Germany's Refugee Influx is Both a Challenge and an Opportunity

Refugees in Germany
Asylum seekers wait in front of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) at Berlin's Spandau district, Germany August 17. Stefanie Loos/Reuters

The president of The Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce, which represents German companies and more than three million entrepreneurs, explains why his country need asylum seekers.

The influx of refugees entering Germany shows no sign of abating. Many of these people are fleeing countries affected by war or political persecution. In 2014, Germany received around 200,000 applications for asylumthis year up to 800,000 people are expected to come to us. This is a challenge that we have to meet and the only possible way for us to do so is to offer long-term options to the people who are going to stay in our country. Integration through vocational education and employment are the best tools to ensure success.

During the last few years, the government of the Federal Republic of Germany has implemented crucial measures aimed at facilitating the integration of refugees into the labour market. Many obstacles have been removed. As a result, asylum seekers are now in a legal position to work after a period of three instead of nine months. Young refugees' access to vocational training and internships in Germany has been facilitated. These are very welcome developments. However, further obstacles need to be removed on the path towards integration.

Many companies are desperate to find trainees and qualified staff, while some refugees have qualifications that are dearly needed. This potential needs to be exploited to a much larger extent. Therefore it is necessary to bridge the gap between the path of asylum and labour migration. Up until now a shift to labour migration, a 'lane change' so to say, has not been possible. As soon as an application for asylum has been submitted, it is no longer possible to obtain a residence permit on the grounds of work. This particularly applies to people from the Western Balkan states, who make up the majority of the applicants. If they have relevant qualifications, they should be offered the possibility of a work visa so as to be employed in branches in which qualified staff are needed. Consequently, the possibility of qualified migration should be made known in the countries of origin.

Vocational education is also a factor of paramount importance for the integration of young refugees. No less than a quarter of asylum seekers are aged between 16 and 25. The Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK) favours more than ever the rule protecting refugees who are likely to be granted long-term residency from deportation until they have completed the full time of their professional training, which lasts for three years, followed by two years of practice (the so-called '3+2' rule). A specific residence permit should be issued to this aim. Apprentices and companies need legal and planning security. Motivated young people and committed companies should not be hampered in their endeavour. In July, when Germany revised its residency laws to allow local authorities to grant residency permits in some circumstances, the government could have seized this opportunity to provide such security in the framework of the reform of the right of residence, but it failed to do so. Now, it is left to the federal states to ensure that the relevant offices would at least apply the existing rules and regulations to the benefit of young refugees.

Good rules and regulations are only one side of the coin. However, the ABC of integration in a company starts with letter 'L', and that is language skills. Insufficient language skills are often an impediment in sectors where contact with customers or clients is of great importance. No one can master the German language overnight. It is therefore essential that refugees with a long-time residence perspective are offered the chance to attend integration and language courses as early as possible. The refugee summit that was held this year in June and the action plans that were decided there sent out the right signals. In the future, refugees should have better access to language schemes, the number and variety of which should be enlarged.

Another challenging issue is the length of the asylum procedureespecially in view of the increasing number of applications for asylum. It takes many months of waiting before the decision to grant asylum is taken. This is an enormous challenge for companies that would like to offer a job or vocational training to refugees. Companies are often hesitant to employ refugees as there is always the risk their new employee could be deported shortly after. For the refugees, this uncertainty is a major source of anxiety. For this reason, it's necessary to increase the number of staff at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) to be better equipped to fulfil its tasks quickly and more efficiently.

Needless to say, it is difficult to facilitate access to jobs without knowing what qualifications the potential applicant has. Therefore it is also important to identify qualifications at an early stage. Indeed, this step should be completed upon the submission of the asylum application. The results should also be used as the basis for advising bodies, so that the refugees are put into the right educational or further education scheme, or employment. The model project "Early Intervention" implemented at the beginning of 2014 by the German Federal Agency for Employment and the German Federal Immigration Office adopted the same approach: the identification of competences at an early stage combined with support schemes to acquire language skills are included in this package. The objective is to bring the people to work as soon as possible and was trialled in nine towns and cities, with more than 700 people taking part. This is a positive approach and the experience that has been gathered should be used as a basis for further development.

We need openness and tolerance in order to live together and maintain peaceful relationships with one another and a welcoming culture and improved corresponding structures are a prerequisite to this. The Association of the Chambers of Commerce contributes to making this culture of welcome a reality by means of various projects. As an example, the DIHK has established welcome centres and taken initiatives with other partners including corporate networks and job centres. Newly arrived people receive support and advice in issues related to legal procedures, all areas of life and the various aspects of employment in Germany.

Dr. Eric Schweitzer is President of The Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK)