BERLIN — The rest of Europe may see a crisis as a record number of asylum seekers flood the continent from Syria and other pockets of conflict and poverty. But Germany — the region’s economic powerhouse — is also sensing a golden opportunity.
This fast-graying nation of 81 million is facing a demographic time bomb. With a morbidly low birthrate and a flat-lining population, hundreds of schools have already been shuttered. Some neighborhoods, particularly in the increasingly vacant east, have become ghost towns. For Germans, it has raised a serious question: Who will build the Volkswagens and Mercedes of tomorrow?
Enter a record wave of migrants.
Offering some of the most generous terms of asylum, Germany has become by far the biggest host in Europe for those fleeing dangerous and deteriorating conditions, with more than 800,000 applications expected this year alone. With no sign of the crisis abating as war rages in Syria and Iraq, German leaders are saying they “can cope” with 500,000 more newcomers a year for “several years.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, is preparing her public for a period of transformation that may alter the very definition of what it means to be a German. Some leaders in the region are sounding the alarm over the threat to national identities posed by the mostly Muslim newcomers. But Merkel is cajoling Germans to embrace a new vision of their country that, in the future, may not be as white or Christian as it is today.
In a now-viral video, Merkel last week addressed a woman who expressed fear that refugees would bring more Islamist terror. Merkel took a deep breath before replying, “Fear is a bad adviser.”
On Thursday, Merkel visited a Berlin refugee processing center and “welcome class” for migrant children, taking selfies with migrants and calling for fast integration, more rapid processing times and jobs for those offered asylum.
Addressing parliament Wednesday, she said of the newcomers: “They need help to learn German, and they should find a job quickly. Many of them will become new citizens of our country.” She added: “If we do it well, this will bring more opportunities than risks.”
Merkel isn’t the only one being pragmatic, with industrial leaders here heralding the flood of working-age migrants. Some German universities are opening their doors to allow refugees to audit classes for free. The government is offering welcome classes teaching German to migrant children and adults.
Germany is rolling out the welcome mat as its unemployment rate has fallen to 6.2 percent — one of the lowest in Europe. Trade and service companies — from caterers to plumbing firms — are struggling to find new workers, with more than 37,000 trainee positions unfilled, according to the Federal Employment Agency.
Couple that with that fact that many of the asylum seekers — especially Syrians — are highly educated or skilled workers and include doctors, engineers and architects. And suddenly, for Germany, some say, what initially seems like a crisis becomes something else.
“As the asylum seekers are fairly well qualified, there is a good chance they will become valuable parts of our workforce in the coming years,” said Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. “We won’t reverse our population loss, but we could shrink less.”
Without doubt, the asylum seekers now represent a financial burden — one set to cost this nation billions in housing and other aid. But in the long run, experts predict, many of them will stay and build new lives in Germany rather than return home. In a country projected to shrink by 13.2 million people by 2060, the newcomers could help Germany confront its long-term battle with population decline.
At least that’s the view of Oliver Junk, the mayor of Goslar, a town of 50,000 in north-central Germany lined with adorable timber-framed houses. Suffering from a net population loss of 4,000 since 2002, in recent years, he said, Goslar has had to shut three schools and is now sprinkled with the “occasional empty house.”
But over the past two years, Goslar has also taken in almost 300 asylum seekers. Initially, the newcomers have no choice but to stay — government officials assign them to cities and towns where they must remain as their applications are evaluated. But those who win asylum eventually win the right to move — and Junk said his city is weighing a number of new programs to persuade them to stay, including a jobs network linking the newcomers with local employers.
“We want to create the opportunity for them to stay here and not move on to the big cities,” he said. “This is our chance.”
Analysts say it may be incredibly difficult for towns losing population, like Goslar, to keep the asylum seekers who are already there — with a rush expected to the big employment centers of Germany in booming Bavaria, as well as big cities such as Hamburg and Cologne.
Hassan Nabhea, 28, a medical student from Damascus, arrived in Goslar 18 months ago after claiming asylum. He has stayed, he says, to take German classes in a peaceful, beautiful town. But he’s likely to move on in October, perhaps to Bonn, to enter a university.
“I like it here, and I like the people, but it’s hard to think that I’ll come back after I finish my German language classes,” he said.
The surge of asylum seekers is coming at a time when booming Germany has emerged as a new promised land for immigrants, particularly from economically troubled southern European nations, including Greece, Italy and Spain, but also countries as far away as Israel and India. In the rankings of the globe’s most prosperous nations, Germany in 2012 leapfrogged Canada and Britain to become the largest destination for immigrants after the United States, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Many cite the still-insular pockets of Turks who moved to Germany in droves during the 1960s and 1970s as evidence that full integration will be hard and could take generations. In addition, the reception toward asylum seekers in the former communist east — the part of Germany where depopulation is happening most — has also been the least welcoming. The region has become the epicenter for a rash of far-right violence aimed at refugees, including a series of arsons at refugee centers.
In the blighted Marzahn neighborhood of eastern Berlin on Wednesday, asylum seekers Arslan Ali, 24, and Waleed Asif, 19, were strolling down a grid of sidewalks also being used by several older Germans using walkers. A group of young migrant children giggled on the playground of a nearby refugee center, but the men said not every day has been so carefree.
Asif — a Pakistani man who crossed into Germany in March and who said he is claiming asylum because his life was threatened by criminals back home — told of being attacked in a convenience store here. He said he was struggling to speak German — a language he is studying daily — when an angry local man head-butted him. The jolt, he said, sent him sprawling.
“No, not everyone here is nice,” he said.
And yet, although acceptance rates are low in Germany for asylum seekers like them, from countries not at war, both men are hoping to cash in on the German dream. “I want to work for Siemens!” Asif said.
“I would love to one day work for Mercedes or BMW,” Ali chimed in.
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.