Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

For Refugees, No German Doesn’t Mean No Chance

A new survey finds patchy educational attainment but a basic identification with German values
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Of the more than one million refugees that came to Germany over the past two years, most spoke little or no German when they arrived, and few had a formal qualification that would allow them to find work easily.

That doesn’t mean there’s no hope of successful integration into the workforce.

In fact, according to a fresh study by the German Institute for Economic Research, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees and the Institute for Labor Research, a more important quality is readily abundant: a base level of education and an identification with the host country’s core values.

The study, which compiles the survey answers of the first 2,300 refugees out of a total cohort of 4,500, shows that about seven out of 10 refugees have attended middle or secondary school, with on average between nine and 12 years of schooling behind them. Almost 30 percent attended university or have advanced professional training.

That’s lower than the average among the German population, where 88 percent had 10 or more years of schooling compared to 58 percent among refugees. Still this is better than some observers had initially feared. Dieter Lenzen, president of Hamburg’s university, earlier caused controversy when he claimed that two thirds of newcomers were basically illiterate according to standardized test scores.

A complicating factor for many, according to the report, is that trade skills were often learned on-the-job rather than with formal qualifications. That leaves them locked out of German trades where formal certificates are often still a must.

Still, the upshot is that most people, even coming from war-torn countries like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, have “learned to learn’’ and so can be expected to pick up the skills they need  including the language  in relatively little time. This should be made easier by the fact that most of them say they share the same fundamental values as most Germans, and that the country’s human rights record was one of the key factors that drove them there.

The survey found that not only do most new arrivals say they believe that government should be democratic, they also support gender equality and largely reject the role of religious leaders in setting society’s rules. 

According to the study, this suggests that there was a “strong selection’’ at the start of the migration process. In other words: it was mostly those who already felt an affinity toward European norms who decided to embark on the costly, perilous journey to Europe in the first place.

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