Refugees in Berg am Starnberger See, Germany

Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos

Refugees returning to their emergency tent shelter from a charity bazaar where they were given clothes, Berg am Starnberger See, Germany, 2015

In 2014 Emad Kendakji’s hometown of Hama became a center of fighting between Syrian rebel and government forces, and he was terrified of being conscripted into the army. “I knew I had to fight or get out,” he recently told me. So, like many other Syrians, the twenty-eight-year-old law school graduate embarked on a perilous journey to Europe. He traveled across much of North Africa to Melilla, a Spanish territory on the Moroccan coast. The official at the Spanish refugee office, however, told him, “Just go to Germany. There is a better life and work there. We are poor.” He took the man’s advice and a few days later arrived in Düsseldorf.

Kendakji was part of the so-called refugee wave of 2015 and 2016, when more than two million migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, and Eritrea, among other countries, made their way to Europe within a span of months. Driven by a confluence of events including the war in Syria, fallout from the Arab Spring, and worsening conditions in refugee camps in the Middle East, the mass migration prompted a crisis in Europe. Many countries refused to bear the burden of housing and feeding the new arrivals, producing bitter disagreement among European Union member states. According to the Pew Research Center, ultimately about 45 percent of the refugees ended up in Germany, which took in over 1.2 million of them, equivalent to 1.5 percent of the country’s population.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to allow the migrants in was initially greeted with widespread praise. It seemed to encourage a vision of a new, inclusive Germany and a burgeoning moral superpower, bolstering Merkel’s reputation as the “leader of the free world.” But it also drew scorn and schadenfreude from right-wing populists, who argued that it would lead to Germany’s social and economic ruin. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán later said, “If I would pursue a refugee policy like the chancellor, the people would chase me out of office the same day.” Just before his inauguration in early 2017, President-elect Trump said it was a “catastrophic mistake” for Merkel to have taken in “all of those illegals.”

Now, more than five years after the refugee crisis, the apocalyptic predictions have not materialized. According to numbers released last summer, the migrants from that period have integrated faster than previous refugee influxes. Approximately half of them have jobs, and another 50,000 are taking part in apprenticeship programs. The federal education minister has stated that more than 10,000 are enrolled in university. Three quarters of them now live in their own apartment or house and feel “welcome” or “very welcome” in Germany. The financial cost to the German government of taking in the migrants—including housing, food, and education—is likely to be recovered, in taxes, earlier than many had predicted.

But not all has gone well. Due to a scrambled deportation process, about 250,000 migrants without refugee status remain in the country in a state of limbo. Although some of the new arrivals have become doctors, students, and entrepreneurs, a significant number remain illiterate and unable to complete basic German-language courses. A disproportionate number of the newcomers are working jobs with few prospects for advancement, raising concerns that they may remain trapped in vulnerable economic conditions for the foreseeable future. Although over 80 percent of the migrants worked in skilled jobs before coming to Germany, only about half do so now, often taking jobs—as shelf-stockers, industrial help, or cleaning staff—that are unappealing to many Germans.

Kendakji now lives in Saarlouis, near the French border, and works as an HR adviser at TimePartner, one of Germany’s largest temp firms. He partly helps assign migrants to jobs for TimePartner’s clients, mainly manufacturers in need of unskilled labor. Kendakji estimates that he has placed two thousand refugees in temporary positions over the past three years, mostly in the industrial, storage, and food sectors. Temp firms like TimePartner, he said, are one of the best ways for migrants to enter the German workforce, because they allow newcomers to skip over the burdensome internship and certification process required for many jobs in Germany. “Many of the people we hire wouldn’t even get interviews at most companies,” he told me.

Kendakji, who has abandoned his hopes of working as a lawyer here because of the long path to getting his credentials recognized, said that many migrants have had to give up their loftier professional dreams. Recently, he told me, he tried to place a Syrian pharmacist in a job at a chocolate factory, but the man refused: “I tried to help him, but there was no point.” Kendakji noted that this shift to menial work is the price many have to pay for a life in Germany: “If I go back to Syria, they will immediately kill me.” To emphasize this, he ran a finger across his throat and laughed uncomfortably: “We need to work in any area we can, because we want to stay.”


During the refugee crisis, German authorities hoped to avoid the mistakes made during previous periods of increased immigration to the country. Between 1955 and 1973, 14 million Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, arrived in Germany, mostly from Southern Europe and Turkey. Because they were meant to leave the country after their contracts ended, they were not provided with language courses or other resources to help them fit in. Ultimately, three million of these workers remained, but many retreated into insular communities that were comparatively slow to integrate into German society.

Since then, German authorities have partly shifted the onus of integration from migrants onto the state. Since 2005 the Bundestag has loosened several laws regulating how refugees can work and move around the country and facilitated access to language aid and welfare, and the Federal Constitutional Court ruled in 2012 that asylum applicants were allowed to collect the same benefits as many unemployed Germans. Most new arrivals are provided with an “integration course,” an orientation class that prepares them for the job market and culminates in a language test and a quiz on “life in Germany,” with questions like “What is the German constitution?”

The approach has been largely vindicated. Monika Lüke, the former integration commissioner for Berlin and the head of a church-based social aid group called Diakonisches Werk Berlin Stadtmitte, told me that she believed integration in the German capital “has been successful” and pointed out that there had been no discernible worsening of “social indicators,” such as child poverty and unemployment. Berlin, she explained, had always faced challenges in integrating newcomers because of its relatively high unemployment and low income compared to the rest of the country, but “the training paths have been improved and many of the new arrivals, especially the kids and youths, speak very good German.”

In 2015 and 2016 authorities distributed newly arrived migrants across German states according to the so-called Königsteiner Schlüssel, which based allocations on a state’s population and wealth. North Rhine–Westphalia welcomed the most newcomers, and Bremen the least. Many of them have settled in small towns and villages, some of which had little experience with migrants. The change has been especially dramatic in the former East German states. In the district of Sonneberg, in the state of Thuringia, the percentage of non-German citizens rose by 406 percent between 2012 and 2019, to a total of 5.3 percent of the population.

A survey of local officials in ninety-two mostly small communities across Germany by a team led by Hannes Shammann, a professor of political science at the University of Hildesheim, concluded that rural regions have largely proved to be as adept at managing integration as large cities. The influx, the study concluded, had been a “starting point for a new or at least more systematic engagement with migration and migration-related diversity,” and recent experiences have shown that even small communities in Germany “can handle immigration.”

One of the greatest delays to resettling the migrants turned out to be caused by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), a central authority founded in 2005 that quickly became overwhelmed during the crisis. Understaffed and overly bureaucratic, it was unable to process the applications of half the applicants who arrived in 2015 before the end of that year, delaying access to integration courses and forcing many to sit idly in group housing. Since 2015 the agency has increased its staff from two thousand to more than eight thousand, and authorities have tried to streamline interagency coordination, but the average duration of an asylum application remains over six months. The push for speed in the BAMF’s asylum decisions has also led to a sometimes slapdash approach, resulting in a rise in legal appeals and backlogs in German courts.

The shortcomings of the official system have been partly alleviated by an unprecedented outpouring of civic and corporate engagement. According to the Federal Family Ministry, more than half of all Germans have worked in some way to help the migrants since 2015 by offering language courses, donated clothes, or other free services—a torrent of support initially known as Willkommenskultur, or “welcome culture.” Many of the country’s large and midsized companies introduced programs catering to the new arrivals. The Deutsche Post mail service created a thousand paid internship positions for them, and Henkel, a detergent and cosmetics manufacturer, gave its employees eight paid vacation days per year to volunteer with refugees. Lioba Kemper, who leads a program for migrants at the Handwerkskammer Mannheim, an association for tradespeople, told me, “Everywhere I go, people work with migrants.”


For years, the country has faced an aging population and a crippling shortage of skilled workers, leading some business leaders to consider the arrival of the refugees, as Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche put it, a potential “economic miracle.” But the uncontrolled nature of the influx has complicated the situation. While about half of the migrants from Syria had a secondary education, many of those from Eritrea and Iraq were illiterate. It’s likely that many of the latter won’t enter the workforce for years. Many new arrivals have also found jobs in hospitality and food service, sectors that have been especially hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, though its long-term effects on the economy remain unclear.

The influx has also shown the limits of the country’s vaunted duale Ausbildung, or vocational education and training program, a mixture of theory courses and internships admired internationally for its ability to create paths into the skilled workforce outside of a university education. The system was intended for young people, and its multiyear time commitment and low pay have been an impediment for many new arrivals who face pressure to pay off smugglers or send money to family members in their countries of origin. The slow and difficult process of recognizing foreign qualifications has also proved to be a roadblock, and so far authorities have struggled to implement a modular approach that would allow participants to skip over education they have already completed elsewhere.

Some of the female migrants came from regions in which women were discouraged from entering the job market, creating additional hurdles. According to figures from the Institute for Employment Research (IAB), employment numbers are starkly divided by gender, as only 29 percent of women from the influx are employed, compared to 57 percent of men. Hana Dahmash, a fifty-two-year-old in Hamburg, told me she studied law in Damascus before arriving in Germany in 2015. She still struggles to speak German with strangers and has given up on the prospect of finding legal work. “I can’t say if the decision to come here was right or wrong,” she told me. “But I accept everything.” She’s currently hoping to get a job working as a hospital orderly.

Anti-immigrant sentiment also remains a disturbing reality. Claudia Sturm, the manager of a painting and plastering business in Harthausen, a village of three thousand in southwest Germany, hired several refugees from Syria as trainees in 2018. “We’ve had problems finding skilled workers for a decade, so 2015 was an opportunity,” she recently told me by phone. But she quickly learned that some of her German employees were harassing the new arrivals. “We have some Alternative for Germany voters,” she said, referring to the far-right party. Ultimately, she chose to keep all of the workers, but reorganized schedules so the refugees and right-wing employees did not overlap. “If they have been at the company for a long time,” she said, “they can make life difficult.”

Mohammad Al Rahal, a twenty-seven-year-old refugee from Syria, told me he had never felt unsafe since arriving in Hamburg in 2015, but that he has been unnerved by subtle harassment and racism. After an Islamic State terrorist carried out a knife attack in France, a colleague at the hotel where he works asked him pointedly if he was a pious Muslim, apparently suspicious that he might commit a similar assault. When he stumbled over German words in class, a classmate once told him to “learn my language.” He told her that “integration isn’t a one-way street. You don’t need to learn my language, but you do need to be a human being.”

The most precarious of the new arrivals remain those who had their requests for asylum denied but, for one reason or another, remain in the country. Activists argue that Germany’s biggest mistake in the crisis was likely the decision to withhold integration resources from rejected asylum-seekers and those with low likelihoods of having their refugee status approved—the latter largely being migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Balkan countries. The approach was designed to concentrate resources on migrants who are likely to stay in the long term. But officials’ handling of deportations has instead created a half-settled population with fewer employment prospects and large obstacles to integration.

Germany returned 22,000 people to their countries of origin in 2019, a small fraction of those due to be deported. The process has been hampered by impenetrable bureaucracy and scrambled data collection, but also by public resistance. In some cases, activists have successfully prevented authorities from picking up migrants, and pilots have refused to take off with deportees on board. Recent attempts by the German interior minister to take a more assertive approach have had little effect, and many of those who are deported illicitly return.

The authorities have partly dodged the problem by granting four fifths of rejected asylum applicants a Duldung, or toleration, an interim status that allows them to stay in the country for a limited period, with the possibility of an extension but reduced financial benefits and restricted freedom to move around the country. Starting in 2019, rejected asylum seekers could receive a residency permit (and, in some cases, eventual citizenship) if they found an internship or a job and fulfilled other financial and housing criteria, but since these migrants often lack identification papers from their countries of origin and face limitations on travel, such positions have remained elusive for many.

One such migrant is Oluwasegun Adebayo, a twenty-three-year-old from Nigeria who for the past three years has been living in the small town of Dossenheim, in the central German state of Hesse. “I have good potential in Germany,” he recently told me by phone, pointing to the region’s enormous auto industry and his experience working with cars in Lagos. But for most of his time here he has been living in a state of legal uncertainty. He had previously been rejected for asylum in Italy, complicating his attempt to claim asylum here. Adebayo told me he had left Nigeria because he thought he would be killed but said he couldn’t be more specific “for legal reasons.”

He was deported from Germany to Italy in 2018 but returned secretly a few months later. One year after that he had improved his language skills, joined a soccer team, and finally become an apprentice at a car dealership. Then the police knocked on Adebayo’s door and sent him to Italy a second time. “I was so depressed, there was no hope for me,” he said. He slept outside at a train station with no winter clothes, begging for change. “I knew as a Christian it was a sin, but I really thought I was going to kill myself,” he told me. The only thing that kept him alive, he said, were texts from his soccer teammates.

