This year, Social Science Works has been working on the project ‘Deliberation Against Populism’ in which we have contacted citizens in Brandenburg that expressed an interest in populist political parties and arguments online. We have already explored this project in some detail on the blog, including an in-depth overview of the whole project and an breakdown of recruitment and an analysis of these themes and issues that have attracted the most ire from citizens online. The two events held for this project in Cottbus and Frankfurt an der Oder gave us the opportunity to meet citizens where they were able to share their concerns about the future of Brandenburg, Germany and Europe. Further, we had a number of conversations with citizens online where they were likewise able to express their concerns.

As a result, we have been able to compile a list of arguments that we ran into regularly throughout the project from citizens arguing from a populist perspective. Very often, the people we spoke to over the course of this project expressed their concerns about the number of refugees and migrants that have come to Germany in recent years. In addition, as this project took place in Brandenburg, in the former East Germany, many participants reflected on how reunification had negatively impacted on their lives. As part of our series on the project, we have invited our Fellows to respond to some of the arguments we encountered, drawing on their social scientific expertise. In the following, Fellows have laid out their responses to some of the most common arguments heard over the course of the project.

As outlined in previous blogs, there are a number of key areas that our participants returned to again and again. One of the key things that particpants discussed was life in the former GDR, and compared it favourably with their current circumstances.

In the first response, Martin Neise takes on this idea that life was better in the former GDR:

“Life was better in the GDR. I used to earn 600 Marks and pay 60 Marks rent. Now I earn 1000€, but rent is 600€. Where is the progress?”

“When people talk about life being ‘better’ in the GDR than now, they usually refer to the GDR’s vast social policies, as compared with the West’s and its strong GDP. They talk about low rents, cheap groceries, a dense network of medical services and a well-funded childcare sector. And the GDR indeed provided its citizens with generous social services, including a ‘right to work’, which presumably offered a life without worries. So far, so good. But how were the social policies paid for? With credits from capitalist countries. Hence, they were not sustainable.

When Erich Honecker came to power, he proclaimed the ‘unity of economic and social policy’. The aim of the policy change was to boost productivity by raising working morale through a broader supply of consumption goods. The rationale behind it was: if citizens are happier because they can consume a wider array of products, they will be motivated to work more effectively. The GDR’s leadership therefore set out to expand social policies, most prominently housing, and provide more consumption goods which, if it was not produced at home, had to be imported. However, both the oil crisis in the 70s as well as the inflexible and unproductive centrally planned economy, made the GDR less and less competitive. Therefore, an increasing number of imports could not be paid for with exports and the GDR had to take on debt.

That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as productivity and economic growth are spurred by taking on debt. However, that was not the case. Investment did not follow higher consumption – failing at the proverbial having and eating cake conundrum – and the country went into a debt spiral, paying more and more money to its foreign (capitalist) creditors, and paying back old credits with new credits (roll-over). The GDR was not ‘broke’ but this development lead to the ‘Schürer-Report’ in 1989 which stated that the “social policy did not rest on its laurels” and that in case the country wanted to stop taking on new debt, living standards would drop 25-30% in 1990.

While the GDR’s industrial capabilities were like a newly industrializing country, its social policies on par with industrialized countries. An impossible situation. A result of the manifold subsidies and higher consumption were that the state had to not only pay debt but also to decrease its investments. Therefore, machinery grew old and could not be replaced, infrastructure began to crumble and buildings could not be renovated. The government had to constantly decide between three goals:

  1. Increasing consumption and living standards,
  2. Servicing foreign debt,
  3. Accumulating and re-investing to become more productive.

It followed the first two while putting an axe to the third.

But what about the personal stories of low rents and groceries? That was still great, wasn’t it? Subsidies are wonderful. But only in case of infant (new, uncompetitive) industries, non-profitable but vital services like healthcare and public transport, or for people who need basic commodities like food, housing etc. However, the GDR paid broad subsidies for everyone, not only the poor and needy. But not only that, it paid for it with credits from capitalist countries. But let us take the debt out of the argument for now. Why were they bad policies nevertheless? Simply, because they give wrong incentives to individuals and companies, and with such broad subsidies wrong incentives for millions of people.

