Immigration Will Play A Vital Role in Upcoming German Election

With the German federal elections looming on the 24th of September, immigration and refugee issues have emerged as the critical issue. Who wins the chancellorship later this week will not just set the tone for Germany’s ongoing approach to accepting and integrating refugees and asylum seekers–but, potentially, for all of Europe.

The stakes could not be higher: How Europe chooses to manage its refugee population–now well over 1 million people–will determine whether the new arrivals will be a boon or burden (and at worst, a security risk) for years to come.

Immigration has become a defining issue for Merkel: The current Prime Minister made headlines in 2015 when she gave her famous “refugees welcome” speech, proclaiming that Germany would not set an upward limit on the number of refugees the country would accept. Her policy was widely criticized in Germany, leading to the biggest drop in the chancellor’s popularity ratings in five years. Since then, she has slowly managed to recoup much of that political capital–particular after negotiating a largely successful EU-Turkey deal, severely limiting the number of new arrivals, And, she now seems back on track to win her fourth term on Sunday.

But while Merkel is comfortably ahead in the polls of her rival, Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schultz, growing public concern about refugee and immigration issues has already forced the chancellor to backtrack significantly from her controversial “refugees welcome” stance of 2015, and is likely to further impact how the new (or returning) chancellor manages the country’s refugee policy in the future.

Germany isn’t the only country where refugee policy has become a defining issue. Across the continent, the debate over how many refugees to accept, and what resources to allocate to their integration is changing the course of politics–particularly in the wake of a growing number of terrorist attacks–a few of which have been committed by recent immigrants and refugees; but the majority by their poorly-integrated descendants, radicalized in-country. Concerns over immigration and refugees was pivotal to the Brexit “leave” vote in the United Kingdom, has bolstered the popularity of far-right National Front in France, and is fanning the flames of growing Euro-skepticism movements in countries throughout Europe.

Germany is no different: Fears over the hotly debated connection between terrorism and refugees has all but ensured that Alternative for Germany (AfD) –a once fringe, far-right party that wants to close Germany’s borders and essentially get rid of the current asylum system. Indeed, the party has become the country’s third-largest by recently defeating Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in a regional election,and is almost certain to gain Parliamentary seats. Responding to public outcry, even the mainstream conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) has responded with a proposal to cap asylum seekers at 200,000 per year. Merkel’s own CDU is suggesting more restrictive measures.

This continent-wide shift to the right on refugee policy does not bode well for the future of future asylum seekers, or the 1.2 million refugees already in Europe, who need public acceptance and support–in the form of government budget allocations to support language and job training in order to effectively integrate this population.

Although altruism certainly played a role, Merkel’s original decision to accept refugees was also an attempt to solve one of Germany’s greatest current challenges: Radical demographic decline. A country with one of the most rapidly aging populations in the world, the number of people under the age of 15 in Germany is estimated to drop 13 percent by 2050–exacerbating an already serious labor shortage to one of potentially epic proportions. Properly managed, the injection of refugees could be a major force in resolving the demographic dilemma the country faces.

Unfortunately, the hardening rhetoric around refugee issues suggests that the German public (and therefore the political parties that represent them) are unlikely to support the allocation of additional public funds, to accelerate the integration and assimilation of refugees. This is a problem: A 2009 study from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development found that the least-integrated immigrants and asylum-seekers in Germany tended to be the worst educated, and had higher rates of unemployment than native Germans and better-integrated refugees.

Although the numbers of refugees entering Europe are far below 2015 levels, the crisis is not over. Germany is perhaps the most powerful and influential European country: How Germany manages their refugee population will be one of the biggest challenges facing the new chancellor–and may very well determine whether refugees will become a long-term boom or burden, setting the tone for refugee policy not just in Germany, but in the rest of Europe.

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