Dancing with fate – performance explores the plight of asylum seekers

Fear, hope, and frustration – the plight of an asylum seeker is not an easy one. But as Sally McGrane reports, a dance project at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport is hoping to show the human fates trapped in a bureaucratic limbo.

Dancing with fate - performance explores the plight of asylum seekers
Photo: Romulo Correa

In the first half of 2010, there were 15,579 applications for asylum in Germany, according the dry figures from the country’s Interior Ministry. Betraying nothing of the lives behind the numbers, the information is conveyed in impassive black and white.

But the lis:sanga dance company wants to put faces to the figures. Its upcoming performance, “PASS,” a production that explores the relationship between a person’s official status and deeper issues of identity, will take place in the transit area of Berlin’s former airport Tempelhof on August 27 – 29.

Statistics and charts outlining the complexities of an asylum seeker’s path in Germany will be presented in official documents included with the programme. But what happens on stage tells a story that the statistics can’t: The fear, frustration, hope, anger, and sorrow involved in waiting to see if an application for legal status will be accepted, rejected, or put on hold.

For many of the 50 dancers performing, this is not an abstract question. Among the diverse group, who range in age from five to 75, there are a number of asylum seekers, including some arriving in Germany as unaccompanied minors fleeing war zones.

Many of the dancers have experienced the immigration system’s bureaucracy from the inside, and the production draws, in large part, on their stories. Onstage, the dancers bring to life “the long wait,” as choreographer Lenah Strohmaier puts it, that asylum seekers and other immigrants undergo while their status – and fate – is determined.

Lis:sanga, which means ‘community’ in the Congolese language Lingalá, was founded by the Berlin-born Strohmaier four years ago. A classically trained dancer and choreographer, she had spent several years working in India and Africa.

In 2003, she taught dance for the Berlin Philharmonic project in which “problem children” learned to dance to Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring,’ filmed as the documentary “Rhythm Is It!” Strohmaier, who personally helps guide many of the young asylum seekers in the group through Germany’s bureaucratic jungle, started lis:sanga with dancers who had taken part in a dance, theatre and video production about war called “KRIEG” and who wanted to keep working together.

Since then, the group has struggled to find financing, but succeeded in staying together. “This is high-quality, serious art,” said Royston Maldoom, the British choreographer who, along with Sir Simon Rattle, led the Stravinsky project. “It’s not dilettantish, it’s not amateurish. At the same time, it’s about community. It’s art, and it’s social work.”

In a very hands-on way, lis:sanga deals with integration – a hot topic both in Germany and Europe as a whole. “It doesn’t matter what social status you have, here,” said Abra Kennedy, a 30 year-old Polish-Liberian who grew up in Berlin but held a Polish passport for much of her life. “We come here to dance. It doesn’t matter how old you are, where you’re from, what kind of car you drive, what you job is.”

The 20-year-old dancer Friedrich Pohl, who described his background as ‘totally German,’ said that dancing with lis:sanga and working on projects like PASS were important for him on many levels. While gaining an awareness of problems he might not otherwise encounter is one benefit, what he takes away from the experience is more personal.

“The question is not just ‘what is it like for these people?’” he said. “But, what kind of city do I live in? Who are we, actually? And what kind of place do we live?”

PASS will play August 27, 28, and 29 at 8:30 pm at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport

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What Germany’s plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

To tackle its ever-widening skills gap, Germany wants to encourage talent from aboard to move to the country by introducing a points-based immigration system. Here's what foreigners need to know about the changes.

What Germany's plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

What’s a points-based system?

A points-based system is an immigration model where foreigners have to score above a certain threshold of points in order to obtain a residence or work permit in a country. The exact scoring system is set by the government, but can include factors like language skills, family connections to the country, specific qualifications or work-related skills, or the amount of money in your bank account. 

Points-based systems can also be known as “merit-based systems”, because there tends to be a pretty big emphasis on what you can offer a country in terms of education or skills. 

The model was first introduced in Canada way back in 1967 as the country tried to move past a system based on race and nationality to one that favoured language fluency, youth and educational or vocational background. A similar step was taken in Australia just a few years later in 1972 and, since Brexit, the UK has also introduced its own points-based model. 

How does this relate to Germany?

When the new ‘traffic-light’ coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) took office last December, the parties pledged to reform Germany’s immigration system and bring a fresh cohort of workers into the country.

