Germany has become a country of immigration. Yet, for a long time, politics and society struggled with this fact. Responding to the new reality led to a significant adaptation of its immigration policy: refugee, labor migration, integration as well as citizenship policies were modified and modernized. This reform process often came with harsh political controversies. This article lays out the key learnings from the German experience that potentially could help Romania while responding to the arrival of Ukrainians and beyond.
Germany went through a long period of developing, adjusting, and modernizing its migration, citizenship and refugee policies, partly within the context of the EU, partly in the national arena. Key to Germany’s political changes were a wide-ranging citizenship reform in 1999/2000, the formation of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge) and the introduction of a coherent system of German language courses for immigrants in 2005. In addition, in 2020 Germany reformed its skilled labor immigration policy by passing an Immigration Act for Skilled Professionals (Fachkräfteeinwanderungsgesetz). The arrival of refugees from the Middle East in 2015/16 and the more recent reception of refugees from Ukraine have put Germany’s immigration and integration policies under scrutiny. These developments forced policy makers to adapt their responses.
This process of adjustment was not always easy. Germany had to cope with thresholds and hurdles, not only legal ones. They stretched throughout society: from the social to the economic field, from parliamentary processes to cultural policies. Moreover, they went through the multi-layered federal system of national, regional, and local political and administrative authorities.
Russia’s invasion in Ukraine made Romania (as well as the neighboring Republic of Moldova) a prime region of arrival for refugees from Ukraine, even if numerous people have returned to Ukraine in the meantime. In the long run, Romania might undergo a similar transformation as Germany in the past or more recently Italy, Spain, Portugal, or Greece: namely changing from a country of emigration to a country of immigration. Current domestic demographic and labor market developments as well as Romania’s inclusion into political regimes for refugee protection on the EU and the global level strengthen our hypothesis.
10 lessons learned from Germany
The experiences and lessons learned from Germany could be an analytical starting point. Based on our experience and work with various German institutions, we summarize 10 key learnings from Germany that could be relevant to Romania’s learning journey with receiving refugees:
1. Send clear signals from politics to society
Politics matter. This is also true, when it comes to immigration and refugee policies. A welcoming policy agenda helps to make the arrival and integration of refugees smoother and easier. In the German context this became visible in 2015. Then chancellor Angela Merkel, sent a clear sign of welcome to refugees and of hospitality to German society. Such encouraging statements from top political leaders, emphasizing the arrival of refugees as a chance, not only as an obligation or even a burden, are important and helpful. However, Germany also learned that it is key to draw a realistic political picture. The integration and inclusion of immigrants and refugees always needs resources and thus can trigger conflicts.
2. Housing and education: adapt and empower schools
Refugees need housing, children have to go to school or need access to early childhood care and kindergartens. Thus, inclusive housing and schooling policies are of high importance. The German example shows that it is crucial to allow refugees to settle freely. Housing policies that cluster refugees and migrants in certain districts are counterproductive in many ways. Yet, incentives for people to settle also in smaller towns and rural areas are important. Moreover, refugees should only live in reception camps for a short and transitory period, if possible.
For refugee children it is important to immediately go to school (or have access to early childhood care and kindergartens). For fast language acquisition, it might be preferable to teach elementary school children separately for the first six to twelve months, though not in those subjects that are not based on language (such as mathematics or sports). Older students from grade five upwards should immediately be included into regular classes.
3. Offer (systematic) access to language courses
Mastering the language of the country of arrival is the most important precondition for successful interaction and long-term integration. Successful teaching and acquisition of Romanian by refugees needs a well-organized structure. Civil society initiatives and Romanian language courses by volunteers are a good start. However, in the end teaching Romanian to adult immigrants must be a state-organized service. In Germany, it took several decades to come to this conclusion and to create a coherent structure for teaching German as foreign language. This structure is coordinated by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. It provides nationwide German language courses of usually 600 hours (four hours per day, five times per week). The courses are run by local institutions, certified by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. The targeted language level is B1 (within the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages). The course ends with a language test. For recognized refugees participation is usually mandatory and free of charge. Other immigrants pay 50% of the costs themselves (2.20 Euro per lesson).
4. Empower civil society
Civil society is a very important actor in welcoming, receiving and eventually integrating refugees. Volunteers can serve as coaches, deliver support in finding accommodation, teach Romanian or lend an ear to the social and economic needs and sorrows of refugees. However, they cannot create a definite infrastructure for refugee or immigrant integration. This is a duty of state actors. Collaboration between the state, municipalities and civil society is key.
5. Make refugee policy a national issue, empower local structures for integration
Refugee policy is defined and implemented on various levels of governance. The federal state needs to ponder about and decide upon a framework for such a policy, i.e., set the rules and take care of financing the necessary integration work. The very practical efforts of refugee integration, however, is usually managed on the local level. This means that cities and villages as well as regional administrative areas (județe) need to be empowered for tackling these challenges. Fast administrative procedures (recognition of status, access to social benefits and/or labor market, access to language courses) help to speed up integration processes. A slow or even dysfunctional bureaucracy of immigration and refugee affairs can have very negative impacts.
