Where there's a will

In 2015 and 2016, some 1.2 million refugees fled to Germany. Two years on from the start of the refugee crisis, how are these new arrivals integrating? Have the right steps been taken? Report by Claudia Mende

By Claudia Mende

Rayan Malhis sits on the long sofa in the living room, beaming. She is 16 years old, slender, wearing a headscarf and braces on her teeth. They have passed the middle-school entrance exam, all three of them: Rayan, her twin sister Rasan, and Raneem, who is a year younger. Now the door has been opened for them to finish secondary school.

The war in their homeland, Syria, has already robbed them of too much time. They spent two years unable to go to school in Aleppo. Now, all three girls have ambitious plans. First their middle school leaving certificate, then high school. They want to go to university and become a pharmacist, an architect and a biologist respectively, they tell me in flawless German.

They, their mother Husna and their younger brother Mohammed Besher (6) came to Germany in October 2015. Their father, Annas Malhis, had already taken refuge in the safety of Germany the year before, crossing the sea from Turkey, passing through Greece and taking the Balkan route. He was able to spare his family from having to live in communal accommodation. When they arrived, an Arab family who had lived in Munich for a long time took all six of them in until the formalities had been taken care of. Then aid volunteers helped them look for a flat. 

The family now lives on a new-build estate in the north of Munich and they are doing their best to settle into their new life. The girls are fast learners, determined and motivated.

When the Malhis family first came to Munich in autumn 2015, hundreds of thousands of people were seeking refuge in Germany. Around 1.2 million people arrived during the course of 2015 and 2016. Although not all of them want to stay long term, their integration has become a perennial topic of debate in the country. Of course, whether or not integration has been successful is something we will only be able to judge a couple of decades down the track.

But two years after Angela Merkel′s open-door policy, there are a few signs to indicate whether the right steps have been taken. How do things stand, for instance, with living arrangements, language courses and entering the job market?

A shortage of flats in built-up areas

Most of the refugees have now been able to leave their collective accommodation and look for a flat. But there is no reliable data on their living arrangements. The Malhis family were lucky enough to find something suitable quickly. But the tense situation with accommodation in built-up areas will be a central issue over the coming years.

In the face of skyrocketing rents, people on low incomes risk being pushed out to the edges of cities. Job applicants with foreign-sounding names are having a particularly hard time finding work, as an investigation by BR Data and Spiegel Online has revealed. Men with Turkish or Arab-sounding names are frequently rejected in the first round. This is a problem in the long term, particularly if we want to avoid the creation of deprived areas.

All members of the Malhis family were quickly given places on language courses – except little Mohammed, who currently attends kindergarten. There has been clear progress in language and integration courses, as entry requirements have been relaxed and provision has been ramped up.The new integration law of August 2016 allows asylum seekers from countries with "prospects of remaining long-term" (e.g. Syria or Iraq) to take a language course before their asylum application has even been approved. That was not the case before. But there are still too few courses. Data from an OECD study on the integration of refugees into the job market, published in March 2017, shows that in 2016, 240,000 refugees in Germany were without a place on a language course. This is something that still needs to be remedied.

The difficulties of finding a job

It′s something that has been repeated time and again: Germany needs both skilled foreign workers and more apprentices. This may be true and most refugees want to work. But in practice, it′s not that easy. Integration is a marathon, not a sprint. At the moment the new arrivals′ qualifications don′t always match what companies are looking for. At first, many of them will only be able to take on menial jobs. And it will be a while before the younger generation finishes their education.

No one knows how many of the refugees who arrived in 2015 and 2016 have now found a job. Many may still be doing language and training courses and therefore don′t appear in the unemployment statistics. In Munich, the IFO Institute surveyed 400 refugees from countries with "prospects of staying long-term". After six months of looking for jobs, around 20 percent had found one; the study provides no information on what kind of work they were doing.

"From previous integration movements we know that after around five years 50 percent of migrants are integrated in the job market and after ten to 15 years, up to 80 percent of them have found jobs," says Petra Bendel, a professor of political science at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. 

At the moment there are still a lot of obstacles, the language barrier being the biggest hurdle. Annas Malhis, 48, was an entrepreneur in Aleppo: he and his brother ran a company with twelve employees, stitching decorations onto textiles.

"There is no demand for what I can do in Germany," Annas says sadly. He is willing to take on any kind of work, he tells me. He would like to work with plants most of all. But right now he is still struggling with the language. He failed the test for Level B1, the third level on a scale of six, by just one point. "I struggle with grammar and..." – he searches for the right word and looks to his daughters, who help him out – "listening comprehension."

He has one more try left. Once he has hopefully passed the exam, he wants to look for work – any work. At the moment the family is living on benefits. "It is difficult for me to get on here," he confesses. "I am here because of my daughters." The girls′ parents are doing everything they can for their daughters′ education.

The public debate usually centres on cultural and religious aspects of immigration. But refugees finding a satisfying job, talking to their neighbours and finding something like a home is much more crucial to integration.

Claudia Mende

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin