The Refugee Crisis Confronts Germany’s Society with Three Major Challenges

The dominant theme of this year’s discussions is that of refugees. Factual debates have turned into power issues now.

Who will win the fight about the implementation of “ceilings” for the influx of refugees? Who will be the winner of the power struggle between Merkel and Seehofer? Will Gabriel be backed up by his party? Is Merkel’s power crumbling? These are the headlines you find. The question of power was attached to terms such as ceilings, refugee quotas, deportation, and influx restrictions. But debates about terms do not, however, present solutions, yet.

Many people are anxious. They fear that new cheap labor endangers their jobs. Others have fury because they have been searching for cheap housing for a long time. They think politicians have money for refugees but not for them.

There are no ready-made solutions in refugee matters. In Germany we have known this for many years. During the seventy years since the Second World War, more than 30 million people have moved to Germany—this year alone, around 1 million. Most Germans are willing to help refugees. But they also want to know what they have to expect.

For a limitation and control of influx it is important to tackle the root causes of flight in the countries and regions concerned. Here all agree. It is good that the U.S. and Italy try to put an end to civil war in Libya. It is good that Syrian opposition groups have agreed on a negotiation strategy.

It is a pity that there is no recipe against the despair in the Middle East that is nourished by poverty and unemployment. Europe can tackle the fight against the causes of flight only in a shared action. Such a task would overstretch single member states.

Securing the external European borders is the second big challenge. According to the European government, it requires having European border guards whose task is to enforce the rules of the Schengen Treaty.

In the age of globalization, no member state can close its borders. Anyone who tells citizens otherwise is not telling the truth. Everybody who wants to live in a Europe without borders must help to secure the external borders.

Anybody who wants to block and control national borders has to quit the Schengen system. It is indeed possible to be a member of the European Union without being a member of the Schengen Treaty system. The European Constitutional Treaty explicitly provides for a two-speed Europe. However, anybody who withdraws from solidarity in refugee matters cannot expect solidarity for himself.

The third focus has hardly been discussed up to now. No one politically shall give the impression today that those who have come to us will leave the country in the near future. This already was the mistake of the 1960s. We wanted to recruit guest workers but in fact had to learn that we got people.

The same mistake was made with the immigrants of the 1990s. That is why integration of immigrants is a big challenge. Employment and language are basic factors in the integration of immigrants. The first integration programs were developed at the beginning of the new century. The first Integration Minister was appointed in North Rhine-Westphalia in 2005. A consistent integration policy showed great successes.

Unfortunately, some programs have been stopped in the meantime. Now, it is necessary to install early integration courses. A refugee learning German at an early stage will be part of our society at an early stage. German lessons in kindergartens and schools must begin before the decision is made on the right to stay. Language tests for four-year-olds in kindergartens have proven successful. Around one-third of the age groups did not speak an age-adequate German; half of them came from immigrant families and the other half from families without a migration background.

Politicians and authorities must not generate new complications for integration now. An example is the complication of stages and temporary employment in our companies. We must spare no effort to ensure a decentralized housing of refugees. Refugees should not spend months in sport halls or tents. Only decentralized housing prevents the rise of social hotspots.

Only education and training gives refugees a chance to find a job. Only a working person can avoid becoming a burden to the welfare state. As many people these days give help to refugees on a voluntary basis, all authorities, schools, churches, social institutions, and companies have to make every effort in order to let integration succeed.

Only then it is possible to build a good future together, based on the human and civil rights of our constitution.

Prof. Dr. Jürgen Rüttgers is the former Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.