What Canada can learn from Germany’s mass, unplanned migration

Five years ago, more than a million refugees arrived in Germany. Today, many are working full-time. Here are the lessons Canada can learn from what went right—and wrong—in Germany.
Shmayess (right) left Syria for Görlitz, Germany, in 2015; his wife, Ammar, joined him a year later and the couple recently opened a restaurant (Photograph by Sadiya Ansari)
Sami and his wife, Etab, outside their Görlitz restaurant. (Photograph by Sadiya Ansari)

When Sami Shmayess was visiting his parents in his hometown of Latakia, Syria, in 2008, he met a German family who were on a year-long trip in their van. Long stretches of beach on the Mediterranean coast made the port city a popular holiday destination, and it was on a walk by the water where Shmayess’s parents spotted the Germans and invited them over for dinner and a hot shower. Shmayess quickly became friends with them. Eight years later, it was their turn to invite Shmayess to stay with them in Görlitz, a small city in the eastern part of Germany. But the circumstances of his travel were quite different—and likely permanent.

In 2015, as the civil war in Syria stretched into its fifth year, Shmayess decided to leave. “I had to give up everything and start over,” he tells me on a fall afternoon, sitting in the restaurant he and his wife had opened in Görlitz’s city centre just over a week earlier. Now 38, Shmayess is soft-spoken with bright brown eyes behind square glasses, maintaining calm in his voice even as he describes the most difficult decision he will likely make in his life.

“I didn’t want to spend the next [few] years fleeing from one place to another,” says Shmayess. That’s why he chose Germany—Chancellor Angela Merkel had just opened the borders, it was booming economically and his skills as an IT specialist were in high demand. He began learning German five days after arriving, found a job in his field within six months, and after a year, brought his wife, Etab Ammar, over.

READ: Why race and immigration are a gathering storm in Canadian politics

Germany’s economy and sustained support from civil society are just two of the factors that helped the country manage the arrival of over one million asylum seekers between 2014 and 2016, the largest number the country has seen since the end of the Second World War. Ramping up its capacity to process asylum claims and increasing access to language and integration courses were also important to Germany’s success. Some Germans had especially high hopes that newcomers would counteract the country’s low birth rate, which, similar to Canada’s, poses the dual threat of labour shortages and an inability to fund growing social security costs. In 2015, Dieter Zetsche, then-head of Daimler, went as far as to propose that refugees may be “Germany’s next economic miracle.”

But not everyone in Germany was optimistic about mass migration. Many warned that the influx would create a crisis in the form of dependence on welfare and long-term poverty as migrants got stuck in precarious jobs.

The federal Institute for Employment Research (IAB) examined the claim that the migration would “overstrain” the capacity of both the German economy and society. “The empirical evidence has—contrary to the expectations—given no indications that the influx of refugees in 2015 led to a ‘refugee crisis’ in Germany,” reads the 2020 study, published in the journal Soziale Welt. Looking at a detailed survey of a representative group of refugees who arrived between 2013 and 2016, the authors found that the demographic profile—69 per cent were under 35—was “likely to facilitate, rather than hinder, labour market integration.”

A separate report by the IAB based on the same survey of refugees found that within five years of arriving, half of asylum seekers were employed, and by the end of 2018, 23 per cent had enrolled in education or training opportunities and 57 per cent were working in skilled professions. This is remarkable, considering that in 2017, Aydan Özoğuz, Germany’s commissioner for immigration, refugees and integration, predicted up to three-quarters of refugees would still be unemployed in five years. It’s also impressive given not only the barriers immigrants face, but also that this was a high-needs population that didn’t plan or prepare for such a move—only one per cent of those surveyed who arrived between 2013 and 2016 spoke German.

The perception that “too much” immigration will strain a country’s ability to absorb migrants is certainly not unique to Germany. Canada is seen as managing this concern through its focus on economic migration. Part of why the Canadian system is lauded internationally is that it primarily targets economic migrants, who are hand-picked based on a points system that assesses applicants according to their language abilities, education level and work experience.

The underlying assumption of the points system is that it eases the transition into Canada, and particularly into the labour market. And yet, Canada has an underemployment problem. A 2020 report from Public Policy Forum, for instance, notes that immigrants are overrepresented in lower-paying jobs, such as those in accommodation and food services “where the average pay is $383 per week compared to $976 per week across all industries.” Unrecognized foreign credentials, devalued work experience and individual discrimination all contribute to this.

But what about those who arrive under different circumstances, who are admitted based on what they need, rather than how they might benefit a country’s GDP? Refugees are a small proportion of those that Canada takes in, and the economic integration of this group is understudied. Germany—which also carefully targets economic migrants (2015’s open border policy was an aberration)—offers a window into what can happen when a wealthy Western country undergoes a mass migration without assessing the migrants’ potential for the labour market.

The last decade has shown that the number of people migrating is growing. Globally, there were 79.5 million people forcibly displaced at the end of 2019. War, famine and persecution are among the reasons behind this movement. More than 13 million have fled their homes in Syria since 2011. And climate change will certainly be a factor—it could force 143 million from their home countries in South Asia, Latin America and Africa by 2050, according to a 2018 World Bank report.

In a world where migration, especially unplanned movement, is on the rise, what lessons can countries like Canada draw from what went well—and what didn’t—in the German case?


Görlitz sits on Germany’s border with Poland, the Neisse river separating the two countries. It’s home to 55,000, with cobblestone streets, centuries-old churches and charming heritage buildings—4,000 of them—the result of being one of the few cities that wasn’t blown apart in the Second World War. If it sounds quintessentially European, it’s because Hollywood has imprinted this image in North Americans’ minds; films like The Reader, Inglourious Basterds and The Grand Budapest Hotel were all shot here. It has advantages over a big city in appealing to young families looking for a place to settle down: less congestion, better and cheaper housing options and more green space. But the city has challenges, too: the loss of a quarter of its population since reunification, a high unemployment rate and one of the country’s highest rates of support for anti-immigrant political party Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Despite the city’s high unemployment rate, there is still a need to attract workers. In the early ’90s, industry collapsed in eastern Germany as a result of the fall of the socialist regime. “Everyone was oriented westwards,” says Eva Wittig, head of marketing at a city-owned organization. Mass migration out of the east continues, she adds, with parents and grandparents still encouraging young people to leave, leading to a hollowing out of the labour market.

Malek Alnajem is exactly the kind of person the city wants to attract, arriving in Görlitz at age 34 from Homs, Syria, with his wife, eight-year-old daughter and six-year-old son. But unlike Shmayess, Alnajem didn’t choose this city. Since the 1970s, the federal government has had a system called Königsteiner Schlüssel, which assigns asylum seekers to each state in proportion to their populations, and the states further assign asylum seekers to regions and municipalities. Görlitz received 1,200 asylum seekers in 2015 as a result. While Canada has a similar system of assigning government-assisted refugees, it’s far less stringent.

Alnajem was nervous when he was assigned to Görlitz because he heard it was home to “many Nazis” as part of the former East Germany, which historically had a dearth of in-bound migration. What has kept him there is a training program with the local Red Cross to become certified as a child care worker and educator.

In Syria, Alnajem worked as a gym teacher for 14 years, but in Germany his diploma wasn’t recognized. He was advised by a career counsellor that he would have to go back to school for eight years in order to earn equivalent qualifications. Alnajem’s counsellor tapped a personal connection to help him secure a spot in the Red Cross program, which guarantees him a small income; now, he’s set to finish in 2023. Three days a week he works at a daycare centre with school-aged children, and the other two days he attends classes.

The dual vocational program is one of 330 in the country. The system pays trainees—908 euros a month on average—and combines in-class experience in a publicly funded institution with apprenticeships. Training typically takes two to 3½ years. Unlike in Canada, where professions are regulated at the provincial level, these programs are standardized across the country, providing national recognition.

Alnajem’s eventual qualification as a child care worker lands him in one of the most in-demand careers in Germany. But he would much rather be teaching at school. “I’m doing [this] out of necessity,” says Alnajem.

