Can Europe Make It?

Welcome to stay? The question of integration in Germany

Germany's integration policies ignore crucial obstacles preventing refugees from reclaiming self-sufficiency and dignity.

Lucile Gemähling
24 October 2016

A child tries to warm his hands, backdropped by Germany's flag at protest in Idomeni, Greece on 9 March 2016. Vadim Ghirda AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.

In the summer of 2015, at the high-point of the ‘summer of migration’, even ‘progressive’ media outlets that had just spent months criticising Germany’s treatment of Syriza seemed to lose all sense of critique when reporting on Germany's attitude towards those refugees arriving via the Balkan route. Hoping to shame other national authorities into letting more people in, articles cast Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, as the face of European values – as the face of humanity and solidarity. Ever since then, the struggles of refugees already living in Germany, Germany's role in shaping the Common European Asylum Policy, and the actual spirit of political debate and proposed legislation in Germany remain seldom discussed.

Germany passed numerous laws on migration and asylum in the months preceding and following the ‘summer of migration’. These have, amongst other things, increased the likelihood of administrative detention for people caught by the Dublin III agreement; increased status differences between refugees based on their country of origin; paved the way for quicker deportations to so-called ‘safe countries’, even those with long records of human rights violations; and generally further criminalised migration.

The real question being asked is clear: can Muslims integrate?

In late spring 2016, the German governmental coalition presented a law proposal on the much discussed topic of ‘integration’. This passed with great fanfare into law on 7 July. As with many recently passed laws, the so-called ‘integration law’ was heavily criticised during the drafting process by civil society organisations, who expected it to have counterproductive effects. Indeed, the Germany-based refugee organisation ProAsyl re-named it the ‘disintegration law’. Furthermore, these laws are in many ways troublingly complaisant with the least progressive aspects of the public discussion on 'integration' in Germany and disconnected from the daily challenges faced by recently and not-so-recently settled refugees.

Integrating into a hostile environment

A (supposedly) Muslim woman wearing the national flag of a European country as her headscarf, next to a question mark: yet another occurrence of this racist trope, this time on the front page of die Zeit, a respected, centre-liberal German newspaper, on 12 May. The headline asks: “how can integration be successful?” Inside, the paper stages a conversation between (amongst others), an atheist Syrian refugee; a local Bosniac imam; a woman police officer; a woman in charge of integration classes; and a German man whose father migrated from Turkey. Given the cast of characters, the ‘real’ question being asked is clear: can Muslims integrate?

Only towards the end of the five pages of transcript does the topic turn to something else, namely the isolation felt by the young Syrian and the stigma he endures as a refugee: "Pity is not friendship", he notes, talking about the wave of support coming from the German population, and adds that the racist public discourse after the sexual assaults and thefts in Köln last new year's eve also affected his morale. But the German woman who helped him find a flat and a part-time job quickly shut him down: according to her, he has been very lucky so far and has no real grounds for complaints. He is being too sensitive.

Implicit in her words is the idea that newcomers don’t so much face problems but are, themselves, the problem.

Her reaction and the underlying incomprehension may be symptomatic for the integration discussion, which has two main currents. One is the social aspect of 'integration', which is primarily associated with culture clashes, narrowed down to Islam and gender equality. As the integration teacher in die Zeit’s contrived discussion says, in response to the interviewer’s question on the main gaps between migrants and locals: "clearly it is on the topic of gender equality". Implicit in her words is the idea that newcomers don’t so much face problems but are, themselves, the problem.

The other stream of the discussion revolves around housing, welfare, labour and economics: carving out a space for refugees in the midst of liberal economic rationality and austerity. Amidst all this, the human, moral, and identity-wrenching aspects of surviving and re-building a life in a foreign place after fleeing regional armed conflict, political persecutions, and/or economic collapse go unaddressed. And despite the persistence of Germany’s right-wing movement PEGIDA; the electoral successes of the upstart right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland; and more than 1000 recorded crimes against refugee shelters in 2015 and over 300 in the first trimester of 2016 alone, racism is barely regarded as an issue in relation to integration.

At the merging point of the two polarising discourses, the integration law is based on two openly displayed assumptions: that refugees are often uncooperative to their own integration, and that the German labour market needs protection from refugees.

The carrots and sticks of ‘integration’

Amongst all possible definitions, the integration law treats the concept as more or less synonymous with a language level sufficient to access low- to middle-skilled jobs, and financial self-sufficiency. People displaying exemplary 'integration' will be able to apply for a permanent residency two years earlier than those who do not. On top of that, the integration law also introduces the vaguely defined concept of ‘integration refusal’ and financial sanctions for those found ‘guilty’ of uncooperative behaviours – namely lowering their already insufficient allowance of €361 a month (accommodation excluded).

