Anas Al-Asadi spent three months and 6,000 euros making his way from his home in Damascus to Germany, braving the frigid waters of the Mediterranean aboard leaky, overcrowded ships on three separate occasions, culminating in a rescue by the Italian Coast Guard and finally a bus across the Alps. For the next four months, he was bored stiff.
Then the 26-year-old got a job through a municipal program in Pfungstadt, a German town 25 miles south of Frankfurt, where he landed in February. The work wasn’t exactly challenging for Al-Asadi, who had been an attorney in Syria, and it certainly wasn’t well paid.
His employer was a local youth club, since private companies are barred from hiring people without work permits, and he earned just 1 euro ($1.15) per hour, the maximum allowed for new arrivals. But he says even simply vacuuming and sorting library books helped him better understand German culture and forced him to learn the language.
“I was just sitting there sleeping, eating, doing nothing,” said Al-Asadi, who has since gotten asylum and just started working as a waiter in a local cafe. “I asked if I could do something — anything.”
The town of 24,000 is home to more than 100 refugees seeking to start the formal asylum process and 50 others who have been granted residency, with more sure to come. The best way to integrate them, local officials say, is to help them find work, even if it’s odd jobs at community centers.
The program so far employs 15 people and has drawn inquiries from cities across Germany, where some 5,000 refugees are arriving daily and as many as 1 million are expected this year. While caring for those people will be costly, many Germans see their arrival as an opportunity to bolster a shrinking workforce, as the country has the world’s lowest birthrate.
“In an ideal case, this can help foster another economic miracle,” said Dieter Zetsche, chief executive officer of automaker Daimler AG.
The government forecasts the population will fall to 68 million by 2060, from 80 million today, and the number of people of working age will drop by as much as 30 percent, to 34 million. Unemployment is at 6.4 percent, its lowest level since reunification 25 years ago. Nordea Bank estimates that German state spending to house the new arrivals could top €5.4 billion, boosting gross domestic product by 0.25 percentage point in the next 18 months.
“Germany faces huge demographic challenges,” said Jens Weidmann, president of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank. “The country would benefit from the immigration of skilled people, both in terms of strengthening its growth potential and boosting contributions to its social security system.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is backing a plan that would impose quotas on European Union countries to accept some of the migrants who have flooded into Greece, Hungary, and Italy. On Sept. 22, the region’s interior and justice ministers are scheduled to discuss the issue after failing to come to an agreement this week.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Germany similarly looked to immigration to fill factories as the economy boomed. The country recruited Gastarbeiter — “guest workers” — from countries such as Greece, Turkey, and Yugoslavia, who powered growth after World War II.
Immigrants “have one big advantage, and this is motivation,” said Enzo Weber of the Institute for Employment Research, a state-funded think tank in Nuremberg. “They have lost everything, and they’re getting a new chance. If we get it right, it’s a huge driving force.”
Yet Germany will have to invest in training to ensure the economy truly benefits, cautions Raimund Becker, a board member at the Federal Employment Agency. While some newcomers are highly qualified, “almost 90 percent of them don’t have the qualifications needed to replace skilled workers,” he said.
Halima Gutale, a town social worker who developed the Pfungstadt program, knows the challenges ahead. She arrived in Germany from Somalia as a 15-year-old in 1996, knowing scarcely a word of the language. She struggled to figure out how to register with authorities, pay bills, find an apartment, and enroll in school.
So when the current wave of refugees started this year, she came up with the idea of a jobs program to smooth the way for them. Gutale contacted local officials to see whether she could offer them work at places such as a nonprofit cinema and the youth club, and the program got under way in April. Today she spends about half her time advising other German towns on how best to assimilate refugees, though none have yet launched a program like hers.
“We don’t want parallel societies with Germans on one side and asylum seekers on the other,” she said. “Germany hasn’t always taken its refugees by the hand and let them make a contribution. The next few years will be stressful.”