Caroline Smrstik Gentner: You have been researching migration in Europe for the past 25 years, going back to the “guest workers” who were invited and welcomed. What has changed?

Christian Dustmann: The debate now in Germany and other EU countries relates to refugee migrants, and not economic migrants.

Economic migration was the dominant migration we saw for many years. The migrant chooses on purely economic grounds whether and when to leave and where to go and the receiving country chooses whether to let him in, and under what conditions. A refugee who flees war or persecution on the other hand has typically little choice about when and where to migrate, and European countries – as signatories of the 1951 Geneva Convention for Refugees and the 1967 protocol – have made a commitment to give refuge to those who flee persecution. But in public debate, economic migration and refugee migration are often mixed up.

CSG: What makes this refugee crisis in Europe over the past year different from other recent migration waves?

CD: First of all, the numbers. In the early 1990s, 300,000 to 400,000 war refugees came from the Balkans, mainly to Germany. The crisis was a European responsibility (war in the former Yugoslavia) and was brought to an end by European and US intervention. And 80-85% of those refugees went back home.

Now, the situation in Syria and in the Middle East is far more complex and Europe is an outside player. It would not be possible for Europe to end this crisis alone. It’s totally unclear if or when these refugees can be repatriated.

CSG: European countries seem most concerned about how to register the refugees and where to put them, less so about what comes next in terms of education, professional training, or employment.

CD: The receiving countries are just overwhelmed. There’s lots of good will in many communities and also from business, but the rigidity of state institutions and processes makes it difficult to act. All this has to be improved.

Another aspect: how EU countries have reacted and responded to the recent refugee crisis is far less coordinated than we would have hoped. Europe is heterogeneous— eastern countries perceive their responsibility toward refugees differently than Germany or Sweden.

CSG: The first weeks / months / years are decisive for the career perspective of today’s refugees, you’ve said. What age group are you talking about?

CD: The younger the better. Without the war in Syria, the 4 million refugees who have left Syria would still live where they were born, attend school, find work. Those who came to Europe were not prepared, and Europe was not prepared for them.

“Education is absolutely necessary to be productive in the host country’s labor market. Language is only one aspect of that.”

One of the key factors that determines whether refugees can adapt well is willingness to invest in their human capital—both from the side of the host country, and from the refugees themselves. Education is absolutely necessary to be productive in the host country’s labor market. Language is only one aspect of that.

For example, if I am a Syrian doctor and I see no perspective in the country where I have taken refuge, and think I will go back home in two years, why should I learn German? But without learning German, I cannot practice as a surgeon. However, if I see a future and can have a career in Germany, I may invest my time and effort in learning the German language.

CSG: Besides language, are there other barriers for refugees wanting to study or learn a profession?

CD: The dual educational system in Germany or Switzerland makes things more difficult for refugees, since it is based on apprenticeship training for entry into the labor market. Suppose you spend three years as a baker trainee. During this time, you earn less than an unskilled laborer. And the qualification you earn that allows you to be a baker in Germany is worth nothing in Syria. There, anyone with an oven can be a baker and sell bread.

Consequently, even young refugees are likely to be reluctant to undertake prolonged and costly training within the apprenticeship system unless they see their future in Germany. This lack of clarity about the possibility of permanent settlement obstructs attempts to use such schemes to train refugees.

So the apprentice-based model for creating a skilled workforce is great, but is a barrier for those coming from outside. Other European countries such as the UK do not have this hurdle, which is helpful when it comes to integrate refugees.

CSG: One of your research papers showed that in Germany, economic migrants integrated far better over time than refugees did, even when they were from the same origin areas. Why?

CG: In my view, two primary reasons for the poor success in integrating refugees into the host countries are the long decision time for asylum claims and the indecisiveness of host nations about duration and permanence of stay. Both factors contribute to considerable delays in giving individuals a clear perspective on their future residence in the host country. The tentative evidence shows that integration of the current waves of refugees will be similarly problematic unless better integration mechanisms are implemented.

For instance, perspective can also be used as an incentive to inspire individuals to learn the language and start an educational program. Ideas like this are being discussed in policy circles, but need to be acted on.

CSG: What needs to change?

CG: Well, we need coordination among EU and European countries, and in particular among the group of countries that form the Schengen area. We have to secure the outer borders of Europe, and we need full agreement within this group of countries on how to decide upon an asylum claim, what exactly we consider “safe origin countries”, on the length of and process of procedures, and on the perspectives we give a refugee once the claim is accepted.

This crisis is also an opportunity for Europe to make our institutions more flexible. A focus must be integration into the labor market. The labor market is the best integrator. If you want to give a person a future, get them working, help them to transfer their skills to the needs of the receiving country, and make them more productive. We need policies that are tailored to refugees, and that carefully incentivize migrants to behave in a way that leads to successful careers in the receiving countries.


Christian Dustmann is Professor of Economics at University College London and Director of CReAM, the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration. He is the current president of the European Society of Labor Economists (EALE), and former scientific director of the Norface program on migration, a large international and interdisciplinary research network on migration. Professor Dustmann is a leading labor economist, having widely published in the areas of migration, education, and the labor market. He regularly advises government bodies, international organizations and the media on current policy issues.

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