The law permits state authorities to force refugees to live in certain areas as well as to forbid them from settling in other areas, based on their evaluation of the social vulnerability of that territory. While legislators claim this measure will help avoid creating ‘social burning points’, ProAsyl points out that communities hostile to refugees now have a ready-made way to keep them at bay.

Furthermore, forced relocation in the name of social cohesion, ‘fairness’, and protecting ‘German’ jobs negatively impacts refugees’ chances of finding employment – and possibly, housing – when it separates them from their contacts at their destination. In doing so, it actively hinders their integration into the labour market, according to an interview in die Zeit with Herbert Brücker, an economist specialising in integration issues. Social networks are crucial for new arrivals, and relatives and friends are the most reliable point of entry in the job market for migrants, including refugees.

The integration law shows little concern for physical and mental health, social connections, or educational prospects, all arguably as important to ‘integration’ as economic autonomy.

In addition to the above, the law amends articles in the work law to open restricted parts of the labour market to refugees. The German work law commonly demands that a person hiring a non-EU foreigner verifies that no German or EU-citizen could be hired for that position. For refugees, this rule applied for the first 15 months of their life in Germany. The integration law allows for this period to be reduced to three months in regions with a lower percentage of unemployment, as well as for temporary jobs.

These restrictions exist ostensibly to protect the prospects of the already existing labour force. However, Brücker argued in die Zeit that in reality there is little to fear on that score, for two reasons. First, few refugees will immediately be able to fill important employment gaps. The German job market is in need of people with a medium level of qualifications; while most newly settled people are either too qualified or not qualified enough for such positions. Furthermore, in Germany, as elsewhere, jobs in the service, care work, and agricultural industries are largely filled by foreign workers. Competition for such work, which is as crucial to the country as it is for the local population, poses little threat to the ‘native’ workforce. “Refugees [on the job market] are put in competition primarily with other foreigners, not so much with German workers”, he said.


Firefighters work to quell a blaze on the roof of a asylum seekers' apartment complex in Rüdesheim, Germany, in March 2015. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd).

When the deck is stacked against you

The integration law shows little concern for physical and mental health, social connections and milieu, or educational prospects (apart from vocational training), all arguably as important to ‘integration’ as economic autonomy. It also doesn’t include measures aimed at adapting the existing society to the new arrivals, or for measuring, monitoring, and tackling structural discrimination and racism.

The violence of the discussion and of the resulting law, however, is only fully visible in the light of the concrete situation and struggles of refugees on the ground. The viewpoint of a new arrival throws the shortcomings of the German infrastructure and administration into sharp relief. Against that background, the existence of a law that assumes bad faith on the part of the refugees is nothing less than insulting.

The state office for health and social services – Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales, or simply LaGeSo – is the central place in Berlin for registering asylum seekers as well as claims for housing and other social welfare rights. Most famous amongst refugees for its queues and administrative mind-twists, LaGeSo became a disaster scene in the summer of 2015. People queued day and night, even camping out to maintain their place in line, and medical emergencies were only faced with the help of volunteer doctors and nurses. Improvements on immediate, humanitarian needs were slow. Even after months of time to prepare for the onset of the frigid Berlin winter, hundreds of people were forced to wait out the night in heated buses or were hosted by volunteers. Spontaneous protests were staged there, as people struggled with chronic homelessness due to stamps for their hotel rooms running out every couple of weeks. As everywhere along the Balkan route, humanitarian needs were (and still are) dealt with by volunteers organisations, NGOs, and the refugees themselves.

The existence of a law that assumes bad faith on the part of the refugees is nothing less than insulting.

LaGeSo, however spectacular, stands not as an exception, but a symbol for the structural failing of the German state to meet the needs of the situation. The administrative departments charged with immediate relief and bureaucratic processing are obviously severely understaffed and underfunded. Asylum offices are overwhelmed as well, and this bears severe, Kafka-esque consequences. For example, many recent posts to the Facebook group 'Moabit Hilft' concern refugees receiving interview appointments that were set for only a few days after they were postmarked. In some cases shelters failed to hand out letters in time, while in other cases letters were clearly issued too late for a timely delivery. Either way, and through no fault of their own, people missed their oral interviews and were forced instead to support their asylum cases with written statements.

