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How to do a voluntary social year in Germany

One way to spend time in Germany and get to know the local culture and language is to embark on what's known as a voluntary social year. Here's how to get started.

Voluntary Social Year participant
A young undertaking a voluntary social year with the German Red Cross. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Deutsches Rotes Kreuz in Hessen Volunta gGmbH | Dennis Moebus

Every year around 53,000 young people complete what’s known as a Voluntary Social Year (FJS) in Germany. It can be a great opportunity to learn new skills, improve your German and get a sense of direction in your career. Here’s what you need to know.

What is a Voluntary Social Year?

A Freiwilliges Soziales Jahr (FSJ), or voluntary social year, is a way for young people to find direction and contribute to society after leaving secondary school. It has its roots in Philadelphischer Dienst, a program set up in 1962 to provide young women with an alternative to the military service undertaken by the men. 

Generally, people doing an FSJ will choose a voluntary placement lasting anywhere between six and eighteen months. These placements can be immensely varied, but generally fall under the umbrella of the social sector, such as working in a care home, with refugees, in a hospital or with children from difficult family backgrounds.

READ ALSO: Germany struggling to fill tens of thousands of trainee jobs

Over the course of their placement, volunteers get a small allowance for food and transport known as “pocket money”, and sometimes also have access to accommodation or receive a bit of money towards their accommodation. They generally receive hands-on training from the institution they choose to do their FSJ with as well as being integrated into the culture and work life that exists there.

The hours you volunteer, as well as other aspects of the placement like the hours and remuneration, will generally be determined by the institution offering the placement. 

Who’s eligible to apply for one?

Generally, anyone under the age of 27 who has completed their final year of secondary school is eligible to apply for an FSJ – though different institutions may have different requirements. 

Both EU and non-EU citizens are permitted to apply, but it’s trickier for non-EU citizens as they will need to secure a visa that allows them to both live and work in Germany.

Meals on wheels in Germany

A volunteers brings food to the elderly. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Felix Kästle

Usually, the institution offering the placement will assist third-country nationals with their visa application. 

However, while EU students have an automatic right to live and work in Germany, they will have to prove they can support themselves for the duration of the placement – so it’s a good idea to build up some savings.

READ ALSO: The most expensive (and cheapest) cities in Germany to rent a room

How do I find a placement? 

Numerous online search portals are around to help connect potential volunteers with placement listings, while you can usually narrow sound by the sector you want to work in and the location.

A couple of examples of these are the website Ich will FSJ and Ein Jahr Freiwillig, where you can find numerous positions to apply for. It can help narrow it down if you know what kind of place you want to volunteer for and where in Germany you’d most like to live.

Once you’ve found your placement, you’ll need to send an application, which normally includes details or your school grades, a letter of motivation, and any relevant experience. Be sure to discuss the specific requirements for applications with the institution you want to apply to, as these can often vary from place to place. 


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How ‘tolerated’ migrants could soon gain residency rights in Germany

The Bundestag has passed a law that will see people with a 'tolerated stay' gain a new path to permanent residency in Germany. Here's some background on the controversial law - and what it means for migrants.

How 'tolerated' migrants could soon gain residency rights in Germany

What’s going on?

After a fierce exchange of blows between politicians from the governing traffic-light coalition and the CDU/CSU parties, the Bundestag passed their so-called “right of opportunity to stay” (Chancel-Aufenthaltsrecht) law on Friday.

In the parliamentary vote, 371 MPs from the traffic-light coalition parties – the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FPD) – voted in favour of the bill. A total of 226 parliamentarians voted against, including 157 CDU/CSU MPs, 66 MPs from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and three independents. 

Politicians from the left-wing Linke party, as well as a number of CDU/CSU MPs and three FDP MPs, were among the 57 who abstained. 

The law aims to provide a new path to residency for people who had lived in Germany on a ‘tolerated stay’ permit for at least five years by October 31st, 2022. This group will now be given 18 months to fulfil the criteria for permanent residency, which includes proving at least B1 German language skills and showing that they can financially support themselves. 

However, people who have committed crimes or given false information about their identity won’t have the opportunity to apply for a residence permit.  

READ ALSO: How Germany is planning new path to residency for migrants

What exactly is a ‘tolerated stay’?

