Pigi Mourmouri is close to retirement, but for the last year she has had more work than ever. Up to 20 immigrants come to her Catholic Church counseling service in Berlin each week. The advice-seekers have just arrived in the German capital from Greece and want to know how things work. A year ago, she had, at most, four immigrants a week.
"The number is growing at an alarming rate," said Pigi, who left Greece 45 years ago.
The latest figures from Germany's national statistics office confirm that an increasing number of immigrants are coming to Germany from European Union countries plagued by the debt crisis. Last year, some 24,000 people arrived from Greece to live and work in Germany. That is about 10,000 more than in 2010 - an increase of 90 percent. Immigration from Spain also rose 50 percent.
In all, the number of new immigrants to Germany last year topped 958,000, which is 20 percent more than 2010. Another reason for the exceptionally high immigration rate was the end of restrictions on people looking to immigrate from new EU member states in eastern and southeastern Europe: Poland, Hungary and Romania.
Mixed signals for immigrants
More than half of those seeking Mourmouri's advice are highly qualified.
"Many of these people are engineers, doctors and academics who simply have no opportunities at home. There are also a lot of young people," said Mourmouris.
German business and industry are glad to see the skilled workers. "Due to Germany's aging population, the country needs some 2 million skilled workers from abroad," said Dieter Hundt, president of the German Employers Association. Workers are especially in demand in the technical sector.
"What is really important is creating a welcoming culture to show these people that we are glad to have them here in Germany," said Hundt.
But things are not always made easy for these new arrivals, Mourmouris said. Until recently, immigrants from EU countries who came to Germany looking for work were entitled to various social benefits and could participate in language and integration courses.
"I thought that was very good," she said. "It was an investment in getting adjusted."
However, for several months now applications at the employment office for these courses are generally rejected, Mourmouris added.
Since the demand for highly qualified workers cannot be met from within the European Union alone, the German government has been focusing on recruiting academically trained people from non-EU countries. The introduction of the so-called "blue card" has made it easier for foreigners to immigrate to the EU and Germany. If a person can verify that they have a university degree and can prove they have a work contract with a salary of at least 44,800 euros ($57,050), then they can live and work in the EU.
For job sectors where there is a substantial need for employees, the income threshold is 35,000 euros. After three years, these immigrants can then apply for long-term residence status for themselves and their families.
Hundt said he thinks the rule should be expanded to include non-academics. The new guidelines were enacted too recently to be reflected in the immigrant figures of the national statistics office. Even so, a positive trend is already visible among immigrants from non-EU states, where 4 percent more came to Germany last year than in 2010.
Potential could go elsewhere
Whether immigrants come from EU countries or the rest of the world - Mourmouris said she thinks counseling services in Germany could be improved. The first thing people need is information.
"What rights do I have here, what duties and obligations, where can I apply for jobs?" she said these are the most frequent questions asked by new arrivals. Many people, she added, are now even calling ahead of time from Greece to find out what the German rules are. She said she also thinks that the number of information center for immigrants coming to Germany is too small.
There are a few reception centers and the Federal Labor Office is now working more closely with the Greek authorities, but overall, Germany is responding too slowly to the many new immigrants, Mourmouris said.
"If this doesn't get faster, Germany will lose this potential," she warned, adding that if well-educated immigrants don't find anything in Germany, they will go elsewhere.
Author: Nicolas Martin /gb
Editor: Sean Sinico