The Staggering Scale of Germany’s Refugee Project

Imagine that civil wars in Central America doubled the number of undocumented immigrants entering the United States. Now imagine all those migrants heading to California.

A migrant arrives by bus in Berlin. (Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters)

It’s early yet, but in the past few weeks, Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel, have emerged as contenders for the fastest international image makeover in recent memory. Just six months ago, the German magazine Der Spiegel decided to depict the mood in Europe by photoshopping Merkel into a picture of Nazi commanders on the Acropolis. The euro zone’s debt crisis had set Germans up, the cover story argued, as the European Union’s unpopular economic dictator.

But Germany’s recent policy shifts on the European migrant crisis—vast numbers of asylum-seekers, escaping war and persecution in countries such as Syria and Iraq, flooding into southern Europe—have shoved headlines in entirely the opposite direction. “Germany’s open-door policy in migrant crisis casts nation in a new light,” proclaims the Los Angeles Times. “Angela Merkel hailed as an angel of mercy,” reads The Sydney Morning Herald.

It’s hard to appreciate the sheer scale of the project Merkel and Germany have undertaken.

In the first seven months of 2015, Germany reportedly received well over 200,000 applications for asylum, leading Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere to predict in August that 800,000 people would arrive in the country as refugees or to pursue asylum by the end of the year, up from an estimate of 300,000 in January. It took some time for Merkel to adopt her current bold posture; when a far-right and neo-Nazi demonstration against a refugee center grew violent on August 21, the chancellor was sharply criticized in German papers for her late and tepid response. She and French President Francois Hollande called for greater European coordination in addressing the migrant crisis—a plea that looked rather weak and futile given the European rejection in June of a quota system for distributing asylum-seekers.

Scarcely two weeks later, however, Merkel and Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann granted passage to 10,000 refugees stranded in Hungary, after the Hungarian government suggestively placed them on the Austrian border. Two days after that, Merkel earmarked €6 billion to deal with the rush of asylum-seekers, as other countries followed Berlin’s cue. (The United Kingdom has committed to accepting 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years—or roughly the number of people estimated to have arrived in Germany in one weekend following the Hungary decision; the United States has since promised to admit 10,000 over the next 12 months.) The next day, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel announced that Germany could handle a staggering half a million asylum-seekers per year for the next several years. In contrast to the far-right demonstrations of prior months, the crowds now making headlines are those like the one that gathered to welcome refugees arriving from Hungary at Munich’s Hauptbahnhof.

There’s no clear parallel for this sort of influx in the United States. On paper, the U.S. is a giant in the refugee-acceptance business, taking in more refugees than every other country in the world combined, according to Kathleen Newland, a senior fellow and co-founder of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. But there’s a difference, she pointed out, between the refugees the United States resettles and the asylum-seekers arriving in Germany. In the former case, individuals are carefully vetted outside the destination country and only then resettled in that country. In the latter, people are flowing over the border—effectively presenting themselves on the ground—and then asking for state protection.

“I think [the distinction is] not widely appreciated,” said Newland. “When Germany says, ‘We’ll get 800,000 people this year,’ these are not people Germany has selected or invited in any way. These people are just turning up.” In contrast, those accepted by the United States have first been chosen on grounds of particular vulnerability or special ties to the U.S., and then additionally “have been through the most lengthy, exhaustive, laborious security screening that you can imagine,” according to Newland. “It usually takes one to two years for someone to get through that process once they’ve been referred for resettlement.” Germany, she added, is confronting a tremendous immediate challenge to provide these asylum-seekers with food, housing, and “weather-appropriate clothing.”

In other words, imagine a giant increase in undocumented immigration across America’s southern border. Pew Research has estimated that each year since 2009, an average of roughly 350,000 new unauthorized immigrants have entered the United States. (Net migration is much lower for a variety of reasons, including that a large number of undocumented immigrants are deported every year.) That’s only about 40 percent of the number of asylum-seekers expected to arrive in Germany before the end of the year.

Now consider what that means proportionally. The United States has close to four times the population of Germany and is almost 28 times bigger territorially. In fact, Germany is much closer in size to California than it is to the United States—a bit smaller in terms of land, but about twice as populous, with a larger economy. In terms of GDP per capita, California was ahead of Germany as of 2014.

So imagine civil wars breaking out in Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Imagine between two and three times as many undocumented immigrants as enter the United States each year all heading into California, asking for asylum.

In such a scenario, California would probably benefit from a federally coordinated approach to the Central American implosion, as well as an effort to disperse the migrants across U.S. states. And that’s in a way what Germany is hoping for now in calling for a common European response to the refugee crisis. There’s more than one reason Merkel thinks the refugee issue “will decide the future of Europe.” Either the European Union will establish a unified system for sharing this burden, or it won’t, in which case efforts to build a more federalist Europe will be dealt another severe blow, on the heels of the euro zone crisis. Although the European Parliament voted 432 to 142 on Thursday in favor of relocating 120,000 asylum-seekers in Greece, Hungary, and Italy across the EU, the vote was non-binding, and the quota plan remains very much hypothetical.

All this isn’t to say that Germany is an unqualified martyr. Any discussion of the number of refugees taken in by developed countries should probably note that developing countries host the vast majority of the world’s refugees. (The United States may be a leader on resettlement, but it was Turkey that was hosting the largest number of refugees at the end of 2014, according to the UN’s refugee agency.) Additionally, as German politicians themselves have emphasized, proportionally there’s perhaps an even larger immediate strain being placed on first-port-of-entry countries like Italy and Greece—part of the reason for the gradual and quiet abandonment of an EU policy requiring asylum-seekers to apply for protection in the first EU country in which they arrive.

Germany also has a comparative advantage in absorbing asylum-seekers. “Germany has a dynamic economy and an aging population,” said Newland. “They have a relatively low proportion of women in the labor force compared to other industrialized countries, so they need labor. It’s not clear that this is exactly the labor they need, but in the long term people will be able to adapt if the facilities are available to them for education and training.” Between these demographic factors and the strength of German unions, Newland observed, conflict over incoming migrants in Germany generally isn’t about jobs, as opposed to the situation in the United States.

But that isn’t to say that there’s no conflict, or that there’s no upper limit on Germany’s ability to admit trainloads of asylum-seekers. Although neo-Nazi mobs or the destruction of migrant shelters are extreme and exceptional manifestations of opposition to Merkel’s asylum policies, that opposition certainly exists in milder form as well. On Friday, politicians with the sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union called the chancellor’s open-door policy an “unprecedented political mistake,” suggesting the country would be overwhelmed, that its culture would be at risk, and that Islamic State fighters might enter along with the refugees. And there remains a divide on this issue, as on many, along historical East Germany-West Germany lines. Newland noted that “there’s less economic vibrancy” in the former East Germany, where the August anti-refugee riots happened, “and also much less experience of immigration. They basically didn’t have immigration until the 1990s.”

And yet, at least for now, Merkel’s refugee policies remain popular—a fact that some attribute in part to memory of the Holocaust and World War II. As the German political scientist Petra Bendel told Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky, “German citizens know that the regulations of the Geneva Refugee Convention stem from the historical experience with Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust.” Plus, she added, “after World War II, many Germans were refugees themselves.”

“It probably has some influence at the margin that Germans are acutely aware of this historical stain,” said Newland, “and I think [they] are very eager to make clear that they’re not that country anymore.”