Opportunities in the Crisis



'We can do this' – four words that have had a lasting influence on the debate on integration in Germany. Where do we stand today? Where does Europe’s migration policy stand? These are the issues that Petra Bendel, Chairwoman of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration [Sachverständigenrat deutscher Stiftungen für Integration und Migration] (SVR) deals with. In January 2020 she talked to Juliane Pfordte on behalf of ifa about integration, refugee policy and society’s attitude towards immigration.

Container of the refugee camp Skaramangas in Greece.
The Skaramangas refugee camp is located on the mainland, about eleven kilometres west of Athens. It houses about 3,000 refugees, most of whom are from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq; Photo: AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis

ifa: Ms. Bendel, your lecture in Athens was entitled 'Integration in Germany: have we achieved "it"?' What conclusions have you drawn?

Petra Bendel: We have achieved a good deal, but there is still a lot left to be done. In my lecture, I presented the main facts from the Expert Council's 2019 annual report. It was a review of Germany's integration and migration policy from 2015 to 2018. The conclusion in the sector of educational integration, for example, was largely positive. In 2016, about 95 per cent of the 6- to 12-year-old refugees who came to Germany between 2013 and 2016 attended school. Integration into the labour market has been fairly well achieved, but there is still a backlog, for example with regard to the integration of migrant women into the labour market. Furthermore, not all of those who are employed work in qualified professions. There are various obstacles, for example with regard to the recognition of professional qualifications. There is hardly any country in the world with a system comparable to Germany's dual training system, this makes it extremely difficult to prove that qualifications are equal.

ifa: Your lecture was followed by a panel discussion which included representatives from Greek communities. What issues did the discussion focus on?

Bendel: For example, we discussed how integration courses are managed in Germany and what residential status refugees must have in order to attend a German course, also in comparison to Greece. In November 2019, the new conservative Greek government under Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tightened its Asylum Act. Now, only recognised refugees are to be entitled to attend a language course. The asylum procedures are to be accelerated and applicants are to be rejected more quickly within the scope of the so-called EU Refugee Agreement and sent back to Turkey. I spoke to representatives of NGOs. They fear that this will undermine the right of people in search of protection to have their asylum application fully examined. The representatives of the communities, however, have signalled a high level of openness and pragmatism regarding local integration.

ifa: According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 74,500 people arrived in Greece last year alone. What is the Greek government doing to integrate these people?

Bendel: Up until now, the government has shown little interest in integrating these people quickly and effectively. There are hardly any integration measures, such as Greek courses, even for recognised refugees. Some individual offers from NGOs are available, such as free language courses and childcare, but they are just a drop in the bucket.

Prospects must be created

ifa: You visited the Skaramangas refugee camp near Athens. How did the people there react when you told them you are from Germany?

Bendel: Generally, their first comment was, 'We want to go to Germany.' Many want to get away because they have so few opportunities to integrate in Greece. I was told that some of them plan to try and go to Germany, but that is a futile undertaking because the borders are closed. The people will have to stay there or nearby. A local prospect must be created for them and this is where Greece can learn something from Germany.

ifa: For example?

Bendel: For example, our willingness to provide language and integration courses as quickly as possible. Naturally, the prerequisites, especially the economic ones, are different from those in Germany: unemployment among young people is extremely high and the lack of capacity of the Greek labour and housing markets means that refugees must compete directly with many Greeks. Of course, this is reflected in public opinion. Many Greeks are sceptical about refugees.

ifa: How does the humanitarian situation on the mainland compare to the overcrowded refugee camps on the Aegean islands?

Bendel: Although Skaramangas is not as overcrowded as the camps on the islands, the situation there is desperate. The people have a lot of children and you have to ask yourself what is to become of them. We are watching a lost generation grow up there. Skaramangas reminded me very much of the refugee shelters in Germany in September 2015. The equipment is extremely basic, a lot is improvised but you can't say that it is badly organised. The people working there are doing a fantastic job using the most basic equipment and showing a huge amount of commitment. The military that controls the camps criticises the illegal shops that have been established in recent years. There is a barber shop, a shisha bar, a restaurant, even a tattoo studio. But the government seems to tolerate these shops, because for many refugees this is the only way to keep themselves occupied.

