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For Germany, refugees are a demographic blessing as well as a burden

For Germany, refugees are a demographic blessing as well as a burden
Samer Alkhamran fled the civil war in Syria and last year came to Berlin, where he has been granted asylum. Alkhamran, 30, is learning German and hopes to open a cellphone repair shop. (Henry Chu / Los Angeles Times)

After only a month of language lessons, Samer Alkhamran can already say this in German: "I will open my own cellphone repair shop."

He speaks with an accent, and his syntax is a little shaky. But it's music to the ears of officials in Germany who see Alkhamran, a 30-year-old who fled the civil war in distant Syria, as part of the solution to a looming problem right here at home.

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International leaders and human rights organizations have lined up to praise Germany for its magnanimous response to Europe's overwhelming migrant crisis. Calling it a moral duty, the government in Berlin has pledged to accept as many as 800,000 refugees this year from violence-racked countries, and potentially half a million more annually for several years to come.

Besides altruism, there's a starkly practical reason for Germany to put out the welcome mat: The nation's population is shrinking at an alarming rate, and it desperately needs skilled, motivated and industrious folks like Alkhamran to replenish its workforce and keep its powerhouse economy humming.

In other words, helping to alleviate Europe's refugee crisis could help defuse Germany's demographic one.

"We need people. We need young people. We need immigrants," Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere declared recently. "All of you know that, because we have too few children."

Germany's birthrate is the lowest in the world, with 8.2 babies born each year per 1,000 people, according to a study released by a German think tank this year. When it comes to reproducing, Germans now even underperform the Japanese, whose notoriously low fertility rate has long been the source of official hand-wringing.

By 2060, Germany's population could drop from about 81 million today to as low as 68 million, and would most likely be surpassed by Britain and France, potentially changing the balance of power in Europe.

More ominously, the proportion of working-age residents here in Europe's biggest economy is on track to decline from 61% to 54% of the population within the next 15 years, meaning fewer workers contributing to the generous social-security benefits, such as pensions and healthcare, enjoyed by the fast-growing pool of retirees.

Admitting vast numbers of asylum seekers could offset some of these trends, though it could also fuel others, such as the disturbing rise recently in attacks on foreigners. The government's forecast of 800,000 refugees equals 1% of the population.

"You can look at this as Germany pursuing a national interest in the sense that Germany has a long-term demographic problem," said Hans Kundnani of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin. "Often refugees are young, smart energetic people who make an economic contribution to the country they come to."

Many of those flocking to Germany are Syrians from middle-class households who have the gumption to leave their homes and the wherewithal to fund the costly, often perilous trip to Europe.

Alkhamran, a soft-spoken man who ran his own electronics repair shop in Damascus, decided to quit Syria around the end of 2012 after spending what he said were four horrific days in prison. Authorities had stopped him at a checkpoint, found that he was carrying several gadgets -- which he was taking home to fix -- and took him for a spy.

He said he flew to Lebanon soon afterward, staying there and in Turkey for a time before shelling out about $6,600 to traffickers to take him by sea to Greece and then to Italy.

From there, it was easy to rent a car and drive to Berlin, where he arrived in February of last year. He applied for asylum and was granted it two months later.

"I want to work in Europe, and Italy is not really a place where you can have a lot of work opportunities," Alkhamran said, speaking in Arabic through an interpreter. "The economy here is very strong. I know a lot of people who came here and found jobs."

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Alkhamran receives a government stipend of about $435 a month, which he supplements by working two hours a day in a repair shop. The state also pays for his small, one-bedroom apartment near the airport and for intensive German lessons.

"It's a difficult language. ... You need to have the will to really want to learn it, and you need the time," said Alkhamran, who hopes to bring his parents and other family members to Germany. "My main aim is to have my own shop, and I don't just want Arabic-speaking customers. I want to serve everybody."

Although taking in millions of refugees might help Germany stave off one demographic crisis, it could create another: A change in the country's ethnic and cultural makeup that not everyone is prepared to accept.

Refugee shelters have already become the target of arson attacks across the country, which authorities blame on far-right groups with neo-Nazi views. The outbreaks of violence have been concentrated in the east, which still lags behind western Germany economically and which has seen villages and towns hollowed out by the lack of jobs.

Thousands of protesters regularly march in the city of Dresden to express their opposition to letting more Muslims into Germany. The vast majority of Syrian refugees are Muslim.

"There will be conflicts," Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel warned recently. "The more openly we talk about the fact that people are worried, that there's fear in the country and that there may be conflicts, will ... help us deal with this realistically."

Christoph Rass, a professor at the University of Osnabrueck's Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies, said that as recently as the 1990s, outright xenophobia in Germany was socially and politically acceptable.

After having urged millions of people from countries such as Turkey and Yugoslavia to come help build the economy in the 1960s and '70s -- "guest workers" who were offered virtually zero integration programs or pathways to citizenship -- Germany severely tightened its immigration rules.

But attitudes toward foreigners began to shift as a result of new governments and the bedrock European Union principle of free movement, which brought in settlers from other EU countries whose entry couldn't be denied. The situation has changed so much that Chancellor Angela Merkel now describes Germany -- approvingly -- as a "country of immigration," an unthinkable statement just a few years ago.

"We've changed in a way that we can't deny anymore, and we're developing sympathies for the kind of society we are, which is a very diverse society," Rass said. "We have politicians with a migrant history. We have teachers with a migrant history. It's visible; it's not marginalized anymore."

Yasser Almaamoun is exactly the kind of person whom German officials would like to see come help reverse the country's rapid population decline.

A dynamic, diligent 29-year-old, he's already remarkably fluent in German after less than three years of living in Berlin, and has a job at a firm specializing in his chosen field of architectural preservation. He feels so comfortable in his adopted home that, a few years from now, he plans to give up his Syrian nationality and become a German citizen.

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Almaamoun said Germany's system for receiving and processing asylum seekers is far from perfect. There are communication and cultural gaps he could see his mother struggling with after she arrived last year.

But he said he has generally felt welcome, and has some advice for the refugees and migrants who are pouring into Germany by the thousands each day.

"Reach out to people, because they're eager to get to know you and hear your stories," Almaamoun said. "They want you to feel good in this country. Doing this alone would make you busy for the first two years."

Follow @HenryHChu on Twitter for news out of Europe

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