Integration by the Numbers Germany's Ongoing Project to Welcome Its Refugees

More than 1.2 million refugees came to Germany in 2015 and 2016. Initially, the country greeted them with chaos and poor planning, but the situation has improved. DER SPIEGEL took a closer look at how the project of integration is going. By SPIEGEL Staff
Some refugees are studying at the University of Fine Arts in Leipzig.

Some refugees are studying at the University of Fine Arts in Leipzig.

Foto: DPA

Dilshad Jaro would love to get to know some Germans. Sometimes, the 27-year-old Syrian heads to the Hamburg central station and buys himself a pita with hummus, putting himself right in the heart of the city's life. But he nevertheless hasn't found the courage to simply walk up to someone and start talking to them.

In the refugee hostel in eastern Hamburg, into which Jaro moved several weeks ago, he is almost completely surrounded by foreigners. "That doesn't make it easy," he says. Still, he now has a bit more privacy to study German grammar and vocabulary. Before moving to his current home, the young man had lived together with his wife, baby and mother in a container village, with a capacity for 240 residents, in northern Hamburg.

In that shelter, the family had just 15 square meters (160 square feet) at its disposal, furnished with two bunkbeds, a child's bed, a table and metal lockers. It was warm, clean, dry -- and almost 3,000 kilometers away from the Syrian civil war. The Jaros were grateful. But it was extremely tight. If the baby cried at night, everybody would wake up.

In their new hostel, they have a kitchen and an extra room. It is a significant step forward for the family, but all of them would love to finally feel as though they had arrived in Hamburg, along with all that entails: their own apartment, jobs, friends and acquaintances.

Getting that far isn't easy, and only very few asylum applicants who have arrived in Germany since mid-2015 have managed to establish such a life in their new homeland. Federal, state and local officials have done yeoman's work in the last year and a half to fix many of the worst problems. The school gymnasiums that were initially used as hostels can now be used for sports once again and there are integration classes on offer throughout the country where newcomers can learn German. Last year, the German government spent more than 14 billion euros ($15.2 million) to house, provide for and integrate the country's refugees.

But it is becoming increasingly clear just how difficult the path is for everyone involved, and how challenging real integration is. Moving from a gymnasium into a container village is certainly a step in the right direction, but it isn't yet cause for celebration. Attending an integration class is a far cry from speaking German. And many refugees are only just now becoming aware of how difficult it is to find a job without sufficient qualifications or German credentials. Many company executives have also become disillusioned, having realized that it won't be as simple for them to draw the skilled workers they so badly need from the ranks of refugees as some had thought.

Integration is a long-term project, one that will take decades rather than years . Nevertheless, it is worth asking the question: Is Germany on the right path? Because the failures of today could develop into the problems of tomorrow. The following is a snapshot of the situation as it currently stands .

What Is Going Well

By now, most refugees have been able to move out of emergency hostels and are living in better accommodations. Even in Berlin, where conditions were particularly bad, things are slowly improving. Elke Breitenbach, who runs the city-state's integration portfolio, said a month ago that "the miserable state of living conditions" of Berlin refugees in sporting facilities "has finally come to an end." Some 63 gymnasiums in the city were converted into emergency shelters beginning in September 2015, with more than 10,000 people sleeping on cots at the height of the crisis. At the end of March, though, the last 78 of them were able to finally pack together their belongings and move into group accommodations.


But 13,400 people in the German capital are still waiting to leave the emergency hostels where they are staying. Of that total, 2,100 must make due with what even German officials describe as "precarious" quarters -- meaning they have little privacy, often in large halls divided up by provisional partitions. Most other states, though, have the situation under control. According to the results of a survey conducted by SPIEGEL, only in Hamburg (600) and in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (1,600) are refugees still living in empty big-box stores or other provisional shelters.

Those arriving in Germany today are met with much better conditions than those who came in 2015. During the refugee crisis, states and municipalities began building numerous lodgings with improved standards. Some of them now stand empty. "We want to ensure that we can immediately react should significantly more people suddenly begin arriving again," says a representative from the state Interior Ministry in North Rhine-Westphalia. None of those responsible wants to be caught off guard to the degree they were in fall 2015. Should such an influx repeat itself, most regions would find themselves much better prepared to react. The country has amassed significant experience since then.