For example housing: rents were frozen at 1936’s level. Oftentimes, people only paid 6% of their income for housing. These rents did not cover the cost of building and maintaining the house. The state stepped in to pay the difference. In a state socialist economy, that does not matter as much because the state not only pays the wages but also the costs for the buildings. A zero-sum game. What citizens win in lower rents, they lose in lower wages because the state needs the money to build and maintain houses. But the difference lies in the individual behavior: A family with three children lives in a four-room apartment. All the children move out as they grew older. Normally, the parents would look for a different apartment which was cheaper and smaller. With the rents so low, the parents did not need to look for another apartment and stayed put. Meanwhile, many other families were looking for a four-room apartment. In economic terms: the subsidies led to an overuse of scarce resources because parents without children lived in huge apartments and the state had to build new apartment blocks for other families, while two-room apartments lay idle.

The same holds true for energy: The state massively subsidized heating and electricity – to all citizens. That led to an overuse of energy by every consumer. Why turn off the heat when the windows are open if it only costs me a penny? The result was a massive burden on the state’s finances for energy consumption. Resources and finances which could have been used to invest in machinery, or renovating streets and houses were wasted on subsides that made little sense.”

Martin Neise is an MA candidate in political science, with a focus on political economy at Goethe University in Frankfurt. He grew up in East Germany. 

Likewise, some participants felt that the way East Germany had been ‘swallowed’ by West Germany following reunification represented a political mistep. In fact, one of the most interesting suggestions we heard over the course of the project was that East Germany should have been allowed to pursue membership of the European Union as an independent state. However, as Sergiu Buscaneanu makes clear, this presents a serious administrative and political challenge, that could not have been overcome by East Germany:

East Germany should have been allowed to pursue membership of the European Union as an independent nation state.”

“The EU is a community of European states based on the commitment to respect democratic values, human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as to observe the defining principles of rule of law regimes. Though the EU has started in the aftermath of the Second World War as an economic project, integration of new members into the European Community has been made gradually conditional on observing democratic norms and universal human rights.

GDR has never had meaningful democratic institutions during its existence as an independent state and without a genuine process of democratisation, it could not have the chance of being accepted as a member of the European Community.

The existence of GDR as an independent state was ensured internally by autocratic party structures and a highly vigilant state apparatus, and externally by a powerful Soviet leverage. When this strong internal and external control lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the vast majority of East Germans, the very existence of GDR as an independent state became obsolete. Reunification of GDR with FRG was the logical consequence of this severe crisis of legitimacy.”

Dr. Sergiu Buscaneanu is Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at King’s College London, where he works on a project concerned with strategic choices of political elites in Eastern Partnership countries and prospect theory.

Another key theme that emerged from our discussions surrounded the economic value of refugees and migrants. Many people we spoke to over the course of this project felt that the influx of refugees and migrants represented a long-term economic strain on the German economy. Indeed, when pressed, many responded that they doubted that refugees and migrants to Germany would ever be able to find work in Germany and hence would not contribute to Germany in the longer term, citing the example of the Turkish population in Germany as an example.

Oktay Tuncer responds:

“We keep being told that these migrants and refugees will be good for the economy, but we already know that this isn’t true because of the experience we’ve got from Turkish migrants”

“In many societies there is a discussion on whether immigrants help or hinder the domestic economy. In the UK, the House of Lords has published 2010 a paper on “The economic and cultural benefits of immigration” concluding that the effects are not clear-cut but certainly helped to reduce inflationary pressures and were rather an answer to the country’s economic situation and needs. In the US, undocumented immigrants were blamed for the rising unemployment rate for a long time, and still are. In Arizona a propagandist ad appeared in 2010 which spawned Arizona’s tough new law targeting illegal immigrants and the possibility of congressional action on immigration, for instance, have brought a renewed focus to the issue.

