Germany is considered a rational, fact-driven country, not an emotionally driven one. And yet, based on the current immigration debate in Germany, even the advocates of more immigration have little more to offer than emotional arguments.
Given our nation’s history, Germans want to help wherever and however possible. Offering asylum to those in danger is deeply rooted in our society and even those who look for a better living are welcomed by a large segment of German society.
The advocates of more openness point to the benefits which an aging and shrinking population receives from more immigration and they see the potential costs as rather minimal, at least for a rich country like Germany.
That is a rather rose-tinted assumption because it underestimates the financial costs, overestimates the benefits from immigration and clearly overestimates the financial capacity of Germany. Being overly optimistic helps neither the immigrants themselves nor the cause of promoting greater openness in German society.
Proponents of more immigration to Germany refer to the shrinking workforce and the significant unfunded liabilities for pensions and health care, estimated at least at about four times the country’s GDP.
The ultimate answer about how significant more immigration is in that context depends on what the net contribution of immigrants is to the German economy.
Aside from the fact that the answer is very contested, even well beyond the realm of politics in the field of academic literature, there is an additional problem. No one can tell for sure, as the qualification of immigrants, especially refugees, is not registered.
Supporters of immigration point to the high number of academics immigrating, such as Syrian doctors. Critics point to a high number of uneducated and illiterate people. Most probably, Germany is receiving a mix of both, very well educated and uneducated people.
Even making a very optimistic assumption — that 50% of the one million immigrants expected in 2015 are well educated, willing to be integrated and want to contribute to the German society, while the other 50% will remain largely dependent on public support — we can make a simple calculation.
If the 50% share of skilled immigrants before long were to earn 80,000 euros on a per capita basis — well above Germany’s average income of about 40,000 euros – and paid taxes of 40%, their annual contribution to society in form of taxes would be about 16 billion euros per year.
Availability of only high-skill jobs
At the same time, assuming a social welfare cost of about 25,000 euros per “non-productive” immigrant, those costs would total 12.5 billion euros annually. That would still leave a positive net contribution to German society and the nation’s economy
This underscores that it is obviously critical from an economic point of view to attract a high share of productive immigrants.
But this matters for more than just economic considerations. As an advanced industrial democracy, Germany offers plentiful immigration opportunities for skilled people. However, unlike the past when large swaths of low-skilled people came to Germany, the supply of low-skilled jobs in the manufacturing sector is drying up quite rapidly, not least due to the increased automation of German industry.
What is available are jobs in the services economy which require language skills and an ability to do abstract reasoning. Germany ought to be quite focused on this issue – not because it is heartless but prudent.
The country has made plenty of mistakes on the immigration front in the past, which ought not to be repeated. Not embracing an active, skills-based approach to the management of immigration – à la Canada or Australia – was one such mistake.
Does it matter?
Of course, one could conclude that net costs of a few billion per year do not matter for a country as rich as Germany. This is true — but only from the current perspective. If one shifts from static to dynamic analysis and realizes that immigration into Germany may very well continue at the current speed, the picture looks quite different.
Assuming a total pool of five million immigrants flowing in and a more likely mix of 30% skilled immigrants to 70% unskilled or low-skilled ones, the net costs would rise to 38 billion euros per year. Over a time horizon of 30 years, this would easily lead to costs of more than one trillion Euros. That is close to the entire costs of German reunification between 1990 and 2010.
Not as rich as it claims
Let’s also understand that Germany is not as rich as it claims. Besides the unfunded liabilities for the aging society of more than 400% of GDP, the strategy to exit from nuclear energy is expected to cost German consumers and businesses about 1 trillion euros.
Even that might be manageable if the euro were structured in a sound manner. As things stand, rescuing the Euro will at least cost another trillion euros. Add in the backlog of investments in public infrastructure and another trillion euros is gone.
A plan for immigration
Obviously, Germany needs to spend its money intelligently. But we also need to change our behavior.
From both an economic point of view, as well as from a humanitarian point of view and from the vantage point of providing of solid integration perspective in German society, we have to make the best out of the wave of immigration coming to Europe and Germany.
