When, in 2015, a large number of refugees fled from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Eastern Europe to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), the media suggested that this was an unprecedented “refugee crisis.” Images of war and persecution and of the fates of those fleeing appeared every day. In spite of all the difficulties associated with receiving these refugees, however, a so-called welcome culture developed in the FRG. One characteristic expression of the broadly shared social commitment was Chancellor Angela Merkel’s matter-of-fact assertion: “We can handle this.”
Before 2015, the number of refugees in Germany had fallen significantly. The last time a large group had come to the country was in the 1990s, as former Yugoslavians sought refuge due to the civil wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. In addition, there was a larger group of “late repatriates” from the East, as well as people from Romania and Bulgaria. In 1993, some 438,000 asylum applications were filed in the FRG, and that number reached nearly one million people by 1995.1
There was no “welcome culture” in the 1990s. The social climate was characterized by xenophobic attacks and a political debate in which the claims of asylum seekers were labeled bogus. Not only right-wing parties but also the center-right Christian Democrats tried to win elections with slogans like “the boat is full.” Although there were some examples of resistance to xenophobia, such as candle-lit demonstrations and other big events, the prevailing view was that Germany was not a country of immigration. Refugees were not welcome, and political majorities formed to restrict the right of asylum.
Why did a majority of Germans develop a more exclusionary and racist discourse in the early 1990s but identify with the suffering and hardships of refugees in the mid-2010s?
One aspect is the socio-economic dimension. When a new immigration act was introduced in 2005, business associations had already called for an opening of the labor market to immigrants in response to demographic changes in Germany. Taking EU immigration into account, the Bertelsmann Foundation, which enjoyed close ties to the business community, predicted in 2005 an annual demand for immigration from non-EU states of between 276,000 and 491,000 workers in order to maintain the size of the labor force.2 Thus, not only humanitarian considerations influenced the attitudes of the governing parties toward a very young group of refugees arriving in Germany in 2015 (71.1 percent were under 30). Business interest in immigration mattered too.3 In this sense, the chancellor’s “we can handle this” might have also meant, “immigration is something Germany needs.”
Reception and Integration in the 1990s
In the 1980s, the number of asylum seekers was comparatively low. In 1987, the annual number of applications reached a low point of 57,379 applicants, with 74.8 percent of them coming from so-called developing countries. In 1993, by contrast, 438,191 asylum applications were filed, with 72.1 percent of the refugees coming from Eastern and South-Eastern Europe as a consequence of economic upheavals in the East and civil war in former Yugoslavia.4
Civil war refugees faced a xenophobic political climate. The issue of so-called asylum abuse was taken up and established by the major political parties and the media. The reception and especially the integration of civil war refugees in the 1990s was difficult, beginning with the legal framework. The asylum law only foresaw granting permanent residence to people facing political persecution as individuals – whether by the state in the sense of the Basic Law’s article 16a, the Geneva Convention, or the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights. If individual persecution could not be proven, a suspension of deportation pursuant to §53 of the Law on Foreign Nationals (Ausländergesetz) could only be issued on the basis of considerable threats to the individual’s life, physical condition, or freedom. Refugees from the civil war in the Balkans were not considered to fall within this specific framework because persecution was not individual or state-based. Thus, those fleeing the war generally only received temporary protection for three to six months in the form of a so-called exceptional right to stay. Those affected often lived for years with the constant threat of deportation, and without legal access to the labor market or vocational training.
Whether or not to restrict immigration became a central issue of domestic policy. The debate on constraining the individual right to asylum was accompanied by, and even engendered, serious xenophobic riots, for example in Hoyerswerda in 1991 and Rostock-Lichtenhagen in 1992.5 In 1993, the Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, and Free Democrats adopted an amendment to the Constitution, the so-called “asylum compromise,” which significantly restricted the basic right to asylum. Among other things, a so-called “third country rule” was introduced. This regulation denied asylum requests from people who had entered Germany via countries where the Geneva Convention on refugees was honored, or the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights was in force. The asylum compromise also introduced a list of so-called “safe countries of origin.” People from these places could not be granted asylum unless “individual persecution” could be proven.6
The influx of refugees took place after a long, economically difficult period. Reconstruction after the end of the World War II was followed by three decades of economic growth known as the “economic miracle,” beginning with the early 1950s. This period saw great demand for labor, which led to the active recruitment of “guest workers” from abroad, especially from Turkey and Italy. With the oil and energy crisis of 1973, however, unemployment rose significantly in the FRG for the first time, and the recruitment of guest workers ceased.7
A neo-conservative turnaround followed, leading to the formation of a socially conservative and economically liberal government in 1982 under Helmut Kohl. This changed climate occurred contemporaneously to Margret Thatcher’s government in Great Britain and Ronald Reagan’s administration in the United States. Among other things, the government reduced social spending to counter the recession. These business-friendly policies changed little in terms of the unemployment rate, but real household incomes fell over a longer period of time. At the same time, the climate toward foreign labor migrants deteriorated, making them increasingly the targets of xenophobic hatred.