It seems ironic that particularly the example of Turkish migrants is mentioned in the quotation as a negative example, considering that these were actively invited by the German government in the aftermath of the Second World War to help rebuild the economy as “Gastarbeiters” (guest workers) many of which are homeowners in Germany by now (convergence at nearly same rate as natives during 90s) or bought houses in their homecountry and moved back or run their own companies today (a mezmerizing rise during the 80s). As such, the Turkish population does not conform to the image of unemployablity, nor are the Turkish immigrants an outsized strain on the welfare state. During the 50s and 60s, the years when the vast majority of the Turkish workers (along with many Italians and Greek) came to Germany, the country’s GDP increased immensely: it more than doubled in the 50s and increased by another 50% during the 60s which marks until today its biggest increase in the country. The time period is known as the “Wirtshcaftswunder” (the economic miracle) and is, at the same time, the period of the most intense immigration to Germany (10 million guest workers arrived between 1955 and 1973).

Specifically, the economic dimension of migration is perennial; it seems to be legitimate, no matter what, to ask that question because it draws on simple and clear economic rationality. When political leaders evaluate the state of the country in terms of the economy, shouldnt we also look at inflows of human beings in economic terms?

Although initially appealing, economic measures are often misleading and not that clear-cut. Apart from the aforementioned indicators we cannot neatly ascribe to which processes of economic development are due to a population change or a general change in world markets or other external factors or simply due to political shifts (e.g. in social policy or education). Additionally, there are other measures of societal well-being (such as Human Development Index) other than the classical economic ones which, for many sociologists and economists, more accurately depict a country’s situation.

However, to take the risky enterprise of measuring the economic effects nevertheless, we can outline for contemporary refugee immigration that the effects will be different. First, we have to state that economic impact of immigration depends very much on the peculiarities of the countries (Diane Coyle, ̳The Economic Case for Immigration‘, Economic Affairs (2005), vol 25, no 1, p 53.) and today’s Germany is not the same as after the Second World War, but also the arriving migrants are different from the guest workers and hence one has to examine the cases individually. 10 million guest workers arrived until 1973 which is another dimension than the roughly 1.9 million asylum seekers who arrived since 2010. [there are roughly 1.9 million asylum seekers who arrived since 2010.] To come to statistical calculations, according to a simulation model calculated by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research the state expenses as means for refugees are expected to rise from €20 billion in 2017 to €28.5 billion until 2020. On the other hand, Germany’s GDP is expectedto be €30 million and one percent higher than in a scenario without refugee migration by 2020. However, it is problematic and not easy to make a clear conclusion since, as seen above, with different measures we change our perspectives and also, the net effect will depend on the labour market integration of the immigrants.

Another valid argument is a change of perspective which goes like this : we, as Europeans have developed values, notably in the Enlightenment epoch and take humanism as the starting point. According to these values, we cannot let people drown in the Mediterranean and separate ourselves off. Who, if not one of the economically most successful and richest countries in the world, could – and hence, should – take on this duty? If we avow the humanist notions of solidarity and human rights and teach in schools the importance of the right to the existence of oneself, dignity of the human and responsibility it is as important, to execute these in real catastrophic situations. After all, asylum is a human right ( The ones who are requesting asylum are trying to survive and to secure their existence and have nothing to lose. To actively accept these values means to accept them as universal, on a daily political basis, and not to exclude others from them. The responsibility stems from circumstances such as climate change which is caused mainly by the rich industrial countries or wars in regions in which the USA and its European allies are directly involved in. These circumstances lead to dramatic consequences such as natural catastrophes, droughts, floods, civil death tolls and ethnic cleansings and strike mostly poor regions.

In the end, contrary to the discussed commentary, we see in a majority of historical examples that migration has been beneficial to the host country. On the macroeconomic significance, economists agree that migration cannot be underestimated since migrants are filling holes in the production and the service sectors.

Oktay Tuncer is an MA candidate in social sciences from Humboldt University in Berlin his academic focus is on nationalism in Turkey, neoliberal urbanization and ethnic inequality on the German labour market.

In addition to fears that migrants and refugees to Germany would continue to be a drain on the economy, this thought led many participants to conclude that the current refugee situation threatens to overwhelm the German state. From this, participants argued that the German state’s priority ought to be German citizens and that refugees and migrants were simply too bigger a strain to accomodate.

