Germany faces debate on ‘first and second-class’ refugees’

The integration of Ukrainians into the German society and labour market has worked better than during the previous refugee crisis, mostly because they receive better treatment. But refugee organisations increasingly chide policy-makers for not activating the same status for refugees from other countries.

After Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the EU activated for the first time the bloc’s Temporary Protection Directive (TPD), a 20-year-old law designed to help shelter refugees.

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The measure allowed Ukrainians to move freely across the EU, giving them instant rights to live and work within the bloc, and offering them access to social service benefits like housing and medical care.

It also meant they were given temporary residency status without having to go through complex asylum procedures.

While welcoming the simplified procedure for Ukrainians, German NGO ‘Pro Asyl’ now warns of having ‘first and second-class refugees’ – people from third countries who do not have the same options, even if they are also fleeing the war at home.

“The legal situation has made it possible that civil society, as well as the Ukrainian community, could help a lot in this process of arrival of people from Ukraine,” Tareq Alaows, Pro Asyl spokesperson for refugee policy, told EURACTIV.

However, Alaows complained that “this has not yet been made possible for all other groups – neither for people from Afghanistan nor Syria”.

After arriving in Germany, refugees and asylum seekers from other third countries are currently moved to ‘reception centres’, often outside bigger cities and with little contact with the rest of society and without the option to choose in which region they end up. 

“Although we have a large community from Syria, for example, these people have to live in the initial reception facilities,” Alaows said. “This means that while they may have a brother in Hamburg, they still would be assigned to a reception centre in Bavaria”.

By living among other refugees and having little contact with native speakers, they would also not be able to pick up language skills as fast as Ukrainians currently can.

In addition, as long as people are living in those initial reception centres, they are not allowed to work for the first nine months after their arrival. 

In Berlin, for instance, a certificate granting the permit to work would be sent to applicants automatically, immediately after filing their application online.

“This affects people from all other countries of origin [than Ukraine],” Alaows said, criticising a lack of political will.

“Ukrainian people are not to blame at all, but rather the politicians who don’t have the will to treat refugees equally,” he said.

Situation ‘not comparable’

Asked about the discrepancy, Germany’s Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) said the situation with Ukrainians is not comparable to those of other refugees or migrants.

For Ukrainians, “there is neither preferential treatment nor disadvantage compared to refugees from other countries because the two groups are not comparable,” a ministry spokesperson told EURACTIV, clarifying that this was because for people fleeing Ukraine, the EU has activated the option for “temporary protection”.

The decision was initially taken on 4 March 2022, one week after Russia’s war started, and has recently been prolonged until March 2024.

“For refugees going through a regular asylum procedure, the need for protection is not yet established at the beginning of the procedure,” the spokesperson said. Conversely, “as soon as a protection title is granted, these refugees also have unrestricted access to the German labour market”.

But in Alaows’ view, such reasoning is not convincing.

“The current case shows that we can do everything differently,” he said. “You could have activated temporary protection for Syrians, for example, at the beginning of 2015”.

“It was the EU that did not activate it,” Alaows added. “Germany could play a role at the European level by proactively demanding it – but no one demanded it at the time”.

“Syrians also fled the Russian regime and Russian missiles in 2015, just like Ukrainians are now. I don’t see any distinction between people or between crises that affect people equally,” Alaows said.

“I only see a distinction in the political will on how to deal with people,” he said, adding that he cannot describe it in any other way than that it is simply “a question of discrimination, of racism.”

Practical challenges remain

Meanwhile, even with the option for easy access to the labour market activated, stakeholders stress that it remains challenging in practice.

“Integration into employment takes time,” a spokesperson of Germany’s employer association BDA told EURACTIV.

“The legal conditions for the application of the EU directives on temporary protection are good, but there are practical hurdles,” the spokesperson said.

“Since most refugees have no knowledge of German, they usually attend a language course before they take up employment”.

“In general, there is often a lack of childcare places. The hurdles in the recognition of professional qualifications in regulated professions also make it difficult to take up employment,” the spokesperson added.

Since the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine, more than one million refugees have been registered in Germany, most of them women and children.

Meanwhile, a total of 159,000 Ukrainians could be employed on a regular basis in the German labour market, which also includes Ukrainians who lived in Germany before. 

Among Ukrainians in Germany, the employment quota stood at 20% as of January 2023, down from 52% before the start of the war, the ministry said. Self-employed people are not included in the quota.

[Edited by Alexandra Brzozowski/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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