficult to estimate this kind of figure; one can only speculate,” said Mr. Kleist, who has been studying integration patterns for five years. “Perhaps the Migration Office has more data and a better profile of the refugees.”

The newspaper report, however, said the migration office still had a backlog of 460,000 asylum applications at the end of 2015.

The refugee issue has driven the political debate in Germany this year, and placed its popular chancellor, Angela Merkel, under increasing pressure from members of her own conservative-led coalition, who have accused her of allowing her humanitarian instincts to outweigh the practical costs and potential security threats by admitting so many people so quickly into Germany.

Those fears were stoked on New Year’s Eve when hundreds of German women were groped and robbed, and one was raped, in Cologne. Worries surfaced again last week after German and French police announced they had arrested four Syrian men who had arrived as refugees and were accused of plotting a terror attack in Düsseldorf.

Concerns about security were certain to rise after the German Federal Criminal Office, the Bundeskriminalamt, prepared the first nationwide report on crimes attributed to refugees. A copy of the report, seen by news agency Reuters, showed that refugees were responsible for 70,000 criminal acts in Germany in the first three months of this year, most burglaries, thefts and other property crimes.

The numbers, if confirmed, would suggest that the rate of criminal activity among refugees was more than three times the rate of the German population at large. The BKA did not make an immediate comment on the news report.

Experts were also reluctant to comment on the figures, saying there weren’t empirical studies showing that refugees were more or less likely to commit crimes than others.

“From experience, those who come from war-torn territories, such as Syria or Iraq, are so grateful to be in a safe place that they usually stay away from crime,” said Dietmar Kappe, a spokesman at the UNO Refugee Help organization in Cologne. “Other nations, such as the ones mentioned in the report, who come from a relatively safe country, tend to be involved in crime more often.”

“The biggest challenge now is to process asylum applications quickly and to help refugees to get a job or something to do,” Mr. Kappe said. “Problems start when people have nothing to do.”

Bernd Mesowic, the deputy chief executive of ProAsyl, an organization that lobbies on behalf of refugees, said the reports should calm the political debate in Germany, which has seen right-wing populists exploiting fears in a country that has seen significant immigration in the last 15 years, but largely in the absence of a formal government policy.

Mr. Mesowic, in an interview, said the estimate of 500,000 additional refugees, if confirmed, should ease concerns, given that some organizations were predicting a much higher second influx.

“One has to say that those figures by BAMF (German Migration Office) are a correction of the figures that have been floating around,” he said. “Originally, people expected three to four family members per refugee to come to Germany in the next months. Now we know that it is only one person per refugee.”

He also disputed the implication in the criminal statistics report that refugees were more likely to break the law than Germans. Many of the refugees, because of the emergency nature of their flight, used falsified documents or committed property crimes to feed their families.

“One has to put those statistics into proportion,” Mr. Mesowic said. “A high percentage is accused of forgery or possession of fake passports or property crimes. Those are crimes that are usually dropped once the status of the asylum seeker is accepted. “

Crammed into refugee detention centers, asylum seekers are more prone to come into conflict than those in the population at large.

“With these statistics, one should also take into consideration that people in refugee camps or other public agencies often have to stand in line for a long time, are crammed in small places, under intense conditions,” Mr. Mesowic said. “It is natural that fights erupt, or that people of different religions start provoking each other. This is how assault can happen. Everyone’s nerves are on edge.”

Mr. Kleist, the researcher at Osnabrück University, echoed the sentiment.

“Many of the crimes attributed to refugees would not be considered crimes for the general population,” he said, citing the new German legal requirement that limits a refugee’s residence permit to geographic regions of the country to spread out the new arrivals.


Kevin O’Brien is Editor-in-Chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition. Franziska Scheven is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To reach the authors: and

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