Five years ago, as more and more refugees crossed into Europe, Germany’s chancellor proclaimed, ‘We’ll manage this.’ Critics said it was her great mistake – but she has been proved right
Philip Oltermann in Berlin – The Guardian
Syrian refugees attempting to cross the border between Greece and Macedonia in 2015. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images
Mohammad Hallak found the key to unlock the mysteries of his new homeland when he realised you could switch the subtitles on your Netflix account to German. The 21-year-old Syrian from Aleppo jotted down words he didn’t know, increased his vocabulary and quickly became fluent. Last year, he passed his end of high school exams with a grade of 1.5, the top mark in his year group.
Five years to the month after arriving in Germany as an unaccompanied minor, Hallak is now in his third term studying computer science at the Westphalian University of Applied Sciences and harbours an aspiration to become an IT entrepreneur. “Germany was always my goal”, he says, in the mumbled sing-song of the Ruhr valley dialect. “I’ve always had a funny feeling that I belong here.”
Hallak, an exceptionally motivated student with high social aptitude, is not representative of all the 1.7 million people who applied for asylum in Germany between 2015 and 2019, making it the country with the fifth highest population of refugees in the world. Some of those with whom he trekked through Turkey and across the Mediterranean, he says, haven’t picked up more than a few words and “just chill”.
But Hallak is not a complete outlier either. More than 10,000 people who arrived in Germany as refugees since 2015 have mastered the language sufficiently to enrol at a German university. More than half of those who came are in work and pay taxes. Among refugee children and teenagers, more than 80% say they have a strong sense of belonging to their German schools and feel liked by their peers.
Success stories like Hallak’s partially redeem the optimism expressed by Angela Merkel in a sentence she spoke five years ago this week, at the peak of one of the most tumultuous years in recent European history – a sentence that nearly cost her her job and that she herself has partially retreated from.
“I put it simply, Germany is a strong country,” the German chancellor told the media at a press conference in central Berlin on 31 August 2015, trying to address concerns about the steeply rising number of people – mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – applying for asylum in Germany that summer.
“The motive with which we approach these matters must be: we have already managed so much, we’ll manage this.” During the German TV broadcast of her interview, headlines flashed up to report that Hungary was sending trainloads of people to the German border, 20,000 of whom turned up at Munich central station the following week alone.
The German phrase Merkel used, Wir schaffen das, became so memorable mainly because it would in the weeks and months that followed be endlessly quoted back at her by those who believed that the German chancellor’s optimistic message had encouraged millions more migrants to embark on a dangerous odyssey across the Med. “Merkel’s actions, now, will be hard to correct: her words cannot be unsaid,” wrote the Spectator. “She has exacerbated a problem that will be with us for years, perhaps decades.”
The Alternative für Deutschland party, founded two years previously on a more narrowly anti-euro ticket, discovered a new populist stride: when Merkel said “We will manage”, the rightwing party claimed, she really meant “You will manage”, asking the German public to cope with rising levels of crime, terrorism and public disorder.
“We don’t want to manage this!” the AfD politician Alexander Gauland proclaimed at a party rally in October 2015. Over the coming months and years – in the wake of the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne, the Bataclan terror attack in Paris and the truck rampage on Berlin’s Breitscheidtplatz Christmas market – that sentiment seemed to gain traction with a growing part of the German population, even when the crimes were not carried out by people who had arrived in 2015.
By 2017, there was a prevalent view that Wir schaffen das would be Merkel’s undoing, a “catastrophic mistake” as Donald Trump said in January that year. “The worst decision a European leader has made in modern times,” Nigel Farage told Fox News. “She’s finished.”
Yet today Merkel still sits at the top of Europe’s largest economy, her personal approval ratings back to where they were at the start of 2015 and the polling of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), buoyed to record levels by the global pandemic. When Merkel steps down ahead of federal elections in 2021, as is expected, her party’s successor currently looks more likely to be a centrist in her mould than a hardliner promising a symbolic break with her stance on immigration.
The question is what could she have done differently? You can’t seal a wide-open border with rhetoric and a few guards
Gerald Knaus, migration expert
The AfD, meanwhile, never reached the point “when it will be the country’s second-largest party”, as historian Niall Ferguson predicted in February 2018. The party has established a steady presence in local parliaments across Germany, especially in the states of the formerly socialist east. But at federal level the AfD has dropped to fourth in the polls, down from its third place and 12.6% at elections in 2017, and has been stricken with infighting since immigration has dropped off the top of the political agenda.
