20 Questions

Germany and the Refugees

refugees dpa
A scene in July at an intake center for refugees in Trier in western Germany. Source. dpa
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • The political debate about refugees is polarizing Germany, and what is often missing from the discussion is knowledge of the facts. With the help of experts, Handelsblatt is answering readers’ most pressing questions.
  • Facts


    According to the United Nations refugee agency, each day 42,500 people are forced to leave their home countries.

    At this year’s six-month mark, the number of asylum applications in Germany is more than double the number for the first half of 2014.

    Germany has less than six refugees per 1,000 inhabitants versus, for example Lebanon’s 232 refugees per 1,000.

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As a debate over refugees rages in Germany, Handelsblatt last week asked its German-speaking readers to send in questions that its journalists could research and answer. Experts provided twenty responses that appeared in the German newspaper over the weekend.


1. Why do people leave their home countries?

Mainly because of wars and civil strife. According to the United Nations refugee agency, each day 42,500 people are forced to leave their home countries. From almost 60 million refugees worldwide, almost 7 percent come from Syria alone, one of the world’s worst trouble spots. Other reasons for flight are persecution for political, religious and ethnic reasons, or hopelessness, as after the earthquake in Nepal.

2. Are economic refugees the most common, or are the asylum-seekers people who are suffering political or ethnic persecution?

People flee not only because of military conflicts and political persecution, according to António Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees. Poverty, hunger and scarcity of resources are increasingly forcing many people to leave their native countries. Mr. Guterrez says another factor today is climate change, which is triggering drought, floods and other natural catastrophes. However, the hope of riches and an awareness of the prosperity of others attracts refugees too. Of 179,000 asylum seekers in Germany during the first half of this year, 80,000 were citizens of Balkan countries motivated mainly by economic concerns. Nonetheless, in the first six months of 2015, German authorities — in accordance with the Geneva Convention on Refugees, the United Nations Anti-Torture Convention or the European Convention on Human Rights — offered protection to around 41,000 people who were being persecuted.

3. Where do the refugees come from?

German’s Interior Ministry gives these figures: About 179,000 asylum applications were submitted during the first six months of 2015. One in five applicants came from civil war-plagued Syria, followed by people from Kosovo (17 percent), Albania (13 percent) and Serbia (6 percent).Coming from the crisis countries of Afghanistan and Iraq were 5 percent respectively. This year’s six-month total of asylum applications is more than double the number for 2014’s first half.

4. Why are so many people coming to Germany from the Balkans, where there is neither war nor displacement?

At hearings conducted by the Office of Migration and Refugees, asylum seekers from the Balkans cited such reasons as the search for jobs, good health care and educational opportunities but also aid money. Many applicants expect a long waiting period during which they hope to pocket as much financial aid as possible, according to a report by the European Asylum Support Office. But that only works for individuals from countries that aren’t categorized as secure countries of origin.

5. What is stopping the German government from quickly declaring all the Balkan countries to be secure countries of origin? Why can’t refugees from eastern Europe be sent back home within a few days?

Germany’s federal government can’t decide that alone. A law is required for this purpose. Even citizens from secure countries of origin cannot simply be expelled. Every asylum seeker in Germany must be given the legal opportunity to demonstrate that he or she faces persecution at home. As a rule, however, asylum procedures for citizens from secure countries of origin are handled within a few days.


Asylum seekers-01 refugees map Europe


6. What makes it so difficult to declare a country to be a secure land of origin?

Article 16, Paragraph 3 of Germany’s Basic Law states that this designation can be assigned to countries in which it seems evident that no practice of either political persecution or inhuman or demeaning punishment or treatment exists. But first, the political conditions and degree of stability as well as the adherence to basic human rights must be examined according to an extensive catalogue of criteria. Only then can a country be declared to be secure through a law that Germany’s upper legislative chamber must ultimately approve.

7. Have Western military interventions contributed to the destabilization of some countries?

In many ways, yes. In Libya, for example, the military missions of an international coalition accelerated the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, but the military action did not lead to enduring stability. Today two mutually hostile governments have divided up the country, which has led to new waves of refugees. Each intervention leads to other consequences, so it isn’t possible to generalize. But an unstable country can’t control its coastline sufficiently, which is why an especially large number of boats carrying refugees head seaward from Libya for example. Western military interventions in the former Yugoslavia stopped the expulsion of entire ethnic populations, but didn’t remove ethnic tensions that provoked more people to flee. The German military continues to participate in NATO’s Kosovo Force peacekeeping mission, which has been in operation for 16 years, because of the tensions.

8. How much does a refugee cost the German taxpayer per day?

According to the law, each refugee is to receive a lump sum of €11.73 (or $13) per day; the apartment and heating is paid for on top of that. In Frankfurt, housing costs on average €24 per day. Düsseldorf pays €35 for a night at a hotel. European Homecare, the operator of a residence that takes in refugees, most recently charged €11 per bed and day, measured by its revenues. So depending on the sort of accommodation, a refugee can cost the taxpayer as much as €50 per day. There are also expenses for doctors, hospitals and medication in the case of health emergencies.