“In addition to the existing immigration law, we will establish a second pillar with the introduction of an opportunity card based on a points system to enable workers to gain controlled access to the German labour market in order to find a job,” the coalition agreement read.

This would apply to third-country nationals who don’t otherwise have the right to live and work in the country. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What Germany’s new government means for citizenship and naturalisation

German language course poster

A sign advertising German courses. Language skills can count towards points in a points-based system. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Bernd Wüstneck

FDP migration specialist Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch, who is working on these reforms, says the policy is driven by Germany’s desperate need for workers. 

“The Liberal Party (FDP) is convinced that we need more labour migration,” she told The Local. “We do have a lot of options for coming into Germany as a labour migrant – but it’s a bit complicated – and if you want to come to Germany to search for a job and you don’t come from an EU country, it’s much more difficult.”

That’s why the coalition is aiming to offer a second route for people who don’t have job lined up in Germany, but who otherwise have the skills or talent to find one. 

What will this look like?

The plans for the points-based system are still at an early stage, so the exact criteria haven’t been worked out yet.

What’s clear at this stage, however, is that the points-based option would run parallel to the current model, which generally permits people with a concrete job offer in a skilled profession to come and work in the country. 

“It’s about (people having) a good opportunity to come to Germany when they have either a job offer in sight or a direct job offer,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) said in response to parliamentary question in January. 

“Next to that, we want to achieve a further possibility for talent – for qualified men and women whose skills we need in Germany, who still don’t have a work contract but, if given access, could use that opportunity. That’s what we’re talking about with this Canadian points-based system. It shouldn’t replace our current system, but rather improve it.”

In short, that means that people with a job lined up won’t be disadvantaged – but there will be alternative routes for those without them. It also won’t affect the EU blue card scheme

READ ALSO: ‘I finally feel at home’: How Germany’s planned changes to citizenship laws affect foreigners

Will people need formal qualifications? 

Probably not – though it will obviously depend on the sector someone works in and their level of experience in their chosen field.

“I personally am convinced that you shouldn’t place too much emphasis on formal qualifications, because it’s very complicated getting your formal qualifications recognised in Germany,” said Jurisch.

“A medical doctor, for example, is one where you can’t say, ‘Okay, you’ve got some experience so we don’t need to see your papers.’ But there are a lot of other jobs which do not have this restriction and they are not formalised but rather based on practical experience.”

Carpenter wood

A carpenter sands down a block of wood in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

The issue of recognising qualifications is also a problem that the traffic-light coalition has set their sights on solving during their time in office.

At the moment, the process of getting qualifications officially recognised in Germany is done on a state-by-state basis, so somebody who gets their degree recognised in Brandenburg may have to redo the entire process again in Bavaria, for instance.

According to Jurisch, there have already been conversations between the Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education on the issue, and Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) has also promised to take steps to solve it.

But, she said, it’s complicated: “I’ve started to dive into this issue, and the more I dive into it, the more complicated it becomes – so there are no silver bullets.” 

How many workers are needed – and where? 

In order to plug its labour shortages, Germany needs around 400,000 new workers every year, according to the Federal Employment Agency. In 2020, Germany’s net migration was just 200,000 and 150,000 people of working age entered retirement – which means the country is currently falling well short of its targets. 

“We have shortages everywhere,” Jurisch said. “We need 400,000 new workers every year, and these people won’t be born in Germany – or if they are, they won’t grow up for another 20 years.

“We haven’t managed to get more women into the labour market, or they work part time, so I don’t think this will make a big difference, and I don’t think we will close the gap by training people.”

In this sense, it seems that immigration is the only option for filling major staff shortages in almost every profession. 

“Whoever I talk to, be it nurses, nannies, IT workers, industrial workers, teachers, lawyers – everywhere we have a shortage,” Jurisch said.

staff shortages Germany

A sign outside a restaurant informs customers of a closure due to staff shortages. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

When will the points-based system be introduced?

Unlike with the plans to reform citizenship, which the SDP-led Interior Ministry wants to achieve by the end of the year, there’s no firm timeline in place for the points-based system.

However, the FDP is fighting for the policy to be given higher priority and would like to introduce the new visa system before the next federal election in 2025. 

“I hope it will be done in this legislative period,” said Jurisch. “I’m pushing to get it a little bit higher up on the agenda.” 

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: ‘Changing German citizenship laws is a priority’