Uwe Ruß responds:

Germany cannot handle all of these refugees. We need to look after our own first”

“The UNHCR estimates that 65.6 Million people are on the run in 2016 (UNHCR 2016) that is the complete population of West Germany or almost the population of France. Most of these refugees (around 40.3 Million) are not able to leave their own country of origin (known as Internally Displaced Persons). During the past decade, the number of refugees has continuously increased due to an increase in international and national conflicts and famines. It is no surprise then that more than half of all refugees worldwide come from Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan.

Germany does not make an exception to this trend. The number of applications for asylum in Germany increased as well, especially since 2012 with the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. According to the latest report of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, BAMF) the number of applications peaked in 2016 with 746,000 (BAMF 2017: 3). However, towards the end of 2017, the number of applications started to decrease to a level even below the 2014 rate (Jan-Sep 2017: 168 306). Also it has to be taken into account that these numbers refer to applications only. According to the BAMF, a considerable share of applications is rejected each year (2016 ca. 200,000, 2017: more than 200,000, BAMF 2017: 11; the number of rejctions cannot be subtracted from the number of applications for that specific year, because in each year applications from previous years are also decided upon).

Germany is not the only country taking refugees, but it is one of the economically most successful and largest countries in the EU with more than 80 million inhabitants and the lowest unemployment rate since reunification. Other, much poorer and smaller countries, host many more or a similar amount of refugees than Germany, for example, Turkey (2.9 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Lebanon (1 million), Iran (979,000), Uganda (941,000), Ethiopia (792,000), Jordan (685,000), Congo (452000), and Kenya (451000) (UNHCR 2016; these numbers cannot be compared to the ones given by the BAMF above. The BAMF measures applications for asylum, while these numbers refer to the number of refugees hosted by a country. The respective UNHCR number of refugees hosted by Germany is 669,000.)

To put this into perspective: Per 1,000 inhabitants there were 8.8 refugees applying for asylum in Germany, compared to 4.6 in Greece, 4.6 in Austria or 4 in Malta (Mediendienst Integration). If we imagine the German population in 2016 as a group of 100 people, there was only 1 person (actually only 0.88) coming and asking for asylum.”

This theme ran very deep. Even the participants that accepted that there was a genuine need for asylum for some of those claiming refuge in Germany, a common theme from our discussions was that this number was wildly over-stated and that the majority of those claiming refuge in Germany were economic migrants. This, participants suggested, was a widespread problem: the majority of refugees in Germany were simply there for economic reasons.

Uwe Ruß continues:

Most of these so-called refugees are economic migrants that don’t need protection.”

“According to the UNHCR a refugee is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group” (UNHCR). It is no coincidence then that the number of applications for asylum in Germany increased following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2012. If we look at the applications for asylum in Germany, it becomes clear that the three main countries of origin are Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq – countries that are characterized by many years of (civil) war, destruction, and chaos. 43.9% of all applications for asylum in Germany in 2017 (Jan-Sep) are filed by refugees coming from one of those three countries, followed by Eritrea (5.4%), Iran (6.7%), Nigeria (5.7%), Turkey (5.4%), Somalia (5.3%), and smaller shares from other countries. But also in countries where there is no war, people can be forced to flee their country because they are persecuted and discriminated against. For example, the European Union has repeatedly acknowledged that the people of the Roma are severely discriminated against in many countries (EU-MIDIS II 2016). Large parts of Europe’s biggest ethnic minority are excluded from access to education, labor market positions, housing, and medical care.

Thus, simply to assume that all or most refugees are not fleeing war or persecution in their home country and do not need protection is just an allegation. In Germany the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees checks the reasons and consistency of all applicants using auxiliary information and personal interviews. It is then decided upon whether an applicant receives asylum or other forms of protection in Germany or whether the application is rejected. For example, in 2017 (Jan-Sep) the BAMF decided that in more than 200,000 cases applications did not match the criteria for asylum or other forms of protection (BAMF 2017: 11; the number of rejections cannot be subtracted from the number of applications for that specific year, because in each year applications from previous years are also decided upon).”

