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German mood sours on Ukrainian refugees

Has Berlin got a bad deal? Credit: Getty

May 14, 2024 - 4:15pm

European countries have already suffered a massive economic blowback from their governments’ ill-thought-out Ukraine-first policy, in the form of soaring prices and creeping deindustrialisation. This has triggered an anti-establishment populist insurgency which is undermining mainstream parties across the continent — and which is expected to be the big winner in the upcoming European elections.

Now, another Ukraine-related crisis may be about to explode. And the canary in the coal mine, as is often the case these days, is Germany — the EU’s former powerhouse turned, once again, sick man of Europe.

Since the start of the war, EU countries have offered temporary protection status to around 4.2 million Ukrainian refugees. Of these, around a third of the total — or 1.3 million people — have been taken in by Germany. No other country has accepted as many.

This “open doors” policy initially enjoyed near-unanimous support among the German public and virtually all political parties. But that has started to change. Over the weekend, Chancellor Olaf Scholz urged Ukrainian refugees in Germany to take up work as a condition for securing their right to stay in the country. His words come amid growing concern — among both the general public and the political establishment — for the very high unemployment rate among Ukrainian refugees: less than 20% of them are employed, compared with much higher employment rates in other countries.

Many blame this situation on the decision made at the start of the war to automatically grant unemployment benefits to all Ukrainian refugees, who as a result receive much more generous state benefits than ordinary asylum seekers. Thus, around 700,000 Ukrainians in Germany are currently receiving unemployment benefits. What’s more, it’s not even clear that all those getting paid are actually Ukrainian.

German politicians are now calling for such benefits to be curtailed. Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader Friedrich Merz is among those leading the charge. He has said that such payouts cannot and should not be financially maintained, and that instead the state should send a strong signal to refugees: “We want you to return to the job market as quickly as possible.”

Thus Scholz’s words should be seen as an effort at containing the latest political backlash against his government’s policies before the European elections — a desperate attempt at damage control. The Chancellor emphasised the connection between employment and permanent residency: “In Germany, anyone who works here and doesn’t do anything wrong is pretty sure that he or she can stay here. Security of residence also arises through employment.” This implies that the chronically unemployed might see their status revoked.

To further complicate things, the German government is now facing calls from Kyiv for European countries to repatriate Ukrainian male refugees of fighting age. Faced with massive shortages of army personnel, Zelensky is desperately trying to get these men to return to the country. To that end, his government recently announced that all men between the ages of 18 and 60 who are currently living abroad will no longer be able to renew their passports. This leaves a stark choice for men subject to military service whose papers are expiring: head back to Ukraine or ask for asylum protection.

This puts the German government in a tight spot, as it now finds itself divided between two self-contradictory commitments: being a “safe haven” for Ukrainian refugees — including the 256,000 men between the ages of 18 and 60 currently present in the country — or doing “whatever it takes” to help Ukraine in its war against Russia. Some politicians are calling for Germany to issue replacement documents for Ukrainian conscripts whose passports have expired, while others — primarily from the CDU — are in favour of encouraging conscripts to return home. The interior minister of the German state of Hesse, the CDU’s Roman Poseck, said this month that Germany should “help Ukraine to rely on men who have fled abroad but can be involved in the war”.

While Scholz said the shortage of documentation would not affect Ukrainians’ protected status, the protection granted by the European Union expires next year. Expect this debate to ramp up in the following months — and the EU’s Ukraine policy to continue crumbling under the weight of its own contradictions.


Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
12 days ago

A practical question: are there jobs in Germany for the Ukrainian refugees? Or, put another way, are there enough decently-paid jobs in Germany so that Ukrainian refugees will earn at least as much from working as from benefits?
Unherd has extensively reported on the deindustrialization in Germany. How can a country deindustrialize and still create a significant number of jobs? Perhaps this is another contradiction in Germany’s Ukraine policy.

El Uro
El Uro
12 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Deindustrialize yourself and claim you are ready to help Ukraine or even to fight the Russians using brooms instead of machine guns!

Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
12 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Indeed, because the current narrative is that Germany needs immigrants, especially those from the Middle-East and Africa, to counter the effect of the ageing population. Now that strikes me as odd. Ukrainians have far better education and cultural similarity and considering the large number of Ukrainians that already have left their dysfunctional Heimat and now living in NATO-countries, why would the new batch of emigrants not be just as successfull in adapting and finding a living in their new Heimat? Moreover, if Vladimir Putin sticks to his word and destroys large parts of the country, we can expect more Ukrainians to leave their country. As you may know, Germans are not exactly known for their kind attitude towards Slavonic people. Not in the past, not in the present. It is hard to be no longer a Herrenvolk. Like the Brits no longer having an Empire. It takes time to swallow the bitter pil.
If the EU sends Ukrainian men back to the meat grinder of an the American proxy war, we all may start to develop different thoughts about a strategic nuclear bomb on Brussels. Just as thought experiment. To deal with the moral void created by 30,000 civil servants and 40,000 lobbyist.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
12 days ago

It is interesting that you believe “the Brits” haven’t “got over” no longer having an Empire.
I concur that the British “governing class” probably have a hugely inflated view of Britain’s “position in the world” and power. Cameron is the current example ( although he may just be appealing to what he believes to be jingoistic feelings in the populace; after all he was in PR,)
However the general British population have no such imperial feelings and probably never did. They are far too busy trying to survive or “get on”. Imperial fantasies just don’t figure in their thinking. The Iraq venture is widely recognised as a catastrophe, as is Libya, and Parliament actually voted against an intervention in Syria.
So, no…the general British populace very much don’t regret not having an Empire and certainly don’t want to play world policeman. Thanks…but no thanks.

Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
12 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

You are absolutely right. I should have used the word ‘Britain’ instead of Brits. It is the political class that keeps the fiction of superpower alive. I sense we are on the same page here. Thanks for your clarification.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
12 days ago

Yes I think we are on the same page. However it is an interesting point and has received some academic debate. Presently the position of ” the British people themselves were imperialists” seems to be in favour, citing such things as pro Empire songs having been popular and advertising using imperial images been fairly ubiquitous.

My view is that songs are popular because of the music rather than the words in any era, and attractive images are merely that no matter what they portray. People are usually not so foolish as to support an idea because of such things; as I said they have more important things to consider.

No matter how attractive the music or images I cannot see the British people supporting the UK having direct involvement in the Ukraine war.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
11 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

‘My view is that songs are popular because of the music rather than the words in any era,’
I agree. There is much criticism from progressives of Rule Britannia being sung on the last night of the Proms, but in fact most of it is sung by a guest singer – who usually adds a touch of comedy to the performance. The audience is clearly in a light-hearted mood, very far from the jingoism alleged by the critics.
And I too can’t see overwhelming public support for the UK getting directly involved in the Ukraine war. The cost alone to the taxpayer would be prohibitive and lead to discontent, and that’s not including the impact of loss of British lives.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
11 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

I would imagine you’re quite right. The vast majority of the British people want nothing to do with empire now, if they ever did. Frankly, the current policemen don’t much care for the job either and you’ll find plenty of Americans outside Washington who’d be fine with letting people just get on with the business of killing one another over whatever so long as they keep it to themselves. If they put it to a referendum of the people, I would imagine better than two thirds of the wars in history would never have been fought.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
12 days ago

Like the Brits no longer having an Empire. It takes time to swallow the bitter pill.

Could you just give it a rest? Please?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
12 days ago

What a mess. I think it’s pretty straightforward to rescind unemployment benefits to people who refuse to work. That should be done for citizens and non-citizens alike. If they don’t get paid a living wage, the govt can always top it up. Forcing fighting age men to return to Ukraine is way more tricky IMO. There’s a moral dilemma here because these men will likely be killed.

Also, the Ukraine-first policies have nothing to do with the economic issues plaguing Europe. It’s the sanctions they imposed on Russian energy and decades of suicidal energy policies. Incompetent policy making, over a broad range of issues, is driving the European populist movement. It has very little to do with Ukraine.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
12 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Only a small proportion of the 256,000 (allegedly) Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 in Germany would end up on the front line if they returned, and even fewer would “likely be killed”. There are lots of ways citizens can assist in the defence of their country when under attack. Sitting on the dole in another country is not one of them. These men ran away from Ukraine illegally, and should never have been admitted.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
12 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

There is conscription in Ukraine. These men are likely being sent to fight. I have hard time sending someone away in this circumstance.

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
12 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I agree that sending them back leaves a bad taste – it doesn’t seem right. OTOH, letting them stay and sit it out pretty much scotches any serious talk of sending NATO/EU troops in to harm’s way.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
12 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

If you are a man of fighting age, and your country has been invaded, shouldn’t you be there fighting for it?

Rather than running away and sponging off another country, for example?

Just a thought.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
12 days ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

I wonder what would happen in this country if there was a war and conscription was in force.
Separately I was appalled that that conchi Britten who abandoned his country and fled to the US at the outbreak of WW2 was subsequently commissioned to write a War Requiem

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
12 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

In that case, as a USA taxpayer funding a good portion of this fight – I want a refund.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
12 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Err…”the government can always top it up”? Presumably with other taxpayers money…and they’ll be perfectly happy with that?
You’ve just demonstrated the problem with massive immigration…more supply of labour, the less it is worth to the employer.
It is impossible to have a welfare state and massive immigration…the political class seem to think otherwise. They are wrong.

Peter B
Peter B
12 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Sadly, it is possible (welfare state and high immigration). We’re doing it now.
But we will eventually run out of money.
The core problem is that the welfare state is non-contributory – it is possible to extract huge benefits without making any contributions. The inputs to the system are limited. The outputs are not.

Gerry Quinn
Gerry Quinn
12 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Ironically enough, they are in more danger (indirectly) from their state’s government than the majority of asylum-seekers, I suspect. All the same, neither they nor most of the rest are trying to escape from the equivalent of a Nazi holocaust, which was the original impetus for international protection laws.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
12 days ago

According to many outlets, the Poles have taken in between 1.5 and 1.9 million Ukrainians as well. But I had to chuckle at the quote, “ Many blame this situation on the decision made at the start of the war to automatically grant unemployment benefits to all Ukrainian refugees, who as a result receive much more generous state benefits than ordinary asylum seekers.”
Ya don’t say?

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
11 days ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

In other news, fire is hot and water is wet.

Douglas H
Douglas H
12 days ago

Poland has taken more Ukrainian refugees than Germany

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
12 days ago
Reply to  Douglas H

And many Poles are unhappy about it…

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
12 days ago

I do not feel at all resentful of the Ukrainians who have come to Austria. But it did not escape our notice that there were many VERY expensive SUVs with Ukrainian numberplates parked in VERY expensive areas of Vienna. These cars were not being driven around by lone females.
We saw the very same phenomenon in Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic when we visited in April 2022.
While I don’t blame these younger Ukrainian fellas who have the cash and the means to avoid the dirty work of fighting in a war, no Western European country should even think about sending soldiers while they are still dodging the draft.
I’ve read that Ukrainian consulates have now stopped providing services to their own male citizens in Germany to try and smoke them out of their boltholes.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
12 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

The rich don’t do actually fighting…they do getting away.
Remember Vietnam…it was the poor Americans who fought, not the rich.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
12 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

And 50 years later, America is dying because of the consequences of this breach of the social contract.

Pedro the Exile
Pedro the Exile
12 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

In the words of John Cameron Fogerty
It ain’t me, it ain’t me
I ain’t no millionaire’s son, no, no
It ain’t me, it ain’t me
I ain’t no fortunate one

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
12 days ago

Unfortunately too true! Btw…a great songwriter…

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
11 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Interesting side note. The current president received deferments for both his college education and the childhood ‘asthma’ that apparently didn’t stop him from playing intramural sports. Given that Trump, Bush, and Clinton all took various routes to avoid the draft, he’s got plenty of company. In fact, four out of five consecutive American Presidents from 1992-2028 will have been Vietnam draft dodgers. The only exception is Barack Obama, who was twelve when the last American troops left in 1973. That’s 28 years out of 36 of the total. There are plenty of Senators, Governors, and Representatives at all levels right there with them plus a good number of CEO’s, investors, and others of the ruling class. When I profess that our ruling class is decadent, selfish, out of touch, and greedy, this is the kind of thing I’m talking about. They have neither the character, nor the experience, nor the skill, to be real be leaders of men nor any moral right to rule.
https://www.armytimes.com/opinion/commentary/2021/01/21/dodging-and-deferring-trump-wasnt-the-only-potus-to-avoid-the-draft/

Peter B
Peter B
12 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I disagree. I absolutely do hold the draft dodgers responsible.
I heard a BBC Radio 4 interview a couple of weeks ago with a single, young Ukrainian man who’d got out and was living in the West (very comfortably, he’d been in at least 2 different countries). He claimed that he was “doing his bit for Ukraine” and “didn’t feel guilty or ashamed”. And that his friends back in Ukraine were fine with all this. Shockingly, this went unchallenged by the BBC.
If we’d had that attitude in 1940, we’d never have survived.
We should send such people back to Ukraine.

Hennie Booysen
Hennie Booysen
12 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

I don’t know how old you are Peter, but I am guessing that you did not fight in WW2, nor any war for that matter. Fighting in a war is not pleasant, and much less so when it is a war created by politicians (and which could easily have been avoided) for the benefit of politicians and the wealthy.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
12 days ago
Reply to  Hennie Booysen

Yes exactly right. Ukraine is basically a colony of the US venture capital class…and the war is being fought on their behalf…whether the actual fighting men know it or not.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
11 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

What utter conspiratorial cobblers

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
12 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

But the Ukraine war should be no concern of the UK and therefore sending such people “back to fight” should not be a reason to send them back. I don’t recall US “draft dodgers” being sent back during the Vietnam War.
Sending them back because the UK can’t afford them is a different matter.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
12 days ago

If Germany is the sick man of Europe then I know lots of countries who would like to be sick.

Could the male refugees get non-combat work at home to get over the problem?

Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson
12 days ago

What a terrible idea. If Russia conquers Ukraine, German men will be fighting Russians. Force the Ukrainian men to return home.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
12 days ago

Between its tone-deaf energy problems (shutting down nuclear plants) and its embrace of any migrant population and then offer seemingly limitless welfare- Germany seems to have misplaced its brains.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
11 days ago

What a great mess the Germans have made for themselves. One would think the Germans would know better. After all, in 1940, they divided their forces and basically ruined their chance to conquer Europe through warfare by picking a fight with Russia, and in 2022, they might well have ruined their economy and again blown their chance to dominate Europe through economics and politics by…. picking a fight with Russia.

Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
11 days ago

I’m a bit cynical now
I sympathise with Ukraine but my friends and i helped out a young Ukrainian woman who came to the uk (at the behest of a friend in her) but she got herself into all kinds of trouble and started working enthusiastically as an escort. Seriously.