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A moped is parked in front of a cafe in Berlin with the words "Refugees Welcome" written in grafiti

While Germany Faces A Contracting Workforce, Refugees in the Country Struggle to Get a Job

Borgesian bureaucratic tangles ensnare would-be workers.

Words: Kristina Jovanovski
Pictures: Allyn Gaestel

When Denis Kargaev, 47, fled from Moscow to Germany with his Ukrainian wife and son after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, his immediate concern was to find work so he could support his family. Kargaev, who worked in marketing and the performing arts, got an offer for a public relations job at a Berlin gallery within a couple of months.

But there was something standing in the way: bureaucracy.

He said he told the government offices in charge of handling employment and immigration about the job and that he was anxious to start working, but they said he needed to wait for permission to take it. 

“I’m waiting like three or four months and unfortunately this proposal was canceled because they couldn’t wait forever,” Kargaev said. 

It took him about six months to get paperwork to let him work in Germany, while it took his wife four months. A year later, he still has not found a stable job, beyond a couple of temporary positions, while he sends his resumé across the country, from Dusseldorf to Munich.

Kargaev’s story is not unique. Asylum seekers across Germany are facing barriers and delays as they seek to enter the workforce.  

At the same time, Germany is facing a massive labor shortage. A survey by the Munich-based ifo Institute stated that more than 43% of companies were dealing with a shortage of qualified workers in July.

To address the problem, the government is trying to woo workers from further abroad to come to the country as there has been a decline in migrants coming from other EU countries.

In July, Labor Minister Hubertus Heil and the Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action Robert Habeck traveled to India where they promoted a package of reforms that Germany hopes will make it easier for people to immigrate to the country. The government is expected to start introducing the changes in November which will include lowering the minimum salary that some workers need for a residence permit, increasing the amount of time that students who are not from the EU or European Economic Area are allowed to work, and introducing an “opportunity card” that allows people to look for a job after entering the country.

It seems the parallel crises could be addressed in tandem — that the influx of asylum seekers struggling to integrate into the economy could help address the country’s labor shortage. 

But bureaucratic tangles make the problem more complex than it seems. 

The Challenges to Integrating Refugees

The European Union granted a special Temporary Protection Directive that allows those fleeing the war in Ukraine the right to work. But there have been delays with the implementation in Germany, according to Yuliya Kosyakova, an expert on migration at the German government-funded Institute for Employment Research (IAB). The head of Berlin’s immigration office, Engelhard Mazanke, meanwhile, told the German news outlet Tagesspiegel that the immigration office was close to dysfunctional and said the strain was felt nationwide. 

For asylum seekers fleeing other conflicts, getting their protection status approved can take a year or more and research has shown an additional six months in asylum procedures reduces the transition rate to employment for refugees by 11%, according to Kosyakova. A survey by the IAB showed that more than 50% of refugees who had been in Germany for six years were employed but only 65% worked full-time.

While refugees go to another country primarily for humanitarian reasons, unlike labor migrants, the UN’s refugee agency states supporting their labor prospects improves their self-reliance and boosts the local economy and social cohesion.

Many refugees deal with the mental health impacts of having to flee a crisis and do not have time to prepare themselves for moving to another country, such as by learning the language or collecting documents to verify their qualifications. Kosyakova said these factors lead to refugees entering the market more slowly than economic migrants, but she said there are other obstacles built into Germany’s system.

Kargaev said that he would often not get an answer from government offices when he would call but he did get a response when he would send a fax.

Some refugees are distributed across federal states which then place them in different states and counties where there is housing available but sometimes slim job prospects. Some states require refugees to live in those areas for three years. “If you’re assigned to a really rural area, where there are no jobs and a high level of hostility, you have an issue,” Kosyakova said. “If they have [an apartment] subsidized by the state but cannot find a job, then it’s not really helpful.”

Another issue that both migrants and refugees have had to grapple with is having their qualifications recognized. The IAB survey showed that more than 40% of refugees who had been living in Germany for six years were working at a lower level than their jobs before coming to the country. That could be due to a variety of factors, such as refugees’ greater willingness to take any employment they can, and the fact that many employers seek qualification certificates that foreigners may not have. Thomas Liebig, who specializes in migration at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, said that the recognition of foreign qualifications was a hurdle and said employers should also be more open to hiring people when they are not completely certain of their credentials. He said that once workers, especially refugees, get jobs, there should also be an opportunity to build on their skills so they can transition to roles that are a better match to their previous experience. Kosyakova suggested that instead of looking at certificates, people could be tested on their knowledge and skills to better see what they are qualified to do. 

Kosyakova said discrimination also plays a role. Refugees and immigrants have often complained about racism in Germany. Polls have shown that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is now the second most popular party in the country, ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats. There is also a rise in attacks on refugee shelters. The government stated there were 80 politically motivated attacks against such accommodations in the first half of this year, compared to 52 in the first half of last year.

Reforms May Help

Kosyakova said Germany has been making improvements, hoping to streamline the integration process, such as when it made it easier for refugees to enter the labor force by decreasing the amount of time they had to wait to work to three months in 2014.

Germany is also making it easier to get citizenship, with a draft law in process that will allow people to apply more quickly after moving and allow dual citizenship. 

Liebig at the OECD, said he expected many of the current problems to be addressed through the reforms the government will be introducing. “There’s a lot of things happening right now, to kind of make things better.  I think that’s one of the areas also where there’s pretty much agreement across policy lines in Germany right now,” he said.

Liebig added that one of the top reasons the country was not attracting more workers with the lack of digitization. The amount of paperwork is something that the government acknowledges is a problem and it is carrying out a “digital transformation” to modernize bureaucracy. 

Kargaev said that he would often not get an answer from government offices when he would call but he did get a response when he would send a fax.

He said that he now realizes how big of a challenge the refugee crisis from the war in Ukraine was for Germany. And, looking around, he feels like he had a better experience with bureaucracy than many other refugees in the country. “They make it sometimes 3, 4, 5 times faster than usual because I know people from Afghanistan, or people from Syria, or Africa, they are waiting for years sometimes for papers,” he said. Meanwhile, he’s still looking for a job.

Kristina Jovanovski

Kristina Jovanovski is a Canadian journalist with 15 years of experience, providing a mix of written, tv, and radio reports for international news outlets. She has also worked in the newsrooms of CBC, CTV, and Sky.

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