READ: Canada’s uncomfortable reliance on migrant workers

Etab Ammar also trained as a teacher in Syria, but she hasn’t been able to qualify as one in Germany. “Although it is the same [profession], it is very different here,” she says. “I had a hope to continue, but not anymore.” A tough pregnancy and the birth of her son Andreas in 2017 meant Ammar wasn’t able to keep up with the requisite language and integration courses to retrain as a teacher in Germany.

Unfortunately, Ammar’s experience is common among women who arrive in Germany as mothers to preschool children. An IAB study found that, compared to men, women “enter their first job in German significantly more slowly.” There is a lag in language acquisition, which then turns into a lag in finding work, one notable enough that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the IAB have both flagged it as a structural issue that needs to be addressed.

Similar to Canada, Germany’s poor recognition of foreign credentials is known to create major obstacles for people like Alnajem and Ammar. “The research shows occupational recognition is very important for labour market success—it increases the probability of job entry, and increases wages significantly,” says Yuliya Kosyakova, a senior researcher specializing in migration at the IAB. Germany has invested to rectify this problem, resulting in a growing number of qualifications being recognized in the last few years, especially in medical fields.

But there remains the problem of experience not being recognized. This is evident in occupations that are part of Germany’s dual vocational system, particularly where formal certification is required for jobs like housekeeper, tailor or gardener. This system “barely exists” anywhere else, says Kosyakova, which means it’s hard to prove equivalent credentials.

Ultimately, the system “makes it really difficult to enter many jobs,” says Kosyakova. As a new immigrant, and especially as a refugee, spending two to three years forgoing a full-time income after doing months of language classes is a tough choice to make. For many, this situation is a barrier to applying their skills in the German labour market.

One of the challenges both for migrants and governments in evolving economies is matching labour market needs to qualifications. That’s what one federally funded pilot project in Nuremberg aimed to do—provide focused, individual help to mid-career refugees to find positions matching their skills and experience. The project, called Enter, ran from the beginning of 2016 to the end of 2018, working with 50 refugees and 10 companies and eventually placing 31 people in jobs. Project managers first sat with refugees to understand their experience, education and hopes for the future. Then they helped in many ways, including calling up potential employers to help the refugee learn what the job would be like and introducing the candidate to the employer.

“That was very good, actually, because we found out whether there are companies that are not really open-minded for foreign employees,” said Marion Bradl, who designed and ran the project. She sees the pilot as a success, and says one thing is clear: “The more support and contact the refugees had to German society, the more successful their integration.”


Sitting outside a shisha café on a warm autumn evening, Ramadan Alzaher tells me about settling in Berlin, arriving from Syria via Turkey. He came in 2015 at age 23, alone. But he had a bit of a network in the city—a friend’s address to hand to a taxi driver after making the long journey by boat and train, and another friend to share an apartment. He was even able to train for a new career as a lifeguard with five other refugees who also spoke Arabic.

Berlin is seen as a haven for immigrants. As an extremely diverse city of 3.6 million, it often offers a built-in community and the chance to speak your language and eat familiar food while trying to adjust to a new culture. And yet, research on the benefits of immigrants having an ethnic network is mixed. Kosyakova and Klarita Gërxhani at the IAB examined labour market outcomes for those arriving in Germany between 2009 and 2013, and found that if a migrant used their network to find work, it helped them land a job faster (though having a network alone was not enough). At the same time, it didn’t improve the quality of jobs held by respondents, which was measured by hourly wage.

Diversifying the network you rely on can help. And one way to do that is through “integration mentors,” says Michael Haas-Busch from Caritas Berlin, a national social service organization of the Catholic Church.

Integration mentors are both paid and voluntary, and provide the kind of one-on-one assistance that social service agencies can’t: accompanying people to appointments with various authorities, helping them apply for school and connecting them to jobs. “Through these people, refugees have access to society—they get to know people, they have a network, they can get support for housing,” says Haas-Busch, who coordinates volunteers for this kind of work among 20 or so parishes in Berlin.

Alzaher in Berlin; after getting a job offer, he waited two months for his approval to work (Gordon Welters)
Alzaher in Berlin; after getting a job offer, he waited two months for his approval to work (Gordon Welters)

There’s some evidence in Canada that having access to a network boosts integration prospects. Privately sponsored refugees were found to do better than government-assisted refugees in terms of income over time in a 2019 Statistics Canada study looking at refugee labour-market integration from 1980 to 2009. “Privately sponsored refugees have a closer relationship with their Canadian sponsors immediately after entry,” write Garnett Picot, Yan Zhang and Feng Hou. “This may assist in job searches, training and language acquisition and provide them with an earnings advantage.”

In 2019, the Canadian government released a report examining the integration of the 25,000 Syrian refugees who arrived between November 2015 and March 2016. It found that in 2016, 40 per cent of the privately sponsored refugees were working, compared to 15 per cent of government-assisted refugees. But it’s hard to make direct comparisons between these groups since they have different profiles, says Fariborz Birjandian, CEO of Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, noting that privately sponsored refugees tend to be better educated.

READ: How Syrian refugees to Canada have fared since 2015

The Berlin-based German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) launched a study to examine the impact of a mentorship between a refugee and a German. They partnered with a non-profit organization called Start With a Friend (SWaF) that pairs refugees with locals who commit to meeting for two to three hours a week for at least six months. The researchers randomized invitations to refugees who had arrived between 2014 and 2016 and then compared the results to a control group.

After one year, there were two encouraging findings: first, the program improved refugees’ German by the equivalent of an additional year; and second, refugees who had mentors were more socially active—more likely to join a sports team or go to the movies, for instance, than those who didn’t. Magdalena Krieger, a researcher at DIW, notes that while it appears one year isn’t enough to see results on labour market outcomes, these findings are significant indicators of integration. “The programs really do have an impact on refugees’ lives,” says Krieger. “Also, the mentors report that they find the relationship enriching. Many say ‘this [person] has become my friend,’ which I find very beautiful.”


Nuremberg mirrors Görlitz in its quaint beauty. The city was rebuilt after the war in its signature red sandstone, and despite its small-town feel, has about 10 times the population of Görlitz. It has a high proportion of foreign-born residents, is home to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) field office in Germany and sits in the state of Bavaria, which has one of the country’s strongest economies. But the state is facing a projected skilled-worker shortage as large as Nuremberg—542,000 people—by 2030.

Rebaz Rizgar left Iraq with his uncle when he was 16, but ended up in Nuremberg alone. His uncle went on to England while Rizgar stayed in Germany, where he believed there would be a better opportunity to be educated. The 21-year-old is Kurdish from Kirkuk in northern Iraq, a territory that has been disputed for decades and was further destabilized by an ISIS takeover in 2014.

Rizgar is one of 50,000 unaccompanied minors who arrived in Germany between 2015 and 2016. The paradox of unaccompanied minors is that their age makes them more likely to take advantage of educational opportunities than older migrants, but their lack of family support makes them incredibly vulnerable.

Organizations across Germany help connect youth like Rizgar with guardians, and one in Nuremberg facilitated a meeting between him and Heike Wieland, a 58-year-old mediation expert living in the city with her husband and daughter, who is about Rizgar’s age. Even with a massive language barrier, Wieland could immediately tell how bright he was. After an initial meeting, Wieland and her husband had Rizgar over during the holidays for dinner and a sleigh ride. As she got to know him better and saw his living situation, Wieland decided to ask him to live with her family. “We were more or less complete strangers,” says Wieland. “[But] in my heart, I felt more or less like a mother.”

