The tidal wave of asylum seekers that hit Europe in 2015 is often stereotyped as an invasion of poorly qualified migrants destined to be charity cases in the receiving countries. Recent research shows it’s not true. Germany, which welcomed the immigrants and almost immediately regretted it, is likely to end up profiting from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to let them in, especially if it keeps taking steps to ease these immigrants’ path to employment.
For a paper published earlier this year, Cevat Giray Aksoy from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and Panu Poutvaara from the ifo Institute at the Leibniz Institute for Economic Research surveyed immigrants from the refugee crisis about their reasons for leaving their home countries. Their sample was constructed to mirror the geographic and demographic patterns of migration across the Mediterranean during the crisis, as recorded by the International Migration Organisation. They discovered that 77% of respondents – those from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Syria – fled war and persecution, while the rest, mostly from Algeria, Morocco and several African countries, came for economic reasons.
This in itself isn’t surprising: Most of the 2015-2016 immigrants were fleeing armed conflicts. But Aksoy and Poutvaara also made a more intriguing finding: Better-educated people are significantly more likely to try to escape war and persecution than their less-educated compatriots. Those escaping conflict are, to a greater degree than economic migrants, a self-selected group of people with decent job qualifications.
Obviously, European countries’ immigration policies played a role in determining the destinations, but Germany ended up, all in all, with a positively self-selected group of undocumented immigrants. These people, government statistics show, are anything but hopeless – Germany just needs to sort out how their qualifications correspond to its labour market needs.
That’s the principal bottleneck. German is one of the tougher European languages to master, and the country’s current rules complicate the recognition of diplomas and vocational training certificates issued outside the European Union. Last year, just 36,400 foreign professional degrees were recognised in Germany; even though that’s 20% more than in 2017, that’s a laughable number given Germany’s status as a major landing place for immigrants (it added 500,000 to its population in 2018).
Despite this high barrier for entering the German labour market, however, the refugees are increasingly finding work. According to Germany’s Federal Employment Agency, 35% of the refugees who arrived in 2015 were employed in October 2018 – up from 20% a year before. According to the German labour union DGB, 81% of college-educated refugees and 45% of those with a vocational qualification work below their skill level, and the wages they receive are significantly lower than the national average. Still, it’s a testament to the refugees’ tenacity that, just three years after arriving, and likely without any knowledge of German, more than a third of them are gainfully employed.
Germany and other European countries just need to ease the newcomers’ access to the labour market a little more. A quicker, more automatic process for recognising qualifications would almost certainly pay off.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru