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Question of perspective

Alois Berger / cmkOctober 12, 2013

Local authorities in Germany fear their social funds are being used up by Romanians and Bulgarians who are taking advantage of the system. But a new study by the European Commission dismisses that belief.

A woman sits with her child and begs for money in Hannover Foto: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich warned earlier this week of a wave of poverty-stricken immigrants heading from Romania and Bulgaria to Germany - in particular, migrants who are after the country's social welfare funds.

"It just can't be the case that freedom of movement [in the EU] is being so abused by people who are only changing countries to benefit from higher social assistance," said Friedrich at a meeting of EU interior ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday (08.10.2013). Two days later, a court in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) poured oil on the fire when it granted social assistance to a Romanian immigrant family that had unsuccessfully sought work in Germany for the past year.

Romania and Bulgaria have been members of the European Union since 2007, and since then citizens of these countries have been able to travel to Germany without a visa, or any other restrictions. For the last seven years there have been limitations for Romanian and Bulgarian jobseekers in Germany, but those restrictions will expire at the end of 2013.

But Friedrich is opposed to this happening. Along with British Home Secretary Theresa May and Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, Friedrich called on the EU Commission to act against the immigrants from the eastern Balkans.

German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz (GERMANY - Tags: POLITICS)
Friedrich believes Germany is already doing enough for immigrantsImage: Reuters

Germany would welcome those who want to work, said Friedrich, but must be allowed to send back those who are only coming for the welfare payments.

Study shows no social burden

A European Commission report seen by DW ahead of publication showed that EU migrants in fact do not place a burden on the welfare programs of their host countries. According to the study, these newcomers are actually on average more qualified than the general population of their host country, which helps many of them to quickly find work and contribute to the social funds themselves.

So then, why the outcry from German cities complaining about the sharply increasing welfare handouts for Romanians and Bulgarians? Duisburg, Dortmund, Mannheim and Berlin are demanding help from the federal government and the EU, as entire neighborhoods are being overwhelmed by these new arrivals.

Orkan Kösemen, the project manager for integration and education at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, doesn't see a contradiction in the situation. At 70 percent, the labor force participation rate of these new citizens is a fair bit higher than that of the German population. "But among these Romanians and Bulgarians who have moved here are also those without qualifications and who won't find a job," he said. "These people are coming together in a few cities, and even specific districts. This concentration can then seem like a flood."

Low wages hardly enough to live on

Elke Tiessler-Marenda, an expert in migration with Caritas Germany, agrees with Kösemen. The poor, in particular, will move to where the rents are cheapest. "In Dortmund, for example, the Bulgarians and the Romanians have moved to existing problem areas," she said. "The municipalities are complaining that they have been left to deal with these problems alone, and rightly so. And not just the most recent problems, but also the existing problems."

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Mallinckrodtstrasse, in Dortmund, is a popular spot for Romanians and Bulgarians looking for workImage: imago/epd

Of course, said Tiessler-Marenda, there are certainly those immigrants who set out from the start to take advantage of the social safety net. But, she said, these are the exception. When immigrants do end up applying for welfare, for the most part it's because they overestimated their chances in their new adopted country. "They come here to work, only to find that they aren't able to live just on hard work alone."

Tiessler-Marenda gave the example of Romanian butchers working for starvation wages in the slaughterhouses. Upon visiting a Caritas counseling center, they were told that they had the right to social welfare payments to top up their earnings. "That isn't welfare fraud, this was provided when the Hartz-IV support services were introduced," she said. "It applies to native Germans just as much as it does to immigrants. The problem is that these immigrants are not earning enough."

Tiessler-Marenda considers the controversial court decision in NRW to be quite conclusive. The fact that people who came to Germany to look for work are not entitled to welfare could not apply indefinitely. "They languished for more than a year without an income. The court said this was no longer acceptable and ruled that they were entitled."

She doesn't share in the fear that the ruling will lead to waves of Romanians washing up on Germany's shores in order to tap social welfare benefits after living in misery for a year. In fact, she pointed out that there have already been prior rulings which granted Romanians and Bulgarians access to these funds, more than most people realize. "This news was passed around, and yet it still didn't result in a run on the funds."

Only a few black sheep

Kösemen, of the Bertelsmann Stiftung, tries to put the figures into perspective: when the numbers of immigrants who decide to return home are taken into account, then it's just about 40,000 people per year who are migrating from Romania and Bulgaria. Only a small number of these people are making welfare claims.

A boy riding a bike in Berlin apartment courtyard Foto: Britta Pedersen dpa/lbn
Not all immigrants from Eastern Europe are poor and looking for handoutsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

He doesn't discount the possibility that some people only make the move to Germany to take advantage of state assistance. "There are black sheep everywhere," he said. But a country with 80 million people should be able to handle a problem like that, he added.

Kösemen isn't too bothered by the current debate over the new immigrants. Such discussions heat up every once in a while, only to die down again. "Ten years ago, when Poland entered the EU, people were also talking about a wave of immigration. Now, it's simply the turn of the Romanians and the Bulgarians," he said.

It's all a question of perspective, he added. "We know that it's actually not that many immigrants who come from poverty. But they are concentrated in just a few areas, and that always seems like a flood when experienced up close."