'Refugees are more driven than we give them credit for'

Prof. Dr. Herbert Brücker reveals insights into the psyche of migrants, with their hopes and disappointments often going hand in hand.

Sertan Sanderson
By on 2017/11/08
The refugee crisis brought not only challenges in finding new ways to integrate large numbers of migrants but also opportunities to study what motivates people to leave their homes and start new lives. Recent findings presented at a panel discussion in Berlin highlight that refugees are far more motivated than expected - and more readily disappointed when they fail to integrate.
Most refugees are under the age of 25 - and male
Skilled, educated and democratic
Most refugees are under the age of 25 - and male

Recent findings by the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research (BIM) at Berlin's Humboldt University and the German Institute for Employment Research (IAB) have highlighted new insights into refugee characteristics that might allow for better future integration. Prof. Dr. Herbert Brücker, a visiting professor of Economic Migration and Integration Research at Humboldt University and head of BIM, presented the results of his research at a panel discussion, exchanging information with some of the leading researchers in migration studies in Germany.

Exploring the dynamics of migration and integration, studies conducted by BIM and IAB not only exposed demographic commonalities among refugees, which help in understanding the challenges they face in their new homes, but also looked into their values and belief systems, which appear to be highly informed by their experience as migrants.

Filling the 'skill gap'

Among key findings, Brücker said that the current wave of refugees is heavily "self-selected" in various ways, especially in demographic terms - with more than half of them being under the age of 25 and more than two thirds being males. In addition to these demographic dimensions, however, there are other factors at play as well, such as the majority of them having a favorable selection of skills relative to their home countries but finding themselves suffering a major skill-gap relative to the general population in Germany and other EU states.

"Refugees are more driven than we give them credit for. There is a greater percentage of refugees that went to school than those that did not go to school," Brücker stressed during his presentation. "We find that more than two thirds are at least high school educated, so it's difficult to place them into menial jobs."

Brücker also stressed that on the whole, most refugees have strong democratic values, which is what drove many into fleeing their homes in the first place, where they saw little to no access to participating in a peaceful, democratically driven society.


There is a great percentage of refugees that went to school than those that did not go to school.


The vast majority of migrants surveyed – over 70 percent – told the German Institute for Employment Research (IAB) in a study that they had left because of war. About 45 percent also gave "persecution" as a reason for leaving their home countries. Only about a third of those surveyed mention "poverty" and "poor state of economy" as key motivators.

Democratic values among refugees in Germany

Migrants suffer great disappointment when their integration takes longer than expected
Shared frustrations
Migrants suffer great disappointment when their integration takes longer than expected

Importance of certainty about legal status

Yet many of those fleeing war and persecution faced obstacles when they arrive in Europe, often ending up feeling disillusioned when they begin to realize that the road to integration is going to be long and difficult. With the legal status often remaining in question for months, migrants seek points of orientation for what their outlook may be and usually compare their individual cases with similar ones.

A study conducted by IAB found that refugees from countries with an overall "high acceptance perspective" had a more promising outlook to be given a final decision on their legal status in Germany, while cases from so-called "safe countries of origin" like Afghanistan took longer to process and were associated with much more uncertainty with regard to their legal statuses.

This, in turn, makes refugees with greater certainty on their eventual legal status in the country more motivated to commit to integration.

Language as key to integration

The IAB study also found that integration courses, including language classes, were key to speeding up the process for most refugees, yet failed to address refugees in sufficient numbers; in the second half of 2016, less than 40 percent of migrants awaiting their legal status in Germany were involved in language programs or integration classes.


Sixty percent of refugees see language as the main barrier to integration


Other courses and programs aimed at facilitating integration were even further behind in attendance numbers. The study also found that with each course or program completed, refugees were more likely to integrate into society and find their way into gainful employment. Many refugees confirmed that the language remained the top obstacle for them to overcome in order to enter the labor market – Brücker highlighted that some 60 percent of those he surveyed said that the German language was a key barrier.

The Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research (BIM) meanwhile found that with more migrants arriving in Germany, their rates of employment declined; while in 2013 roughly a third of all migrants in Germany found work, the rate had shrunk to 10 percent in 2015 – the year when Germany welcomed more than 1 million refugees. Those with advanced linguistic skills, however, remained at a great advantage.

Brücker stressed, however, that there is still a lot of room for evaluation and that final conclusions in the field of refugee employment could only be drawn in another two or three years' time.

Networking for refugees

The BIM study also identified factors outside of skill sets that facilitate the integration of refugees. Those who received support from friends and family already in Germany were found to have a clear advantage, with distant ties (i.e. friends) actually leading to a higher success rate than family ties.

In concrete terms, the study found that those with friends already integrated in the country, had more promising prospects with regard to both outcomes and duration of asylum processes, among other things. They were also more likely to participate in integration classes and labor market programs.

"Such networks have a decisive effect on refugees. Their own ethnic support groups help them integrate and they respond better," Brücker said.

Finally, those with such ties in Germany were more likely to find work through their contacts than those who sought gainful employment with the help of the Federal Employment Agency.

Prof. Dr. Herbert Brücker shared his findings with other experts in the field
The importance of volunteers
Prof. Dr. Herbert Brücker shared his findings with other experts in the field

Agreement and disagreement among experts in field

Other panelists concurred with Brücker's findings but observed different percentages when it came to distribution of certain observations.

Dr. Nadzeya Laurentsyeva, a Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), said that about half of all refugees who found their way into employment ended up in jobs either in the service industry or healthcare (such as carers) while the other half were highly-qualified individuals in top jobs, such as computer engineers and physicians. 

Brücker, however, found in his research that only 20 percent of migrants were qualified for and ended up working in top-level professions. Laurentsyeva also stressed that integration classes and language courses are key to successful long-term integration, but stressed that these were expensive for the government to fund.

The importance of volunteers

Dr.Serhat Karakayali, Assistant Professor at the Department for Diversity and Social Conflict at Humboldt University, meanwhile contributed additional observations to the debate on how to best facilitate integration. In addition to language classes, he stressed that many refugees wanted to go to driving school in order to be able to show driving as a skill on their resumés. 

However, with a great deal of bureaucratic hurdles involved in signing up for driving lessons, many refugees reported getting frustrated – especially if they have already been driving cars in their home countries.


Driving school is more important to some migrants than language school


Karakayali also emphasized the importance of volunteers in the response to the refugee crisis. He stressed that the quality of attention and help that refugees were receiving was also dependent on what volunteers could offer them. 

In 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, Karakayali observed that most volunteers were young university graduates under the age of 30. Two years on, most volunteers were retired people, especially former teachers. He underlined, however, that his data showed that without the help of volunteers, refugees could not be successfully integrated.

"We need to speed up status of immigration so that people can integrate. Support organizations are very important in making this happen," he said during the event.

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