With their encouragement, Adebayo snuck back into Germany, and with proof of his position at the dealership was given a Duldung that will likely allow him to complete his traineeship. If all goes well, he will find a job and a permit to stay, though it remains unclear if he can ever become a German citizen. For the first time since he arrived in Germany, he is in a situation that allows him to tentatively plan for the future, and a real possibility of integrating into the German employment market. “I must tell you the truth, every day, when I pray, I say, ‘God bless Germany,’” he told me, adding, “I have nowhere else to go.”

Victoria Rietig, the head of the migration program at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told me that Germany is in danger of repeating the mistakes of other countries, like the United States, with large populations of migrants who lack clear legal status. “We now have a quarter of a million people who are being segued into second-class nonresidency,” she told me.

This raises some difficult moral questions, because we are saying you are not allowed to be here, but are we really willing to kick people out by force? The issue is especially thorny because of our history of deportations under the Third Reich. The question is difficult for every country, but it’s especially difficult for Germany.

Rietig argues that the most practical solution would be to focus on offering financial incentives for the departure of rejected asylum-seekers willing to return home and on deporting those who pose a criminal threat, while giving the rest an easier path toward residency and, ultimately, citizenship. She told me, “We have to act sooner rather than later, if we don’t want the debate to get as bad as in the US.” Germany, she also pointed out, desperately needs immigrants to maintain its tax base and social safety net in the decades to come. Federal statistics predict that 27 percent of Germans will be above the age of sixty-seven by 2060, and according to a 2019 study from the Bertelsmann Foundation, the country needs 260,000 additional workers every year to safeguard its economy and welfare benefits. The process of offering people a path to legal status, she said, “isn’t rocket science.”

Much of the international coverage of the refugee situation in Germany has focused not on the experiences of the migrants themselves but on the simultaneous rise of the far right in the country. The influx, many have argued, has been a direct cause of this development. Far-right extremism has indeed surged. In 2015 the official number of attacks on refugee housing registered by the Federal Criminal Police Office increased fivefold over the previous year’s, to more than one thousand. There have also been a number of high-profile attacks on pro-refugee politicians, including a knife attack on a Cologne mayoral candidate that severed her windpipe and the murder in 2019 of Walter Lübcke, a regional politician in Hesse, by a far-right extremist.

It’s true that the influx helped fuel the rapid growth of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which was founded as a Euro-skeptic party in 2013 but drifted further toward the anti-immigrant far right after 2015. Its politicians have raced to outdo one another in venal, attention-grabbing rhetoric. In 2016 Beatrix von Storch, the party’s deputy chairperson, wrote on Facebook that German border guards should shoot women and children trying to illegally cross the border into the country. (She later backtracked, saying that only the women should be shot.) The party garnered a surprising 13 percent of the vote in the next year’s federal election, making it the biggest opposition party and the first far-right party to sit in the German parliament since 1961.

But the media’s focus on the AfD has overshadowed the continued support for migrants among ordinary Germans. Although the Willkommenskultur has faded from public view, it has not disappeared. A study by the Family Ministry from 2018 showed that one in five Germans helped the refugees in some capacity. Silke Radosh-Hinder, a pastor working with the Refugee Church, a religious organization helping migrants in Berlin, recently told me that many volunteers remained as committed as during the height of the influx: “I still know an incredible number of people who support and mentor refugees, and what I think has ebbed is the put-on aspect, where people want to be publicly recognized for helping people.”

In his wide-ranging 2019 history of migration in Germany, Das Neue Wir (The New Us), the German historian Jan Plamper argued that the past decade has been unfairly defined in the public eye by the rise of the far right: “In truth, during the 2010s, politics overall has grown polarized—both the left-wing and the right-wing extremes became stronger.” This development on the left, he writes, has coincided with the rise of a vocal and well-organized pro-refugee movement, largely organized by migrants themselves, that has laid the groundwork for a lasting social acceptance of migration. Willkommenskultur, he makes clear, was not a onetime event but part of a larger trend.

Recent developments have also shown the limits of the AfD’s political appeal. Although the party remains popular in the former East German states, where it has capitalized on grievances that long predated the refugee crisis, its poll numbers have sunk nationally, reaching a low of 7 percent last fall. And other parties have been punished by voters when they’ve tried to imitate the AfD’s policies. When the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s CDU, adopted anti-refugee rhetoric during the 2018 state elections, promising to impose stricter controls at the border, it received 10 percent less of the vote than it had in the previous election, while the pro-refugee Greens gained 9 points. In this fall’s federal election, in which the CDU/CSU and the Greens are currently favored, migration isn’t expected to be a dominant issue.

