What happened to all the refugees?
That's not a question you'd expect to be hearing in Germany. More than a million people, many of them Syrian, walked across the border in 2015 and 2016. After Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Germany would put no limit on the number of refugees it would accept, her government effectively embarked on this century's largest national experiment in refugee settlement and integration. Many feared Germany would be overrun with unmanageable numbers of newcomers and consumed with a political crisis as voters turned against the unpopular migrants.
Two years later, a lot of people are wondering where the refugees went. In Berlin, I spoke to architects who designed innovative refugee shelters only to find they haven't been used.
In the booming Rhine-Main region, which includes Frankfurt and much of western Germany's economic heartland, chief planner Gabriela Bloem has spent the past two years overseeing the construction of a huge range of housing, education and training projects to handle hundreds of thousands of refugees the region had hoped to add to its existing population of six million.
"We have only half the number of refugees we originally expected would come," she told me. "In 2016, the numbers were less than expected, but still enough to be a big challenge. Now, all our institutions are very well prepared, they could easily handle a much larger number of incoming refugees and migrants, but what I'm seeing is empty houses. It's good for the refugees – they're living in less-crowded places. Our municipalities are still ready to handle more if they come, but they are giving up housing and teaching places because the numbers aren't there."
The refugees have had no significant effect on crime rates or employment levels. As a result, they've all but ceased to be a political issue: Amid heated campaigning for the Sept. 24 national election, migration barely registers. There's been a debate about deportation of failed claimants, but both major parties have staked out moderate positions – voters have made it clear they don't want huge numbers of refugees again, but they also don't want closed borders or mass deportations. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, considered a serious threat in 2016, has just about vanished in the polls (it currently stands at 7 per cent).
That's partly because Germany spent unprecedented sums on settlement of refugees, building hundreds of thousands of units of housing, creating a new educational infrastructure to train them and adding 7,000 full-time staff to its federal migration department. Studies by the federal government and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development show the majority of the refugees have decent skills and are integrating well into the economy.
But it's also because there just aren't as many refugees as some had expected.
Jan Schneider, a migration expert with the Berlin-based Expert Council on Integration and Migration, explained to me that a great many migrants haven't found their final settling place. But a sizable proportion of the 2015-16 migrants turned out not to be refugees.
In 2016, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees reported that it received 745,545 asylum applications and made 695,733 decisions. In total, only 42 per cent of those applicants were recognized as refugees under the terms of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. Another 29.3 per cent were granted other forms of protection (which do not necessarily give them access to refugee housing and benefits). Almost a third saw their claims rejected.
By the end of 2016, there were 207,484 foreigners who had no legal grounds to stay – although it's not clear if they're still in Germany. That number may rise, as the migrants who arrived in 2016 and early 2017 tend to come from countries whose citizens are unlikely to be recognized as refugees. Or it may fall, as they go home. Germany's voluntary-departure program has taken care of many, and at least 25,000 have been deported. "The statistics on returns are totally unsatisfactory," Dr. Schneider says, "as we cannot say whether the majority of those whose asylum application resulted in a negative decision remained in the country or have left."
These lost non-refugee, non-immigrant migrants are likely to remain a political problem in Germany. So, on another level, are the surprisingly few actual refugees. Many cities and regions had unrealistically high expectations, hoping the refugees would solve demographic and labour-shortage problems.
As considerable numbers of people continue to cross into Europe, German citizens and officials are coming to the realization those migrants are neither the threat they had feared, nor the opportunity they had hoped for.