Helmut Kohl’s government in particular was responsible for cuts in social spending. The motto of his government’s declaration on October 13, 1982 was “less state, more market, away from collective burdens, toward individual achievement.”8 To this end, child benefits, unemployment benefits, and pensions were cut. Although the economic picture improved somewhat by the end of the 1980s, unemployment in West Germany reached nine percent by the early 1990s.9
German reunification itself also exercised a strong influence on the social atmosphere in Germany. After the opening of the inner German border in November 1989 in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, patriotic, national-conservative voices became louder, and the initial two-state solution lasted only a short while. Already by early October 1990, the two German states were joined as one. The new FRG now had 16 federal states instead of 11, functioning largely within the tradition of the old FRG. An important consequence of this national unification was a significant strengthening of conservative and nationalist movements in Germany, which affected the climate towards refugees and guest workers as well.
Unemployment, however, was publicly perceived as the most severe political and social problem in Germany – this in the context of the heavy economic burdens that reunification imposed.10 Above all, a dramatic divergence in unemployment figures developed between the old and the new federal states. In 1996, for example, the unemployment rate was 9.6 percent in the old federal states, but 17.7 percent in the new ones.11 The reality behind these figures helped fuel the growth of xenophobia, especially in the new federal states.
People who fled to Germany in the 1990s to escape war and persecution often did not enjoy humanitarian protection there and had to fear deportation on a daily basis. The state foresaw no integration. Of the 350,000 or so people who fled Bosnia for Germany in the 1990s, only about 35,000 were able to stay in Germany. Only at the end of the 1990s did a grandfather clause grant permanent residence status to a number of refugees living in Germany for a long time in limbo.
Reception and Integration since 2015
The number of asylum seekers dropped in the mid-1990s, and refugees no longer attracted the media’s attention as a major socio-political issue. Attitudes began to change. At the outbreak of the war in Syria in 2015, many Germans showed a strong sense of empathy towards refugees arriving in Germany. They began to get involved with refugees by providing material as well as personal support. Coinciding with the rise in these activities, the explicitly referenced concept of a “welcome culture” became popular. Politicians in the governing grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats advocated for Germany to take in refugees, as did members of the opposition.
The legal framework and social conditions for receiving refugees had changed significantly. The government formed by the Green Party and the Social Democrats (1998–2005), set up an Immigration Commission, and in 2005, passed an Immigration Act introducing comprehensive measures to reform migration and integration policy. This act included new regulations on asylum seekers’ residency, access to the labor market, integration measures, and social benefits. The Immigration Act also implemented various European directives, among them the so-called Qualification Directive (2011/95/EU), which was particularly relevant in the area of refugee protection. This measure enabled asylum seekers to obtain protection in accordance with the Basic Law, the Geneva Convention, and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights. It also granted the right to subsidiary protection in cases of “a serious individual threat to the life or physical integrity of a civilian as a result of indiscriminate violence within the framework of an international or domestic armed conflict.” Since then, gender-related persecution has also been recognized in asylum cases.
The Immigration Act thus created a basis for recognizing “non-state” persecution. As a result, starting in 2017, a larger group of refugees, particularly from Syria, was granted subsidiary protection and thus residency. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees assumed that the Syrian state would regard refugees returning from Western Europe as enemies and persecute them. Overall, the admission rates in asylum cases rose significantly: In 2015, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees processed about 282,726 asylum applications, and 48.5 percent of the applicants received protection, while 0.6 percent of asylum seekers received subsidiary protection, and 0.7 percent exceptional leave to remain; 32.4 percent of the applications were rejected, and a further 17.8 percent were so-called formal decisions, that is, applications were turned away because the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees is not responsible for them because of the Dublin Regulation.12
Access to the labor market has also become much easier. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work during their first six months in the country, but then they have access to the labor market and vocational training. Excluded are refugees from “safe countries of origin” (European Union member states and eight additional countries such as Kosovo und Macedonia). This improved access to the labor market is reflected in employment figures for refugees. In December 2019, 55 percent of all refugees who had entered the country since 2015 were employed, and a year earlier, 57 percent of employed refugees were classified as skilled labor or higher.13 The vocational trades in particular have shown great interest in attracting applicants, which is not surprising given the high number of apprenticeships that could not be filled for the 2018/19 training year.14 The number of those who complete vocational training after arriving in Germany is steadily increasing. In June 2019, more than 40,000 people in such positions were citizens of countries from which the most substantial numbers of refugees had come.15 There are also numerous subsidies and projects to help integrate refugees into the vocational training market.
The Immigration Act itself has improved the situation, including the social benefits for refugees. After 15 months, refugees now receive benefits analogous to those provided to German welfare recipients. Asylum seekers with the status “good prospects of staying” can take part in integration courses offered by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. For refugees from other countries of origin, many federal states and municipalities provide funds for language courses, like the ones I am involved in at the University of Hildesheim.
Despite the great differences in the reception of refugees in 2015 as compared to the early 1990s, those people who came to Germany in 2015 were clearly not welcomed by everybody. Since 2015, nationalistic demonstrations and even terrorist attacks have occurred. Furthermore, a new political party on the far right emerged, Alternative for Germany, which is now represented in all the state parliaments and even in the national one, the Bundestag. Their share of between 10 and 25 percent (nearly 13 percent in the Bundestag) harms the political climate.
In June 2019, the government passed a law to open its skilled labor market to qualified people from non-EU countries beginning in early 2020. This and the new EU Migration Pact appear to have downgraded the legal situation for certain groups of refugees. On the whole, however, social and residential conditions, in particular access to work, educational training, and language classes, is much better than in the 1990s. Connected to that is the circumstance that wide segments of society seem to understand that immigration and diversity are an important part of a modern, global society, although it is too early to say what the long-term effects of the pandemic might be in this regard.
- Bundesinstitut für Bevölkerungsforschung, “Registrierte Asylanträge (1990–2019),” https://www.bib.bund.de/Permalink.html?id=10279542. ↩︎
- Johann Fuchs, Alexander Kubis, and Lutz Schneider, Zuwanderungsbedarf aus Drittstaaten in Deutschland bis 2050 (Berlin, Bertelsmann-Stiftung, 2005); Zadie Smith, Swing Time (New York: Penguin Press, 2016), 315–16. ↩︎
- Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, Das Bundesamt in Zahlen 2015, Asyl, Migration und Integration (Bonn: Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, 2015). ↩︎
- Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, Das Bundesamt in Zahlen 2015 ↩︎
- See, for instance, the oral history–based play “Sonnenblumenhaus” by the Hamburg-based author and artist Dan Thy Ngyuen, https://www.danthy.net/projekte/sonnenblumenhaus-theaterstück/. ↩︎
- Franz Nuscheler, Internationale Migration: Flucht und Asyl (Berlin: Springer Verlag, 2004). ↩︎
- Gerad Bökenkamp, Das Ende des Wirtschaftswunders: Geschichte der Sozial- Wirtschafts- und Finanzpolitik in der Bundesrepublik 1969–1998 (Stuttgart: Lucius und Lucius Verlag, 2010). ↩︎
- Deutscher Bundestag Stenographischer Bericht 121. Sitzung Bonn, Mittwoch, den 13. Oktober 1982. ↩︎
- Helmut Rudolph, “Struktur und Dynamik der Langzeitarbeitslosigkeit in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1980–1990,” in Erwerbsarbeit und Arbeitslosigkeit im Zeichen des Strukturwandels, ed. Christian Brinkmann and Karen Schober (Nuremberg: Institute for Employment Research, 2010), 147–88. ↩︎
- “Deutschland in den 70er/80er Jahren,” Informationen zur politischen Bildung, Heft 270 (Bonn: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung 2001). ↩︎
- “Arbeitslose und Arbeitslosenquote in absoluten Zahlen und in Prozent aller zivilen Erwerbspersonen, 1980 bis 2019,” Bundesministerium für politische Bildung, last updated August 8, 2020. ↩︎
- Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, Das Bundesamt in Zahlen 2015. ↩︎
- Institut für Arbeitsmarkt und Berufsforschung, “Fünf Jahre ‘Wir schaffen das’: Eine Bilanz aus der Perspektive des Arbeitsmarktes,” IAB-Forschungsbericht (November 2020): 27. ↩︎
- “Ausbildungsjahr hat begonnen. Noch viele Stellen unbesetzt,” Bundesregieurung, Aktuelles, August 13, 2019. ↩︎
- Bundesagentur für Arbeit, “Fluchtmigration,” Berichte: Arbeitsmarkt kompakt (Janurary 2020): 13. ↩︎