Uwe Ruß is research associate at the German Center for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW) and PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin.

Equally common was the argument that refugees enjoyed more comfortable benefits than their German counterparts. This echos in large part the concerns heard from many that felt that Germany was ‘unable to cope’ with the economic strain of accepting large numbers of refugees and migrants. Over the course of the project, we found a number of posts that had gone viral within these social media communities which claimed to ‘expose’ the discrepencies between welfare benefits available to refugees and migrants and the (lesser) benefits available to German citizens.

Ilyas Saliba counters the argument:

“These people come, use our benefits system and take out more of it than we get.”

“What they get: Less not more

First of all those people, if they receive political asylum, do not come to Germany to use our benefit system but because their lives are in danger in the countries they fled from. However, upon arrival asylum seekers usually get accommodation provided by the local authorities they are distributed to. Furthermore, their basic needs in the form of food and necessities are covered by the state as well. The provision of these services by the public authorities during a person’s status as an asylum seeker is well below the benefits received by someone on unemployment benefits or even Hartz 4.

Not a zero-sum game

If an asylum seeker is granted asylum they are eligible for benefits just as any other unemployed Germans for that matter. They do not receive more but actually the same. And most importantly no unemployed German receives a single Euro less due to the arrival of asylum seekers. The provision of basic needs for the people in need by the German authorities is not what in the social sciences we would call zero sum game: there is not a fixed amount of money from which all people receive a certain part but the benefits are handed out on the bases of objective criteria that are legally regulated and are based on a case-by-case decision. Meaning if more people depend on social benefits due to an economic crises and rising unemployment or due to an influx of refugees no other person on the receiving end will receive less due to the increased total amount of people depending on such a social redistribution and basic needs provision system.

Barriers on the way to independence

Once the legal asylum battle is through and a recognized political refugee receives his or her temporary work permit they are finally eligible and allowed to emancipate themselves from depending on state benefits and earn a living themselves. Of course this comes with many difficulties. First and foremost language problems often complicate the entry of refugees into the workforce. This is why sufficient German classes should be provided to refugees so that the language barrier can be overcome. Secondly, many refugees previous degrees and qualifications and work experience in their homeland are not formally accepted in Germany. In such a situation refugees often face the choice of starting over in a new career or going back to school or university in order to earn a degree or qualification that is accepted. Thirdly, many refugees suffer from trauma due to their experience and are not immediately able and capable to work full time.

What we get: tax payers, entepreneurs and a younger workforce

Economically speaking a number of long term studies on the effects of migration have shown that even if migrants tend to be more likely to depend on state benefits in the beginning, in the long run they pay more taxes than what they receive. The same picture emerges when looking only at refugees. Compared to the average citizen from their host country migrants are more likely to found businesses and thus contribute to creating jobs for other people. They also tend to fill gaps in workforce that are oftentimes not occupied by the domestic population. Hence, they diversify our workforce and while they do depend on state benefits in the beginning after a few years this trend seems to turn around and they become part of the tax-paying workforce that keeps our economy and our welfare state going. Furthermore, the recent newcomers to Germany are mostly young people seeking a better life in safety and fleeing war in their homeland. They have a lifetime of work ahead of them. Accordingly, the new arrivals are lowering the average age of the German population, which from an economic point of view is a necessity, as I will outline in the final paragraph.

Immigration is not optional

On another more meta-economic-level, we also need to acknowledge that our current social welfare state is unsustainable due to our ageing society. Our social welfare system based on a generational solidarity between working population and people enjoying their well-deserved pensions needs more working people as the German workforce is shrinking. Even if Germany could somehow miraculously double its birth rate, that would  not, economically speaking, be enough to insulate our pension system from the problems arising from the demographic trend. Thus migration is an economic necessity for our social welfare state. Of course there is a valid question to be asked about how many and where from we could recruit new workers. But if the refugees are here; as such it make good economic sense to enable them to become contributors to our society and our system through helping them on the path.

