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Disenchanted with job prospects and unsettled by cultural differences, a number embark on return journeys
Once in Germany, Amer discovered an unexpected reality: Instead of the small house he was hoping for and money to help him open a business, he was given a bare room in an old administrative building turned into an emergency shelter. Now he is packing his bags again.
“I came to Germany because everyone was saying it was heaven. Now I regret that decision,” said the 30-year-old from Damascus.
Last year, 1.1 million migrants—mainly Arabs, Afghans and Africans—came to Germany to escape war and hardship, many of them risking their lives to make the dangerous journey. Authorities have scrambled to accommodate the influx and Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing growing public discontent, especially after the alleged role of foreign-born men in the mass assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve.
But many who arrive find the country doesn’t match their often inflated expectations. They balk at modest benefits, poor job prospects, and harsh treatment at immigration offices, and voice other complaints ranging from bland food to Germans’ open attitudes about sex.
Some recent arrivals are now contemplating leaving, shining light on the enormous challenge the country faces in integrating the record numbers who continue to stream in.
Ms. Merkel has said the best path to integration is through work, but most migrants face a long road from the cots of emergency shelters to finding housing and employment.
Economists have warned that migrants with low skills, like Amer, stand little chance of ever finding jobs. While some political leaders say the new migrants will help offset a dearth of German workers in the future, critics say they could become a long-term burden on German taxpayers.
As it begins to dawn on some new arrivals that it could take months for them to leave their rudimentary camps and possibly years before they are allowed to bring over their families or learn the language, some are giving up.
“Of course many are fleeing war, but what they are finding here isn’t what they had expected,” said Hannelore Thoelldte, who heads the counseling service for voluntary returnees at Berlin’s office for health and social affairs, where asylum seekers have to register when they arrive.
“Our waiting room is full these days, mostly with people from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Ms. Thoelldte.
There are no official statistics on migrants leaving Germany on their own accord. Germany’s immigration office said it only keeps statistics of migrants leaving Germany through programs run in conjunction with the International Organization for Migration, which covers travel costs for people who prove they can’t pay for their own trip back.
In 2015, a total of 37,220 people left Germany voluntarily through such programs, compared with 13,574 in 2014. While most of those returnees were people from Balkan countries, who face little chance of being granted asylum here, the number of Iraqis who left quadrupled in the same period to 724, according to Germany’s immigration office.
For Syrians, returning home is more complex. Syrians currently aren’t eligible for support to return to Syria because of the security situation, officials said. But that isn’t hindering some from making their way back on their own, according to Ms. Thoelldte. She said some also decide to return to neighboring countries such as Turkey or Jordan, where many Syrians had sought refuge before moving on to Germany in what she described as a “gold-rush moment.”
“It regularly happens that people disappear,” said Ms. Thoelldte. “Many are ashamed to admit they made the wrong decision to come here.”
Certain areas of Syria, including regime-held central Damascus and western coastal provinces, have been spared from the regular bombings and violence engulfing wide swaths of the country, migrants and diplomats say, making it possible for civilians there to lead relatively normal lives.
Reem, a young Syrian woman, traveled to Germany alone last fall with the intention of quickly bringing over her 4-year-old son. Once here, however, she was told it could take months or even a year before he could follow.
“I can’t wait that long, he is sick,” said the woman in tears one recent afternoon as she left the Syrian embassy, where she came to request a new passport.
Others cite cultural estrangement as a reason they want to go back.
Abdullah Alsoaan, a 51-year-old dentist from Deir Ezzour in eastern Syria, said he came to Germany 10 months ago with the help of the United Nations to receive treatment for complications of diabetes. Now he is waiting for a new passport to return to the 10 children he left behind in Syria. The reason: After seeing teenagers kissing in public, he said he couldn’t raise his daughters here. “The problem isn’t with the Germans or Germany, people are very nice,” said Mr. Alsoaan. “But they have their way of living their lives and we have ours.”
Others have reached similar conclusions. When Amer found his 5-year-old son stumbling upon an erotic program on television recently, he saw it as confirmation that he would never be able to adapt to a new life here.
Before leaving Syria, Amer said he had heard refugees in Germany got around €500 ($546) a month in benefits—a relatively accurate estimate. But he hadn’t realized everything in Germany costs far more than in Syria, he said, dressed in a black hoodie and sweatpants.
“I would probably need 10 years to reach the minimum standard of living of any normal German and the language seems impossible for me to learn,” said Amer, who worked in a snack shop in Syria and never attended university.
Having spent €15,000—everything he owned—to bring his wife, son and brother-in-law to Germany, Amer said he doesn’t yet know how he will pay for their return.
The young family mostly spends its time waiting in the white-walled room in the camp or in line to pick up benefits at the office for social affairs, where he said he felt humiliated.
Yasmine, his 25-year-old wife, said back in Damascus the family lived with the sound of regular shelling and repeated electricity cutoffs. But bombings in their own neighborhood were rare, she said, showing off pictures of her son posing inside a spacious apartment in Damascus and on holidays spent in a house with a pool.
The couple admitted to being scared to go back, worrying that they will be seen as opponents to the regime for having left their country.
“I could die there but also die here,” Amer said. “That’s my destiny.”