Asylum seeker seeks job

Are refugees employable? The facts, the bureaucratic maze, the official and unofficial initiatives... and the (rare) success stories.

Image for Asylum seeker seeks job
Ahmad, from Syria, now works in a Berlin dental lab. Photo by Viktor Richardsson

Are refugees employable? The facts, the bureaucratic maze, the official and unofficial initiatives… and the (rare) success stories.

Contrary to what you might’ve heard in the media, the refugee crisis hasn’t left Berlin with an insurmountable flood of job seekers. The estimated 5200 Syrians, 1000 Iraqis and 500 Iranians looking for work as of November haven’t made a significant dent in the city’s already-high unemployment rate. Optimists even point out that quite a few are qualified in professions that Germany badly needs. So why not put them to work?

Once I heard I could try to look for a job already, that’s exactly what I did. I took things into my own hands. I couldn’t just wait all that time.

But it’s not that easy. For one thing, it’s virtually impossible for an asylum seeker to legally earn money in Germany before his or her application is accepted. And even with a residence permit and the help of government initiatives, refugee newcomers are impaired by language difficulties and lack of formal qualifications. Under these conditions, the chances of finding a well-paying job in one’s chosen field are akin to winning the lottery.

Knowing the limits

On the second floor of a building in Königin-Elisabeth-Straße in far-west Charlottenburg, behind a door with a “Team Labour Market Integration for Refugees” poster on it, Franziska Hirschelmann is deep in conversation with 23-year-old Mohamed from Pakistan. She’s part of Early Intervention, a pilot project of the Federal Employment Agency launched in Berlin in February 2015 to pre-empt unemployment among newly arrived refugees, and she’s happy to welcome a journalist into her office.

When Mohamed registered with the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) on his arrival in October, representatives from Early Intervention were there to meet him and direct him here. In English, Hirschelmann asks Mohamed about his education and work experience. He says he studied aviation back home and she advises him to opt for an apprenticeship, telling him there are a few placements at airline companies, albeit ones that require B2 German and a relocation to Hamburg or Frankfurt. Mohamed is reluctant – he wanted to continue his studies here. But his application has not yet been accepted, and he comes from a country with so-called “low probability for stay”: the BAMF accepts only about 10 percent of asylum applications from Pakistani nationals. “If they decide next month that the situation in Pakistan is safe, he will be

sent back. The best I can offer is an apprentice ship,” explains Hirschelmann. “It’s hard to tell young people the truth. We don’t know if he will be allowed to stay in Germany, so I cannot advise him to pursue his dream job.” As of the beginning of August, the German government has relaxed the conditions for refugees who want to do an internship, allowing them to apply for one as of the day they register for asylum. But since, according to the contract they sign with the Regional Office for Health and Social Affairs (LaGeSo), they’re not allowed to have an income until they get their papers, the internship can’t be paid.

Hirschelmann is responsible for 95 refugees, of whom two have gotten jobs, seven have started internships and three are starting apprenticeships this year. “The most important thing is to help refugees find internships and jobs as soon as possible. If they stay inactive at the refugee camp for too long, it’s difficult to motivate them again,” she says. “I try to do the best I can, but there are many limitations to what I can do.” Hirschelmann is energetic and on top of her work, but her 15-person team is too small to cater to the needs of the thousands of refugees who want to find a job in Berlin.

Most want to work as soon as they arrive here – but until their application is processed, the probability of them getting a paid job is negligible. The luckiest ones, i.e. Syrians and Iraqis, ‘only’ have to wait between six and nine months. For others, the wait is around 16 months, but depending on how complicated the case is, they might be stuck in bureaucratic limbo for years. Many will never get legal status here. In the meantime, LaGeSo provides financial assistance to the tune of a meager €200 per month.

If refugees are lucky enough to get residency, they’ll be automatically registered as Arbeitssuchende (job seekers) with the Federal Employment Agency and sent to the Jobcenter. But they’re still faced with countless hurdles. Language is a big one: even though English is often enough for jobs with international companies, an apprenticeship with a German company requires at least a B2 level. People from the countries with the highest chance of asylum approval – Syria, Iraq, Iran and Eritrea – can start private language classes paid for by the Employment Agency almost right away, but it will still take months before they’re fluent.

Another obstacle is finding out what newcomers are actually qualified to do, since a Syrian diploma isn’t necessarily equivalent to a German one. For example, Hirschelmann explains that while Mohamed’s aviation college back in Pakistan issues diplomas to its graduates after six months, “in Germany, a similar degree would require two years of study.” The Early Intervention team works together with an external agency that helps translate refugees’ diplomas and get their qualifications recognised.

Going around the law

In the meantime, while waiting to get residency or good news from the Jobcenter, many refugees are pushed into unofficial jobs, with few prospects for professional development or a decent income. One of them is Ali*, a friendly Syrian who had a well-paid accounting job back in his home country. He arrived in Berlin in early September, and is still waiting to hear about his asylum application. When asked about what he does for a living now, he becomes uneasy and reluctant to speak. “I’m scared that talking about my work will get me in trouble with the police,” he says, nervously looking around him. Unable to survive off the €190 he receives from the state each month, he got a job through a Syrian friend of his, distributing flyers for a car retailer in Berlin. He now works four days a week for €10 an hour, all cash.

During his two-hour flyer distribution routes, Ali does his best not to be seen by the police or the Ordnungsamt. He tries to finish work before dark, when there are fewer policemen around. It’s stressful to always be on the lookout. “But I really need the money, so I don’t really have a choice.” He would like to find a job as an accountant here, but is struggling to have his diploma recognised. “The whole process is taking a really long time. I always go back to the Jobcenter with more papers, but every time it turns out that something is missing. I also feel insecure about starting a serious job in a language that I don’t speak well,” he admits.