What Isn't Going Well

For years, the apartment market in most German cities has been tight. According to a study conducted on behalf of the Left Party group in the city-state's legislature, there is a lack of 130,000 affordable small apartments for low-income earners in Berlin alone - a study that did not take into consideration refugee families searching for flats. Currently, around 30,000 newcomers are living in communal housing - and they would ultimately like to move into their own apartment. Living next door to German neighbors would be a crucial step in their integration. It isn't known how many refugees across the country are looking for private accommodations.

It is clear, however, that they often have poor chances in the competition for affordable housing. Foreigners have a tough time dealing with the bureaucracy they face in official agencies and also find themselves confronted with prejudice. According to a study conducted by the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research (BIM), many landlords are concerned that refugees would have trouble understanding the intricacies of German apartment living - when it comes, for example, to issues such as waste separation and Sunday quiet, both of which are mandated by law.

Thus far, policy support has been insufficient, with social housing projects taking too long to come to fruition, and private initiatives are also "reaching their limits," say officials at BIM. The online platform Refugees Welcome, for example, seeks to help newcomers find rooms in shared apartments. It is a nice idea, but it doesn't always work. A large share of the refugees who have arrived in Germany are young men -- and they don't always match the profiles residents of many shared apartments have in mind when looking for roommates.

What Is Going Well

Between 2015 and 2016, some 15,000 refugee projects launched in Germany, with many of them focused on helping newcomers learn the language - things like volunteer instruction, mentoring or casual meet-ups with refugees. Those interested in learning German have good chances of finding someone to help.

The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), with the help of other institutions like the country's network of adult education centers (Volkshochschulen) and workers' welfare organizations, has created an extensive offering of integration courses across the country. The classes offer a combination of language training and civics for newcomers, with the state covering the costs for those who have been granted official refugee status.


The program includes 600 hours of German language training and 100 hours of instruction on German values, German history and the constitution. Once the course is completed and the test passed, refugees should be able to get along well in day-to-day life and have a fundamental understanding of German values. According to BAMF, some 317,000 migrants began such an integration course last year.

What Isn't Going Well

BAMF has significantly increased the number of German-language classes on offer, but refugees must compete with other foreigners, including citizens of other EU member states, to get a spot. Because Afghans don't have good chances of being allowed to stay, and the share of Afghans granted official refugee status slipped below 50 percent for a time, they are not given priority when it comes to integration efforts. In contrast to Syrians, for example, Afghans cannot enroll in an integration course before their asylum applications have been approved -- and BAMF sometimes takes years to process those applications.

That is a problematic state of affairs because Afghans represent the second-largest group of asylum seekers in Germany. Many of them will ultimately remain - and they often need extra support because the illiteracy rate in Afghanistan is almost 70 percent. Gabriele Köhler, head of the Berlin language school Lernwege, knows how difficult it is for refugees who first have to learn to read and write. Her school currently offers two normal German courses and three literacy courses. "It takes around three months before they can write even simple words," the teacher says.

What Is Going Well

Of the refugees aged between 15 and 64 who arrived in the country in 2015, 10 percent of them had found jobs by the second half of 2016. That may not sound like much, but most refugees must first learn German or receive additional vocational training before they can begin looking for work.


As such, forecasts for 2017 and beyond look better. The Institute for Employment Research (IAB), which does research on behalf of Germany's Federal Employment Agency, believes it is possible that every second refugee will have a job within five years, assuming that paid internships and low-paying part-time jobs are also included. The reason behind the optimism is provided by a representative survey among 4,800 refugees. It found that 22 percent of those who came in 2014 are employed as are 31 percent of 2013 arrivals.

A number of initiatives have been established to ensure that the positive trend continues. In 2016, the German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK) invested 20 million euros in projects aiding refugees and plans to provide 15 million more this year.

What Isn't Going Well

German business leaders have complained that German officialdom has not made it easy for them to hire refugees. Asylum applications take too long to process, language courses often have waiting lists and companies face unnecessary bureaucracy, laments a DIHK statement.

Furthermore, many companies are concerned that investments in young migrants from Afghanistan or Albania will be wasted should they ultimately be deported . The 2016 Integration Act grants migrants whose asylum applications have been rejected -- but who have been issued with temporary papers preventing their deportation -- residency for the duration of their vocational training programs. But, as the DIHK complains, officials have "broad discretion" to override that provision.

Disillusionment has also been spreading when it comes to Germany's lack of skilled workers. According to the consultancy firm Ernst & Young, 78 percent of German companies complain of having trouble finding qualified personnel. Hopes that this gap might be filled with specialists from Syria have not been met.

