Notes from Berlin: Reflections on Germany’s Refugee Integration Challenge
By Nikki Cicerani
Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of presenting at the Innovations in Migration Conference in Berlin, Germany. The conference was part of the larger Hello Festival and aimed to bring together social entrepreneurs from around the world with 400 German innovators, employers, social service organizations, funders, and policymakers to collaborate on solutions for integrating refugees. Upwardly Global was one of 13 global organizations invited to present, and the only one focused on labor market integration. Perhaps not surprisingly then, our presentation was standing room only.
Germany, a country of 80 million, has taken in an estimated 1.1 million refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere who are on the move as a result of the growing crisis in the Middle East. The country will likely take in another million this year. The news is dominated by this issue. The majority of German citizens are responding with open arms and a cautiously open mind. However, the German system that addresses migrants and labor market participation seems to be audibly creaking under the pressure. It just wasn’t built for these numbers or needs.
Over five days we met individually with interested local social entrepreneurs, government officials, talent professionals from German companies, and average German citizens, and we made a visit to a refugee “camp” in a neighborhood of Berlin.
What I learned.
Germany has a very well thought out and intentional labor market system that was not built to support the 1.1 million refugees it just inherited.
Higher education and skilled vocational training is very highly valued in Germany (and free); there are 360 standard apprenticeships that provide vocational training for careers that do not necessarily require a university degree; and German language is the language of business. The refugees who arrived in the last year overwhelmingly do not speak German; in many cases they lack the residency status required to enroll in university; they are too old for the apprenticeships; and most are driven by an urgent need to make money to send home to families and can’t see a way through years without pay while they gain higher education or complete an apprenticeship.
The migration system is backlogged and isn’t keeping pace with refugees’ need to find work. The average time for refugees to get legal status is five to seven months. While some may find employers willing to sponsor them while their cases are being processed, most are waiting, and getting increasingly frustrated by their inability to work and earn.
Of course, refugees don’t flee their countries under duress with a long-term career plan in place. The same is true for countries that respond generously to refugee flight. Germany has taken a commendable “book it, then work it” approach–welcoming refugees while working to figure out a long-term solution.
What I saw.
The country has responded. The average citizen is involved — inviting refugees to sleep at their homes, starting up initiatives to help with jobs, or volunteering to teach German language. But there are so many initiatives and each one is so new. In five days we met no fewer than 10 organizations, all started in the last few months, that provide some form of job search and placement support. A recent SSIR article reports 77 refugee tech training and support initiatives already started in the country. There is overlap in program offerings and strategies, and refugees seem to lack awareness of or access to these services. These small start-up enterprises are largely unaware that similar organizations exist. One can see already the potential in joint efforts, but there is no player today — neither a funder nor lead organization nor government entity — bringing the field together and helping to professionalize or scale the energy and efforts of these nascent initiatives.
What we already know.
Integration is hard. It takes change on both sides. Success stories build confidence that integration is possible, and keep people motivated.
And yet the path to success is paved with disappointments, and for those who wish to see it fail it’s easy to spot what’s not working. I heard stories of refugees being placed in jobs that they quit shortly after and the disappointment from Germans with that outcome, and the doubt it creates. The refugees have many more psychological and emotional issues than the average migrant, so it will not be enough for organizations to hand over a polished resume and set up an interview for an internship. Refugees will need trusted guides that work with them on acculturation, the subtleties of workplace communication, and to help them gain the emotional readiness to take on a job. Existing government employment service agencies haven’t worked with refugees, and are not set up yet to provide this kind of support. In fact, they are just discovering refugees’ needs. It’s all new.
What I realized.
Upwardly Global is ahead of much of the world in thinking about immigrant labor market integration — and this has become an urgent issue in Germany, Turkey and other countries. We have already embraced three things that will be critical for Germany to implement:
· Professionalization and smart, effective use of technology to scale services. In the year we embraced a technology back end for our work, we increased efficiency 40%. In the year we embraced online learning, we increased our reach and impact by 40%.
· Partnering. Two years ago an organization in Idaho started using the UpGlo model. Today in many of our cities we are approaching partners to use the platform we have built to serve their immigrant communities of workers. This gives us better and richer data, broader talent pools with which to serve employer need, and a cohesive community that can advocate for institutional changes.
· Working with a systems change perspective. Making a market for talent means you have to work on both ends — helping the worker learn and adapt as needed, but also helping the system understand how it needs to change and respond as a result. Starting with two-way change in mind will help countries to initiate and scale programs that support real, sustainable change.
Why any of it matters.
There was a video that kicked off the conference. They interviewed several refugees: a dad, a set of young siblings, mostly twenty-something men. They asked the interviewees silly questions and important ones, from “What is funny about German language?” to “What do you miss most about home?” A young man of perhaps 21 or 22 years went from laughing and sharing his observations about German culture to reflecting on what was lost. And behind tearful eyes and a strained voice he looked away and eventually managed to get out the words, “my mother.”
The word “Refugee” can make us think of them as a monolithic group and “1.1 million” as a number that lives only in headlines and policy text. But each and every refugee is a real person. These are 1.1 million people seeking safety and a sense of normalcy far from home and loved ones they may never see again.
The very best thing we can give each of them is meaning in their lives, and I’ve never known anything to give a man or woman a sense of purpose like a good job. What we do here in the U.S. and in Germany to help all our people work, it’s one of the best things we can do for each other and our countries.
Nikki Cicerani is the President and CEO of Upwardly Global.