At Café Kotti, the smoky expat, immigrant and leftist hangout by Kottbusser Tor, owner Ercan Yasaroglu currently employs five refugees, some of them still without papers after one or two years in Germany. They get paid €9 per hour. “I ignore the law,” he admits. “Laws and regulations don’t serve the interests of refugees.”

A political refugee himself, the fifty-something café owner understands the difficulties that newcomers face all too well. He arrived in Berlin in 1982, fleeing persecution in Turkey. An activist from the Workers’ Party, Yasaroglu escaped a eight-year prison sentence only to face a tougher challenge – starting his life from zero. “After I arrived, I started cleaning the garden of a hospital in Wedding. Doing such a degrading job tore me apart.” He fears that the new wave of migrants might fall into the same trap as the Turkish Gastarbeiter of the 1960s. “Turkish people have accepted their inferior position. A doctor has accepted that he is now a taxi driver,” Yasaroglu explains. “Discrimination placed large parts of the Turkish community on a downward spiral, and that was difficult to escape.” He says we must see refugees as individuals, not a faceless mass. “If you look at people only as refugees, you see them as helpless people. You don’t see them as cooks, engineers, carpenters.”

He is sceptical about refugees doing unpaid internships. “It’s better than sitting around at the refugee home, but it’s just another small-scale measure. People should be offered normal jobs with normal salaries. We should also face the fact that some half-million newcomers will never learn German. There should be jobs for them, too. We just need to be creative.” Yasaroglu explains that he goes around Kottbusser Tor and tries to persuade business owners to employ refugees, even if they don’t have papers yet. “Many businesses are afraid that they will get in trouble with the Finanzamt or other institutions if they do that. I tell them that there is always a way around the rigid regulations. We can’t wait on the government to do the work – they’ll never get it right. Each and every one of us should take the initiative and contribute with what we can.”

Image for Asylum seeker seeks job
Franziska Hirschelmann from the Early Intervention programme advises refugees in her office. Photo by Boryana Ivanova

The lucky ones

Even within the government’s strict parameters, though, there is hope. What’s little known is that after a period of three months, refugees can apply for a work permit whether they have residency or not – if they’ve managed to score a job offer in a field where there’s a shortage of personnel. These so-called Mangelberufe include engineers, IT specialists, mathematicians, doctors…. and orthodontists, like 23-year-old Ahmad from Syria.

It’s hard to tell young people the truth. We don’t know if Mohamed will be allowed to stay in Germany, so I cannot advise him to pursue his dream job.

A typical overachiever, he got his degree within two years, instead of the normal four: “I was going to lectures in the morning and working in a dental lab the rest of the time.” On arriving in Berlin a year ago, he hit the ground running. “What helped me the most was having a lot of friends from the very beginning, many of them German.” One of the volunteers who was giving German classes at Ahmad’s refugee home played a key role – she put him in touch with the director of a dental lab in Berlin and told him that, after three months in Germany, he could apply for a work permit even before his asylum application was approved. “Once I heard I could try to look for a job already, that’s exactly what I did. I took things into my own hands. I couldn’t just wait all that time.”

In August he went for an assessment at the lab and was told that somebody with his skills was needed – speaking only English and no German was not a problem. The lab filled out a form stating that they wanted Ahmad to start working for them and sent it to the Immigration Office. Before he could receive the coveted work permit, though, the Federal Employment Agency had to carry out a “priority check” (Vorrangprüfung) to prove that the opening couldn’t be filled by a citizen of Germany or any other EU country. The lab was required to advertise the position on the Employment Agency portal for two weeks. If just one qualified German had wanted the job, Ahmad would’ve been out of the race – but nobody did, and two months later his application for a work permit was approved. He started working that same day. As of January, he’ll extend his schedule to 30 hours per week at €10 per hour. “I’m happy that I don’t have to start with minimum wage. I have three years of experience, I’ve learned various techniques and I can really contribute to the workflow.”

Even though most of his work is manual, making braces in the lab, Ahmad is still determined to learn German. “All my colleagues are very nice and supportive. They are happy to have a Syrian person working with them,” he says. “But it’s difficult to communicate with them because I don’t speak the language that well. All the German I know is from Youtube tutorials and volunteer classes.” In the little free time he has left, Ahmed will attend an integration course. “I’ve been waiting for this for a year already, and now I can finally start. I’ll go to classes for few hours in the morning before going to the lab,” he says. He is proud to point out that he will be paying for the integration course himself, as he earns his own income now.

Having a background in one of Germany’s in-demand fields gave him a definite advantage, but he still believes that finding a job is up to the individual. “Do you know what kind of job you are looking for? Are you looking for your dream job, or just any kind of job? If you don’t have choices you will take whatever comes across,” he says. “Finding work in Germany is a matter of luck, but also making contacts – and getting out of the Heim. The people who just stay there will never survive in this country.”

*Name changed

Refugee employment in numbers

Roughly 29,400 asylum seekers were registered in Berlin in 2015.

  • With the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees’ (BAMF) current rate of acceptance of 46 percent, only 14,000 of them will be allowed to stay, hence look for a job.
  • As of November 2015, there were 5200 Syrian job seekers in Berlin, 1000 from Iraq and 500 from Iran.
  • Germany currently has a shortage of 164,000 educated professionals.
  • An estimated 11 percent of Syrian asylum seekers and 8.5 percent of other nationalities are qualified in one of the jobs that are in short supply in Germany, such as doctors, engineers or IT professionals.
  • The total number of refugees working in those job categories remains low: 3,500 at the end of 2014.

Sources: Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, Cologne Institute for Economic Research