Only 58 percent of refugees 18 and older even have a school diploma, according to the IAB survey. But even those who are qualified don't automatically find a job that fits their skills. When it comes to technical careers, the demands are often so specific that even engineers have a hard time finding employment.


The case of Syrian refugee Nael Samman, 35, provides a telling example. Prior to the Syrian civil war, Samman studied electrical power engineering, before coming to Germany in 2014. His family has enough money for him to study management at a private university near Mainz and he has since completed his master's in business administration. Although he was on a student visa during his studies, he now has refugee status and is looking for a job.

"I thought that people like me were needed here," he says. In the last two years, Samman has sent out a number of applications to companies like BASF, Bayer and ThyssenKrupp. Indeed, he has tried his luck at almost all companies listed on the DAX, Germany's blue chip stock index. In response, he has received form letters encouraging him to continue applying. "It is incredibly frustrating," Samman says. "I feel like I am being discriminated against." He has now begun wondering if applicants with Arabic names generally have a more difficult time finding jobs than others. And whether many companies shy away from hiring refugees due to the increased amount of paperwork associated with employing them.

What Is Going Well

Guiding hundreds of thousands of underage migrants to the successful completion of a school diploma is itself a monumental task. But most German states have been able to find enough teachers for preparatory classes in which children learn German before joining regular classes. Baden-Württemberg, for example, hired 1,160 additional teachers, Hesse 2,000 and North Rhine-Westphalia 1,200. Often, teachers without official credentials have been sent into the classroom due to the lack of trained instructors.

In many schools in large German cities, the percentage of children from migrant families was already high - which doesn't automatically mean that the more recent influx created problems. In a primary school in the immigrant neighborhood of Tenever in Bremen, for example, 95 percent of the children come from immigrant families. The school has 30 years of experience when it comes to integrating the children of immigrants into the general school population and has been offering preparatory language courses since 2002. "Refugee children aren't a problem for us. They are just an additional subgroup in our already extremely diverse student body," says school principal Isolde Mörk. "Thus far, all of them have settled in nicely."

What Isn't Going Well

Many children who are still living in emergency shelters or initial reception facilities have to wait extended periods before beginning their schooling in the public-school system. In some states, compulsory schooling only applies once families move out of interim shelters into more permanent housing. According to asylum laws, refugees should stay in initial reception facilities for a maximum of six months, but longer stays are not always avoidable.

According to a UNICEF study, almost half of staff members questioned at initial reception facilities said that children in their shelters only receive instruction "internally or within the framework of language courses." Twenty percent said that children in their care received no schooling at all.


In 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel famously proclaimed: "We can do it!" - a sentence intended to allay the fears of her fellow Germans. One-and-a-half years after the refugee-crisis year of 2015, the situation on Germany's borders has normalized. From January through March, BAMF only registered 55,000 new asylum applicants, compared to 175,000 applications filed during the same period in 2016.

This drop has given officials the breathing space needed to focus on apartments, jobs and German classes. But it isn't easy to determine the degree to which this breathing space is being capitalized on because the statistics available are incomplete in many areas. Germany's federal system is particularly well suited to the obscuring of problems and the federal government hasn't thus far shown much élan when it comes to improving information gathering: There is no central clearing house for data from Germany's 16 states and 11,000 municipalities. The country doesn't even know how many refugees left Germany to return home last year, with reliable statistics pertaining only to the 25,000 who were deported. Many more voluntarily returned home, some of them with financial support from German agencies, but there are no reliable numbers pertaining to such departures. A survey of state agencies undertaken by SPIEGEL found that the number of voluntary returnees last year was at least 80,000.


Many statistics are difficult to compare because terms are different from state to state. The situation is particularly impenetrable when it comes to education, which is in state hands, and municipality-run refugee hostels. How many refugee children in Germany are living in initial reception facilities and not going to school? How many have already joined regular classes with German children? In which regions are teachers and social workers in particular need of help? Answers to those questions can only be obtained through estimates and the individual opinions of experts.

The German government plans to invest a further 14 billion euros this year in the housing, provisioning and integration of refugees. It is a lot of money - and it would be advantageous to know how best to spend it.


By Susan Djahangard, Katrin Elger, Christina Elmer, Miriam Olbrisch, Jonas Schaible, Mirjam Schlossarek and Nico Schmidt