'Integration is something everyone is responsible for'

ifa: After his trip to Greece in November 2019, the Home Secretary of Lower Saxony, Boris Pistorius, suggested that unaccompanied minors should be brought to Germany. The federal government opposed such a solo effort on Germany's part, arguing that this could send out the wrong signals in the negotiations for a new European asylum system. How should Germany position itself here?

Bendel: There are large networks and initiatives from committed communities, not just in Germany but throughout Europe, that are willing to voluntarily accept more refugees. These cities and communities could be supported by European funds and given the right to have a more direct say in the distribution of refugees. The federal government should amend the laws in Germany accordingly and understand that this willingness on the part of the communities is an opportunity and not a risk. In other words, we need a 'Coalition of the Willing' in Europe to take in refugees. Germany has committed itself to such a coalition, at least as far as those rescued at sea are concerned. Nevertheless, we need a reform of the European asylum system. This was also repeatedly an issue in the discussions in Greece.

ifa: In July, Germany will take over the EU Presidency. What do you expect from the federal government with regard to the migration policy?

Bendel: The EU Presidency is a huge opportunity for Germany to position itself as an intermediary in the negotiations for a new EU asylum system. And there is no doubt that we are perceived as an honest mediator, precisely because our policy of the past few years is credible. The SVR can also envisage a flexible model in which the responsibilities for border security, development cooperation as well as the intake and integration of refugees are distributed among various member states. As the largest donor of development aid in the EU, Germany would be responsible for development cooperation and, of course, for integration, because we have shown that we know how to do this.

ifa: What exactly does integration mean to you?

Bendel: Integration is something that everyone is responsible for. It refers not only to immigrants or people from migrant backgrounds: integration is the equal opportunity for everyone to participate in the central areas of social life. But it is also an ongoing process, and good results are never guaranteed. SVR's founding chairman, Klaus Bade, once phrased this very nicely, 'Integration is an enabling strategy.' Its objective is to give all the people who live here the possibility to make full use of their skills and talents by mobilising their abilities, including their dreams of a better life.

'A society that understands migration as diversity'

ifa: In 2015, the issues of immigration and migration moved from the periphery to the heart of society. Since then, we have often heard of the so-called 'refugee crisis'. To what extent is this term justified?

Bendel: I never speak of the 'refugee crisis'; instead, I speak of a political crisis as a reaction to forced migration, which we can apply to all of Europe. Europe has been thrown into a political crisis – this is why I entitled one of my publications, 'Refugee Policy in the Crisis'.

ifa: Do you sometimes wish that this topic would be reported on differently? The term was particularly pushed by the media.

Bendel: Yes, language can be a treacherous thing and terms such as 'refugee crisis', 'wave of refugees' and 'influx of refugees' convey fear and threatening scenarios. We must rise above the agitation that has dominated this topic. A more differentiated reporting could certainly help to achieve this.

ifa: A Central Museum of Migration is to be built in Cologne by 2023, and at the beginning of this year Berlin's alien registration authority renamed itself the 'Berlin Immigration Office'. What influence do such steps have on people's positive attitude towards immigration?

Bendel: This is an issue that the SVR will deal with more intensively in future. What kind of a society have we become? And what actually is the social putty that holds this extremely diverse society together? Steps such as these can send out a signal to show what kind of a society we want to be, namely one that understands migration as diversity.


Interview by Juliane Pfordte

About Petra Bendel

Professor Petra Bendel, born in 1965, is a Professor for Political Science and has been the Academic Director of the Centre for Area Studies at the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg since 1997. In June 2019, she became the Chairwoman of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration. She is also the Chairwoman of the Advisory Council of the Federal German Office of Migration and Refugees (BAMF) and a member of the federal German government's Expert Commission on Framework Conditions for Integration.

About the Lecture Programme

In December 2019, Petra Bendel travelled to Athens, Greece, within the framework of the federal German government's lecture series to exchange ideas with representatives from Greek communities on the current challenges for achieving successful integration. Since its implementation by ifa in 1995, the aim of the Lecture Programme of the German Federal Government has been to convey a current and multi-layered image of Germany abroad.
Find out more