As of 2018, Syrians were the largest refugee group in Germany, with around 745,000 people among 1.1 million refugees in total. In 2015, they made 158,657 asylum applications in Germany; in 2016 the figure rose to 266,250. From just 30,000 in 2010, Syrians are now the third largest group of immigrants in the country, behind the Turks and Poles, due to the massive wave of migration between 2014 and 2016. In Europe, Syrians are around 6.6 per cent of the total population.
According to 2017 figures, approximately 280,000 of the Syrian population in Germany are female and 420,000 male. They are from diverse backgrounds, with 63 per cent being Arab, 30 per cent Kurdish, five per cent Aramaic and one per cent Palestinian. In terms of religion, 88 per cent are Muslim, four per cent are Christian, three per cent are Yazidi and five per cent belong to other faiths.
One of the main questions about immigration and asylum in Germany is whether refugees are going to be in the country temporarily or permanently. Syrians are often asked if they will ever return to Syria. Given the current legal and socio-economic conditions of the Syrians in Germany, they are likely to answer “no” to this question.
Refugees from Syria are the most fortunate group in terms of asylum applications in Europe. Compared with other asylum seekers, as a group they get the lowest number of rejections. For example, in 2016, when asylum claims peaked, only 168 out of 268,000 applications by Syrians were rejected. On the other hand, Afghani asylum seekers had 24,817 out of 102,856 applications rejected. Those whose applications are approved and are given refugee status generally receive three-year residency permits and rights for family reunification. Their legal status is key as refugees try to settle and become permanent residents in their new country; Syrians have more opportunities for this than the other migrant/refugee groups.
The civil and social rights granted to refugees by their legal status provide many means for Syrians to build a new life in Germany. Free language courses, higher education opportunities and the support of local government and non-governmental organisations for joining the labour force are some of the ways that Syrians are integrated with the host society.
At the moment, Syrians cannot go back to Syria, even if they want to; their towns and cities have been destroyed. Many of them no longer have homes in Syria; they have either been destroyed or taken by someone else, or they have been sold to fund the journey to Europe.
Moreover, the current situation in Syria is far from safe. Kidnap is the latest threat from criminals and law enforcement agencies alike; large ransoms and bribes are demanded for the release of the victims. Justice is almost non-existent, and torture in state detention centres is rife. Anyone who has fled the country to avoid compulsory military service will be drafted immediately if they return.
What’s more, the regime is still in place, and there is no hope that it will be replaced in the near future. Even if Bashar Al-Assad is removed from the presidency, rebuilding Syria will take at least ten years. Events in neighbouring Iraq illustrate what can happen when a power vacuum exists. In short, the conditions are such that it is unthinkable for Syrians in German — or anywhere else in Europe — to even think about returning to the land of their birth.
Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the German government and society at large are inclined to regard Syrians as temporary residents in the country. The most obvious indicator of this is that almost half of the asylum applications are accepted with just a year of residency rights, and a limited right for family reunification. In 2016, a total of 121,562 out of 268,000 asylum applications made by Syrians were accepted under such status.
Despite the objections of the International Centre for Migration (IOM) and other NGOs, the German government’s voluntary return programme for refugees can also be cited in this respect. Families wanting to participate in this programme receive €3,500; travel expenses are also covered. According to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), 792 voluntary returns have been made to Syria in the past two or three years. In 2017, the figure was 199; in 2018 it was 466; and in the first three months of 2019 just 77 Syrians returned to Syria under this programme. Such numbers are a drop in the ocean, so the continuation of the programme can be seen as an indicator of the German government’s attitude and policy towards Syrian refugees. It might well be a voluntary scheme, but the underlying message is that Germany does not want the Syrians to stay long term. Newspaper reports reflect the Federal Government’s insistence that “residence permits for Syrians will not be extended if the conflict ends in Syria.” This reminds Syrians that they are in the country on a temporary basis, and suggests that their legal ties with Germany hang by a thread.
Generally speaking, the German people hold the same position over Syrian refugees. One of the main reasons for this is the burden that hosting the refugees places on the Federal budget. It is estimated that Germany spent about €23 billion on refugees in 2018, although the figure is uncertain and covered more than the refugees. According to another source, all such expenditure and related items constituted 4.4 per cent of the 2018 budget. However, as of 2018, among all refugees (not just Syrians) there are 603,000 individuals who could be part of the labour force but aren’t; instead, they get state aid under social welfare programmes (Hartz IV). Around 386,000 children, disabled and elderly individuals cannot be included in the labour force. In total, refugees constitute 15 per cent of those benefiting from social welfare.
In addition to economic factors such as unemployment, housing shortages and rising rents, issues such as the high visibility of refugees in public spaces, concerns about national identity and cultural values make a significant proportion of German society hope that refugees will return to their countries. Such an attitude is demonstrated openly by some groups, the most obvious being the anti-immigrant German Alternative Party (AFD), which attracts support from far-right voters. The party won 91 seats in parliament with 12.6 per cent of the vote in the 2017 General Election. Today, having built its base upon anti-foreigner rhetoric, the AFD is the third largest party in the German parliament.
Nevertheless, the factors which make it difficult for foreigners to have permanent residence in Germany push Syrian refugees to work harder to hold on to their status in the country. According to official data, more than half of the Syrian migrants are successful in learning German at level B1, which is considered to be sufficient for a job with a decent salary. They are the most successful group in this respect after the Iranians. There are 3,907 Syrian doctors working in the German health sector, the second largest group among foreign doctors. A significant number of Syrian refugees in Germany have joined the labour force very successfully. Their vertical mobility in German society inspires other Syrians to have hopes of putting down roots and settling in their new country.
The permanence of Syrians in Germany will be determined by their progress in different fields, such as their participation in the labour force, their cultural adaptation and their education success, leading to integration in German society. However, that can only be achieved if external factors such as legislation and regulations, state policies and social acceptance can be overcome, and they are viewed as beneficial to, rather than burdens on, German society. Ultimately, that is what will determine whether Syrians will be permanent or temporary residents in Germany.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.