Searching for sustainable solutions to the refugee crisis

Field hospital © Fotolia/Jakub Janele

The refugee or migration crisis has recently become one of the most extensively debated topics in Germany and across the European Union. Almost 1.1 million migrants were registered in Germany in 2015*, and a significant trend reversal is not within sight. As BDI Director General Dr. Markus Kerber observed, rather than being a “crisis”, the current situation might have become the new normal state.

BDI is in favour of Germany continuing to make its contribution to managing the refugee crisis. However, an excessive burden on our society could endanger its stability over the longer term. As BDI President Ulrich Grillo said at the 2015 BDI “Tag der Deutschen Industrie” (annual gathering of German industry), people should be told that “it will be difficult, and it will impose sacrifices on our society”. Making reference to Chancellor Merkels’s “Wir schaffen das” (“we will manage”), Grillo would like to see politics explaining to citizens how exactly the situation will be managed. He stressed the importance of finding common solutions: “Politics and economy. Culture and society. Germans and Europeans.”

Indeed, BDI has taken position at an early stage of the debate. Together with other leading umbrella organisations of German business (BDA, DIHK and ZDH), they first issued a joint statement on asylum and refugee policy in September 2015, in which they expressed fierce opposition to any form of hostility against migrants. They also made several proposals to facilitate integration in the labour market of refugees with good prospects of being allowed to stay in Germany. While the German Federal Government has since then initiated a number of improvements in this regard, further important adjustments are needed.

Integration is key

As stated in their Joint statement of January 2016, BDI, BDA and ZDH believe that compulsory school education should be offered to all refugees and asylum seekers after three months, and could also be extended beyond 18 years of age. For asylum seekers with good prospects of being allowed to stay in Germany, it is important to secure a national training residence permit and to improve the prospects of a guaranteed stay after successful completion of training. Furthermore, they should be given access to all grants for vocational training. More flexibility regarding the deployment of orientation traineeships and the entry into employment would also help facilitating labour market integration. At the same time, a rapid return of rejected asylum seekers is necessary.

“Of course migrants need to learn the German language”, BDI Director General Kerber pointed out in a guest commentary in Die Zeit, “but this is not sufficient”. According to Kerber, migrants should also be taught about the mechanisms of a free and open society and about what he refers to as the “German operating system” (“Betriebssystem Deutschland”). Furthermore, according to Kerber, establishing a Federal ministry of Integration and Globalisation could enable a more structured political approach.

Investing in our economy

Regardless of the number of migrants seeking asylum in Germany, BDI advocates for controlled forms of immigration of trained specialists. While refugees and asylum seekers are to be given protection for humanitarian reasons, BDI believes that one should not be overly optimistic regarding their job perspectives. According to BDI, BDA and ZDH, early experience has shown that “as a rule, deficient language skills, a frequent shortage of skills or qualifications that are of value for our labour market as well as the absence of familiarity with our education and training system are significant hurdles.” Asylum and refugee policy do therefore not constitute suitable instruments for dealing with the demographic change and the lack of specialists.

BDI President Grillo emphasised that sustaining our economy’s strength was now more important than ever: “We do need a strong economy, not least against the backdrop of the refugee crisis”, he said at the BDI Tag der Deutschen Industrie. The costs of integration must not be weighed up against the costs of investments in infrastructure such as transport and digital networks, which need to be urgently taken.

For a stronger European Union

BDI is strongly in favour of strengthening the European Union – “with regard to migration policy, but not only there”. As Grillo observed at the BDI Tag der Deutschen Industrie, while Europe has never been more promising to so many people, Europe is being challenged to an extent unknown before. “In Europe, we will either solve these problems together or we will fail.” According to Grillo, everybody in Europe who assumes political responsibility has a historical duty. Alongside with other steps, Grillo emphasises the need for a genuine Common Foreign and Security Policy “that deserves this name”. A real common asylum policy at EU level should be the medium term goal.

It can hardly be denied that the migration crisis has been yet another severe test for the crisis-shaken European Union. “I am very worried about Europe,” Ulrich Grillo emphasised. With regard to the growing support for Eurosceptic parties across Europe, he warned that any form of nationalism did not lead to prosperity, but to economic instability. For German industry, unimpeded cross-border business activity in Europe’s borderless Schengen Area is of primordial importance. Therefore, BDI believes that more effort and resources should be devoted to securing the EU’s external borders. As stated in the Joint Statement of BDI, BDA and ZDH of January 2016, “damage to or a complete breakdown of the Schengen area would be a severe setback for the European Union and its citizens”.

A responsibility for the world beyond European borders

As BDI Director General Kerber pointed out, “we Europeans do not only have an interest in, but also a responsibility for the world beyond European borders.” Addressing both the political and economic causes of flight and migration worldwide should be on top of the national and European political agenda. Providing more financial support for UNHCR and for States in the regions from which a large majority of refugees are fleeing (in particular Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon) might be an efficient way to decrease the inflow of refugees into Europe while helping the greatest number of people: “It is more humane for people to receive support in the form of accommodation and protection close to the refugees’ home countries than for them to be forced to turn to unscrupulous gangs of traffickers and embark on perilous journeys via the Mediterranean and the Balkan route” (Joint statement by BDI, BDA and ZDH of January 2016).

According to BDI President Grillo, as Germany strongly benefits from globalisation, we must also accept the challenges arising from the drawbacks of globalisation. He stresses the industry’s responsibility in shaping the phenomena of both globalisation and Europeanisation: “We, politics and business together, must think about ways of how to assume our rising responsibility – nationally and internationally”, Grillo said, and added: “Globally means comprehensive. Not exclusive.”


*According to EASY (German system for the distribution of refugees and asylum seekers over the Länder), the total number of registrations amounted to 1 091 894 in 2015.