Germany's interests - and those who can help realise them

Regulating Global Migration Flows

Few countries have benefited as much from globalisation – which also involves the sharp rise in global migration flows– as Germany. The number of international migrants has increased in the last 30 years by more than 100 million to more than 250 million people, while the population of the Federal Republic of Germany without immigration would be around 10 million below its current 83 million. Economic success, along with the social and pension systems, already depend to a large extent on immigration, and that trend is rising.

Status quo

Few countries have benefited as much from globalisation – which also involves the sharp rise in global migration flows– as Germany. The number of international migrants has increased in the last 30 years by more than 100 million to more than 250 million people, while the population of the Federal Republic of Germany without immigration would be around 10 million below its current 83 million. Economic success, along with the social and pension systems, already depend to a large extent on immigration, and that trend is rising.

At the same time, however, it should be noted that global migration flows also pose considerable challenges: the increasing international competition for skilled workers, integration into host societies, refugees and mixed migration flows are just a few examples. Since spring 2020, there have been additional challenges related to the global coronavirus pandemic. In total, there were 70.8 million displaced persons by the end of 2018, just over 0.9 percent of the world’s population. 58.3 percent of these were internally displaced persons, and a large proportion of international refugees remain in the neighbouring countries to their countries of origin. The coronavirus crisis threatens to exacerbate the plight of these already vulnerable population groups.

However, Germany is also directly affected by refugee crises, and in its recent past has taken in many people seeking protection, such as the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s, civil-war refugees from the disintegrating Yugoslavia in the 1990s and, since 2015, refugees from the war in Syria. It was the refugee crisis of 2015/16 in particular, in the course of which more than 1.2 million initial applications for asylum were filed, that also confronted Germany with considerable domestic challenges, contributed to the increasing polarisation of society and deepened differences between the EU Member States. Achieving the right balance between taking in refugees, dealing with the circumstances that cause them to flee and maintaining European border security is thus in Germany’s fundamental interests.

This is also why Germany is committed at the multilateral level to protecting refugees and regulating global migration flows. Germany is responsible for both landmark agreements and substantive humanitarian aid on the ground: as a strong supporter and signatory of both Global Compacts on Refugees and Migration, the second most important donor to the World Food Programme after the USA, and the only country that is both one of the ten strongest host countries and one of the ten largest contributors to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Germany is committed to providing protection for people fleeing political persecution and violence in accordance with the right to asylum. However, no country is able to accept an unlimited number of asylum seekers and migrants. Only if the integration process is successfully managed (in terms of language, acceptance of applicable laws and cultural customs, and integration into the labour market) will the necessary social acceptance of the right to asylum persist in such a way that Germany can continue to fulfil its responsibilities in the future.

Refugees and migration can only be dealt with on a global and therefore multilateral basis. While other players are withdrawing from the multilateral stage and assuming less responsibility, it is appropriate for Germany to work multilaterally towards a more efficient regulation of global migration flows – for humanitarian reasons, but also because it affects Germany’s fundamental interests. This commitment is becoming increasingly important due to the coronavirus pandemic.

When talking about global migration flows, the fact that countries like Germany also have an inherent economic interest in immigration is often overlooked. The shortage of skilled workers is already estimated at more than 400,000, and the trend is rising rapidly due to technological innovation and demographic developments. Birth rates, which have been low for decades, taken in conjunction with the retirement of the baby boomer generation, pose a considerable threat to the German welfare system, especially in the healthcare and pension sectors.

Moreover, Germany’s economic prosperity and capacity for innovation are also endangered by this demographic development. According to a survey by the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce, 56 percent of companies consider the greatest risk to business to be the lack of skilled workers.24 Key industries, such as mechatronics, automation, energy and HVAC technology, along with healthcare, are particularly affected.