6. Be precise with legal status of refugees – have fast procedures and reliable decisions
Applicants for international protection (or asylum seekers and refugees) usually have to go through a sophisticated and elaborated process of legal and political recognition to acquire the status of refugee. This process decides about their future for at least one, usually more than one year, often for their future at all. Though, persons displaced by the war in Ukraine coming to the EU are exempted from individual trials and recognition procedures (as the EU Council Directive 2001/55/EC, the Temporary Protection Directive, was activated), normally application for protection and recognition as refugee is an individual procedure. Collective recognition is a rare exception. Germany’s experience shows that fast and reliable rules and decisions are core to a functioning and widely accepted refugee policy. The administrative and political institutions as well as the courts need clear and reliable rules and laws.
7. Develop a strategy against right-wing criticism and propaganda rallying around refugee policies
Western European, not only German experiences, show that welcoming immigrants and refugees often leads to criticism and protest, namely from right-wing political forces. Political mobilization around these issues, Germany is a good example for it, have the potential to lead to violent attacks on immigrants/refugees. To prevent these developments, a smart and active information policy by the national government as well as by local political leaders (mayors, prefects) is needed.
8. Allow refugees to enter the labor market
Refugees are perceived much more positively when they can care about their own needs and earn their own money. Keeping them away from the labor market or having them rely on social transfers, or charity, is contradictive to taking over economic responsibility for oneself and one’s family. Thus, a fast and easy access to the Romanian labor market, that needs enlarging of its workforce anyway, should be the guiding principle. It took Germany decades to learn this lesson.
9. Be prepared for remigration and the emergence of diasporas (or immigrant communities)
Usually, immigration by refugees is meant to be temporary. Once their home country is considered safe, their protection status may seem obsolete and they are supposed to return. However, this does not always happen, and legally, after a certain period of stay, in Germany, people can apply for permanent residency and citizenship. Thus, it is likely that immigrant communities emerge also in Romania. These communities have the potential to become minority communities, at least for the first and even second generation of refugees and immigrants. Thus, in the long run refugee and immigrant incorporation also leads to the question of establishing a well-functioning minority policy, also covering issues of citizenship and belonging.
10. Think about long-term changes in society
Immigration, be it labor immigration or the arrival of refugees, changes a country. Germany is a prominent example for this development. Laws and policies must take this into consideration and provide a political framework for these changes in the long run. This includes granting full access to civic, social, and eventually also political rights for immigrants. Naturalization and access to citizenship is part of this question. Successful integration policies need an inclusive fabric of social and cultural incorporation. In the case of Germany, it meant also changing its rather exclusive and ethnically based understanding of nationhood and citizenship. The very question of who can become a German was at the center of it. This question might also arise in Romania in the future.
A final thought, maybe a commonplace for experienced policy makers: Be flexible and reconsider your policies occasionally. Things will go wrong, and policies might fail despite best intentions. See the area of refugee and migration policy as an arena of trial and error. Germany went through a plethora of wrong political decisions and failing policies regarding immigration and refugee admission. This was an important learning process. It eventually helped to re-adjust and improve the system and gradually bring it on the right path. Refugee policy in Germany faced and with new challenges continuous to face hardships, opposition, and harsh criticism. It will not be a home run for Romania either.
Excursus: adapting and lessons learned – no one-size-fits all solutions
Can policies or lessons learned be transferred from one country or society to another? This is a politically (and also epistemologically) controversial issue. Social scientists and to a lesser degree also policy makers have become modest and critical about answering these questions with a loud ‘yes’. Not least the shaky transformation of post-communist countries after 1990 taught us that social and political developments are unique and specific to individual countries. A simple blueprint is not possible. However, actors can and should reflect upon structures, processes, concepts, and strategies that might be comparable and in the best case transferable – if adjusted to the context. Adjustment will be necessary, as social, economic, political, and cultural contexts usually differ significantly: Romania in 2022 is unlike Germany in 2015. One could make this clear by way of a comparative metaphor. Transferring political experiences and policy recommendations equals the introduction of (international) economic goods and commodities on national markets. Adaptation is needed according to the specific needs and preferences of the targeted society. Refugee policy, however, is not governed by market forces, there is no response to demand and supply. Refugee movements follow political developments and processes. The predominant fields involved in refugee issues are thus politics and civil society. Markets, however, play a role when it comes to labor market access of refugees.
About the authors
Rainer Ohliger is a freelance author and consultant on questions of international migration, integration and cultural diversity. Since 1996 he has published widely on these issues.
Dr. Raphaela Schweiger is the Director of the Migration program at the Robert Bosch Stiftung. Since joining the Foundation in 2015, she developed numerous programs on migration, inclusion, and the intersection with other global issues, such as climate change, for policy makers and practitioners and published widely on these matters.
Educare – a project aiming to provide information and data related to education for Ukrainian refugees
EduCare is a project run by Fundatia Bosch Romania in partnership with Edupedu.ro to provide correct information and data related to education – data that are obtained from official sources and which have been checked. This educational information hub to support refugees will include information about the activities and initiatives of organisations and entities working with this target group. The voice of the community is also heard as the interaction with Ukrainian refugees has to be real and natural.