"I Want to Work"

An immigrant's impossible dream

Bujar Bakalli is exactly the kind of immigrant Germany would like to have--at least in theory. The Kosovar Albanian is motivated, has years of experience as an electrician, and speaks German. For his three children, one of whom was born here, Berlin is home. They do not remember Kosovo, he says. Their German is better than their Albanian.

But like most refugees and asylum-seekers in Germany, Bakalli is on the dole. He spends his days exercising, fighting endless bureaucracy, and visiting his neighbors in their refugee dormitory in Berlin's eastern reaches. "My best years have been lost," he says. "I was 32 when I came, and I've spent eight years here. It has ruined me. I want to work, legally, with all the papers. I want to pay taxes. But I am not allowed to."

Bakalli's plight shows how Germany's generous welfare system encourages foreigners to stay even as refugee laws condemn them to corrosive inactivity. Legally, Bakalli is not barred from working. Late last year, amid complaints that the more than 50,000 asylum-seekers and refugees arriving in Germany annually were costing taxpayers too much money, the government passed a law allowing those who have been in Germany for at least one year to work. But another legal provision makes it next to impossible for them to land jobs. Before the local labor office approves a job placement, it must be convinced that there is no unemployed German resident foreigner or European Union citizen who could fill the position. With unemployment well over 9% and rising, refugees like Bakalli have little hope of working in Germany. "These people could do good work here, but nobody even asks them what job they had before," says Georg Classen, spokesman for the Berlin Refugee Council.

Bakalli, with anxious dark eyes and a shock of black hair, looks older than his 40 years. He chain-smokes Marlboros as he describes how he brought his family to Germany in 1993, three years after the Serbian regime forced him out of his electrician's job back home. In Berlin, they were welcomed into the welfare society: The family got a room in a residence, generous health benefits, and money for food and other necessities. But as much as he appreciates the support, Bakalli says he no longer wants it: "Why should I wait for benefits when I could work?"

But according to the local unemployment office, there are some 500,000 unemployed people in Berlin and the surrounding state of Brandenburg and only about 15,000 job openings each month. "In 99.9% of [refugee] cases, because of the high number of unemployed people, we cannot offer a work permit," says Achim Tubbicke, an employee at a branch of the unemployment office in the Berlin neighborhood of Spandau. Bakalli says he is not particular--he would just like to work. But he recalls what happened the last time he applied for a work permit: "There was one job I found through friends," he says. "The boss was a foreigner, too. He filled out the papers, and I sent them to the unemployment office. Then they sent [the boss] German workers!"

NO EXIT. Refugees who land in western Germany may find it easier to get on their feet. In Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, where the economy is much stronger than in Berlin or other parts of the east, up to half the eligible refugees and asylum-seekers are legally employed, estimates Classen. Most refugees in those areas are employed in the hospitality sector or work for cleaning firms. But travel restrictions--neither refugees nor asylum-seekers may travel outside their area of residence without special permission--mean that those living in other parts of Germany can't grab these opportunities.

Immigration is a touchy subject for Germany. Before the September 11 attacks, a new immigration law--the country's first--had been scheduled for ratification this fall. It would allow at least 50,000 skilled foreign workers into the country as well as re-examine existing rules for foreigners, including asylum-seekers and refugees. Since then, though, the government's focus has radically shifted to security, and it remains to be seen how this new concern will affect residents such as Bakalli and his family.

Bakalli is worried. The last time he went to renew the family's residence permit, they were only given a month. But he is hopeful that they will be permitted to stay. He recently applied for a work permit for a construction job. With no job and no home to go back to in Kosovo, Bakalli believes that his future, and that of his children, is in Germany.

By Alisa Roth in Berlin

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