Angela Merkel has received a lot of criticism for her iconic sentence. But labor market researchers tell a much more positive story of immigration. Only the corona crisis tarnishes the picture.

The prospective train driver and refugee Mohamed Jamal Naji drives a railcar on the route between Rastatt and Karlsruhe during a training trip.

EActually it is a success story: in the five years since Chancellor Angela Merkel’s (CDU) quoted “We can do it” sentence, the integration of refugees into the German labor market has developed positively for a long time, despite numerous hurdles.

The corona crisis has now abruptly stopped this trend – according to the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) of the Federal Employment Agency, refugees are much more affected by layoffs than other groups of employees. However, after a recovery from the pandemic, this picture should brighten again.

Overall, the integration of refugees into the labor market has been “quite successful” since 2015, says IAB migration researcher Herbert Brücker. Four years after moving, a good 40 percent were gainfully employed, and after five years around half. The labor market integration was thus “overall somewhat faster than in the past”, for example among the refugees who came to Germany in the nineties.

Investments in language courses have paid off

The German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) also regards the integration as successful in many areas. With regard to the labor market, however, according to a study by the economic researchers, their hopes for a job are often not fulfilled, especially among refugee women and refugees with mental health problems or poor schooling. According to Brücker, one of the reasons for the low employment rate among women is that many of them have children of dependent age.

According to the migration researcher, investments in language courses have gradually paid off. “Only about one percent of the refugees had very good or good German language skills when they arrived in Germany,” says Brücker. In the meantime, more than half of them speak good or very good German, “another third has reached an intermediate level.”

There were definitely “big teething problems”, as Brücker explains. “In 2015 and 2016 alone, 1.1 million initial asylum applications were filed in Germany.” At that time, these applications had to be processed as quickly as possible in order to create legal certainty for employers as well.

“Far above average” in small businesses or as temporary workers

In the meantime, numerous refugees have entered the labor market and work, for example, in restaurants, security services, dry cleaners or in so-called non-medical health professions such as care for the elderly. But it is precisely these jobs that cannot be done from home. At the same time, the lockdown in the Corona crisis hit these industries particularly hard. In addition, many refugees only have fixed-term employment contracts and, according to the IAB, work “well above average” in small companies or as temporary workers.

As a result, the corona pandemic hits refugees “significantly more than other groups of employees,” as Brücker says. “We assume that the employment of refugees has fallen by a good four percent.” The integration of the unemployed into the labor market “largely came to a standstill”.

However, the IAB expects that these jobs will be created again when the pandemic recovers. “Basically, the refugees work in niches in the labor market in which the demand for labor has risen above average in the past ten years,” explains Brücker.

It is now important that the measures for better language skills and professional qualifications, which were also severely impaired by the Corona crisis, are continued at the old level. Because this increased the chances of integration.

Basically, Brücker assumes that the importance of immigration for the labor market will continue to increase in the medium and long term. “We are in the midst of demographic change,” he explains. “In 2019 the German working-age population shrank by 340,000 people, when the baby boomers retire this trend will intensify.” This can only be offset by immigration – and is also necessary “to stabilize our social security systems” .