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INTERVIEW: Why newcomers in Germany have a hard time getting started

Many foreigners are struggling to tackle bureaucracy and find a place to live when they move to German cities. The Local's Germany in Focus podcast spoke to an expert who works with international residents to find out why things are so bad at the moment.

A sign for the immigration office and public order office in Frankfurt.
A sign for the immigration office and public order office in Frankfurt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

Kathleen Parker, who’s originally from Queensland, Australia, has been helping international residents get settled in Germany since 2012 through her business Red Tape Translation.

But she says coming to the Bundesrepublik as a foreigner has actually gotten “harder and not easier” over the past decade.

“When I started [my work], apartments were still available,” Parker told The Local’s Germany in Focus podcast.  “You could still walk into public offices and get things done without having an appointment months in advance. Costs were lower and I also don’t think digitalisation has progressed much in the last 10 years.”

Parker’s observations come on the heels of a recently published InterNations survey, which ranked Germany as the most difficult country for fresh arrivals, primarily due to lack of affordable housing, unyielding bureaucracy and limited digital infrastructure. 

READ ALSO: Germany ranked ‘most difficult country’ for foreign residents to get started

Survey respondents also said it’s particularly hard to get by in Germany without speaking the language. Parker can vouch for this, as she frequently accompanies newcomers to places like the Ausländerbehörde (foreigner’s office) to interpret for them.

‘Finding housing is hard’

Yet finding housing is the number one challenge Parker sees facing newly arrived international residents.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a single high-earner or a freelancer or family,” said Parker. “It’s just hard.”

She gave the example of one Indian family she knows in Berlin who have been searching for long-term housing for almost a year, meaning that “they’ve been jumping from one temporary unfurnished apartment to the next”.

She also sees internationals struggling with long, seemingly unending waiting times for residency permits. She gave the example of a South Korean freelancer who had to make eight visits before getting her Aufenthaltstitel was approved, or an American student who finished her course of study before she could renew her student visa. 

PODCAST: Is Germany really one of the hardest countries to start a new life in?

Immigration office Berlin

People wait outside of an immigration office in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Britta Pedersen

The slow processing times can be partially attributed to the many people moving to Germany in recent months, said Parker, either by necessity or choice.

“There are just more people and fewer staff: that’s the biggest crisis that’s happening all over Germany.”

READ ALSO: ‘Traumatising’: Foreign residents share stories from German immigration offices

Parker suggested that one reason for too few staff is that the job of a caseworker in German bureaucratic offices is stressful and may not be well paid. 

The position also tends to have a high turnover rate, meaning one foreigner could go through a couple caseworkers before getting their application processed.

‘Moments of beauty’

Despite these bureaucratic challenges, Parker says that she’s seen several “moments of beauty”.

“I think the treatment depends on the individual caseworker and how overloaded they are with work themselves,” she added.

Within 24 hours in the last week Parker told the Germany in Focus podcast that she saw two positive experiences at the immigration office in Berlin.

In one, “a caseworker went out of their way to make sure the applicant was addressed with their preferred pronouns despite what appeared on their passport”.

In another, “there was a caseworker in training that showed compassion to a client I took – they really made an effort to help her”.

There’s also a glimmer of hope on a broader scale: Germany is currently mulling legislation to make it easier for skilled workers to come to the country, even with no to little German, and more easily recognise foreign credentials. 

“It’s getting easier to get your qualifications recognised so you can be seen as a skilled worker in Germany,” said Parker. “But Germany’s still not great at recognising skills if they’re not on a piece of paper with a stamp on it.”

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How Germany is partnering with Brazil to recruit more skilled workers

Germany needs more care workers - and in Brazil, one in ten care workers is unemployed. With this in mind, German Labour Minister Heil and Brazilian Labour Minister Luiz Marinho signed a declaration of intent for "fair immigration" to promote the exchange of skilled workers.

How Germany is partnering with Brazil to recruit more skilled workers

As part of an effort to attract more skilled workers from non-EU countries to the German labour market, Germany and Brazil signed a declaration of intent for “fair immigration” on Monday. 

“I am pleased that we will intensify the partnership between Brazil and the Germany in the future,” said Heil.

Heil, who is travelling through South America for several days with Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, signed the declaration together with Marinho in Brazil’s capital of Brasilia. 

The aim is to “create fair and simplified structures to promote the mutual exchange of skilled workers”, it stated.

The main focus is on nursing, a field in which Germany faces a growing shortage. According to the German Hospital Association, there were around 14,000 vacant positions for nursing staff in clinics around Germany in 2021, with an additional 8.000 vacancies in intensive care units.

Currently, “more opportunities are being created in Brazil to train future caregivers especially for the German labour market”, he said. 

READ ALSO: REVEALED: The German industries most desperate for skilled workers

Part of larger push to recruit skilled workers

It is “important to him that everyone benefits when it comes to the immigration of skilled workers”, Heil explained. 

According to the professional association Cofen, there are 2.5 million nurses in Brazil. But the unemployment rate in the sector hovered above 10 percent in 2021.

The recruitment of Brazilian skilled workers is part of a larger push to issue significantly more visas for foreign workers in the future. Last year, barely 100,000 skilled workers from non-EU countries came to Germany. “That is not enough,” Baerbock and Heil wrote in a statement.

The government therefore wants to reduce bureaucracy and make it easier for the families of skilled workers to join them. In order to do this, Germany’s Office for Foreign Affairs “will process four times as many visas for skilled workers by the end of 2024 as it does now”.

Brazil is the only country in the region that Germany has had a strategic partnership with since 2008. South America’s largest country is also Germany’s most important trading partner in the region. 

According to Heil, there are currently up to 200 Brazilian nursing staff working in Germany.

READ ALSO: ‘We’ve made a community’: Who are the Brazilians in Germany and where do they live?

‘Sensitive issue’

Heil called the recruitment of nurses a “sensitive issue”. According to the rules of the World Health Organisation (WHO), countries with too few nursing staff should not be deprived of them. 

However, he said, if we cooperate better and establish fair rules, “including for fair migration, then it is in our mutual interest”. 

In the past, there were far too bureaucratic procedures and off-putting immigration laws, he added.


Fair immigration – (die) faire Einwanderung

Exchange of skilled workers – (der) Fachkräfteaustausch

nurses/caregivers – (die) Pflegekraft

ease/simplify – erleichtern

We’re aiming to help our readers improve their German by translating vocabulary from some of our news stories. Did you find this article useful? Let us know.