A tolerated stay permit, or Duldung, is granted to people who are theoretically barred from staying in Germany but are, in practice, unable to leave. That could be due to their health, caring duties, the situation in their home country or a lack of identification papers. 

It’s estimated that around 136,600 people have been living in the country on this status for at least five years, including people who have sought asylum but whose applications have been turned down. 

Germany has historically dealt with these tricky situations by suspending deportation and instead offering a ‘Duldung’, which allows the person in question to stay for the time being. 

More recently, special statuses for migrants who end up in vocational training or work have been added, enabling some migrants to enter training or employment while living on a tolerated stay permit. 

However, the situation for many has remained precarious. Since tolerated status is meant to be temporary, authorities often end up issuing multiple permits over time, causing stress and uncertainty for migrants and additional paperwork for the state. 

How will life change for this group of people? 

For those who speak a bit of German and have a secure livelihood, things could become a lot easier in future. 

Those who have been here at least five years will be given an 18-month permit which will give them time to switch from a tenuous tolerated status to official permanent residency. In addition, people aged 27 or under and particularly well-integrated adults will be given this opportunity after just three years of residence.

This in turn would allow them to take up work or training, become self-employed, start a business and also claim social benefits.

Most importantly, they will have the security of knowing that they are allowed to remain in the country as long as they want to and will be able to show an official residence permit to employers, landlords and public authorities.

Woman protests against deportation Germany

A woman holds up a ‘Stop Deportation’ sign at a protest outside Berlin-Brandenburg airport. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

What’s more, they should also have an easier time when trying to reunite with close family members. 

However, some people could still slip through the net. According to official statistics, 242,000 people currently live in Germany on a tolerated status – meaning than more than 100,000 won’t be covered by the new law. And this will also be the case for people who end up with a Duldung in the future. 

Even among those who have been here for five years or longer, one key condition for permanent residency – proving their identity – could remain a major hurdle. However, the law does offer people a chance to get around this if they have taken “necessary and reasonable measures” to clarify their identity.

READ ALSO: How to get fast-track permanent residency rights in Germany

What has the response been to the new law?

Unsurprisingly, the governing SDP – who drafted the law – have argued that their approach will finally give people a humane route to staying in Germany on a permanent basis.

“We are ending the current practice of chain toleration,” said Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD), referring to the practice of giving multiple tolerated status notices over time. “In doing so, we are also putting an end to the uncertainty that often lasts for years for people who have long since become part of our society.”

Adis Ahmetovic, who grew up as a child as a ‘tolerated’ migrant, spoke in the Bundestag of his own difficulties and said he had even faced deportation orders. “It clearly didn’t work, because now I’m an elected MP,” he said, adding that the right of opportunity law was a move towards “fairness, participation, recognition and respect”.

However, not everyone has been positive about the change, with the CDU and CSU parties in particular speaking out against it. Deputy parliamentary party leader Andrea Lindholz (CSU) told the government it would be better to focus “on those who are really entitled to protection”.

CDU Andrea Lindholz

CDU deputy parliamentary leader Andrea Lindholz speaks out against the “right of opportunity” law in the Bundestag. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

For well-integrated long-term tolerated migrants, there are already enough exceptions and pragmatic solutions, she added. 

Axel Ströhlein, president of the Bavarian State Office for Asylum and Repatriation, also criticised the fact that the path to residency would only apply to people who had already been deemed ineligible for asylum or protection from deportation. He said the new regulation would undermine the meaning and purpose of the right to asylum and could send the signal that a lack of cooperation is worthwhile and leads to a residence title.

Others, however, welcomed the change but said it didn’t go far enough.

Kristian Garthus-Niegel of the Saxon Refugee Council had spoken out in support of the Linke’s proposed amendment to effectively end the ‘tolerated’ status by removing the cut-off date for long-term residence specified in the law. This amendment was rejected in the Bundestag. 

READ ALSO: ‘Dangerous and wrong’: Why German MPs are clashing over citizenship plans

Are there any other important changes to know about? 

Yes. Skilled workers who come to Germany will also have an easier time bringing their family over in future as the government has permanently waived language requirements for spouses of highly qualified workers. 

In addition, they want to make language and integration courses far more widely available and speed up the process of applying for asylum in future. 

People who have committed crimes or who are considered dangerous, on the other hand, will be removed from the country more easily and swiftly.