What does it take to make sure that the immigrants now arriving are integrated in a sustainable manner?
The process of accepting someone as a refugee in Germany takes too long. We need to define safe countries, like Albania, and send immigrants from these countries back directly. With all sympathy for their interest in a better living, they are not threatened by war or discrimination. On the other hand, refugees from countries in (civil) war should be accepted fast.
Get to work
It is very important to get immigrants into work once they are in Germany. It is bad for both skills and motivation levels if people cannot work. Learning the German language is of utmost importance and should be mandatory. Ideally from day one onwards, immigrants should have to start learning the language. And as long as the immigrants don’t have a job, they should do community service. This advances their integration into society and would give a clear signal: Everyone coming to Germany has to contribute to the common good with his or her abilities.
Significant investments in education and integration
We need to register skills in order to find the appropriate job or define the necessary next steps in education. Education will the biggest challenge. German schools even today fail to integrate and educate the children (and grandchildren) of migrants who have been in the country in some cases for some decades. The school performance of children from Turkey, the Arab world and Africa is significantly below the average. We need to invest significantly, as this will define which share of migrants will become productive members of our society and which share will depend on social welfare.
Defend our values
Not only skills and language are important. In addition, we need to emphasize our principles and values. This includes freedom of speech and religion, women’s rights, tolerance for minorities and non-violence. We have to make clear that integration will only work this way and is expected from everyone. Simply arriving is not enough to stay. Canada, while generally being very welcoming to immigration, every year sends back about 10,000 immigrants — not necessarily for lack of integration, but it is not a one-way street.
Participation in language school and courses on values and rules in Germany need to be mandatory for every new arrival. Just as Brazil does with its bolsa familia, the payment of social welfare should be linked to language and values training. In doing so, we would convey the image of Germany as we should — a country willing to help, but also a country in which everyone has to make a contribution. Everyone who expects help and support needs to be willing to learn the language.
Recruit qualified immigrants
It is clear that a selection process as in Canada and Australia succeeds in attracting better-qualified migrants. Besides refugees from war and people in their home countries, who need our support and where economic considerations should play no role, Germany should become more attractive for well-qualified migrants and be more active in advertising the opportunity to build a new life here. As a consequence, we should actively open the way for legal immigration to Germany. As a result, the applicants could spend their savings on building a new life here, instead of spending it on smugglers.
Both sides, the migrants and the German population, need to accept immigration as a lifetime decision. It is not a temporary refuge. Again, Canada proves the point: If it is seen as permanent, both sides, the migrant and the accepting country, work harder to make integration work. That has been a particular shortcoming of Germany’s immigration policies in the past, especially regarding Turks.
Help in the poor countries
It would be cheaper and more effective to help the people in safe countries such as Albania, who aim for a better life, with direct financial and organizational support. The EU should invest there and help to build democratic institutions and a working rule of law.
The current wave of immigration is the result of conflicts which have lasted for decades already – and will likely last decades more. This is amplified by a demographic development which leads to a high number of young people without a credible perspective of finding a job in their home country. This, in turn, increases the propensity not just for social strife, but even for (civil) war.
The West needs to reconsider its strategy fundamentally. The current U.S.-led approach of favoring military intervention over development aid only leads to even more destabilization.
Be all in
The humanitarian and financial costs of such a strategy are enormous. But if we don’t do this, we will have much higher costs to incur. Whoever speaks of the benefits of immigration also needs to make sure that all the groundwork is laid so that the possible benefits are also realized. Making the necessary investments can by no means be taken for granted.
In conclusion, the current and future wave of immigration to Germany could be beneficial for our country — but only if we address the challenge with full force.
Unfortunately, it seems as if, just as in the eurozone crisis, that our various countries’ leaderships – Germany’s included — are failing at the task. There is no denying that any solution involves shouldering huge costs for all citizens, natives and migrants. Those who hope that the wave will end soon should think again: Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is about to grow by 600 million over the next 20 years.
100 million or more of those mostly young people will look for a better life in the north. We had better learn now how to deal with it.