In the fall of 2015, when people started to be accommodated in sport halls, Germany's federal government extended the time asylum seekers must legally remain in state-provided shelters from three to six months, and no special measures were taken to facilitate their entry into the regular housing market upon departure. As refugees move out of state-provided shelters and into the regular housing market, or go underground, or return to where they came from, money – not concerns about integration – determine how vacant shelter spaces are re-allocated: people are moved from hotel rooms to sport halls, from sport halls to mass shelters, from one side of a metropole to another – sometimes even from one state to another. Entry into the local housing markets is virtually impossible without sufficient resources and personalised, volunteer support given mutually and/or by locals.

The language barrier is the most obvious of the many obstacles standing in the way of autonomy, housing, education, and employment. Asylum seekers from Iran, Syria and Iraq, as well as people with certain types of residency permit, are entitled – read, required – to take part in so-called integration courses. There they receive language tuition until they attain lower intermediate proficiency, or until they have used up their language class allowance – whichever comes first. However, all students must have their right to attend this course confirmed by the Ministry of Migration, and approval currently takes several months to process – much longer than it takes EU-citizens, who are also entitled to take the classes. Apart from the wait, schools and integration courses are lacking spaces: people must usually expend considerable effort and approach several schools until they find one with an opening at the appropriate level.

Asylum seekers from other countries – Afghanistan, the African continent in its totality, and the Balkans – are explicitly excluded from attending free language courses while their claims are being processed. They must either wait until their procedure has reached a positive conclusion to learn the language, or pay for classes themselves. Many refugees from countries on the pre-approved list also end up paying for the first language class as well, due to the time it takes to receive the ministry's confirmation. In the meantime, many English or German-speaking refugees offer volunteer translation to support those without the necessary language skills – including German administrative staff.

The long wait for reunification

Many people who fled war zones have relatives and close friends who remained behind, or who are stuck in a country that does not offer sufficient protection, or who are trapped in Greece. The obstacles thrown in the path of family reunification are such that only married, heterosexual couples and their under-aged children stand a chance of ending back up together. In April, ProAsyl reported that the waiting time to access a German embassy for a family reunification visa in any of Syria’s neighbouring countries exceeded a year. For those in Greece, the timeframe of a potential reunion is entirely dependant on Greece's (critically insufficient) asylum claims processing capacity. A great number of people are still waiting to access the procedure, which once initiated may still take up to or exceeding a year. In both cases, isolated minors are amongst people waiting for a reunion.

Last, but not least, a two-year waiting period for people under subsidiary protection was recently introduced before they can access the procedure to gather their family in Germany. Shortly afterwards, many Syrians, who as a group were formerly almost always granted refugee status, started to be granted 'only' subsidiary protection status. Besides delaying the reunification of close families in safety, the status does not automatically come with travel documents and makes it harder or impossible to visit family members or friends settled in other countries. Very young adults, and yes, even minors, will be left in challenging life situations without family support and close contacts for years; parents will grow older and sicker far away from their grown-up kids. Already damaged communities are broken further apart, and the work of making sense of human and social traumas lies almost completely with the refugees, individually and as communities.

The will to admit that a problem of reception exists rather than a problem of integration is almost entirely missing.

I met T., a young man fluent in English, at a conference where he was working as a volunteer interpreter. A few months later, T. moved out of his shelter after seven months of living there. The paperwork alone took days to sort out, most of it standing in a queue and without external support. Everything else remained outside of his direct control for months, including approval for an integration course and the completion of his asylum procedure. Getting an education in his field of choice and experience comes after all that. Much like the Syrian refugee who had his suffering criticised in the conversation published in die Zeit, T. reported facing a brand of isolation that he had neither experienced nor expected. The source of these feelings, he mused, was directly connected to being perceived and treated as 'a refugee' – not just by the administration, but in many well-intentioned social and leisure contexts, too. As the discussion in the introduction of this article demonstrated, the will to admit that particular problem – the problem of reception, not of integration – and to tackle it is almost entirely missing.

Almost entirely. Voices challenging the status quo are marginalised, but they are organised, strategic and combative. One thing many of them share is their finding that the struggle and burden that comes with being in Germany – the emotional, material and intellectual work of coping with a new and challenging situation – is invisible, intangible, and picked up by refugees themselves. Hell, they wouldn't have made it here if it wasn't for their resources, strength, and self-organisation.

On that topic, readers of this piece may choose to next read the keynote speech to the Berlin 'Interventionen' Conference, held in June 2016. Given by Sinthujan Varatharajah, a doctoral student, writer, and member of 'Flüchtlinge Willkommen' (refugees welcome), the speech is titled: "Self-organisation – what’s up with that?" Here it is in its English version.

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