One million persons seeking asylum are expected to reach Germany this year, many of them attracted by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement in early September that Germany will allow asylum applicants to remain in the country while their claim is assessed—rather than returning them to await a ruling in the first EU country they entered. A million is a large number, albeit not unprecedented (in 1992 alone, 900,000 ethnically German residents of the former Soviet Union and refugees from ex-Yugoslavia entered the country; what is unprecedented now is the number of people who are dying in the attempt to get there). Some asylum seekers, such as those from the Balkan states, will see their application speedily rejected and be returned to their native country. But for those from cauldrons of violence and persecution like Syria, Eritrea and Somalia, the chances of success are high.
One hundred and twenty thousand will be re-distributed to other European countries, according to burden-sharing plan that Germany muscled though the EU Council of Ministers on a qualified majority vote on September 22. Under qualified majority voting, small EU states cannot block the decisions backed by large ones. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania voted against the plan; Poland very reluctantly went along with it. Finland abstained, which is counted as a vote against. Most of the successful asylum seekers will settle in Germany. That was their preferred destination and after all, the chancellor promised them that they were welcome. EU President Donald Tusk has warned that the numbers are sure to grow, and on September 8, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel stated that Germany could handle another 500,000 per year for the medium term.
Ms. Merkel is confusing immigration policy, which is long-term in nature and driven by economics, with refugee policy, which responds to spikes in humanitarian need.
Ms. Merkel, a consistent supporter of opening German borders to address its shrinking labor force, the so-called “demographic deficit,” has linked the asylum seekers to the need to rejuvenate Germany’s aging society. Over the last ten years, German immigration policy has indeed undergone a much-needed liberalization. But Ms. Merkel is confusing immigration policy, which is long-term in nature and driven by economics, with refugee policy, which responds to spikes in humanitarian need.
According to the UN Population Division, Germany’s population aged 20-64 is about 50 million and its population aged 65-plus is 17 million. One million successful asylum seekers would increase the population in the prime labor force years by a bit less than 2 percent (some of the refugees will be younger and a few will be older) and raise the ratio of persons aged 20-64 to persons aged 65+ from 2.86 to 2.92. The first change is modest and the second trivial—it is sustained immigration, year after year, that can shift demographic ratios over time, not dramatic one-off intakes. And even these effects overstate the benefit. Immigrant labor force participation rates are lower than for those of the native population, especially among women. The current wave of asylum seekers is well educated, but many of its members will not be able to obtain jobs that are commensurate with their skills. Some will drop out as a consequence. Parts of Germany, especially in the former East, are suffering de-population and could well use an infusion of young blood. But these are precisely the areas where asylum-seekers do not wish to live; nor, as evidenced by anti-refugee demonstrations in Saxony, are they wanted.
A million refugees from the countries now in crisis may not do much for Germany’s labor force, but it will immediately increase Germany’s estimated 4.3 million Muslim population by one-quarter, from about 5 to 6.25 percent of the total population. Slowly, at least for several generations, the share will creep up due to fertility differentials and the fact that proportionally more refugees are in the childbearing years. “Fear,” Ms. Merkel remarked, “is a bad adviser.” True, but one need not be paranoid to worry that the current shock, and future trend, will raise tensions in a country that acknowledges that its programs for integrating non-European immigrants are weak and fragmented, that non-European immigrants fare worse in school and the job market and that racist violence is a persistent problem. Benevolence will give way to annoyance and anti-Muslim sentiment will worsen, to the profit of Islamophobic groups like Pegida. Demands to limit immigration will grow louder. The refugee surge will have echo effects, especially in the form of applications for family reunification, which are practically impossible to deny. Germany will find, as has France, that its attempt to ensure a steady, controlled flow of highly skilled immigrants is frustrated by the fact that, once family reunification and valid asylum claims are met, there are not many places left.
When she forced German-style austerity on the rest of the continent in order to preserve the euro, Chancellor Merkel developed the reputation of a bully. Now she is trying to impose German immigration policy on the rest of Europe by insisting that other countries must accommodate refugees that were tempted to embark on the journey by her extravagant rhetoric. In France, President François Hollande’s expressed willingness to take in 24,000 over two years is a begrudging drop in the bucket (Germany has welcomed that many in a day). France, like England, has long been a country of stable immigration, but not one to accept masses of refugees, who offend the French taste for order and administration. Moreover, France has a heritage well over a hundred years old of promoting fertility precisely to avoid the sort of demographic decline now afflicting Germany.
The refugee debacle has put wind in the sails of angry nationalist political parties everywhere in Europe.
The refugee debacle has put wind in the sails of angry nationalist political parties everywhere in Europe. In Germany itself, the extreme right is no more than a minor irritant for Ms. Merkel, but it has real political traction in countries like France, Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. Beneath the veneer of self-congratulatory rhetoric that followed the European leaders’ summit in Brussels on September 23, politicians in Germany’s neighbors are seething at the mess that, even if she did not create, Ms. Merkel has exacerbated. And, worse, what signal is she sending to young people suffering in the crisis (and future crisis) hot-spots of the Middle East and Africa?
Still, they continue to pour in. Germany has closed its borders again. Austria and Hungary followed suit and the Netherlands strengthened border patrols. Croatia is shipping refugees back to Hungary. Serbia (only an EU aspirant, not yet a member state) and Croatia are bickering again. There have been ugly anti-refugee protests in Finland. Thomas de Mazière, Germany’s interior minister, has threatened to re-impose visa restrictions on countries that do not accede to the forced dealing-out of asylum-seekers. How ironic it would be if Angela Merkel’s legacy turned out to be not the preservation of the single currency, but dismantlement of visa-free Schengen zone travel.
Landis MacKellar is senior research associate, The Population Council, and co-editor in chief of Population and Development Review.