Ukrainians skip Germany's refugee bureaucracy hurdles

Children’s drawing posted on a wall at Terminal C of the former Tegel airport, where 2500 Ukrainian refugees are currently housed in Berlin, Germany. April 25, 2023

Children’s drawing posted on a wall at Terminal C of the former Tegel airport, where 2500 Ukrainian refugees are currently housed in Berlin, Germany. April 25, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sadiya Ansari

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‘Selective solidarity’ as Ukrainians get preferential treatment creating two-tier system

This story is part of a special series on the EU's response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis and the two-tier system it created: Europe's asylum paradox 

  • Germany went beyond legal requirements to help Ukrianians
  • Most Ukrainians in Germnay find private housing
  • Refugee advocates say refugees should be treated equally

Joshua Haider gave up his Pakistani citizenship in 2019 to become a Ukrainian national and settle in the country where he had studied medicine.

He was looking forward to his wife and daughter joining him.

"I was completely firm that my whole family will come to Ukraine," said Haider.

Then Russia invaded and Haider became one of just over a million Ukrainians who fled to Germany after the Russian invasion in February 2022.

This is a similar number to the 1.2 million people, mainly Syrians, the U.N. refugee agency says arrived in Germany between 2014 and 2016 while the country had an open border policy.

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Go DeeperDenmark's 'zero asylum' policy reversed for Ukraine
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Go DeeperFast track for Ukrainians, slow train for other refugees in Italy

But unlike then, the European Union responded to the influx of Ukrainians by invoking its Temporary Protection Directive for the first time since creating it in 2001.

Germany, like other EU states, went beyond the directive's requirements and gave Ukrainians rights to housing, employment, education and welfare similar to its own citizens.

The quick application of temporary protection helped Ukrainians integrate faster and eased the burden on the state compared to the asylum process, migration lawyers, counsellors, experts and advocates told Context.

However, refugees seeking asylum in Germany from other countries have to navigate a bureaucratic process that gives priority and some rights, like the ability to work, to people with a good chance of having their claim approved, such as Syrians and Afghans.

Ruth Billen, who advises both Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers at the Refugee Law Clinic in Berlin, supports the entitlements temporary protection provides, but would also like to see asylum seekers have the same rights.

"It's a very selective solidarity," she said.

Housing crisis

After fleeing Ukraine, Haider arrived first in Berlin, but was then sent to Stuttgart, as authorities dispersed Ukrainians across the country.

Haider wanted to return to Ukraine, but as the war dragged on, he realised he needed a plan B. He bounced around a few cities in Germany, then got in touch with Pakistanis he knew in Berlin who found him a flat in April last year.

But the two-room apartment Haider shared with three other men only got more cramped when he brought his wife and daughter from Pakistan in September. Then in January this year, a priest helped the family find an affordable flat.

Most Ukrainians in Germany have managed to find private housing - 74%, according to a representative survey led by the Federal Institute for Population Research (BiB).

By contrast, asylum seekers are assigned places in state-run accommodation centres where they have to live while their application is processed. The average processing time last year was seven-and-a-half months, Federal Office for Migration and Refugees said.

In Berlin, where many refugees want to live because of family ties or support networks, state-run centres are at capacity, housing 32,000 people. Berlin authorities responded in January by allowing asylum seekers to stay in private housing in the city.

While it is notoriously hard for anyone to find housing in Berlin, insecure residency status puts asylum seekers "in a very poor position", said Martina Mauer, coordinator at the Berlin Refugee Council.

Mariam Arween arrived from Afghanistan in January 2022, but is still looking for a private flat, even after receiving a residence permit a year ago.

The activist was living with her husband and two daughters in state accommodation in Berlin where they had a private bathroom and kitchen. But she said they were given 24 hours to move out when the war in Ukraine broke out as authorities tried to consolidate housing for fleeing Ukrainians.

"We became the second category of refugee," said Arween.

She is now in shared state-run accommodation and has been looking for a private flat for more than a year.

While thousands of Germans opened up their homes to Ukrainians, as the conflict dragged on, many of the guests had to move out, some ending up in state accommodation alongside asylum seekers.

Of the 60,000 Ukrainian refugees in Berlin, 4,000 are in state accommodation in the capital, Berlin's State Office for Refugee Affairs said.

The housing shortage has also pushed Ukrainians back into emergency accommodation, such as at Berlin's Tegel airport, which was closed in 2020. There are 2,500 people living in what was Terminal C and in heated industrial marquees outside.

Curtains act as entrances to "rooms", and while there are dividers, there is no way to block out sound. Washrooms and eating areas are communal.

"It's a shame for Berlin," Mauer said.

Inside former airport Tegel, baggage claim at Terminal C now serves as a welcome area for incoming Ukrainian refugees in Berlin, Germany. April 25, 2023

Inside former airport Tegel, baggage claim at Terminal C now serves as a welcome area for incoming Ukrainian refugees in Berlin, Germany. April 25, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sadiya Ansari

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Employment prospects

According to the latest figures, at the end of September last year, just over 145,000 of the 1 million Ukrainians in Germany were working, more than half in full-time jobs. Around a third of Ukrainian refugees in Germany are children.

Many are prioritising learning German to improve their job prospects. The Bib survey data showed only about 4% said they had a good grasp of the language.

"What we observed from data is the majority of those who work, they work in qualified jobs and these jobs by far require German," said Yuliya Kosyakova, a senior researcher at the federal Institute for Employment Research.

For asylum seekers, their country of origin and therefore their chance of being able to stay in Germany are all important.

Those factors determine whether they have the right to work and can access official integration courses to learn German and gain the necessary certificates to apply for permanent settlement.

Ahmad, who declined to give his real name, arrived from the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif a year ago, applying for asylum as a member of the Hazara ethnic and religious minority that is often persecuted by the ruling Taliban.

The 28-year-old was keen to learn German and take integration courses. But it took six months to get permission to enrol on an integration course and he is still waiting for a place.

Meanwhile, Ahmad received permission to stay for a year instead of full asylum. He feels under pressure to prove he can build a life in Germany, while living with the fear of being sent back.

"I cannot accept to live under the shadow of a terrorist group," he said, referring to the Taliban government.

Learning from 2015

While both temporary protection and asylum, once granted, are time-limited rights to residency, the protracted nature of conflicts, like in Syria, means destination countries must prepare for refugees staying longer.

Part of the motivation for Germany's application of temporary protection to Ukrainians was a result of the mass migration in 2015, said Constantin Hruschka, a legal expert at the Max Planck Institute in Munich.

Germany wanted to avoid the mistakes of 2015 that hindered refugees' prospects, like barring them from some training programmes.

Temporary protection has eased the administrative burden of accessing training and benefits, said Billen from the Berlin Refugee Law Clinic.

"You have to go to so many different authorities and you have to fight for any single right you want to have as an asylum seeker," she said.

The blanket rights applied to so many Ukrainians through temporary protection, she said, had undermined the EU argument that granting such rights to asylum seekers would overwhelm the social security system.

"It's not about being able to, but wanting to," she said.

This article was reported with the support of Journalismfund Europe.

This article was amended on June 6, 2022, to protect an interviewee's anonymity.

(Reporting by Sadiya Ansari; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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Families fleeing the Russian attack on Ukraine arrive at a temporary refugee shelter in Hanau, Germany, March 2, 2023. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Part of:

Europe's asylum paradox

This story is a special series, supported by Journalismfund Europe, looking into the unprecedented use of the European Union's Temporary Protection Directive

Updated: May 22, 2023


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