The growing imbalance between the number of people in and out of work – this imbalance is, considering  the current low unemployment rate,  mainly due to the increasing number of people who have entered retirement age – and the subsequent shortage of skilled workers, can be compensated to a small degree via automation and by exploiting existing potential. The regional differences are significant. While significantly more refugees than expected have gained access to the German labour market since 2015/16, it is still possible to balance the situation. Nonetheless, Germany will be dependent on the immigration of skilled workers if the current standard of living and high levels of competitiveness are to be maintained. In order to meet this economic need, efforts must also be made to increase testing capacities worldwide for the new coronavirus.

The refugee crisis of 2015/16 affected not only Germany but also a large number of European countries with which the German Federal Government had sought to cooperate closely. Whereas pressure on the affected border states (primarily Greece and Italy) was indeed relieved by intra-European border openings, suspension of the Dublin Regulation and by taking in more than 2.5 million refugees, European solidarity regarding the issue of redistribution was limited. Since 2015, the EU member states have failed to agree on a new common asylum system. The European Commission has presented a proposal for a reformed asylum system in September 2020. While keeping the Dublin Regulation largely in place, it seeks to introduce quicker asylum procedures at the EU’s external borders and to establish a fairer “sharing of responsibilities and solidarity”, e.g. by allowing sates which do not want to host refugees to instead to take over the responsibility for deportations. So far, many experts are skeptical that this proposal will be able to garner sufficient support amongst the different EU member states and will be implemented.

Cooperation with non-European partners occupies a special position, although the form of cooperation varies considerably. For example, the German Federal Government has been able to make progress within the European framework in the form of so-called migration partnerships, but also bilaterally, especially with Niger and Mali. Germany also plays a prominent role in the G20 Compact with Africa initiative, on the one hand as an initiator, and on the other hand as a close partner of Compact countries, such as Tunisia (including as part of the Marshall Plan with Africa). In Niger, for example, there is support for projects in the Agadez region, in order to provide people with alternative employment to human trafficking. The cooperation has been gradually expanded in recent years. In Mali, Germany is playing a leading role in the UN Stabilisation Mission (MINUSMA) and is thus contributing to peacekeeping. In addition, the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ) is implementing projects for improved governance and decentralisation on behalf of the German Federal Government. This is supporting two central African transit states with respect to refugees and migration. Cooperation with Tunisia, which is a country of origin and transit as well as a host country, focuses on sustainable economic development, promoting employment and on macroeconomic stability.

Turkey, a key partner in reducing irregular migration to the EU, particularly via the EU-Turkey Agreement, has been proving difficult, and not just since President Erdogan’s unilateral border opening in spring 2020. On the one hand, Turkey is making a significant contribution to coping with the crisis by taking in and caring for more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, but on the other hand, the Turkish government is taking political advantage of the threat of another refugee crisis in Europe.

While management of the refugee crisis plays a prominent role, the German Federal Government has also reacted to the need for increased labour migration to Germany from non-EU countries with the Skilled Workers Immigration Act (Fachkräfteeinwanderungsgesetz), which came into force on 1 March 2020. The need for skilled workers cannot be met by immigration from EU countries, and our European partner countries are also complaining increasingly about the brain drain to Germany. On the other hand, many developing countries are facing the dilemma of not being able to create enough jobs for their growing populations that include numbers of well-educated workers. In many African countries in particular, such as Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Ghana, young people often do not have sufficient economic prospects.

The Skilled Workers Immigration Act is intended to facilitate the move to Germany of skilled workers such as these, including those without academic qualifications, by, for example, allowing temporary residence in Germany in order to look for a job, no longer restricting jobs to those that are understaffed and facilitating the recognition of professional qualifications. Nevertheless, it will be almost impossible to achieve the German Federal Government’s stated goal of attracting at least 25,000 new skilled workers per year, since the recognition of professional qualifications will continue to be very protracted, and awareness of Germany as an immigration country will first have to be raised abroad. The coronavirus pandemic is also making matters worse. However, it is important to set the course and to focus on immediate crisis management in order to be able to achieve the goal in the medium term.

