Angela Merkel's immigration policy was given a largely positive assessment by the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration (SVR), though one of its members described the confusing situation at the European level as a "catastrophe."
The panel of nine academics from various fields appeared together at a press conference in Berlin on Tuesday to present their annual migration report. It evaluated policy developments of the past few years, particularly those in response to the so-called "refugee crisis" of 2015-16, when more than one million individuals, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, sought asylum in Germany.
The report's central theme was the "balancing act" between controlling migration and integrating those refugees who are entitled to live in Germany.
The experts pointed to what they called almost "hectic" reforms in Germany's immigration legislation in the years following 2015, when local authorities and state governments were occasionally reduced to seizing school halls to house the sudden influx of refugees.
'Did we manage it?' 'Yes, quite well'
"One could ask whether Germany is prepared for another crisis," Hans Vorländer, political scientist at Dresden's Technical University, mused out loud at the end of the Q+A session. "I would say yes, the shock of '15 led to a stress test, and Germany actually withstood that stress test quite well, and would now be much better prepared for a crisis than it was in 2015."
Around a third of the refugees who arrived in 2015 had found work by the autumn of 2018, the council reported, describing the figure as a surprising success rate.
Since 2014, Merkel has led two different administrations, with the most recent national election in 2017 leading to a government hiatus and a cabinet reshuffle. Both of these administrations have introduced a plethora of immigration-related laws. Some of these have tightened the rules: Deportations have become much easier to carry out, and the list of "safe countries of origin" has been extended to include countries in the western Balkans and elsewhere, making it more difficult for asylum-seekers from these countries to stay.
On the other hand, the council said, integration opportunities for asylum-seekers have been widened and individuals with "tolerated" status, meaning they do not have the legal right to remain in Germany but neither face imminent forced deportation, now have a better chance of staying. Additionally, SVR panel member and sociologist Christian Joppke pointed out that Germany was the only European country that allowed successfully integrated refugees to bring their families.
While the council's report focused on Germany, Petra Bendel, political scientist at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, described the situation at the EU level as "catastrophic." The lack of a standardized asylum system across the bloc means that refugees face highly different rules and procedures depending on the country in which they submit their applications.
The AnkER center debate
The council, which made a noticeable effort to illustrate the complex nuances of migration, still found plenty to criticize in Germany in its 200-plus page report. The council noticed an increase in crime both by and directed at migrants. Hate crimes, for instance, more than doubled from 2014 to 2015, though they fell somewhat after 2017 when the refugee influx slowed. At the same time, migrants are disproportionately more likely to commit crimes, which the council said was partially, though not entirely, explainable to socio-demographic factors.
Another problem the council found was that new regulations draw distinctions between refugees with stronger or weaker "prospects of staying." This means that those who have come from "safe" countries, and are therefore less likely to receive asylum, have no right to work and no access to integration courses, which leaves them hanging in limbo for months and sometimes years as their cases drag through different authorities and courts.
"Realistically, a lot of people with uncertain prospects of staying will be staying in Germany a long time," said Thomas Bauer, the council's chairman and an economics professor at the University of Bochum. "And to resist integration measures here could be very expensive for us in the long term. As an economist I see integration measures always as an investment."
The experts also dropped a few words of criticism for the media and the politicians over the "populist" debate surrounding Germany's new "AnkER" refugee processing centers. These "all-under-one-roof" facilities, introduced by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer last August, are supposed to radically accelerate asylum procedures and allow the deportation of those whose applications have been turned down to proceed more quickly. But there has been criticism of the humanitarian conditions in such camps, where asylum-seekers are held from arrival until application decision.
Bendel, who visited a number of AnkER facilities to research the report, suggested that their creation had been largely unnecessary, since in many cases all that had changed was the label on such centers.
Beyond that, she questioned whether people in the facilities, which often house several hundred people for months, "always have access to their rights," and whether the fact that children living in the camps are not educated in local schools is in line with the UN Convention on children's rights. "And on the question of access of vulnerable people to special protection, we see that this is often handled in different ways," she added. She said such facilities needed to be independently evaluated and standardized.
Other council members, such as Daniel Thym, the SVR's legal expert, added that the facilities actually hadn't changed very much procedurally, other than allowing for easier deportation. He argued that the controversy over AnkER centers had been rhetorically inflated by a slightly hysterical media debate over the past few years.
Then again, Thym also pointed out that hysteria is likely to be the reason why Merkel's government has been so focused on the migration issue and, if the report is to be believed, has done a fair amount right.