Rizgar (left) with Wieland at home; ‘They’re also my family. They’ve accepted me,’ he says. (Sonja Och)
Rizgar (left) with Wieland at home; ‘They’re also my family. They’ve accepted me,’ he says. (Sonja Och)

Rizgar wasn’t looking for a second family; he just wanted to get out of his shared apartment. So he agreed. Both Rizgar and Wieland describe the beginning of the arrangement as “difficult.” Wieland would spend an hour with him every evening doing his schoolwork. Rizgar laughs at the awkwardness he felt at the breakfast table on account of his teenage appetite. It’s been three years since he moved in, and he no longer worries about how much he eats. “They’re also my family. They’ve accepted me. I am very happy to have lived with them,” he says. “They helped me a lot, also in my professional life.”

After language courses, Rizgar completed a bridging program for youth aged 16 to 21. He’s now completing a vocational training course in electrical engineering and metal construction, and has done practicums with Siemens and the energy company N-ERGIE. Wieland helped with his applications, knowing how particular German employers are about the format of cover letters and CVs. The end of his training program is in sight now. In July, Rizgar will complete the program and expects to stay on with N-ERGIE.


Kerstin Althaus works with asylum seekers who are in refugee housing in Nuremberg. The first thing she is often asked is how to find work, which sets her off on “detective work” to find out what she can about their experience, qualifications, hopes and, of course, their status.

When asked what would make it easier for them to find employment, she was unequivocal: “The first thing that ought to change is that in general everyone [should] receive permission to work—if refugees were allowed to work from the beginning, it would eliminate many problems.”

Insecure residence status is a major barrier to being able to work. And it’s all too common among refugees in Germany. Eighty per cent of those granted protection status—which amounts to permission to remain in the country—by the end of 2019 nevertheless faced a time limit. There are a dizzying number of different statuses held by refugees in Germany, and most of them leave people in some kind of economic limbo.

Perhaps the biggest advantage Shmayess had over Alnajem, Alzaher and Rizgar was that he received asylum status almost immediately, granting him permission to work.

While waiting for asylum status to be approved, asylum seekers can’t work for the first three months. Upon receiving a job offer, they require approval to work from an immigration office, or Ausländerbehörde. Alzaher waited two months for that approval after receiving an offer of employment. Those like Alnajem, who are given subsidiary protection status and not asylum, have a renewable residence permit, initially for one year only. The proportion of applications receiving this status rose from one per cent in 2015 to 35 per cent in 2016. “It is very difficult for foreigners who only have subsidiary protection to find a job, because employers want them to stay here as long as possible,” says Joachim Trauboth, a retiree who works with refugees in Görlitz.

And if you make an asylum claim and are from what’s considered a safe country, you can’t work legally at all.


Shmayess’s job gave him more than economic security. It provided another layer of belonging, it gave him more contact with Germans, it helped him learn about the country’s working culture and, most importantly, it cemented his identity in Germany.

He thinks his story isn’t typical in part because of the unwavering support he received from his friends. But in a sense, his story is typical for those who have been able to secure a job and build a life in Germany. Because even when you are armed with motivation and an education, trying to solve bureaucratic puzzles, acquire a new language and crack foreign cultural codes all require help.

The German case of mass unplanned migration confirmed what research already showed—a strong economy, language and integration courses, and classic settlement counselling help newcomers find education or work opportunities. These factors are already taken into account by most immigrant-receiving countries, including Canada. What happened in Germany also confirmed what is known to not work well in many countries—lack of recognition of qualifications and experience, a gender gap in labour market participation and uncertainty in residence status acting as a barrier to entering the labour market.

But the standout lesson from Germany is seeing “two-way” integration in action. The swell of support from German civil society—a survey in 2016 showed 30 per cent reported providing donations, while 10 per cent said they personally helped refugees—is evidence of how well a two-way process can work. While there was similar support when the majority of Syrian refugees arrived in Canada between 2015 and 2016, the country simply has not seen migration at this scale. Canada took in 40,000 Syrian refugees; Germany took five times that number in November 2015 alone. And in recent history, no other country has opened its borders the way Germany did.

In 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel famously said, “I’ll put it simply: Germany is a strong country . . . We can do this.”

And five years on, it appears Germany has.

Travel and translation costs for this story were supported by the IJP/ICFJ through the Richard Holbrooke Grant as part of the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship.

This article appears in print in the February 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The open border effect.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.