Refugees: Germany’s aim, Australia’s shame

By Professor Stephen Dinham, Associate Dean (Strategic Partnerships) and Professor of Instructional Leadership

Recently I was part of an international delegation with the Robert Bosch Academy visiting Germany to study the refugee “crisis”. In 2015 more than one million people entered Germany, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Around half these refugees were classified as seeking protection or asylum.

When Germany began accepting the flood of refugees last year the response from the German public was exemplary with refugees being welcomed at railway stations, taken into homes and cared for. Public opinion overall was firmly in favour of supporting refugees.

At the time Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, was praised for her “we can handle it” stance but since then there has been mounting opposition, especially from right-wing elements and Merkel has been increasingly isolated and criticised, including from within her own party the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). There is an emerging counter narrative of “Keep Germany German”. Recent unfavourable election results in both Merkel’s home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and in Berlin have tended to undermine her position and authority, illustrating growing opposition to Germany’s “open approach” to refugees. In recent days Merkel herself has expressed some regret over Germany’s initial reaction to the refugee crisis.

An unknown question then and now concerns what proportion of these refugees are likely to remain in Germany and will require ongoing support. Nevertheless a process of integration has begun. One of the biggest challenges is that the majority of these people can’t speak German which makes schooling, employment and general communication difficult, although many speak English. School age children are likely to be the most readily adaptable but older people who lack both the language and recognised qualifications will find it difficult to obtain employment due to Germany’s long-held, high yet inflexible standards for training and employment.

Some refugees destroyed or left behind identity and qualification documents when they left their homelands. The most problematic group are those above school age who will need to go through a process of reaching a set standard in German competence of up to two years prior to entering training, a process that will take five years or more in total before they can seek employment. The bulk of this group are male and there are concerns about cultural differences, especially in relation to the treatment of women. This came to a head in Cologne over the new year period when there were mass sexual assaults and robberies in the vicinity of the famous Cathedral.

Typical of the German way, refugees have been allocated across the 16 federal states with local government taking most responsibility for housing, schooling and social services. We witnessed both great compassion and commitment towards helping these people ‘on the ground’ by volunteers, although many refugees will face a year or more of waiting prior to being fully accepted into the nation's infrastructure, if at all. A further problem will come with family reunion for those permitted to stay, which could be positive in terms of support and social cohesion but also problematic in terms of adding to the numbers of people to be accommodated.

Germany has one of the oldest demographic profiles in the world and will be facing severe shortages of skilled workers in the future. Refugees and migrants could help to fill that gap but as noted, gaining school and employment qualifications in the interim will be lengthy, costly and challenging for both the system and refugees before they can be self-supporting and contributing to the workforce.

The largest group is presently comprised of 18 to 30-year-old males and are likely to be the most problematic and without timely training and employment could be susceptible to falling into anti-social behaviour, crime or even terrorism. Many Germans believe that Germany’s approach is allowing terrorists to enter the country under the guise of being refugees.

We saw a variety of local initiatives supported by volunteers and NGO’s aimed at assisting these people to fill in their days, learn German and adjust to German society. Overall, Germany is to be commended for its willingness to deal with the difficult, evolving situation.

However one thing revealed by our visit was general condemnation for Australia’s current policy of offshore detention and processing, especially for children. This “Australian model” is seen in Europe as the last resort for dealing with refugees and is heavily criticised for its inhumanity and even criminality. Australia’s previous good record with groups of refugees from places such as Vietnam, the Middle East and the Balkans is forgotten in such criticism of the current arrangements.

Professor Stephen Dinham was awarded the prestigious Richard von Weizsäcker Fellowship by the Robert Bosch Academy in 2014 and spent three months in Germany examining educational policy, organisation and performance. He was the only educator invited by the academy on the recent tour, joining past, present and future fellows. The delegation met with federal, state and local government elected and appointed representatives in Germany, as well as refugees and various NGOs and volunteers working with them.