9. What does a four-member asylum-seeking family receive in Germany in comparison to a local family eligible for welfare benefits?

Asylum-seeking parents with two children between the ages of 6 and 14 receive €432 per month for their daily needs if they are housed in a reception facility. If not, the family can receive up to €1,120 a month for food, clothing and household goods. In addition, there are expenses for housing and heating. Under the county’s welfare system, a corresponding four-member German family receives €1,254 plus housing and heating. In Düsseldorf, for example, rents up to €869 excluding heating are considered to be acceptable.

10. How many refugees can Germany accept?

“There is no algorithm with which one could calculate the readiness of a country to receive refugees,” said Aydan Özoguz, the government’s commissioner for integration. The German constitution does not set a fundamental limit. Germany has less than six refugees per 1,000 inhabitants, Mr. Özoguz said. For context: Lebanon has 232 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants (in terms of Germany’s population, that would be 20 million people). Turkey has taken in two million Syrians; that’s about 21 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants. “The main burden is carried not by the rich, but by the poor countries,” Mr. Özoguz said.

anti asylum seeker
A banner advocating cross-border solidarity and rejecting racism outside a refugee camp. Source: action press


11. How many refugees can Europe absorb?

Many experts think that some individual countries, such as Greece, are already at the limits of their capacity. But there is still a lot of room to maneuver in Europe as a whole. Nevertheless, the readiness to take them in is dropping in many places, and the voices of right-wing populists are growing louder. In the end, this is a socio-political rather than a mathematical question.

12. What qualifications do asylum seekers and refugees have?

The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees does not gather that data. According to a disclosure of information, 90 percent of asylum-seekers have been to elementary school, 35 percent to middle school, and 16 percent to a secondary school. According to a survey of 5,000 migrants by the IAB and Socio-economic Panel, 16 percent of those who came as asylum seekers or refugees today have a university degree, 23 percent have mid-level vocational training, and 56 have no vocational training. The average qualifications of the refugees is less than those of Germans or other migrant groups, said IAB researcher Herbert Brücker. But they are on average still very young and have not been able to finish their school and vocational training. The potential for qualified workers is therefore greater than the numbers indicate, if the refugees receive support.

13. What else do surveys tell us about the refugees?

Studies about refugees reveal much about where they come from, but little about who they are and what motivates them. Fifty-four percent are under the age of 25, according to the Council of Experts of the German Foundations for Integration and Migration. In 2014, almost one-third of all asylum seekers were younger than 18. But the number of mothers with infants among the refugees is also five times as high as the national average in Germany.

14. How do the refugees stand ideologically? Would they change our political landscape if they were allowed to vote?

No. Their share of the population would be too small for that. Estimates are that in Germany there are currently about 350,000 refugees. And 44.2 million citizens voted in the most recent parliamentary elections. Even if all refugees went to the polls and were to vote for the same party, that would have had an effect of less than 0.8 percent in the voter participation of 2013.

 15. What do the refugees know about Germany?

So far there have not been any surveys on what the new arrivals know about this country. “We want to change that in the coming year,” said Herbert Brücker, a senior researcher on migration and integration at IAB, where a comprehensive survey is in the planning stages.

16. How many people are currently registered in German language courses?

In 2014, a total of 142,439 new participants were registered in language courses, and in 2013 there were 117,354 new participants, according to statistics from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Thirty-eight percent of them were taking classes at adult education centers

17. Do people in large German cities need to fear conditions such as those in France?

In France, on the one hand, there is successful integration, which has led to the growth of a new middle class from second-generation immigrants. Sociologists have determined that the share of people with roots in Maghreb and in Africa of doctors, lawyers and engineers has multiplied. On the other hand there are the dismal conditions in the suburbs. Urban development, including the new cities built in the 1960s and 1970s, which were knowingly built without good accessibility to the major cities, has created social time bombs in some cases. Germany, according to experts, still has time to learn from the mistakes and successes of France.

18. Would it be possible to pass a law, like in France, where food that cannot be sold has to be donated to organizations that feed refugees?

Eventually, yes, but according to the Agriculture Ministry the federal government does not want any mandates. Instead they say they are focusing on information, consulting, dialogue and research and the initiative “Too Good for the Trash Can.” Already many supermarkets are reportedly giving food that is still good away, but the ban on throwing away food raises logistical questions, such as dealing with expiry dates and even refrigeration.

19. Is there a danger of ghettos springing up?

City councils should attempt to cooperate more closely than before with housing providers, said Bernd Hallenberg, the director of research of the Federal Association for Housing and Urban Development. Because, he said, the housing providers often have the goal of having relatively homogeneous groups live together — and that is exactly what urban planners should avoid. In his view, they should also try to exercise their influence to ensure that streets do not come under the ownership of family clans, “because that is how parallel societies grow stronger.”

20. Are there already no-go areas in German cities?

So far, no. Urban development researcher Bernd Hallenberg said there are not explicit no-go areas anywhere in Germany – that also applies for Berlin-Neukölln, that has been described in American travel guides as a no-go area.



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