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

Regulating Global Migration Flows

Germany has benefited from globalisation – which also involves the sharp rise in global migration flows. 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

Germany has benefited from globalisation – which also involves the sharp rise in global migration flows. 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.

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 Covid pandemic.

In total, there were 82,4 million displaced persons by the end of 2020, roughly 1 percent of the world’s population.1 48 million of these were internally displaced persons. A large proportion of international refugees remain in the neighbouring countries of their countries of origin. The Covid crisis has exacerbated the plight of these already vulnerable population groups.

But even Germany is directly affected by refugee crises, and has taken in, in its recent past, 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. Especially the refugee crisis of 2015/16, in the course of which more than 1.2 million initial applications for asylum were filed, 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, addressing the root causes of flight 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 assumes responsibility both in terms of landmark agreements and in terms of tangible humanitarian aid on the ground: as a strong supporter and signatory of both Global Compacts on Refugees and Migration, as the second most important donor to the World Food Programme after the US, and as the only country that is both one of the ten host countries taking in most refugees and one of the ten largest contributors to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Germany honours its responsibility to provide protection for people fleeing political persecution and violence in accordance with the right to asylum. No country, however, can absorb 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 society continue to accept the right to asylum, which is necessary for Germany to continue to meet its responsibilities in the future.

Displacement and migration can only be addressed on a global and therefore multilateral basis. Germany is right to work multilaterally for a more efficient regulation of global migration flows – for humanitarian reasons, but also because fundamental German interests are involved. This commitment has become increasingly important against the backdrop of the Covid pandemic.

Countries like Germany also have an inherent economic interest in immigration. 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, combined with the retirement of the baby boomer generation, pose a considerable threat to the German social security 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 lack of skilled workers to be the biggest business risk. Key industries, such as mechatronics, automation, energy and HVAC technology, along with healthcare, are particularly affected.

The growing imbalance between the number of gainfully employed and non-employed people – mainly caused by the increasing number of people in retirement age while the unemployment rate has remained low – and the subsequent shortage of skilled workers, can be compensated to a small degree by automation and by exploiting existing potential. 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 country wants to maintain the current standard of living and high levels of competitiveness.


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. While pressure on the affected border states (primarily Greece and Italy) was indeed relieved by opening borders within Europe, by suspending the Dublin Regulation and by taking in more than 2.5 million refugees, European solidarity in matters of redistribution was limited.

Reforming the asylum system seems to be a difficult task even after the end of the refugee crisis. There have been some substantial developments, however. In September 2020, the European Commission presented a new pact on migration and asylum, designed to create a more coherent and better functioning European system of asylum, among other things. . Moreover, in June 2021, the European Council and the European Parliament agreed to convert the European Asylum Support Office into the EU Asylum Agency. This step is designed to support member states in processing asylum claims and improving the quality of asylum procedures. Important questions concerning the accommodation of refugees, their distribution and funding, however, have not been resolved yet.

The cooperation with non-European partners plays a special role. This cooperation takes many different forms. The German federal government, for example, has been able to make progress at the European level by concluding 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, as an initiator on the one hand, and as a close partner of Compact countries, such as Tunisia (including as part of the Marshall Plan with Africa) on the other. In Niger, for example, there is support for projects in the Agadez region, in order to provide people with alternative employment to human trafficking, which is widespread in this area. This cooperation has been gradually expanded in recent years. In Mali, Germany plays a leading role in the UN Stabilisation Mission (MINUSMA) and thus contributes 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. In this way, two African countries are supported that lie on key transit routes for refugees and migrants. Cooperation with Tunisia, which is a country of origin and transit as well as a host country, focuses on sustainable economic development, employment support and macroeconomic stability.

Turkey, a key partner in reducing irregular migration to the EU, mainly because of the EU-Turkey Agreement, has proved to be a difficult partner, not just since President Erdogan’s unilateral border opening in spring 2020. While Turkey is making a significant contribution to managing the crisis by taking in and providing for more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, the Turkish government is taking political advantage of the threat scenario of another refugee crisis in Europe.