Despite these challenges, the Skilled Workers Immigration Act represents a turning point in German labour market policy. The desired change can only be achieved with the help of further political measures. To this end, the German Federal Government is in negotiations with possible partner countries, such as Vietnam, the Philippines and several Latin American countries. The intention is to undertake pilot projects in Brazil and India; initial agreements have been reached with the trade workers’ association in Bosnia-Herzegovina; and the Federal Health Minister, Jens Spahn, travelled to Mexico at the end of 2019 to recruit Mexican nursing staff and to agree on a closer partnership for the exchange of skilled workers.

The focus is initially on countries that already have a strong relationship with Germany and that have well-developed education systems. Many of these countries already have many years of experience with targeted labour migration. As early as the 1970s, the Philippine government initiated a programme to promote labour migration, at first mainly to the Gulf States, but increasingly to other Asian states, Canada, Australia and the USA. The Philippines has numerous state institutions to support the labour migration of its own population.

The 2015/16 refugee crisis has demonstrated the need for redistribution criteria for asylum seekers, so that the EU is able to take action in the future. Similarly, the crisis on the Greek-Turkish border (following the opening of the border on the Turkish side by President Erdogan) and the exacerbation of the humanitarian emergency on the Greek islands, that in a sense peaked in the fire that destroyed the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos in September 2020 have made it clear that the EU was not sufficiently prepared.

While border protection has been largely successful, the German government should work to further expand support for the border states, including with a view to alleviating the humanitarian crisis on the islands. It is foreseeable that irregular migration and fleeing refugees will continue to overstretch the capacities of EU border states. Germany should also continue to advocate a comprehensive approach to asylum policy like the European Commission’s proposed migration pact.

It is also important to renew the EU-Turkey agreement. Lost trust has to be rebuilt here, so that both sides can start a new chapter of cooperation on migration policy with realistic expectations. The situation of the Afghan and Iraqi refugees, most of whom are not registered in Turkey and have no access to welfare benefits, and the situation of the Syrian refugees around Idlib, must be a definite priority.

Last but not least, closer cooperation with partners who are enjoying less media attention has the potential to make migration flows more effective. An expanded cooperation with the Balkan states, which in addition to border security also includes local economic needs, can contribute to closer ties between these countries and the EU. Support for developing stable state and economic structures in countries plagued by civil wars and extreme poverty, such as Afghanistan, and exchanging information with other destination and transit countries, such as Colombia and Morocco, have the potential to prevent future refugee and migration crises and to better exploit the economic opportunities of migration.

The UNHCR has a prominent role in relieving the pressure on host countries, for example in the humanitarian care of refugees in Burundi, Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan. At the same time, the UNHCR is structurally underfunded (43 percent in 2018) because it relies on voluntary donations. Individual programmes are particularly affected. For example, the provision of food and healthcare for refugees from Burundi had to be severely restricted on several occasions. As the second and third largest contributors to the UNHCR, the EU and Germany contribute to providing short-term support for refugees on the ground. Germany should work to ensure that particularly the European partner countries contribute to more extensive funding of the programmes, as these can help ease the often dangerous route to Europe, are cost-effective, and help reduce the burden on host countries.

The Skilled Workers Immigration Act, on the other hand, is an important first step in aligning the German labour market to the current and future requirements of the economy. However, decisive supporting measures are required in order to achieve its objectives. On the one hand, it is necessary to acquire new partners for agreements on the mutual recognition of professional qualifications or for educational cooperation. This can be done, for example, via targeted on-site training by German companies, more extensive initiatives in which the German dual education system serves as a model, or via direct recognition of professional qualifications in the partner country. As part of its development cooperation, the German Federal Government is already supporting countries worldwide in expanding dual vocational training, such as Serbia, Mexico, Kenya and the Central Asian states. The coordination of these numerous initiatives within the framework of the Skilled Workers Immigration Act would, over and above the planned pilot projects in Brazil and India for example, make a decisive contribution to exploiting the potential of labour migration to Germany.

In addition, local language support is a particular priority, since knowledge of German serves as the basis for professional success and successful integration. The worldwide network of Goethe-Institutes for the promotion of the German language should be expanded and the range of courses on offer (especially pre-vocational language courses) extended. Last but not least, the capacities of visa offices in German embassies and the number of other visa application centres has to be expanded in order to process the hoped-for applications as quickly as possible. In order to achieve the target number of skilled immigrants, potential workers should be able to submit their visa applications for the German labour market in their countries of origin, and not first have to travel to a neighbouring country. Germany is competing with numerous other countries for the immigration of qualified migrants, and so obstructions to entering Germany should be reduced as much as possible.

The following five case studies illustrate the potential for closer cooperation with countries that play very different roles in regulating international migration flows. These are, on the one hand, countries where deepening the already existing, long-standing cooperation can lead to significant improvements in migration management and, on the other hand, countries with which the existing partnerships can be significantly developed and where there is great potential for achieving common goals.

There is an already established security cooperation with Afghanistan in the field of security policy. As one of the main countries of origin for refugees and migration, it is now essential to focus even more closely on improving living and employment conditions in order to give people local prospects.

Because Niger, Morocco and Serbia are primarily transit countries, they are facing very different challenges. In Niger, security issues and the establishment of state institutions play an important role, while Morocco is a key player in regional migration policy, including within the framework of the African Union. In Serbia (as a state on the “Balkan route”), the focus is on border security and on the treatment and redistribution of refugees on site.

Colombia receives less media attention in this country, but due to the unsustainable conditions in Venezuela, it is one of the main host countries for migrants and refugees worldwide. Knowledge sharing and support for the immediate care of refugees and for the implementation of medium and long-term public policies are already playing an important role and have further potential to contribute to overcoming the refugee crisis on the ground.

These case studies demonstrate that very different partnerships are necessary to contribute to the efficient regulation of global migration flows.

Christian Bilfinger was, until May 2020, Policy Advisor for “Refugee and Migration” in the Analysis and Consulting Department.



as a partner for the regulating global migration flows

Serbia is of central importance for Germany in terms of regulating global migration flows. Since the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2014, a large proportion of refugees from the Middle East, Central and South Asia have been traversing the “Balkan route”. Its main route leads from Turkey and Greece via Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Serbia to Hungary and Croatia which form the border of the EU. Continuing on from there is difficult because the Hungarian government in particular undertakes very rigid border controls to prevent entry without valid travel documents.


as a partner for the regulating global migration flows

In recent years, Morocco has become an important partner for Germany with respect to migration issues. On the one hand, the Kingdom has assumed a special role within the African Union (AU) and the international community; on the other hand, it is itself one of the countries where migration is taking place in varying ways. In February 2019, Morocco presented a new migration policy for Africa at the AU and focused on the prospect of development through migration. The new policy places particular emphasis on the fact that migration is not a security problem, and that there is, in the first instance, a need to combat the causes of migration and fleeing refugees.


as a partner for the regulating global migration flows

The unstable security situation throughout the Sahel region reveals the weakness of state authorities in the region. Niger’s security forces are also struggling to exercise effective control of the country. Several terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State or Boko Haram, regularly attack military bases and also civilians. Niger is also one of the poorest countries in the world and is dealing with numerous governance problems, including regular accusations of corruption against government representatives or officials. There have even been deaths during demonstrations by young people against the rampant corruption and bad governance. The Nigerien government’s measures against the coronavirus, especially the closure of mosques, have also led to violent clashes between mainly young demonstrators and the security forces. Amnesty International is also protesting against the use of the controversial cybercrime prevention law to suppress voices critical of the government in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.


as a partner for the regulating global migration flows

According to official data from the Colombian migration authorities, approximately 1.8 million of the more than 4 million Venezuelan migrants are currently in Colombia. According to estimates by the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the flow of migrants could increase to 3 million by the end of 2020, not including “transit migrants” or commuters.


as a partner for the regulating global migration flows

For decades, Afghanistan was the country with the largest diaspora in the world. In 2015, this position was taken by Syria. Afghanistan looks back on 40 years of fleeing refugees, emigration and expulsion due to civil war, violence and destroyed livelihoods. Since 2001, the country has been one of Germany’s most important security policy partners in the Middle East. Afghanistan is also a reliable partner in migration policy and has never used migration flows as political leverage.