As the EU Scrambles to Halt the Next Wave, Here’s What Happened to the Last One
By Paul Hockenos March 19, 2020
On the border between Greece and Turkey, violent scenes of riot police struggling to prevent thousands of refugees from crossing into the European Union have set off alarm bells: an immigrant crush like that of 2015 and 2016 could hit Europe again, swamping public services and perhaps even catapulting far-right parties to power. “We don’t want a repeat of the year 2015,” German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told journalists in Berlin this month, referring to the arrival that year and the next of 1.4 million asylum seekers in the EU. In that, Seehofer and other European leaders are in agreement: this wave of refugees will not find sanctuary in Europe.
Between the summer of 2015 and the spring 2016, hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived in Greece by sea and then trekked north along the so-called Balkan route to northern and western Europe, mainly to Germany. Europe was unprepared for the influx. Many countries struggled to register and accommodate the refugees, who came primarily from Syria but also from Afghanistan and Iraq and in smaller numbers, from Eritrea, Iran, and the Balkans, among other places. The newcomers, and the chaos that accompanied their arrival, became fodder for xenophobes and far-right parties, which saw electoral gains in Austria, Germany, Greece, Sweden, and elsewhere.
As Europe rushes to turn away the latest wave of refugees, it is worth asking what actually happened to the roughly 1.4 million people who arrived in the EU in 2015 and 2016 and in particular, to the roughly 1.2 million who applied for asylum in Germany.
Have their numbers created as much havoc as many EU politicians claim? In fact, although their integration has been incremental and costly, the refugees have not, as right-wingers and others have charged, swamped the German welfare system, overwhelmed the schools and public budgets, or deprived native citizens of employment. The refugees’ cultures and religions (mostly Islam) have not impeded integration or undermined social cohesion in Germany, nor have the newcomers been any more likely to commit crimes than Germans of similar economic means.
Of the roughly 1.2 million refugees who sought asylum in Germany in 2015 and 2016—the largest number ever received in the space of one year—about one million have remained in the country, granted either official protection or temporary residency. And over the last five years, as these new arrivals have gradually integrated into German society, the country’s economy has boomed and its coffers have swollen. Germany’s unemployment rate fell to just three percent last year, the lowest among Europe’s larger economies and a 1.6 percent drop from 2015.