Refugee crisis

The task for this decade

Gerd Müller, Germany’s federal minister for economic cooperation and development assesses the challenges of the current refugee crisis and indicates how to solve the problems.
Gerd Müller visiting a refugee family in a camp in Lebanon. Grabowski/Photothek Gerd Müller visiting a refugee family in a camp in Lebanon.

The crisis in Syria is the most visible crisis – but not the only one – that has contributed to the rapid rise in the number of displaced people worldwide. Just recently, for example, I visited Eritrea. This isolated country in north-eastern Africa is the origin of the largest number of African refugees arriving in Germany – last year there were 25,000 new arrivals from Eritrea. The country is facing a youth exodus. The main push factor is the national military and non-military service, into which young men and women are conscripted for de facto indefinite periods.

Be it Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria or South Sudan – the people leaving their home countries have one thing in common: they feel that they no longer have a future in their home country. They are fleeing from conflict and war, from terrorism, violence and discrimination. Poverty and unemployment and the consequences of climate change – floods, droughts, famines – are also factors that cause people to look for a fresh start somewhere else.

Refugee flows are not going to stop any time soon. Reducing them will be the dominating issue on the agenda this decade. We need to invest in those places where the problems originate, because otherwise the problems will come to us.

We are ready to tackle this challenge. I have shifted funds in our budget and secured additional funding. This year, we will be able to make commitments for about 3 billion euros’ worth of new projects: direct assistance for refugees, support for host communities and action to address push factors. We are focusing on countries and regions that are the origin of large numbers of refugees coming to Germany, whether it is Syria or the Middle East, North and East Africa, Nigeria, Ukraine, the Balkans, Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Employment Drive

A survey of 1,200 Syrian refugees conducted by UNHCR in Greece last year shows us clearly where our focus must be. It is primarily young, well-educated people who are leaving Syria. The decision to stay in the first host country they reach or to move on to another EU country depends, to a major extent, on whether they can find a job. That is why it is so important to provide employment opportunities in host countries. Even though more than a million refugees came to Germany last year, we must not forget that the vast majority of refugees stay in the countries next to their home country. They usually do not have access to the job market there.

In order to change that, I am implementing a “Middle East Employment Drive” this year, with a view to giving refugees and local people job opportunities, for instance through cash-for-work programmes in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. These programmes will benefit as many men and women as possible, be it through simple jobs building roads and structures or through work as teachers, childcare workers, nurses and doctors. The programmes will improve local infrastructure and spark economic development. And above all, they will enable refugees to provide for themselves again.

Focus on host countries

In Jordan, I have seen for myself what it means for the country to be hosting Syrian refugees. There are now about 630,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan – that is almost equal to 10 % of Jordan’s population. Some 80,000 refugees are living in Zaatari – a camp which, in the medium term, we need to develop into a city with good basic infrastructure. However, most refugees are living in host communities in northern Jordan. In some communities, the population has doubled within just one year. Most local people are helping the refugees as best they can.

But the large number of refugees also means major challenges for host communities. Water supplies must be secured in what is a water-scarce region to begin with; refugees require housing, schools, food and health care.

We consider it important to assist both refugees and local people in order to prevent tensions. For example, if we improve the local water supply and health services for the entire community, people’s willingness to assist refugees will increase.

In Jordan, Germany has already helped to supply 800,000 people with water and 200,000 people with electricity. And Germany has helped 15,000 people in Iraq to find employment. In Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, Turkey and northern Iraq 520,000 children are able to go to school again.

Planning ahead: being ready for when reconstruction can begin

I can see positive signs that the current negotiations might lead to a cease-fire in Syria. We need to start making plans for the country’s reconstruction now. This will be a huge effort – for Syria’s people, for its neighbours and for us, the international community. Much of the country has been destroyed. Its urban infrastructure lies in ruins.

We are ready to expand our infrastructure projects to include Syria just as soon as the time for reconstruction has come. In the short term, we will need measures to ensure people’s sheer survival. Then schools will have to be built and vocational-training facilities and jobs will have to be created. Syria will need efforts to spur economic development, infrastructure investments and new institutions. Use will need to be made of the great potential of the people who have fled from Syria. I will therefore give special support to refugees preparing to return to Syria, for example by providing loans to help them build a livelihood.

But such a “Marshall Plan” will not only be needed for Syria but also for the liberated areas of Iraq.

More solidarity

In order to bring the refugee crisis under control, Europe and the international community need to take joint action. Unfortunately, we are currently also witnessing a crisis of solidarity. In the past few months, Europe has put up a poor show – and this is partly due to the fact that the division of responsibilities is not clear. That is why I am calling for an EU special representative for refugees. That representative will require adequate staff, powers and funding, and he or she will have to present, as quickly as possible, a strategy for dealing with the refugee crisis. We also need a ten-billion-euro EU infrastructure fund for all countries that are hosting refugees – from the Middle East all the way to Sweden.

But it is not only Europe but also other countries and regions that are not doing enough. It is scandalous that United Nations aid programmes (UNICEF, UNHCR, WFP) do not have enough funding to meet the most basic needs of the displaced people. Germany increased its support last year to a level of about € 700 million, and we will provide at least the same amount again this year.

Strong partners within Germany

Within Germany, I am also counting on strong partners from the non-governmental sector. For example, we will be working with crafts and trades and retail federations in order to provide vocational training placements for 1,000 young refugees. The focus is on trades that will also be urgently needed later for the reconstruction effort in the refugees’ countries of origin.

Many NGOs, faith-based organisations, foundations and private initiatives are working hard to help the refugees. To mention just one of many courageous efforts, support is being provided in cooperation with Misereor and the Jiyan Foundation (see interview with Salah Ahmad) to help refugees from Iraq and Syria who have been severely traumatised.

I also want to increase the support that my Ministry is providing for German municipalities’ efforts for development. After all, a municipality knows about all the things that municipalities in developing countries have to do in order to meet refugees’ needs: set up hospitals and schools, manage waste, treat wastewater and provide drinking water. And above all, they know about setting up responsive, decentralised administrative bodies – a key factor for reconstruction.

But the governments in the countries of origin, too, need to shoulder their share of the responsibility – for instance by fostering the rule of law, fighting corruption and supporting civil society.

Whenever I visit a country, I urge the government to do its part to help resolve the refugee challenge. And I do not shy away from thorny questions, such as human rights problems in Eritrea.

Development policy – peace policy

The current challenge is placing new demands on development policy, with a new dimension. Civil-society players have been making outstanding contributions. All governmental and civil-society decision-makers must have realised by now, if not before, that in addition to all the current responses we also need to give development policy a major boost, as development fosters peace.

We are faced with huge challenges. The New York summit at which the SDG agenda was adopted and the Paris climate summit have pointed the way for a fair partnership between countries and nations, for the protection of our planet and of the global climate.

In this new world, in our global village, all things are connected. If we do not take determined action now, the current refugee crisis will be but the beginning of a huge upheaval.


Gerd Müller ist Germany’s federal minister for economic cooperation and development.

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