Analysis

Needed but Unwanted: Germany's Dilemma on Middle Eastern Refugees

Asylum seekers provide potential labor pool and many are opening small businesses, but their integration is being challenged by the country's far right

German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a Syrian refugee.
Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

The interior and justice ministers in Germany have been sued by the country’s Yazidi Women’s Council on allegations of obstruction of justice. The council claims that the German government, specifically the two ministers, have failed to prosecute Islamic State activists who are German citizens and are now being held in detention camps by Kurdish militias in Syria. The suit alleges that inaction on the ministers’ part has compromised the right of women belonging to the Yazidi ethnic and religious minority to obtain justice.

It is believed that Kurdish militias are holding roughly 74 ISIS activists who are German citizens. Germany has issued extradition requests for 21 of them. But it appears that Germany, like other European countries, prefers that the suspects be tried by the countries in which their crimes were allegedly committed, such as Syria and Iraq.

The legal status of ISIS activists and their families who were arrested after the fighting in the region ended is keeping the wheels of justice turning in Europe and the Middle East, particularly over how to deal with women and children who did not take part in the fighting. That is in contrast to men, some of whom have already stood trial.

When it comes to foreign men, their return to their countries of origin and their prosecution there have raised concerns over the risk of terrorist acts in Europe in an attempt to force the authorities to release suspects or that they at least be given reduced sentences. In an effort to avoid trying them in their home countries in Europe, it has even been suggested that their citizenship be revoked. But this is no easy solution either, because international law does not allow the revocation of citizenship if it would render the person stateless and the constitutions of various European countries also contain provisions presenting obstacles to revoking citizenship.

Granting citizenship to refugees

And then there is the question of granting citizenship, or at least residency, to about 1 million refugees from Syria and elsewhere who are now living in Germany and have still not been granted political asylum. These asylum seekers are not being required to return to Syria, but they are having difficulty adjusting to a situation in which they don’t know when or if they will ever be able to return to their homeland. On the other hand, they are unable to begin a new life as citizens or residents of Germany.

In a bid to partially resolve the problem, the German government is offering refugees courses in integration that will allow them to learn a trade and become part of German society, even for a limited time. Young people can begin occupational training and can work for three years as apprentices until they receive their professional certification, which is also required of young Germans.

Germany views the refugees an important source of labor at a time when the country’s population is aging and when there has been a dramatic decline in the number of young people wanting to learn a trade. According to official figures, the labor force in Germany is expected to drop from 49 million in 2015 to about 43 million in 2035, and Germany needs about 250,000 workers a year even to overcome the current shortage.

But occupational courses, in which the students are required to study the German language for 600 hours and German society, values and the legal system for 60 hours, are an obstacle because many of the refugees prefer to find odd jobs in which they can earn more, rather than a long, difficult course of study during which they would earn less than they need to support their families. And the courses are not free. They cost about 1,300 euros ($1,450). Those who pass them get back half the cost.

To encourage the refugees to join a training program, the German government promises students that they can complete it three years and work for two years beyond that without fear of deportation, even if they are ultimately not granted permanent resident status. University students in Germany who are refugees also enjoy special status: Their diplomas give them a leg up when they request political asylum.

Opening small businesses

The economic value of the refugees to Germany can be seen in the small business that thousands of them have opened, some of which also employ German citizens. But the process of their integration is threatened by the rising strength of the extreme right in the country, which has accused Chancellor Angela Merkel of wasting billions of dollars on refugees with her open-door policy – money that the right wing claims could have been spent on German citizens. It is demanding that Germany be purged of its refugees.

That’s not new, nor is it exclusively a German phenomenon. The steady rise in Europe of nationalist and racist extremist ideology can be seen almost everywhere in Europe, particularly in Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Poland, where the number of refugees is almost nil.

But the largest number of Syrian refugees live in Germany, and that is where the largest number by far of asylum requests in Europe have also been filed.

Also notable is the fact that Germany has 5 million Muslim citizens (although the European country with the largest number of Muslim citizens is France, at 6 million). When panic is sown in Europe over the Islamization of the continent, the Syrian refugees certainly have reason for concern.