This does take a considerable investment in the beginning but it pays back in the long run.”

Ilyas Saliba is a research fellow at the research unit Democracy & Democratization at the WZB Berlin Social Science Centre and a PhD candidate at Humboldt University Berlin. He works on the diverging trajectories of the Arab Uprisings and focuses on different strategies of regime responses to contestation. He tweets at @ilyas_saliba.

Aside from the economic concerns, a key issue in these conversations was the supposed criminality of migrants and refugees. This was a major theme, and indeed, in surveying the relevant social media sites for this project, the most popular posts (as measured by total number of likes, comments and shares) invariably related to migrants and refugees commiting crime (most often violent crime) against a German citizen. Many commentors argued that these (rare) events were typical and demonstrated the dangers posed by allowing large numbers of foreign nationals into Germany.

Fabian Hühne responds:

“Crime has increased since 2015 because of refugees.”

“One of the difficulties in putting this statement into context is that ‘crime’ is not directly defined. There are underlying assumptions here both about crime statistics as well as ‘criminality’. This response will look at both of these aspects.

In Germany each federal state collects its own data about ‘crime’ and there is no coherent classification of ‘refugees’ in this data. Some states include asylum seekers as well as non-EU foreigners in the data, while others focus on the category of ‘non German suspects’. Of course ‘crime’ includes various different activities and in 2016 there was an overall decrease of all crime Germany. However there is an increase in the crimes committed by ‘immigrants’. Even though crime statistics are incoherent in their classifications of what they measure as ‘immigrants’ they show a trend, especially when looking at violent crime, which includes physical assault, robbery and sexual assault among others. Up until 2015 violent crime was on the decline in Germany. From 2015 onwards violent crime is on the rise again. According to studies carried out by Zeit and Spiegel not only the contribution to violent crime of immigrants is disproportionately high in comparison to Germans also the increase of crime is higher. Die Zeit gives the example of Bavaria, where 20% of violent crime suspects were immigrants. While violent crime overall rose by 9.8%, the violent crimes committed by immigrants rose by 93%.  

Some of the implications of the argument can be backed up by crime statistics – but the data is vast and some more important conclusions about this can be drawn from a closer look at the data. It would be wrong to conclude that because of this data somehow ‘immigrants’ would be more criminal than Germans. This is not only taking their situation into account but also their demographic.

When it comes to asylum seekers, a large number are males aged 18-34. The proportion is very high and it is much higher than the average in Germany and higher than the average in other European countries. This specific demographic is across all countries associated with higher crime rates, and especially violent crimes. That is also true in Germany. To elaborate on this argument, if one took a random sample of male 18-34 year old Germans to any different country for a longer time, statistically they would increase the violent crime rate more than the average population in that country. This argument should go someway towards countering the suggestion that refugees are inherently more criminal. However, the living conditions endured by many refugees and in addition their reasons for seeking refuge in Germany should also be considered.

It is also interesting where the crimes of immigrants are committed. Most violent crimes committed by ‘immigrants’ are carried out in so called ‘refugee camps’. To draw again on the example of Bavaria given by Die Zeit, 58% of all crimes committed by ‘foreigners’ were committed inside a refugee camp. The specific situation and circumstances, that is being in a ‘camp’ together with traumatized other refugees, sometimes with little hope to be accepted seem to be contributing to the rise in ‘crime’.

This can not explain all of the increase in crimes committed by immigrants after 2015 but indicates that the specific situation that especially refugees are in and their demographic inflates crime statistics. Leaving aside the trauma of people and the conditions within refugee camps its worth distinguishing an increase in crime statistics and ‘criminality’.                    

Looking at the fact that refugees are not more criminal than Germans naturally it may be much more worth looking at how refugees can be housed better and how we can help young men cross nationalities to stay away from violent crime.”

Fabian Hühne holds an MA in political communication from Goldsmiths, University of London. He is a journalist whose work has appeared in Vice and has contributed to campaigns for Azaaz and ONE, he is currently working on the communications team at Fairphone.

Do you have any responses to add to this list? Have we missed any contributing factors? Let us know below!

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