1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Germany's center right gets tough on Ukrainian refugees

June 24, 2024

Germany's center-right parties are pushing for stricter measures for refugees from Ukraine, including reduced benefits and job requirements. Critics have argued these policies could hurt the job market.

People walking past signs for Ukrainian refugees in Berlin's central station
Around 1.3 million people with Ukrainian citizenship are living in Germany, most of whom are women and childrenImage: Carsten Koall/dpa/picture alliance

Germany's center-right opposition parties — who are leading in the polls — are toughening their attitude toward Ukrainian refugees, with a leading member of Bavaria's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) now calling for them to be sent back to Ukraine if they don't find a job.

"More than two years after the start of the war, the principle must now apply: Take work in Germany or return to safe areas of western Ukraine," the CSU's parliamentary leader Alexander Dobrindt told the tabloid Bild am Sonntag newspaper at the weekend.

Though the claim has been frequently debunked by migration researchers, Dobrindt repeated the argument that unemployment benefits — known as Bürgergeld, or citizens' income — were keeping Ukrainians from finding work. "We need stronger obligations to cooperate for asylum-seekers when it comes to taking up work," he said.

The German Foreign Ministry responded in a regular government press conference on Monday, saying there were no safe areas in Ukraine. 

Alexander Dobrindt
The CSU's Alexander Dobrindt has stepped up the rhetoric against Ukrainian refugeesImage: dts Nachrichtenagentur/picture alliance

The argument for restricting the benefits of Ukrainian refugees in Germany was previously made by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) — the CSU's non-Bavarian sister party in German politics — and last week by the smallest party in the Chancellor Olaf Scholz's center-left coalition, the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).

"Newly arrived war refugees from Ukraine should no longer receive a citizen's income, but should fall under the Asylum Seekers Benefits Act," FDP General Secretary Bijan Djir-Sarai told Bild last Monday. This, he suggested, would force more Ukrainians to find a job.

"We have a shortage of labor everywhere — in the restaurant and construction industries, for example, or in the care sector," Djir-Sarai added. "We should no longer be using taxpayers' money to finance unemployment, but instead we need to ensure that people get jobs."

Both Scholz's center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and his other coalition partner, the Green Party, have rejected the idea.

Cutting refugees' benefits is 'naked populism'

Around 1.3 million people with Ukrainian citizenship are living in Germany, according to government figures for March 2024, most of whom are women and children. According to the Federal Interior Ministry, around 260,000 of them are Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60.

"It doesn't make sense to talk about supporting Ukraine in the best way we can and at the same time to pay for Ukrainians who have abandoned their country," Brandenburg's CDU Interior Minister Michael Stübgen told the newspaper network RND.

How some Ukrainians are dodging conscription

But German economist Marcel Fratzscher dismissed the FDP's demand as "naked populism." "No one will be better off, no one will have a single euro more, if Germany treats refugees worse and cuts their benefits," Fratzscher, the president of the German Institute for Economic Research, told RND on Tuesday.

Government spokespeople swiftly clarified that the FDP's stance did not reflect that of Scholz, telling reporters at a press conference last week that there were no plans to change the help offered to Ukrainian refugees. In fact, as they pointed out, EU interior ministers agreed earlier this month to extend Ukrainian refugees' special protection status until 2026.

This status prevents Ukrainians from having to go through a lengthy asylum procedure upon arrival, allows them to freely choose their place of residence, and gives them the immediate right to social benefits, education and a work permit.

Ukrainian refugees are only entitled to social benefits if their income (and, if applicable, their assets) is not sufficient to cover the cost of living.

Access to the labor market

Alexander (name changed), a 37-year-old Ukrainian who spent about a year living on the citizen's income in Berlin, said he could understand the sentiment behind the FDP and CDU's calls, but that the citizens' income had been vital to helping him find his feet in a very dark period of his life.

"When I came here I was totally lost, I was mentally lost," he told DW. "Then we went to the job center, and we had the payments, we had the support from them. In my case everything went pretty smoothly."

Receiving a citizens' income — currently €563 ($603) a month for single people — also meant Alexander, a music producer and sound designer who had a successful business in Ukraine, had access to job counselling and help finding a German language course, all of which ultimately allowed him to get off state support within a year. Under the Asylum Seekers Benefits Act, he would have received just €354 a month, and no help from the job center.

Alexander's story is not unique, according to research done by Kseniia Gatskova, of the Institute for Employment Research, who coordinated a long-term survey on Ukrainian war refugees in Germany.

"Of course, the citizen's income is important — it allows people to cope with everyday life," she said. "But integration means much more — refugees need extensive integration measures, for example language courses and advice in job centers."

Wounded Ukrainian soldier falls in love with German nurse

According to the Federal Employment Agency in March 2024, more than 700,000 Ukrainians were receiving the basic benefits for job seekers. This included 501,000 people who were classified as fit to work and 217,000 who were not — these were mostly children.

Some 185,000 Ukrainian refugees are employed and paying social security contributions. In October 2023, a study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation revealed that integration of Ukrainian war refugees into the German labor market was lagging behind that of other EU countries: while just 18% of Ukrainian refugees had found a job in Germany, in Poland, the Czech Republic and Denmark the figure was two-thirds or more.

Gatskova stressed that the last two years had shown that the rate of Ukrainians who had found work had grown.

"They are very keen to integrate into the labor market— over 90% of refugees from Ukraine want to work in Germany," she said. "How are people supposed to finance themselves during the period when they have not yet learned the German language, have not had their qualifications recognized and have not yet found a job?"

Not every Ukrainian wants to fight

Germany's aging population means the country is becoming increasingly dependent on foreign labor in several sectors. But what troubles many critics is that many of the Ukrainian refugees are, like Alexander, men of fighting age — though the uncomfortable truth is that many Ukrainian men don't want to fight.

"How people perceive war here, and how a guy from a country where there is war perceives it is very different," said Alexander. "I think if a country promises help, and people need help, that country still needs to help people. In my case, I feel indebted to Germany, and I'm really thankful for that, and I'm going to be paying it back with my taxes."

"Supporting people when they come to a country for a year or two is pretty good — it's an investment in future labor power," he added. "That will help your country to grow. Another question is: How long should you support these people? For, me it should be one, two, three years maximum."

Meeting the foreign volunteers fighting for Ukraine

Researchers like Gatskova believe that, in general, the system needs to be reformed to help more refugees find work, whether they're Ukrainian or not.

"We are calling for the removal of institutional barriers to labor market integration," she said. "The longer asylum procedures, work bans, and mobility restrictions have a negative impact on labor market integration."

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

This article was first published on June 16, 2024 and later updated and republished to reflect news developments.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. Sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.


Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight