The two contrasting sides of German refugee policy

‘They try to integrate some people while really try to get rid of others.’

Mohammad Zarzorie, from Latakia in Syria, arrived in Germany in 2015 and now works as an engineer in a chromium plating factory on the outskirts of Munich.
Mohammad Zarzorie, from Latakia in Syria, arrived in Germany in 2015 and now works as an engineer in a chromium plating factory on the outskirts of Munich. (Ruairi Casey/TNH)

Four years after Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the doors to around one million refugees and asylum seekers, Germany continues to mull over the long-term consequences of its great welcome. It still grapples with fundamental questions about how refugees should integrate and, for the tens of thousands of asylum seekers whose futures remain in limbo, who should be allowed to stay and who will be returned home?

Mohammad Zarzorie, a Syrian engineer, counts himself a success story. After fleeing to Germany via Greece and the Balkans in 2015, he received his refugee status within months, quickly learned to speak German, and through an employment fair soon found his job at a chromium plating manufacturer on the outskirts of Munich.

Two years later, his wife followed him, and although a housing crisis means they must live in an apartment attached to the factory, he has found peace and contentment here in the industrial heartland of Bavaria, in southern Germany.

“From a land that’s under war to (there) being nothing difficult for you to start your life in another safe country, it wasn't difficult for me,” says Zarzorie, a university teaching assistant before conflict erupted in Syria.

“There was no challenge,” Zarzorie says. “Here in Germany they have this benefits system. They help you a lot to start integrating with society.”

Returning to the engineering work he was pursuing in Syria has been the foundation on which he has built a new life, and he eagerly wants more Syrians in Germany to enter employment. “I think they must (work) because you can’t start your life if you don’t work,” he says.

But not all new arrivals to Germany share his good fortune and have the opportunity to work.

Bavaria, Zarzorie’s new home, is consistently one of the most conservative and anti-migrant states in Germany. It has deported more than 1,700 people so far this year, and drawn severe criticism from human rights groups for continuing to send hundreds of migrants to Afghanistan, which no other German state considers a safe country for return.

“The image is deliberately created that refugees do not want to work, or are inactive, and this increases resentment against refugees.”

“Sometimes you need to make things clear to people who are naive and confused and think that migration is nothing more than making things a bit more multicultural,” Bavaria’s Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann said in August. “Asylum law applies, but we cannot accept everyone. Because that overburdens us.”

“It’s paradoxical,” says Gülseren Demirel, responsible for migration and integration for the Bavarian Green Party, which opposes Herrmann’s Christian Social Union. “The Bavarian economy is strong and also offers jobs that can't be staffed. The chambers of commerce and civil society groups try to integrate the refugees, but the political conditions do not allow this.

“The consequence is that refugees are not allowed to work and can't develop any perspectives,” she adds. “The image is deliberately created that refugees do not want to work, or are inactive, and this increases resentment against refugees.”

Rejected, but ‘tolerated’

Bringing new arrivals into the workforce has been the cornerstone of Germany’s integration efforts since 2015.

The benefits are two-fold: they can become self-dependent and assimilate socially, while at the same time plugging the country’s severe labour shortage, which has left almost 1.4 million positions vacant and will require 250,000 immigrants per year to address.

The results have exceeded expectations. Around 36 percent of refugees between 15 and 60 – around 380,000 to 400,000 people – are now in employment, according to Germany’s Institute for Employment Research, which expects that number to rise to around 40 percent before the end of the year. While many remain in low-wage work as cleaners or security personnel, half are in skilled professions.

But around a quarter of a million migrants who have had their asylum cases rejected remain in the country, despite being required to leave. Of these, 191,000 have been granted a ‘toleration’ – a temporary status meaning their deportation has been postponed for reasons such as illness, family ties to a person with residency, or a lack of travel documents.

Around 11,500 failed asylum seekers were deported in the first half of this year – a slight decline on 2018. But the possibility of deportation remains a very real fear for those with ‘tolerations’, which are usually provided on a rolling basis, lasting only a few weeks or months at a time.

Even if they attempt to find work and learn the language, they often find themselves subject to arbitrary decisions at the hands of Germany’s formidable bureaucracy.

The decision on whether to grant asylum is made at a national level, but once a person’s claim has been rejected what follows is largely determined by state or local administrations, which are granted wide discretion, leading to wildly divergent situations depending on where a person is located.

“(Local offices) often decide whether you can get a work permit, and you need a work permit for getting an apprenticeship permit, which then is very often the way for consolidating your right to stay,” explains Simon Sperling, a researcher at the University of Osnabruck's Institute of Migration Research and Intercultural Studies.

‘It’s not how I was before’

Like Zarzorie, Johnson Nsiah, from Ghana, also arrived in Germany after crossing the Mediterranean in 2015. He was sent to live in Kempten, a large town in Bavaria around two hours drive west of Munich.

After fleeing his home when a local dispute threatened his life, he crossed the Sahara to Libya, where he worked as a builder and painter for two years. There, he met Julia*, a Nigerian woman, and helped her escape from her abusive employer. The employer then threatened to kill them both, forcing them to pay for space aboard an inflatable boat, which was intercepted by an Italian navy ship that brought them to Europe.

The couple are now married. Julia, along with their two children – a four-year-old born in Italy and a two-year old born in Kempten – have the right to remain in Germany, but Nsiah’s asylum claim has been rejected and he is required to leave the country.

Because of his family, Nsiah has been granted a ‘toleration’, in the form of a paper slip, valid for six months, which fixes the boundaries of his life. It does not permit him to work, travel outside Bavaria, or live outside the apartment block in which his family resides – a former mental hospital repurposed to house over 100 asylum seekers and refugees.

The local administrative office has demanded Nsiah return to Ghana to obtain a passport, which he says is financially impossible and would amount to a death sentence due to the continued threats made against him. The restrictions have put a heavy toll on his mental and physical health. Stress has contributed to painful migraines that caused him to drop out of language classes.

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Johnson Nsiah, from Ghana, came to Germany with his wife in 2015 after they fled death threats in Libya. His wife and children are allowed to remain, but Nsiah is required to return to his home country and has been denied the right to work in Germany.
Ruairi Casey/TNH
Johnson Nsiah, from Ghana, came to Germany with his wife in 2015 after they fled death threats in Libya. His wife and children are allowed to remain, but Nsiah is required to return to his home country and has been denied the right to work in Germany.

“It's not how I was before,” he says, gesturing towards the hearing aids protruding from both his ears. “Because of stress, all those things, they make me like this.”

Nsiah believes his many years of experience should easily lead to a job in construction or painting, and it angers him that that he is limited to cleaning the apartment building for 60c an hour while other Ghanaians he met in 2015 have been working freely in Hamburg and Stuttgart for years.

Separation by nationality

In June, the German parliament approved a raft of new asylum laws, including some measures to strengthen the rights of rejected asylum seekers in steady jobs, but also others that lengthened maximum stays in detention centres and streamlined deportations. 

For Sperling, the origins of this contradictory approach date back to 2015, when German authorities quietly began to separate arrivals based on their nationality, which greatly influences their chances of a successful asylum application.

“The politics is very ambivalent in this sense: they try to integrate some people while really try to get rid of others.”

Syrians, Iraqis, and Eritreans were all deemed to have good prospects and shuffled quickly into courses to help them integrate and find work. Others, especially those from West Africa and the Balkans, had a less favourable outlook, and so received minimal assistance.

“Germany invested in language courses and things like that, but at the same time also really pushed forward to isolate and disintegrate certain groups, especially people who are said to not have have good prospects to stay,” he says. 

“The politics is very ambivalent in this sense: they try to integrate some people while really try to get rid of others.”

But while some have undeniably built new lives of great promise, the lives of many of those 2015 arrivals remain in limbo.

On the street, Nsiah says, Germans have racially abused him and berated him for refusing to work, a bitter irony not lost on him. 

“It’s not our fault. No refugee here doesn’t want to work,” he says, his voice smarting.

“The only thing I need to be happy... (is) to work and take care of my family, to live with my family, because my wife doesn’t have anybody and I cannot leave her alone with these children.”

The two extremes

The local immigration office in Bavaria has shown a reluctance to grant permits for work or to access to three-year apprenticeships, which if pursued by someone like Nsiah would almost certainly lead to a job offer and a secure residence permit.

It also frequently imposes restrictions on movement with breaches punishable by heavy fines. An Iraqi man in Kempten showed The New Humanitarian a picture of his seriously ill wife lying on a hospital bed in Saxony, whom he cannot visit because his pass restricts him to Bavaria; while an Iranian man said that for eight years his pass did not permit him to stray beyond the town boundary.

Moving to another district or state might be beneficial, but these onerous stipulations, combined with a chronic shortage of rental accommodation throughout Bavaria, make it nearly impossible for those on low or non-existent incomes.

Zarzorie, meanwhile, hopes to find his own house in Munich, raise children and finish the master’s degree he first embarked upon in Aleppo.

There is still adjusting to do, to what he calls the different “life-cycle” in Munich. Unlike his memories of Syria, in which cafés and streets buzzed with chatter until the early hours of the morning, the boulevards here fall quiet long before midnight.

That’s why he’s drawn most evenings to Marienplatz, a square in the city’s old quarter where its historic town hall overlooks modern cafes and restaurants, and the crowds stay out late enough that it almost reminds him of home.

(*Name changed to protect the identity of the woman for security reasons.)

rc/ag

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