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Study on past refugees helps develop possible solutions for future integration

Press Release of September 7, 2016

Social scientists and economists at DIW Berlin and Humboldt University Berlin researched the integration of refugees who arrived in Germany between 1990 and 2010 – survey data indicate difficult starting conditions with employment and language skills compared to other migrants, but refugees were able to catch up over time

How can we help refugees to successfully integrate into Germany society – especially those migrants who’ve arrived as part of the major influx from the past two years? In order to answer this question, a group of social scientists and economists at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin) and Humboldt University Berlin took a look into the recent past. Their key finding: after initial difficulties, refugees who came to Germany between the years 1990 and 2010 were eventually able to catch up to other migrants in terms of employment and language skills.

German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin)

The German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin) is one of the leading economic research institutions in Germany. Its core mandates are applied economic research and economic policy advice as well as provision of research infrastructure. As an independent non-profit institution, DIW Berlin is committed to serving the common good. The institute was founded in 1925 as Institut für Konjunkturforschung (Institute for economic cycle research). Since 1982, the Research Infrastructure SOEP (German Socio-Economic Panel Study), a long-term study, is affiliated to DIW Berlin. The institute has been headquartered in Berlin since its founding. As a member of the Leibniz Society, DIW Berlin is predominantly publicly funded.

Many young refugees invest in education in Germany

Compared to other migrants, refugees arrived in Germany with fewer formal qualifications from their home countries, had poorer German skills, took longer to find their first jobs, and were less likely to send their children under three to day care centers. However, they were able to improve their language skills faster compared to other migrants and even achieved higher qualifications. In addition, children of refugees were more likely to participate in extracurricular school activities in sports.

“One hurdle for incoming refugees is that they barely speak any Germany when they arrive, while migrant workers have the possibility of preparing in advance for their move to the host country,” explains Martin Kroh, Deputy Head of DIW Berlin’s Socio-Economic Panel, a longitudinal study. 

Together with eight colleagues, Kroh analyzed data from a joint migration survey by the SOEP and the Institute for Employment Research (IAB). An analysis of the refugees, who primarily arrived between the years 1990 and 2010, provided the researchers with insights into how current refugees can be successfully integrated.

That there are currently far more integration measures than in the past allows looking to the future with optimism: “The variety of measures and social initiatives give hope for a faster integration of today’s refugees,” says Kroh.

Refugees arrived with lower formal qualifications than did other migrants

Compared to other migrants, a smaller share of refugees had formal qualifications and their overall qualification level  was lower. For example, 20 percent of the refugees surveyed left their home countries without completing school, while this figure amounted to only ten percent in the group of other migrants. Despite this, refugees – as long as they attended school in the Germany– achieved high educational qualifications than did other migrants. Furthermore, the proportion of those with professional experience was similarly high  among refugees and other migrants , while  refugees even had slightly more work experience upon arrival in Germany.

The most recent efforts to recognize informally acquired skills from abroad should therefore be continued, explained Zerrin Salikutluk, Research Associate at the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research (BIM) at Humboldt University Berlin.

“In addition refugees should be better informed about ways to obtain recognition of their qualifications and experience from abroad in Germany,” says Salikutluk. “In the past, only one-third of refugees applied for recognition.”

Refugees took longer than other migrants to get their first job in Germany

Besides qualifications and work experience, German language skills are an important prerequisite for integration into the German labor market.

Although most refugees arrived with barely any knowledge of German, by 2013 they had reached the language proficiency of other migrants – which means they improved their language skills more quickly than did other migrants in the same time period.

The refugees surveyed took longer to enter the labor market than did other migrants, and even years after their arrival in Germany, they were more likely to be unemployed or earn lower incomes. Roughly two-thirds of all refugee men, but only one in four refugee women, were able to find a job within their first five years after arriving in Germany. They worked primarily in small enterprises, manufacturing, and hospitality industry.

“Among other things, participation in the German education system and frequent use of German – especially at work – are positively correlated with language acquisition,” says Elisabeth Liebau, Research Associate at the SOEP. In this regard, making sure that refugees have fast access to educational opportunities and the labor market  can help to improve their language skills faster.

Social contacts as well played a key role in employment: roughly half of all refugees surveyed got their first job in Germany with the help of friends, acquaintances, or relatives. This pattern was even more prevalent among other migrant groups.

Children with refugee backgrounds were more likely to take advantage of extracurricular school activities in sports

Children of refugees took advantage of some of the voluntary educational and leisure activities within school as much or even more than other children did. However, as primary school and secondary school students they took part less frequently in non-formal educational programs outside of school, such as sports clubs or music lessons. Refugee children under three years old were less likely to be sent to day care centers, and attended parent-child groups less frequently.

“Early education in particular offers ample potential for a successful integration, and this must be taken advantage of even more,” recommends C. Katharina Spieß, Head of the Department of Education and Family at DIW Berlin. Among others, possibilities include more interculturally oriented offerings and a targeted recruitment of volunteers and staff with migrant backgrounds.