Managing the refugee crisis is a top priority of the German government. At the same time, the government has responded to the need for increased labour migration to Germany from non-EU countries by enacting the Skilled Workers Immigration Act (Fachkräfteeinwanderungsgesetz), which came into force on 1 March 2020. The need for skilled labour cannot be met by immigration from EU countries, and there are more and more complaints by some partners about the braindrain to Germany. However, many developing countries are facing the dilemma of not being able to create enough jobs for their growing and partly well-educated populations. Especially in many African countries, 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 for job search purposes lifting the restriction to high-demand jobs and facilitating the recognition of job qualifications. It will be almost impossible, however, to achieve the German government’s stated target of attracting at least 25,000 new skilled workers per year, because the recognition of job qualifications will continue to be a cumbersome process, the barrier of acquiring German language skills will have to be overcome before departure and people abroad will have to be made aware, first of all, that Germany is a country of immigration. The Covid pandemic is also making matters worse. The necessary decisions need to be taken now, however, and they need to go beyond any immediate crisis management in order 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. This envisaged change can only be achieved by taking additional political action. . To this end, the German government is involved in negotiations with possible partner countries, such as Asian and Latin American countries. Pilot projects are supposed to be launched in Brazil and India; initial agreements have been reached with the crafts 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 reach agreement 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 training 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, first of all mainly to the Gulf States, but increasingly to other Asian states, Canada, Australia and the US. There are numerous state institutions in the Philippines that support the labour migration of its own people.

The 2015/16 refugee crisis demonstrated the need for a redistribution formula for asylum seekers to enable the EU 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 clearly illustrated that the EU was not sufficiently prepared.

While border protection has been largely successful, the German government should be an advocate for providing more support for the border states, with a view to alleviating the humanitarian crisis on the islands, among other reasons. It is easy to predict that irregular migration and flight will continue to put too much strain on the capacities of EU border states. Germany should support a coalition of the willing, not just in the case of sea rescue missions, but also as a general approach to asylum policy. France, Spain, the Scandinavian countries, the Benelux countries and Germany would agree a redistribution formula amongst themselves and would try to reach agreement with the other EU countries on financial contributions, in order to reduce the burden on the border states in a well-designed process. The Covid pandemic has underscored the need to prevent the concentration of refugees in camps in which minimum sanitation standards cannot be met.

In addition, the EU-Turkey agreement should be renewed. Trust that was lost needs to be rebuilt, so that both sides can start a new chapter of cooperation on migration policy with realistic expectations.

Last but not least, closer cooperation with partners who enjoy less media attention has the potential to shape migration flows more effectively. An expanded cooperation with the Balkan states, which addresses local economic needs in addition to border security issues, can strengthen the ties between these countries and the EU. Providing support for the development of stable government 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 providing humanitarian care for refugees in Burundi, Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan. At the same time, the UNHCR is structurally underfunded (43 percent in 2018) because it depends 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 help to provide short-term support for refugees on the ground. Germany should try to ensure that particularly the European partner countries increase their funding of the programmes, as these can help to prevent people from embarking on the often dangerous trip to Europe, are cost-effective, and help reduce the burden on host countries.

The Skilled Workers Immigration Act is an important first step in preparing the German labour market for the current and future requirements of the economy. For achieving the stated objectives, however, some crucial steps need to be taken to support this approach. One such necessary step is to acquire new partners for agreements on the mutual recognition of job qualifications or for cooperation on vocational training. This can be done, for example, by having German companies do the training on the ground, by launching more extensive initiatives that present the German dual training system as a potential role model, or by directly recognising job qualifications in the partner country. As part of its development cooperation, the German government already supports countries worldwide in their efforts to expand dual vocational training, such as Serbia, Mexico, Kenya and the Central Asian countries. The coordination of these numerous initiatives within the framework of the Skilled Workers Immigration Act would make a decisive contribution to harnessing the potential of labour migration to Germany, beyond the planned pilot projects in Brazil and India, for example.

In addition, promoting German language courses for would-be migrants is a particular priority, not only because some knowledge of German is required when looking for a job in Germany, but is also crucial for career success and for successful integration in Germany. The worldwide network of Goethe Institutes, dedicated to the promotion of the German language, should be expanded and the range of courses on offer extended (especially, it should include job preparatory language courses). The capacities of visa offices in German embassies and the availabilities of other visa application centres need to be enhanced in order to process applications as quickly as possible. In order to achieve the target number of skilled immigrants, potential workers should be able to file their visa applications in their countries of origin, rather than having to travel to a neighbouring country. Germany is competing with numerous other countries for the immigration of qualified migrants, which is why any barriers 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 was an established security policy cooperation with Afghanistan. Given the withdrawal of NATO forces and the rise in Taliban violence, it is questionable whether the progress that has been achieved in improving living and employment conditions can be sustained.

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

Colombia receives less media attention in this country, but due to the intolerable conditions in Venezuela, it is one of the main host countries for migrants and refugees worldwide. Sharing knowledge and providing support for the immediate care for 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 types of partnerships are necessary to contribute to the efficient regulation of global migration flows.

Last update: September 15th,2021.



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.