Germany Trained and Hired Asylum Seekers, Then Started Deporting Them

TETTNANG, Germany — Four years after he stepped off a train in Munich looking for asylum, Abdoulie Barry speaks German, rents an apartment and holds a full-time job at an outdoor sporting goods manufacturer. He is punctual and conscientious, his boss says, and pays taxes and welfare contributions.

But both he and his employer know that, despite their efforts, federal police officers could walk in any day and arrest and deport Mr. Barry, a 37-year-old who made his way from Gambia, because his refugee status has been rejected.

“I feel great doing my work,” Mr. Barry said, while taking a break from working a machine that makes waterproof bicycle bags. “I would like to stay in Germany, if given the chance.”

Mr. Barry could be held up as an emblem of what many experts say is a quiet success story of integration for a growing number of migrants in Germany. Instead, his situation reflects the conflicting impulses that have come to define the country’s immigration policies.

Germany has successfully integrated big numbers of asylum seekers. Many businesses desperate for workers badly want them to stay, even as the country steps up deportations of those who do not qualify.

Those competing strands have come to define a two-pronged approach as the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel tries to address an urgent need for immigrants to sustain the work force while holding off challenges from the nationalist far right.

Mr. Barry arrived at the peak of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015, along with some 1.2 million other asylum seekers. Not all were refugees, but many were fleeing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, or persecution and economic hardship in Africa.

Ms. Merkel accepted them, telling Germans, “We can do this.” That decision set off a wrenching debate about what it means to be German, fueled a backlash on the far right, and will help define the chancellor’s legacy after 14 years in power.

But lost in the angst over Ms. Merkel’s decision is the fact that her country is largely doing what she asked of it. Employment statistics indicate that Germany is coming good on her pledge to get asylum seekers into homes, language classes and jobs, experts say.

ImageEmployers like Antje von Dewitz, center, the chief executive of Vaude, say migrants help fill gaps in the work force.
CreditGordon Welters for The New York Times

Of those who arrived in Germany in 2015, about 20 percent had found work by the end of 2017, according to government statistics. By the end of last year, the number had grown to 35 percent.

“The longer they are in the country, the more they are passing their language exams and entering the job market,” said Yuliya Kosyakova, one of the researchers who conducted the survey. “And in many circumstances, it is happening faster than we expected.”

The last time Germany experienced the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people seeking protection was in the 1990s from the wars that had torn apart the former Yugoslavia. They were given shelter and food, but little in the way of training or assistance in entering the job market.

“This time, they said let’s look at what kind of a perspective we can give them, whether we can get them into training, so that they can take an active part in society,” said Constantin Terton, of the Berlin Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“There was a conscious effort to integrate people through language lessons, apprenticeships and employment, so that they weren’t damned to doing nothing and would take a skill back with them when it was time to return,” Mr. Terton said.

Indeed, many cities, companies and citizens heeded the chancellor’s call to roll up their sleeves and integrate the foreigners who had arrived on the doorsteps of their communities.

Yet many of the newcomers are only now beginning to understand that integration — even in the form of a full-time job that includes contributions to the welfare system — does not guarantee a right to remain in the country.

German law is clear: Although an asylum seeker can be given the right to work while their application is pending, if a rejection is final, they are required to leave the country.

In the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, where Mr. Barry works, employers estimate that about 35,000 migrants with uncertain status are working full-time and paying taxes.

Not only would many of those applicants like to stay, but their employers, having already invested sometimes years in job training, say they would like to keep them.

CreditGordon Welters for The New York Times

Antje von Dewitz, Mr. Barry’s boss and the chief executive of the company where he works, Vaude, is one of them.

“Looking back, it’s obvious that they were still being checked as to whether they qualify for asylum,” Ms. von Dewitz said of the six employees who remain in limbo among the 11 refugees whom she employs.

“At that time, there were no fixed processes,’’ regarding how to employ the newly arrived migrants, she said, ‘‘but there was such a feeling in the whole of Germany, of integration, integration, ‘Let’s integrate!’ ”

Mr. Barry has challenged the rejection of his asylum status, and is waiting for a decision. For now, he says he will work as long as he can, even though holding a job makes it easier for the authorities to find him if they want to deport him one day.

Susanne Wegele knows that trauma firsthand. In early March, four federal police officers showed up and snapped handcuffs on Ebrima Gassama, also from Gambia, whom she and her husband had trained and employed at their book bindery in Neustadt, in western Germany.

Mr. Gassama, 25, had been working at the company since 2017, although his petition for asylum had also been rejected. He was marched off and driven directly to the airport, leaving behind his stunned colleagues and employers, Ms. Wegele said.

He was one of the more than 26,100 foreigners deported from Germany last year, up from 25,670 in 2017, part of a pledge by the country’s interior minister to ensure that illegal immigrants did not remain in the county.

Ms. Wegele has weekly contact with Mr. Gassama and says she hopes to identify a legal way for him to return to Germany, but for the time being, she has found no one to replace him.

“These are really basic jobs that nobody around here wants to do anymore,” she said. “The government ends up punishing German companies more than the migrants.”

The German economy has experienced steady growth and in April, the number of unemployed dipped below 5 percent, its lowest rate since 1991. Small and midsize companies, like Vaude, are particularly desperate for workers.

CreditGordon Welters for The New York Times

“We are really lacking in laborers, in the production sector, in the care sector, in gastronomy. There is a huge lack,” Ms. von Dewitz said. “At first I thought it was just a problem in this region, but it’s across Germany.”

Last month, the German Parliament passed a law to make it easier for companies to hire skilled workers from outside the European Union. It includes provisions to extend the right to stay to migrants in situations similar to Mr. Barry’s and Mr. Gassama’s, if they meet specific criteria.

But the law, which takes effect in January, is also laden with hurdles to prevent migrants from using the asylum system as a backdoor to enter the German labor market.

Those measures were intended to hold off challenges from opposition parties, including the nationalist Alternative for Germany, which has gained voters as it portrays migrants as a drain on German resources and prosperity.

“The law is very influenced by the underlying fear the system will be abused,” said Mr. Terton, who is responsible for helping businesses in Berlin integrate refugees into jobs. “There is always a fear that people want to come just to live off the German social welfare system.”

That fear has frustrated employers such as Ms. von Dewitz, who complain that the new legislation fails to fully address the problems they face in trying to hold on to migrants in their work force.

She estimated that Vaude would face losses of at least 247,000 euros, or about $275,000, if all of her threatened employees were to be deported. That figure does not include the additional costs of hiring and training replacements, even if she could find them.

The need for workers helped galvanize her company to take up initiatives to help integrate asylum seekers. She set up a sewing workshop for refugees to make totes from scraps left over from the production of bags and tents.

The totes became so successful that last year they were integrated into Vaude’s production line, and Noura Baterdouk, a 38-year-old mother of three who fled to Germany with her family, was hired full-time to sew them.

Because she is from Syria, Ms. Baterdouk has been granted the right to stay in the country and, unlike Mr. Barry, does not face the threat of deportation.

“Integration works,” Ms. von Dewitz said, citing the cases of both Mr. Barry and Ms. Baterdouk. “It’s unbelievably exhausting, but it functions, and I do think it has brought added value to our company.”

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