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Could backlogs at Germany's foreigners' offices stifle skilled immigration?

The Local Germany
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Could backlogs at Germany's foreigners' offices stifle skilled immigration?
An application for a residence permit. Brits covered by the Withdrawal Agreement don't have to apply for permanent residency but simply declare that they have been here at least five years. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Wolfram Kastl

Germany’s foreigners’ offices are already struggling to keep up with residency permit applications from skilled workers, and in turn meet the needs of its growing labour shortage, according to a report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ).

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Germany's Ausländerbehörde (foreigners' offices) are already short staffed and overburdened, particularly with a growing number asylum and refugee applications, according to the FAZ.

This makes Germany's goal of bringing in more skilled workers from abroad - in part to address its growing labour shortage - all the more challenging.

How does Germany want to tackle its skilled worker shortage?

Germany’s coalition government is aiming to welcome 65,000 additional skilled workers from abroad per year through a reformed legal framework. Dubbed the Skilled Worker Immigration Act, it would make it easier for those with degrees or formal training to get their hands on a residency permit.

The new framework could drastically relax rules on the recognition of qualifications and the criteria for obtaining a blue card, as well as make it more attractive for international students to come to Germany.

The aim is to pave the way for a new generation of migrant workers in Germany who will boost the economy and pay into the social system.

READ ALSO: What’s in Germany’s new draft law on skilled immigration?

But some immigration authorities have questioned just how realistic this goal is in light of staff shortages and a high workload at all of Germany's offices that deal with immigrants, whether visa offices (Visastellen), employment agencies or foreigners' offices.

"We are going to have a problem getting the projected 65,000 skilled workers plus family members, we calculate about 100,000 people a year, into the administrative process," said Engelhard Mazanke, director of the Berlin State Office for Immigration at a recent hearing in the Bundestag. 

"We are already on the verge of dysfunctionality," he said, referring to the offices' limiting staffing combined with an increasing number of residence and work permit applications.

Why is Germany's worker population declining?

Due to more people from the Baby Boomer generation going into retirement, the labour market will lose up to about seven million people by 2035, according to the Institute for Employment Research (IAB).

According to the Federal Employment Agency, there would need to be a net immigration of 400,000 workers per year to the Bundesrepublik to compensate for demographic decline. 

But taking net immigration into account - or the total number of foreigners who stay in Germany - an even higher number of immigrants is needed to close the labour gap.

"We need 18 million immigrants by 2035,", IAB researcher Enzo Weber told the FAZ. 

In order to reach that demographic target, a total of 1.6 million people per year would need to come to Germany, reported IAB.

Weber's calculation is based on a model that he created with colleagues which, in addition to forecasts on demographics and labour force participation, concretely factors in of emigration. 

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Long waiting times for a residency permit

Yet while Germany aims to tackle this demographic decline, it does not yet have any concrete proposals to provide more assistance to overworked immigration offices, said Engelhard Mazanke.

Starting in spring 2024, when the Skilled Worker Immigration Act is set to come into effect, the immigration offices will have the mammoth task of checking and extending already-existing residence permits - limited to two years - for one million Ukrainians, said Mazanke. 

In addition, they will have to deal with a current backlog of asylum procedures, or 168,000 applications as of May 2023.

On top of this, there are average waiting times of three to four months for a residency permit at domestic immigration offices, while the waiting time abroad is often much longer.

People go in and out of the Ausländerbehörde in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / Kay Nietfeld/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

While workers from some third countries, such as the US, UK and South Korea, can enter Germany on a tourist visa, others from countries such as India or China are required to apply at their local consulates.

But it's not just getting foreigners set up with a work permit that's a challenge. Bettina Offer, an immigration lawyer in Frankfurt, told the FAZ that some Ausländer legally working in Germany face challenges to stay in the country simply because of long bureaucratic procedures. 

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One of her clients applied for the usual extension of her residence permit - but when the Ausländerbehörde couldn't process her application quickly enough, the deadline to remain in Germany expired.

In the end, the woman needed to wait eight hours at the office's Emergency Desk for a temporary document proving that she was not in Germany illegally. 

As long as such situations continue to be the norm, the planned law will be of little use, Offer said. 

"If it would give us 5,000 more immigrants a year, a lot would already have been achieved." 

But a total of 65,000 would be "absolutely unthinkable".

READ ALSO: Are Germany's immigration offices making international residents feel unwelcome?

Could a centralised immigration office help?

Meanwhile, the German Association of Districts warned against a current proposal to set up a central immigration authority - rather than continuing to rely on state and local offices -  for skilled workers in order to speed up procedures. 

They would then need even more administrative staff, which could only be poached from the already understaffed municipal foreigners' offices.

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So far, eight percent of the foreign population moves away every year; to close the gap, they too would have to be replaced on an ongoing basis.

Weber's analysis also suggests that if labour force participation could be increased and emigration reduced, this would reduce the need for immigration - and in turn the workload of the authorities.

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