Integrating Refugees into the Workforce: A Shared Migration Challenge of the United States and Germany

Victoria Rietig

Victoria Rietig is an independent migration expert advising governments and foundations on migration and refugee issues, and a Senior Migration Fellow at AICGS.

Her current clients include Germany’s development agency GIZ, the UK’s Foreign Office, the U.S. Department of State, and think tanks and foundations in Germany and the United States. At AICGS, she conducts research on workforce integration of refugees and migrants in the U.S. and Germany.

She has published and speaks widely about asylum and refugee issues, deportations, return migration, reintegration, unaccompanied child migration, labor migration, labor market integration, and migration and development.

She and her work have been quoted in national and international media outlets, including the New York Times, NPR, Huffington Post, Al Jazeera, Foreign Affairs, Handelsblatt Global Edition, La Reforma, El Universal, and many others.

In the past, she has provided migration expertise and consulted with governments including Switzerland (Foreign Ministry, EDA), the United States (Department of State and Department of Homeland Security), and Mexico (Foreign Ministry, SRE). She began her career a decade ago as a UN consultant, working on migration and development at the New York office of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). She later worked as a Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) and was a Fellow at the Atlantic Council, both think tanks in Washington, DC.

Ms. Rietig holds a Master in Public Policy (MPP) from Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government, with a focus on forced migration and human trafficking, and an M.A. in American studies, history, and psychology from Freie Universität Berlin, with a focus on U.S.-Latin American migration and integration.

When it comes to migrants and refugees, the policy differences between the U.S. and Germany are vast these days. Trump and Merkel seem polar opposites: One trying to halve refugee admissions and block entry of people from Muslim-majority countries, the other refusing caps on the right to seek asylum and repeating the importance of equal treatment independent of religious background. [1]

But leaving personalities and clashing rhetoric aside, we should remember that Germany and the U.S.—by virtue of being the two countries hosting the largest number of international migrants worldwide[2]—actually agree on some migration policy goals. Both countries care about integrating newcomers into the fabric of society and recognize that a key component of this endeavor is getting people into jobs. Both countries have therefore designed policies and processes to support the workforce integration of migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers.

Large numbers of humanitarian migrants arrive in the U.S. and Germany each year. Since 2010, the U.S. has annually admitted between 56,000 and 85,000 refugees, and granted asylum to between 20,000 and 28,000 people.[3] In comparison, Germany has resettled much smaller numbers of refugees, most notably 20,000 Syrians in 2013 and 2014,[4] but granted protection to substantially more asylum seekers—around 240,00 in 2015 and 467,000 in 2016.[5]

How do the countries go about integrating these hundreds of thousands of newcomers? The U.S. and Germany both provide services after arrival. Assistance varies between categories of refugees and asylum seekers, but often includes help with finding a place to live, language training, and orientation to assess where the skills and education a person brings might fit into the labor market.

Yet there are differences. The declared goal of refugee resettlement in the U.S. is self-sufficiency and getting refugees into jobs quickly.[6] This belief is reflected in the comparatively limited financial support refugees receive designed to incentivize work (the Department of State provides a per refugee lump sum for the first three months, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement gives follow-up support after that),[7] and in integration outcomes (refugees’ employment rates in the U.S. are actually higher than those of the U.S. born—67 versus 62 percent).[8]

In contrast, Germany’s goal is to get refugees and asylum seekers not just into jobs, but into jobs that lead to a career. This belief is reflected in the wide and long-term financial support asylum seekers and refugees can access, including extensive funds for language and skills training, and in the many efforts by government and businesses to channel them into the country’s vocational education and training system (VET, also known as dual system), perceived as the first rung on a career ladder.[9]

The American “sink or swim” approach contrasts with Germany’s ideal of “slow and steady.” Germany’s willingness to provide longer benefits to ensure refugees acquire language and spend months or years in training is not only an expression of the country’s tradition of social welfare. It is also motivated by the German economy’s need for skilled workers, driven by its aging society, and a fear of so-called “parallel societies” if newcomers are channeled into low- or unskilled jobs with little upward mobility.

Cultural differences in how workforce integration is done, however, should not crowd out the fact that Germany’s and the U.S.’ shared concern is that workforce integration is done. The countries agree that migrants need to receive support to work and apply themselves in their new countries—even if the definition and scope of that support differs.

Conversations between the U.S. and Germany should therefore stop shirking the migration topic for fear of irreconcilable differences. Instead, they should focus on shared interests and challenges, such as workforce integration of migrants and the models that work well in each country. In their first meeting in March 2017, Merkel and Trump already discussed vocational education and training (VET) and workforce development as a core priority of German-American relations.[10] Next time, they should add workforce integration to the discussion. The U.S. and Germany may not agree on migration policies, but they sure can learn from each other’s processes.


The author was a participant in AGI’s project “Employment, Education, and Training: Integrating Young Minorities into the Workforce” and attended the site visits in North and South Carolina, funded by the Arconic Foundation.

[1] Compare “EXECUTIVE ORDER: PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES,” The White House, 23 February 2017,, and “Executive Order Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” The White House, 6 March 2017,,  and “Union streitet weiter über Obergrenze: “Ich habe nicht die Absicht, hier die Position zu ändern” Spiegel Online, 6 February 2017,, and “Merkel: Der Islam gehört zu Deutschland,” Die Bundeskanzlerin, 12 January 2015,

[2] “International Migration Report 2015,” United Nations, 2016,

[3] “Refugees and Asylees,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 28 February 2017,,  and “Table 16. Individuals Granted Asylum Affirmatively Or Defensively: Fiscal Years 1990 To 2015,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 15 December 2016,

[4] “Humanitäre Aufnahmeprogramme des Bundes,” Bundesministerium des Innern,, and “Für ein neues Leben in Frieden,” Bundesministerium des Innern, 3 December 2014,

[5] Calculations by author. U.S. data based on “U.S. Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2015,” Tables 13 (refugees) and 16 (asylees), available at “Table 16. Individuals Granted Asylum Affirmatively Or Defensively: Fiscal Years 1990 To 2015,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 15 December 2016, German data calculated based on asylum applications and protection quotas, in “Aktuelle Zahlen zu Asyl, Dezember 2016” and “Asylgeschaeftsstatistik,” available at “Aktuelle Zahlen zu Asyl,” Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, December 2016,  and “Asylgeschäftsstatistik,”

[6] According to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act Section 412, the goal is to “achieve economic self-sufficiency among refugees as quickly as possible” and that “refugees should be placed on jobs as soon as possible after their arrival.” See “INA: ACT 412 – AUTHORIZATION FOR PROGRAMS FOR DOMESTIC RESETTLEMENT OF AND ASSISTANCE TO REFUGEES,”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,

[7] “The Reception and Placement Program,” U.S. Department of State,

[8] Randy Capps, et. al., “The Integration Outcomes of U.S. Refugees: Successes and Challenges,”, 28 October 2015,

[9] Victoria Rietig, “Moving Beyond Crisis: Germany’s New Approaches to Integrating Refugees into the Labor Market.”, 2 February 2017,

[10] Colin I. Bradford, “Merkel and Trump find common ground on workforce training,” The Brookings Institution, 21 March 2017, and “Joint Press Conference with President Trump and German Chancellor Merkel,” The White House, 20 March 2017,

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.