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New refugee labor law a 'wasted' opportunity?

Jan D. Walter
June 7, 2019

German lawmakers passed a bundle of measures to make it easier to integrate migrants, as well as to deport rejected asylum-seekers. Experts say the laws not only send a mixed signal but also may even be unconstitutional.

A refugee works in a manufacturing plant
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Schmidt

In 2015, Danish Mirza came to Germany and applied for asylum. He learned German and joined a badminton club, which helped him settle in. Thanks to his nursing degree from Pakistan and additional qualification training in Germany, he was able to complete an internship at a retirement home and eventually landed a permanent job there. Now, two years later, Mirza would like to train to become a certified geriatric nurse.

His story was picked up by German media when Mirza explained his wish to German Chancellor Angela Merkel at an April town hall meeting in the northeastern town of Schwedt, in Merkel's home district of Uckermark. At the time, Merkel promised that her government would soon pass a law to better regulate the asylum process and help skilled foreigners enter the German labor market.

On Friday, German lawmakers did indeed pass a whole policy package. Among other things, it includes the "Geordnete-Rückkehr-Gesetz," which roughly translates to Orderly Repatriation Law.

However, many legal experts and the federal executive director of Germany's Left party, Jörg Schindler, have called the law unconstitutional. They say cutting asylum-seekers off welfare if they fail to cooperate with authorities, making it easier to lock them up prior to deportations, and incarcerating them in regular jails, all violate Germany's constitution. The Left party delegate Ulla Jelpke has even called the law a "catalog of atrocities."

Read more: Germany's aging population desperate for care workers

Germany mulls law to alleviate shortage of skilled labor

Carrot-and-stick approach

The policy package also includes a law that would make it easier to integrate skilled non-European foreigners into Germany's labor market. This pertains both to foreign citizens who have applied for asylum in Germany and to individuals applying for a work visa in a third country.

But Professor Helen Schwenken, a migration expert at Osnabrück University, said the bundle of laws sends a mixed signal: "One law effectively welcomes migrants, whereas another means immigrants face such high hurdles that it makes it almost impossible to be permitted to train or work."

Read more: Germany still short of skilled labor across several industries

Currently, rejected asylum-seekers in Germany who are enrolled in vocational training may already complete their training and remain in the country if they meet certain requirements.

To be eligible, migrants from what are officially deemed "safe countries of origin" by the government must not have committed crimes on German soil and not attempted to conceal their true identity. If they fulfill these criteria, the odds of receiving a two-year residency and work permit are high.

Two asylum-seekers work in a hotel in Sylt
Rejected asylum-seekers without vocational qualifications find it difficult to find workImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Charisius

Deporting the wrong people?

The Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK) welcomes German parliamentary efforts toward simplifying the process for asylum-seekers to work in Germany. After all, late last year 400,000 asylum-seekers — most of whom had come to Germany in 2015 — were either pursuing vocational training or had found a job.

Yet Constantin Bräunig, who is part of a DIHK network aiming to encourage companies to integrate migrants, said "the question is whether some of these regulations may be counterproductive." He underlined that when lawmakers "require migrants to wait around for certain periods, this runs counter to the goal of helping employed individuals remain in the country."

Read more: Germany increasingly popular for highly skilled migrants

Bräunig is referring to the rule that rejected asylum-seekers must wait for three or even 12 months until they are finally allowed to enroll in vocational training or start work. Referring to this apparent contradiction, Labor and Social Affairs Minister Hubertus Heil (of the junior governing coalition partner Social Democrats), said in 2018: "I have the feeling Germany is deporting the wrong people."

Lawyers and insiders report that often well-integrated asylum-seekers are deported first because they, unlike others, have not gone underground to evade authorities. The DIHK is well aware of cases in which rejected asylum-seekers, who were going about their jobs, were taken by police and deported. The association's Bräunig said these "are exceptions but they keep happening." He told DW that other asylum-seekers who witness such arrests often quit their jobs fearing a similar fate.

Read more: Berlin creates office for skilled labor immigration

Refugees seek integration through employment

Law 'wasted an opportunity' to fulfill Merkel's promise

This is exactly what could happen to Mirza, the nurse from Pakistan. Professor Schwenken said that "few asylum-seekers from Pakistan are granted asylum" and that after being rejected, the new law would mean Mirza would have to wait around for at least three months hoping that the immigration authority temporarily suspends his deportation.

The bill that passed on Friday in the Bundestag, the lower house of German parliament, would allow skilled workers from third-party states a permanent residence permit — but will not help Mirza either, as he currently lacks the necessary geriatric nursing certificate, said Schwenken. This means it will remain difficult for asylum-seekers to apply for and obtain a work visa in Germany.

When Mirza addressed Merkel at the town hall meeting, he did not refer to legal paragraphs but cited simple common sense to argue his case. He said that as the German state had already spent so much money on integrating him, and the town of Schwedt had already shown so much commitment in helping him settle in, deporting him simply made no sense.

Read more: Germany passes refugee migration 'stress test'

Merkel replied that his was "a typical case" and that she would try to tailor the new bundle of laws to account for people in such circumstances. Legal experts, however, say the new policy measures do nothing to help people like Mirza work in Germany.

Professor Schwenken, meanwhile, criticizes the fact that lawmakers "have wasted an opportunity to help a large number of asylum-seekers get into the labor market. The demands placed on them are simply too great."

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