The spectre of jihadist terrorism, which some feared the refugee crisis would usher into the heart of central Europe, has faded from view in recent years. After a spate of seven attacks with an Islamist motive in Germany in 2016, culminating with a truck driven into a Berlin Christmas market that December, the country has seen no further attacks for the last three years.
Peter Neumann, a terrorism expert at King’s College London’s Department of War Studies, recalls being invited onto a German TV programme at the height of the crisis in 2015. “I gave my optimistic best back then, but deep down I was worried,” he says. “Will this work out? With nearly a million people about whom we know so little? In the end, those fears were misplaced.
“We know that some of the men involved in the Bataclan attack had exploited the chaos to smuggle themselves into Europe, in some cases posing as Syrian refugees. We also knew that the vast majority of people who arrived were young men, the very demographic is most susceptible to radicalisation. And yet, we can now say that the worst fears haven’t come true.
“In hindsight, Isis’s collapse happened quicker than we expected. It’s now clear that what made them so attractive for a while is less their ideology than their success. And when Isis stopped being successful, it stopped being attractive.”
However, Neumann says this was also due to the increasing efficiency of German intelligence agencies. According to data collected by Petter Nesser, a senior research fellow with the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, 16 terror plots with a jihadist motive have been foiled on German soil since the start of 2015, more than in France or the UK over the same period.
Countries of origin
The events of the summer of 2015 did evidently mobilise and further radicalise Germany’s rightwing extremist circles, who targeted asylum shelters with arson attacks or assassinated politicians with pro-immigration views, such as the CDU’s Walter Lübcke. No other country in Europe saw as much severe and fatal rightwing violence in 2019 as Germany.
Germany’s Federal Office of Criminal Investigations records a rise of criminal offences, including violent crime, in the years between 2014 and 2016, linking the trend to the influx of migration. The percentage of asylum seekers found guilty of such crimes also doubled in the same period. However, the majority of these offences were within the refugee shelters where new arrivals were initially housed. By 2017, when Trump claimed that “crime in Germany is way up” because it had taken in “all of those illegals”, the number of overall recorded crimes was decreasing. Last year, crime in Germany sank to an 18-year low.
What about the organised crime on Europe’s borders, where human traffickers prey on those willing to risk it all in the hope of a better life? In a 2017 book on reforming asylum policy, British economist Paul Collier argued that “while the industry was already well-established in the Mediterranean, the massive rise in demand triggered by the invitation from Germany further increased demand for smuggling by criminal syndicates.”
Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a thinktank that advises EU member-states on migration policy, disagrees vehemently: “The thesis that Merkel created the refugee crisis was absurd in 2015, and it’s even more absurd in retrospect,” he says.
Empirical studies have failed to find data proving that Merkel’s Wir schaffen das significantly intensified the movement of refugees into Europe, although it is likely that the attention drawn towards Germany’s liberal stance on asylum influenced the decisions of those who were already in Europe at the time.
“The question is: what could she have done differently?” says Knaus. “Reintroduce borders and try what France did after the Bataclan attacks in November 2015, sending all irregular migrants back to Italy? That proved futile: France received twice as many asylum applications in 2019 as in 2015. You can’t seal a wide-open border with rhetoric and a few more border guards, while brutality was fortunately ruled out in Germany.”
Germany’s stance in 2015 did prove too optimistic in the sense that Merkel’s government seemed to believe that the tumultuous events of that summer would lead to a quick reform of the Dublin Regulation, the mechanism that determines which state is responsible for examining an asylum application. Knaus says: “The Germans thought everyone would sign up to a quota system because it was ‘fair’, but they couldn’t explain how this would work in practice.”
Instead, Merkel’s government took unilateral steps to slow down the rate of new arrivals to a trickle. An agreement between Turkey and the EU to stop irregular migration and replace it with a resettlement scheme, developed by Knaus’s thinktank, drastically stemmed the flow of migrants to Europe in 2016. Merkel’s government later tried to limit asylum applications from north Africa by adding Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia to its list of countries considered safe, though the proposal was later rejected by the upper chamber of Germany’s parliament.
In March this year, Germany launched a social media campaign to deter Syrian refugees from embarking on a journey to central Europe, and Merkel’s “grand coalition” with the centre-left Social Democratic party voted against taking in even just 5,000 vulnerable refugees stranded in Greek camps.
Merkel never recanted her words of August 2015, as many even in her own party insisted she should. But she did ensure a situation like the one that followed won’t be repeated on German soil during her tenure.
On a sweltering afternoon in Berlin’s suburban south, preparations are afoot for the annual summer fete at the Marienfelde transit centre, a sprawling concrete camp that used to be the first port of call for many East Germans who fled to the west during the cold war, and now houses asylum seekers from around the world. While volunteers erect socially distanced benches and hang up garlands in the courtyard, a group of men and women from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq have gathered inside to meet the Berlin senate’s integration officer, to ask for advice and air grievances.
A 44-year-old Syrian is concerned that he might fail next month’s language exam, even though he will need a pass in order to start working. German classes have been cancelled because of the pandemic, and the wireless signal inside the camp is too weak for online learning. “Berlin, on our doorstep, that is Europe,” says the man, who doesn’t want to give his name for fear of getting into trouble with the Syrian embassy. “But this shelter is like a little Syria: everyone speaks Arabic.”
Germany was not the destination of choice for the father of three, who arrived in the country via the resettlement programme of the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR, in 2018. He is grateful that Merkel’s government took him in, but the wait for a work permit is starting to exasperate him. Before Berlin, he worked for six years as a pastry chef in Izmit, Turkey, but German bakers won’t accept his qualifications – he would need to do another two-year apprenticeship first. “It’s very frustrating.”
It’s a success story even if no one quite has the confidence to say it yet. Germany has managed
Katarina Niewiedzial, integration officer
The integration officer assures him she empathises with his plight: Katarina Niewiedzial, who has been in the post since 2019, was once a migrant herself, having arrived in Germany from Poland as a 12-year-old. She knows from personal experience the areas of public life where Germany is ill-equipped for the task of integrating newcomers.
German employers are often still reluctant to recognise foreign qualifications. If migrants lack the certificates to prove they are qualified enough to do a job, they can apply to prove their skills in an interview, but they need fluent German to do so – a bigger challenge for adults in their 40s than teenagers like Hallak. Last year, the German Chamber of Commerce only carried out 80 such “qualification analysis” processes in the whole of Germany.
Often refugees end up in jobs they are overqualified for, such as catering, which in turn are more precarious and have cut staff during the pandemic: in May this year, the number of unemployed Berliners without a German passport was up by 40% compared to the same period in 2019.
Many experts think that the integration classes that have been mandatory for refugees in Germany since 2005 are no longer fit for purpose, holding back those with academic qualifications while failing to offer real help for those who arrive without being able to read or write. The percentage of those failing the all-important B1 language test has risen rather than fallen over the last five years. And yet, Niewiedzial is optimistic. “Germany can be a very sluggish country, full of tiresome bureaucracy,” she says. “But it’s also able to learn from its mistakes and draw consequences from them.”
Since 2015, she says, the state had massively expanded its asylum authority, created thousands of posts to coordinate volunteers, turned shelters into permanent homes and trained specialist teachers. Germany has managed. “It’s a success story, even if no one quite has the confidence to say that yet.”
27 August 2015 71 migrants are found dead inside a refrigerated lorry abandoned in Austria. The discovery sparks international revulsion, and contributes to the decisions of several countries to open their borders to people fleeing war and poverty.
31 August 2015 Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, says Wir schaffen das – We’ll manage this – after visiting a camp for newly arrived refugees. Soon after she announces an open-door policy; in the year that follows over a million people claim asylum in Germany.
13 November 2015 The Bataclan attack in Paris is the first of a series of deadly attacks by Isis-affiliated extremists across Europe. In July 2016 a Syrian who declared his support for the group kills himself and injures 15 others with a homemade bomb at a music festival in the German town of Ansbach. The far right uses the attacks to argue against Merkel’s refugee policies.
March 2016 The EU strikes a deal with Turkey to return all refugees and migrants who reach Europe across the Aegean sea. This dramatically reduces the number of people arriving in Germany and other European countries to claim asylum.
19 September 2016 Merkel’s CDU party suffers a slump in support to just 18% in Berlin state elections, while anti-immigration populists Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) enters the German capital’s state parliament for the first time. Mayor Michael Müller warns that the level of support it won “would be seen around the world as a sign of the return of the rightwing and the Nazis in Germany”.
19 December 2016 A Tunisian whose asylum application had been turned down rams a truck into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people and wounding 70. Isis claims it inspired the attack.
24 September 2017 The populist radical-right AfD party enters the Bundestag, the German parliament, as the third biggest party. After Merkel forms a coalition with the Social Democrats, it becomes the largest opposition party.
October 2018 After crushing defeats in local elections, Merkel says she will step down as CDU leader almost immediately, and will not contest the 2021 elections, making her fourth term as Germany’s chancellor her last.
2020 Merkel’s effective handling of the coronavirus crisis helps restore her popularity, particularly as the US and UK stumble. One poll finds over 80% of Germans think she is doing her job “rather well”.