Following the 2015 influx, several parties moved to the right on immigration in an effort to win back AfD voters. But in January the Die Zeit editors Robert Pausch and Bernd Ulrich argued that the “political hegemony” in the country has once again shifted away from such policies. “The country’s gentle rightward drift ended. First slowly, then ever faster,” they wrote. This was seemingly confirmed that same month, when Armin Laschet, a moderate and a Merkel ally, defeated the more hard-line Friedrich Merz to become the new head of the CDU. Merz has argued that multiculturalism had failed in the country, and that new arrivals needed to assimilate more thoroughly, insisting that immigrants should adhere to a clearly defined German Leitkultur, or leading culture, to fit in.

But given Germany’s need to reinvent itself after the Nazis’ crimes, the country’s postwar culture has always been something of a cipher, and in recent decades it has become altogether more mutable. By 2015 about one in five Germans was an immigrant or had an immigrant parent (a development that likely contributed to the breadth of the Willkommenskultur). Now, partly due to the refugee influx, that number has risen to one in four. In many German schoolyards, young people speak a blend of German and Turkish or Arabic. The two German scientists who led the development of the first vaccine against Covid-19, Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, are both the children of Turkish immigrants. As part of a new initiative this year, German media began giving “non-German” names to weather phenomena: in January northern Germany was blanketed by snow from Storm Ahmet.

In his book, Plamper convincingly argues that fixed notions of Leitkultur are outdated and that the time has come for a fluid concept created and maintained “in the context of the constitution via democratic decision-making: legal initiatives, parliamentary decision-making, committees, commissions, competitions.” He writes that a “core element” of a new German identity, informed by the memory of the Holocaust, should be “tolerance, understood as respect for others, whom I do not try to change, even if they are foreign to me or I don’t like them.” He argues, “The collective identity of the German nation therefore cannot forever be fixed, because the German society is, like all other societies, in a constant process of change.”

It’s clear that the influx has accelerated this change. Refugees have opened Berlin’s first Arabic library and have founded start-ups. Syrian restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores have proliferated. In a shift welcomed by some observers, Syrians are now the second-largest population in Germany’s Muslim community after Turks. Many Muslim leaders in Germany are affiliated with the Erdoğan government, which has long made officials suspicious of their political agenda. The Syrians’ arrival has thus broken up what one Islamic scholar has described as Germany’s “Islamic monoculture.”

In February Tareq Alaows, a thirty-one-year-old Syrian lawyer who arrived in Germany in 2015, became the first person from the migrant influx to announce that he was running for a seat in the Bundestag, as a candidate of the Green Party. Speaking to me on Zoom in March, he said his priorities included making it easier for all migrants to access language courses, as well as speeding up work permits and the recognition of foreign qualifications: “Politicians can’t really react properly to these issues if they themselves don’t know what it’s like to flee and to spend a long time feeling like your life is in danger, and then come here and go through all these integration processes.”

Alaows told me, “Germany is an immigration society, a post-migration society, and that also means that we should not be about one-sided integration but about two-sided integration. This requires inclusion and cohabitation and participation. You can’t just copy and paste people into a society.” The country, he argued, had learned some important lessons in the past decades about what it takes to welcome immigrants, “but we still need to learn a lot from German history, and from 2015.” He emphasized that the German government needed to become more open-minded about allowing rejected asylum seekers to transition into economic immigrants.

Several weeks after our conversation, Alaows unexpectedly announced that he was withdrawing his candidacy for personal reasons, in part because people close to him had received unspecified threats. “In our society, we unfortunately lack spaces that are free of discrimination,” he wrote in his statement, adding that nevertheless “my candidacy has shown what we refugees can do.”

When we’d spoken earlier, he told me he was running as a Green because migration is inseparable from the climate crisis and, given future climate change, the lessons of the past five years are increasingly relevant, not just to Germany. Even if you ignored the ongoing conflict in Syria, he pointed out, temperatures in parts of that country have recently reached levels that are barely livable. “If the situation stays like this, then more people will come,” he said. “Migration is not a problem, it’s a fact.”

—March 31, 2021