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Ukrainian refugees in Germany: Why few work for a living

February 22, 2024

After Russia began its full-fledged war on Ukraine two years ago, more than a million Ukrainians fled to Germany. But very few of them are active in the labor market.

A woman's hands holding a flyer in the colors of the Ukrainian flag reading "Welcome to our job fair" in German and Ukrainian. The fair was organized by the Berlin Chamber of Industry and Commerce and the Employment Agency
There are special job markets for Ukrainian refugees in Germany Image: Christoph Soeder/dpa/picture alliance

Germany has taken in over a million refugees from Ukraine over the last two years, but at the end of 2023, only 214,000 of them were working.

Michael Kretschmer, of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is the state premier of Saxony. He believes that many Ukrainian refugees are not seeking employment because of the financial assistance they receive. "If we say that Germany is a country of immigration, then it is the Ukrainians, for example, who would most easily integrate into our labor market. But only 20% are working –– because they don't have to work," Kretschmer told the Rheinische Post newspaper in February.

It's a view shared by politicians in other political parties, too.  Matthias Jendricke, of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), a district administrator in the state of Thuringia, told the Spiegel weekly that he thinks Germany has made things "too nice" for Ukrainian refugees.

€5.5 billion in welfare payments

Ukrainian war refugees are entitled to welfare payments upon arrival in Germany. This "Bürgergeld" (citizen's income) offers basic security for the unemployed. It is higher than the support other refugees and asylum-seekers receive.

A single person is entitled to €563 per ($610) in monthly spending money. Couples can receive €506 per person, and children's benefits are between €357 and €471 each month, depending on their age. German states also cover health insurance and accommodation costs (rent and heating). Funds are also provided for home furnishings and school supplies.

Finance Minister Christian Lindner, of the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), says Germany will spend between €5.5 and 6 billion in social benefits on Ukrainian refugees in 2024.

Ukrainian nurses in German hospitals

Ukrainian refugees across the EU

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) released figures showing that as of mid-February 2024, around 6 million Ukrainian war refugees were registered in Europe. The largest number were registered in Germany (1.13 million). This was followed by Poland (956,000), the Czech Republic (381,000), the UK (253,000), Spain (192,000), Italy (168,000) and the Netherlands (149,000).

In comparison to Germany, many countries offer less support to the Ukrainian refugees they are hosting. Poland, for instance, only provides financial assistance for the first three months. Afterward, the refugees must mostly support themselves. The Czech Republic offers the equivalent of €130 per month after the first five months, and the UK pays even less.

In both Poland and the Czech Republic, around two-thirds of Ukrainian refugees are currently working, and 50% are working in the UK –– compared to just 20% in Germany.

Do more social benefits mean less work? 

Sociologist Dietrich Thränhardt compiled these figures in November 2023 for a study commissioned by the SPD-affiliated Friedrich Ebert Foundation. However, Thränhardt does not believe that the refugees' low employment rate in Germany is due to the social benefits they receive.

He points to other European countries that are still supporting the refugees with financial assistance yet have high employment numbers. In Denmark, for example, some 78% of Ukrainian war refugees are employed; in Sweden and Norway, more than 50% have a job. Those employment rates are all much higher than Germany's.

Ukrainian doctors help Latvia ease healthcare burden

Thränhardt's study shows that an especially large number are employed in countries where there is easy access to the labor market.

Countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic, but also Denmark, the Netherlands and Ireland, have all simplified their digital administrative procedures. Just one single registration is needed to establish a person's entire legal and social status. In addition, the Netherlands streamlined hiring by bringing temporary employment agencies on board, giving the Ukrainians quick access to jobs. Italy and Slovakia, for their part, adopted processes that made it very easy for the medical sector to hire Ukrainian doctors and nursing staff.

But Europe's German-speaking countries — Germany, Austria and Switzerland — have adopted a system with many restrictions and access barriers. Verifying and recognizing professional qualifications, academic degrees and doctorates is extremely complicated. These countries' administrative offices are swamped with work, and the process is very time-consuming.

However, according to sociologist Thränhardt, most of the Ukrainian refugees have poorly paid jobs. "No European country has yet succeeded in profiting from the Ukrainians' education," he says. "They are mostly working in low-paid jobs, in hotels and restaurants, in simple services, in agriculture, in temporary employment agencies."

Furthermore, in the Netherlands and Poland, there have been documented cases of sexual and criminal exploitation of refugees, and of their generally being taken advantage of and being underpaid.

Ukrainian workers welcome in Croatia's hospitality industry

The German language is a challenge

Learning German has also proven to be an obstacle for Ukrainian refugees. Germany's Federal Employment Agency published figures showing that in January 2024, around 124,000 people were registered in integration and language courses. It predicted that 75% will finish their course during the next six months.

Based on such statistics, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) projected last fall that the employment situation of Ukrainian refugees would soon improve. However, Germany's Federal Audit Office published a report showing that Ukrainians enrolled in these courses were failing the German language test and their exams. Furthermore, one in seven of them quit the course without even taking a test.

Responding to the low employment rate of Ukrainian refugees, the German government launched a pilot "Job Turbo" program, which enables people to learn German alongside work. Once the test phase is complete at the end of March 2024, the program should become generally available.

The childcare problem

Women make up 65% of the adult Ukrainian war refugees. Many arrived in Germany as single parents and brought around 350,000 children and young people with them.

A Ukrainian family in Berlin

But finding childcare proves to be a problem: Daycare centers, kindergartens and schools are facing severe staff shortages.

No childcare means no time for a job. Some of the refugees are also caring for elderly relatives.

In January 2024, 519,000 Ukrainians were registered as employable with Germany's Federal Employment Agency. However, the agency estimates that only half of them could really take on a full-time position.

Thränhardt states in his study that the Ukrainians' current unemployment numbers are "worrying," and not only because that means a potential labor force is going to waste. Work is central to successful integration, and this will be extremely important to war refugees when their temporary admission and protection in the European Union ends in March 2025.

"If they were embedded in the field of employment, they could then choose between staying or going back. Without this choice, they could find themselves in a precarious situation or end up applying for asylum en masse," Thränhardt says.

This article was originally written in German.

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