BERLIN — Popular anger at her refugee policies cost German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s long-dominant conservative bloc dearly in September’s elections.
Now that Ms. Merkel has formed a government after nearly six months of rocky negotiations, it faces the monumental task of dealing with her handiwork: integrating the more than 1 million mostly Muslim refugees who have entered Germany since the chancellor opened the country’s borders in 2015.
Many say it will be a first — and possibly decisive — test for Berlin’s latest “grand coalition” government, combining Ms. Merkel’s weakened Christian Democrats with the similarly weakened center-left Social Democrats while poll numbers rise for the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party.
With President Trump and a number of anti-immigration voices within the European Union sharply critical of Ms. Merkel’s 2015 decision, how she deals with the challenge of assimilating the immigrants will likely be felt far beyond Germany’s borders.
“There might be a huge cost if [the immigrants] stay a long time and don’t integrate,” said Thomas Bauer, head of Germany’s Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration, which advises the government. “If they stay several years, have access to the labor market and speak the German language, among other things, the costs are driven down.”
But a preferential asylum system, high barriers of entry to the German labor market and politicians wary of a public backlash are proving to be daunting hurdles to integration.
“There are many of us who came here with little to no education” seeking a better future, said Layla, 38, an Afghan refugee who has been in Germany for about a year. She only just started German-language classes at Yaar, an education and community center for Afghan refugees in Berlin. “I’m constantly under pressure, and that makes it harder to become a part of society.”
Ms. Merkel’s government got off to a rocky start on the immigration issue last week when Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, a member of the Christian Social Union, the chancellor’s more conservative, Bavaria-based partner, told the Bild newspaper that Islam does not belong in Germany and that he was devising tougher immigration policies that include quicker deportations and designating more countries as “safe” to take back would-be asylum-seekers.
It was a direct challenge to Ms. Merkel, who has tried to straddle the line between dealing with the huge influx of Muslim refugees and the popular unease and divisions within her government on what line to take.
“There are now 4 million Muslims living in Germany, and they practice their religion here,” the chancellor told reporters Friday. “These Muslims belong to Germany, as does their religion — Islam.”
Mr. Seehofer, whose CSU party faces a tough state election this fall, said his point was only that Germany must hold on to its Christian-based traditions and customs, but Alternative for Germany officials are already claiming victory.
“Horst Seehofer has taken this message from our manifesto word for word,” Andre Poggenburg, the party’s leader in the eastern state of Saxony, told the Reuters news agency.
Government officials processed hundreds of thousands of the asylum applications that piled up over the past three years, after millions fled to Germany from the Syrian civil war, Afghanistan and other crises. The flood declined to a trickle last year when even Ms. Merkel acknowledged political and social flaws from her open-door approach.
Even so, only some of the refugees are being welcomed permanently. Only refugees and asylum-seekers with long-term prospects of staying in Germany from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea are eligible for spots in state-run integration and language courses the day after their arrival.
Refugees from Afghanistan — the country with the second-highest number of asylum-seekers after Syria — can’t take courses until they are granted permission to stay. Germany classifies Afghanistan as a “safe country of origin” and has sent back more than 800 Afghans since 2016, according to parliamentary figures.
It can take years for some asylum-seekers to receive permission, given the backlog and appeals.
“Asylum camps all over Germany are filled with Afghan people who are still going through the process,” said Kava Spartak, director of Yaar. “Some find themselves in a situation where they’ve lived in Germany for three years without being allowed to visit a German class.”
Mr. Spartak said all newcomers should be eligible for state-funded language and integration courses on the day after they arrive. But some lawmakers dismiss that proposal as wasteful. Officials have rejected about a third of all asylum applications to the country, according to Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.
But Mr. Spartak argued that leaving these applicants in limbo for so long increases the likelihood of integration failing. “In the long run, there are only disadvantages,” he said.
For those who do receive protected status and complete language and integration courses, the path isn’t any easier.
Getting one’s German up to par for even the lowliest positions takes at least six months, according to federal labor office. For professional positions and others that require high skills, it takes at least two years. State-run language classes don’t cover the level of German needed for those jobs.
Also, course plans often differ from state to state, and many instructors aren’t trained to teach German to foreigners with little to no education, said Mr. Bauer.
Figures from the Office for Migration and Refugees indicate that almost one-quarter of newcomers possess at most a primary school education. Around 80 percent of those can’t pass the minimum language test needed to get an apprenticeship or a job in Germany.
Easing the backlog
Representatives from Germany’s Federal Labor Office say the number of new arrivals has decreased to pre-2015 levels, and government institutions, civil society and businesses are beginning to accommodate newcomers more quickly and effectively.
“There was some skepticism among employers,” said Matthias Langbein of the Federal Labor Office in Berlin, who helps young refugees find jobs or apprenticeships. “But we’ve found that those companies that employ refugees have had really positive experiences and are open to more opportunities.”
Ms. Merkel’s government has pledged to ease the process for new arrivals. Her government plans to invest almost $10 billion by 2021 to support regional efforts to educate and integrate refugees and other projects.
Her government will combine those steps, however, with stricter rules for refugees seeking to bring their families to Germany from abroad and more deportations — policies that appeal to Germany’s burgeoning conservative moment.
After September’s federal elections, the Alternative for Germany became the nation’s largest opposition party. Over 1 million voters from Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian bloc jumped ship for the AfD.
Germans who have come down from the euphoria of welcoming refugees with open arms at the start of the refugee crisis are now faced with the question of whether they should welcome all of the newcomers or just select groups, said Mr. Bauer.
“With all types of investments, there’s a risk that comes with it,” he said. “The question is: Do we want to take the risk or not?”