Germany Is Experiencing a Mass Worker Shortage. Can Migration Fix It?


Sipping Turkish black tea outside the doner shop he runs in the Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg, Faruk Can reflect on the many new faces he’d noticed in the area. 

“There is still a lot of regular and even irregular migration to Germany from Turkey,” he said. “Every week I bump into 10 to 20 Turks who ask me about how they can relocate here.” 

Turks have long been the biggest minority group in Germany, having first come to the country as guest workers through programs established in the 1950s. But they are nowadays just one small part of an enormous inflow of migrants to Germany, which accelerated significantly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The influx has strained social systems and reignited longstanding debates over integration and border policy – even as the country is grappling with an acute shortage of working-age people. 

Chancellor Olaf Scholz is trying to split the difference: taking a hardline stance against irregular migration while also trying to entice highly-qualified foreigners to come work in Germany. 

About 320,000 more people will reach retirement age this year than become adults, meaning the German economy will lose workers while also having to pay more for pensions. Labor Minister Hubertus Heil told lawmakers in April that the economy will be missing up to 7 million workers by 2035 – roughly the population of Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich combined. In response, Scholz’s governing coalition has said it wants to attract 400,000 qualified workers from abroad each year.

At the same time, the country is struggling to deal with the roughly 1.25 million people who came to Germany in 2022 – about 1 million from Ukraine, according to the interior ministry, and almost 245,000 asylum seekers, mainly from Afghanistan and Syria. Local officials have warned that many schools are at capacity, and that there isn’t enough housing to accommodate them. 

Hanging over this debate is the shadow of 2015-16, when more than a million people, mainly Syrians fleeing civil war, applied for asylum in Germany. Without a coherent immigration policy in place, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel kept the borders open to many of them, earning respect abroad while also provoking anti-government protests and the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany, which calls for a migration system that “protects” Germany’s cultural identity. 

Merkel’s dilemma now seems to be playing out again. Scholz and his coalition have come under fire for proposals that would shorten the time applicants must live in Germany before applying for citizenship, loosen German-language requirements for applicants and allow people to retain multiple passports. On Wednesday, he announced that an additional €1 billion ($1.1 billion) in funding for the housing and integration of asylum seekers would be accompanied by stricter measures to arrest and deport migrants who had entered the country illegally, or whose asylum request had been denied. 

Emergency Shelter Ukraine Set up at Frankfurt Trade Fair Exhibition Grounds
Elke Voitl, head of social affairs of the city of Frankfurt, center, at the Emergency Shelter Ukraine on Friday, March 11, 2022.
Photographer: Ben Kilb/Bloomberg

Unlike Merkel, Scholz’s government is trying to use pacts as the main tool to shape and steer migration, striking deals with partner countries such as India that would create legal pathways for workers to come to Germany — and binding rules for those countries to take back individuals slated to be deported.

Meanwhile, support for the AfD also has risen again in recent months, and in some polls, they’ve passed the Greens to become the country’s third most-popular party. 

Part of the debate comes down to integration, an issue Germany has had blinders on about for years. The country hasn’t collected data on race or ethnicity in official surveys since the end of World War II, making it difficult to track different groups’ employment odds or experiences in education. The first survey to look at Black people in Germany – estimated to number about one million – took place in 2020. The country now also officially distinguishes between residents with a migration background and those without – a level of detail that is relatively new, but is statistically imperfect as it lumps together diverse communities.

Nazmi Can come to Germany as a guest worker when he was 27. Now 80, he’s open about the discrimination he’s occasionally faced over five decades “in this foreign land.” Like many older Turks, he said he found it hard to live in Germany as a foreigner. But with all his friends and family nearby, Can has no plans to leave. “I will eventually go back in the baggage compartment of a plane,” he joked. 

On Sunday, Turkey goes to the polls in a crucial election that will determine the fate of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Waiting to cast his ballot at a polling station in Berlin, 43-year-old filmmaker Hakki Kurtulus said he encounters “racism and microaggressions on an almost daily basis.” But, he added, after 10 years of living in Germany, “I do have to say there is much worse racism back home in Turkey.”

Many other underprivileged refugees face more than microaggressions, such as discrimination and hate crimes. The number of attacks on refugee centers has increased in the past several years, and earlier this month, an office of a Senegalese-born SPD politician was firebombed in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. Integration into the German workforce has also proven tricky: according to the Federal Employment Agency, as of October 2022, more than 55 percent of Syrian refugees were receiving social welfare benefits. 

At the same time, there have been small positive developments: Agriculture Minister Cem Ozdemir is of Turkish descent, and 29-year-old Ryyan Alshebl became the first Syrian refugee to win elected office in Germany last month after winning the mayoral race in the town of Ostelsheim in Baden-Württemberg. But challenges remain, especially in terms of political representation and having their voices heard in the public sphere.

Within the Turkish community, integrating is often easier for the more recent arrivals, who tend to be more Westernized and better educated than their predecessors. One such is Alper Aksoy, a marine engineer who now works as a programmer. 

Standing in the main square of Kottbusser Tor right outside Faruk Can’s doner shop, Aksoy, who comes from a secular background, says he is much happier in Berlin. He is “comfortable enough” financially, and pouring a beer into a plastic cup, said he thoroughly enjoys “the perks of living in a free society.” 

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