Just over a year ago Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel made a decision that would change the country forever. Ms. Merkel allowed thousands of refugees that were stranded in Hungary to travel to Germany through Austria.
The masses had assembled in Hungary after traveling through the so-called Balkan route. In the first 10 months of 2015 about 700,000 people traveled across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece and then onwards via different paths through Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, or Romania. Most of them were fleeing wars, oppression or poverty in the Middle East, South Asia or Africa. By late August thousands of refugees were stuck in Hungary’s capital Budapest.
Ms. Merkel was well aware that by letting the stranded enter Germany, she was breaking European law. According to E.U. immigration regulations, refugees have to apply for asylum in the member state where they first entered European Union territory. When she made the decision to let them in, she meant it as a one-time humanitarian gesture. However, the decision had the effect of a breach in a dike.
Following Ms. Merkel’s announcement, groups of refugees the size of small city’s population crossed Germany’s borders on a daily basis. More than 1 million would come in only a few months. Public authorities were insufficiently prepared, long lines formed in front of migration authorities buildings, gyms nationwide were turned into refugee shelters.
Even though the stream of refugees has been reduced dramatically since the Balkan route was blocked and the E.U. made a deal with Turkey in March, Germany has not been the same since then. It is glaringly apparent that Chancellor Merkel underestimated the scope and complexity of the refugee problem. The once most powerful woman in the world is increasingly isolated in Europe and faces opposition within her own country.
The German public is unsettled, many have lost confidence in the state after the chaos that followed mass migration. The populist right has gained momentum. The Alternative for Germany is fueling fears of foreign infiltration and has shaken up the established party system. On Sunday the AfD pushed Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats into third place in her home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, following strong results in a number of other state elections. It now has seats in nine of the country’s 16 state parliaments and is on course to become the first right-wing party in decades to enter the federal parliament, or Bundestag, in the general election in fall 2017.
“The path to integration for many refugees is long and rocky.”
And what about the refugees that came to Germany? At the height of the refugee crisis last year, Ms. Merkel made her famous statement: “We can do it,” referring to the integration of refugees into German society. The question asked by so many people now is “Can we?”
One year ago, Handelsblatt interviewed dozens of refugees about their escape, their first experiences in Germany and their hopes for the future. Now, one year later, we spoke to many of them again and asked to what extent their expectations were met.
Of course, there is a kaleidoscope of people that came to Germany and no two refugees are the same. However, a lot of them share very similar experiences after coming to Germany.
Yahya Alous puts it like this: “The path to integration for many refugees is long and rocky.” The Syrian journalist escaped to Berlin a year ago. He is writing a book about the experiences of refugees in Germany and for his research he visits refugee hostels. There he meets a lot of people that do not have anything to do all day, but to wait for the processing of their application for asylum. “There are still a lot of refugees that are isolated,” Mr. Alous said.
Mr. Alous himself is living with his wife and two daughters in a house in Berlin. He can feel the attitude towards refugees change, he said. His fear is that refugees will isolate themselves even more, because they do not want to rock the boat they just boarded.
One refugee that does not want to be named wrote about his experience: “I feel physically and mentally burned out.” Waiting for the ruling on his asylum application, the six-bed dorm room he has to sleep in, the job as a burger flipper in a fast food restaurant – all this is hard on him.
It’s an experience that many refugees share. A study by the German employment agency’s research institute states that refugees find the procedure for granting the right of asylum is especially wearing.
The process takes months, in some cases several years. After the surge in refugee numbers last year, applications piled up at the offices of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.
Although the government has eased the rules for the employment of refugees without an official asylum status, people are still often stuck to the confines of their refugee accommodation.
“I just want a good life in Germany. I can't have this life in Afghanistan.”
But there are also encouraging stories. Like that of Samir Sediqi. The young Afghan just started his training as an architectural draftsman in Mainz, the state capital of Rhineland-Palatinate in western Germany.
Mr. Sediqi speaks fluent German, he has his own apartment, a German girlfriend, and is an active member of a local sports club. The 23 year old has been granted asylum for at least three years.
Mr. Sediqi’s integration was to a large extent made possible by the network he built through the soccer club. That is how he found his job and his apartment. “I could live without my team here in Mainz,” Mr. Sediqi said, “but not as well.”
“I wish everybody could just live were they want,” Mr. Sediqi added.
Shinar Moustafa is also thankful. The 30-year-old law student fled her home town in northern Syria two years ago while pregnant. After first travelling through Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos, she finally arrived in Germany, where she now lives in the northern city of Kiel.
“I will never forget the friendly and helpful people in Germany,” Ms. Moustafa said. She still barely speaks German. After her son Aland was born, she did not have the time to take a language course.
“My dream is to soon finish my law studies,” Ms. Moustafa said.
When Nematullah Jasor came to the Bavarian city of Passau at the German-Austrian border two and a half years ago, he did not have anything: no place to stay, no contacts, no money, and no German language skills whatsoever.
Now the 23-year-old Afghan is living in his own apartment and is an apprentice at one of Germany’s biggest suppliers for the car industry.
“I just want a good life in Germany,” Mr. Jasor said. “I can’t have this life in Afghanistan.” He is proud of his achievements and that he does not have to rely on state benefits anymore. His training is going well, only the technical technology makes exams tough for him.
It’s these examples that make Ms. Merkel’s “We can do it” a little bit more believable. But at the same time, many of the refugees Handelsblatt interviewed in 2015 could not be located one year later.
Despite all the criticism, Chancellor Merkel is still showing determination and sticking to her mantra that “we can do it.” She is convinced that wealthy and peaceful Europe can’t hide behind walls in times of global crisis and migration.
However, the success of Ms. Merkel’s refugee politics depends on two substantial elements. First, she must succeed in establishing a homogeneous European asylum policy.
Looking at the fierce resistance many member countries of the European Union have shown against refugee quotas, Ms. Merkel has her work cut out for herself with that task.
Second, the integration of hundreds of thousands of refugees into German society and the job market must be accomplished. At least in this challenge, there already have been many small successes.
Nicole Bastian heads Handelsblatt’s foreign desk, Jens Münchrath leads Handelsblatt’s coverage of economics and monetary policy, Steven Norton is a visiting Arthur Burns fellow, based in Berlin. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com