Germany’s Migration About-Face Berlin Seeks to Recruit Skilled Labor from Africa
For years, many Germans were frightened by the idea of economic immigrants from Africa. Now, though, Berlin has begun to proactively recruit them. It is a drastic change from a history of skepticism.
17.03.2023, 16.06 Uhr
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It’s Friday, and Friday is officially colorful-shirt day in Ghana. All employees at the migration center participate, donning pink tops with a beige-red-and-white pattern, the “GIZ” inscription slightly hidden. It’s just a tiny bit of self-promotion for the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), which runs the facility. The colorful shirts are a political statement: For the last 20 years, thanks to a government initiative, Ghanaians have been celebrating their African roots every Friday. And the weekly event helps out the local textile industry as well.
Yet even as the migration center staff members are celebrating the merits of Ghana, most of those visiting the center have an entirely different priority: Getting out of the country. To Germany.
The Ghanaian branch of the European Center for Jobs, Migration and Development is likely the best place possible to appreciate the 180-degree shift that Germany’s immigration policy has recently undergone. The center has existed since 2017, and until February 2023, the message has always been: “Why not try your luck here in Ghana? Migration to Europe can be risky.” Furthermore, targeted offers were intended to make it easier for Ghanaians already in Germany to return to their home country.
German Development Minister Svenja Schulze in Ghana Foto: Christophe Gateau / dpa
That message, though, changed earlier this month. And to make the new approach clear, two ministers from Germany flew to the West African country: Development Minister Svenja Schulze and Labor Minister Hubertus Heil. They toured the migration center, including the small consultation rooms and the open atrium. Afterward, Heil said that it was time to pull out all the stops to attract skilled workers. Development Minister Schulze, meanwhile, gushed about the “enormous potential” of migration. Together, the two struck a vastly new tone in German immigration policy – at least when it comes to Africa.
Michael Kwaku Yeboah is sitting at his desk – also dressed in the colorful GIZ Friday shirt – with two mobile phones in front of him. Every few seconds, the displays light up with new calls and messages. “It’s been like this for a few days,” says Yeboah, a serious man who has been working here since 2017. Germany’s new openness is quickly making the rounds.
Career adviser Kwaku Yeboah in his office at the German migration center Foto: Nana Kofi Acquah / DER SPIEGEL
Yeboah no longer has to try to encourage clients to stay in Ghana. Now, Germany suddenly wants them. Foto: Nana Kofi Acquah / DER SPIEGEL
Yeboah spent the last four years telling visitors to his office that Ghana offers so many opportunities and that the country really needed people like them. They could start a company, he told them. He would also provide them with information on legal paths to Europe, but it was all “reactive,” as they describe it here – in response to concrete queries. And there wasn’t all that much to offer. A stay as an au-pair perhaps? Or maybe a course of study at a German university – as long as the applicant had 11,000 euros in their account, as mandated by the German government. That, though, was generally the extent of it.
Then the career advisor leans back in his office chair, glances briefly at a mobile phone that has again lit up, and says: “I am really happy with this new approach.” It had become increasingly difficult for him to give the people of Ghana any hope, he says. First, the corona pandemic paralyzed the economy, and then, the cost of living exploded last year, with inflation reaching dizzying heights. Protests materialized across the country. At the same time, Ghana is producing more and more university graduates each year, far in excess of what the labor market can absorb, and youth unemployment is high. Surveys indicate that a majority of young people in Ghana can imagine leaving the country.
Learn. Earn. Migrate: A billboard in Ghana advertises opportunities abroad. Foto: Nana Kofi Acquah / DER SPIEGEL
Thus far, Canada, Britain and the United States have tended to be at the top of the list, and there are often long lines of would-be emigrants in front of the embassies of these three countries. Canada, in particular, makes it easy for well-educated Ghanaians to obtain a visa and a work permit. Britain also specifically recruits healthcare specialists to fill the gaps in the country’s hospitals.
Germany’s focus, by contrast, has thus far been on discouraging people from coming. The combination of the phrase “economic migration” with “Africa” sends shudders of fear through broad swaths of the German political landscape. There has long been very little public attention paid to the potential of well-educated young men and women from countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and others.
Germany’s Skilled Immigration Act of March 2020 was designed to improve the situation. But in practice, the hurdles are still incredibly high, particularly when it comes to the complicated process of recognizing degrees and diplomas. The current coalition government under Chancellor Olaf Scholz now wants to improve the situation and make legal immigration easier. At the same time, the Development Ministry in Berlin has presented a new strategy for Africa, in which migration is presented as an opportunity and not as a frightening specter. And it is all to take shape in Ghana.
Michael Yeboah’s mobile phone rings yet again, from a number that has already called twice this morning. He picks up, and after just a few seconds, it becomes clear that the caller is already sitting outside his office in the waiting room. The office doesn’t actually have scheduled consultation hours on this Friday, but given the current rush, nobody is splitting hairs. Yeboah asks the woman to come into his small, sterile office furnished with a small table and three chairs. The advisor runs through his standard litany of questions: “What’s your name?” “What’s your background?” “Why do you want to go to Germany?”
Vida Akuyo, 40, read on the internet that the center is helping people get to Germany. She also found a video on the web, posted by a Portuguese businesswoman, in which she demonstrates her stucco skills. “I would love to learn that in Germany,” Akuyo says, adding that she currently works for a non-governmental organization, but doesn’t earn enough to support her life in Accra. She is willing to try to start over – with vocational training in Germany.
A German class at the Goethe Institute in Accra: Demand is high. Foto: Nana Kofi Acquah / DER SPIEGEL
Yeboah seems pleased. He writes everything down and then he gives her a few slips of paper with useful English-language websites that explain the application procedure and the necessary prerequisites. “I’ll go do my homework,” says Akuyo, before disappearing back into the oppressive heat of the capital. Perhaps she will be boarding a plane in a few weeks or months, prepared to help Germany solve its skilled-labor shortage.
Up on the second floor of the migration center sits Benjamin Wösten, a man with thick-rimmed glasses and a German mien. He weighs his words carefully. He isn’t allowed to discuss politics, but he does have plenty to say about the situation in Ghana, the large number of well-educated young people in the country, and the opportunity they represent for Germany. Wösten is the director of the center, and he has ambitious plans. He hopes to establish partnerships with employment agents, partnerships in the business world and educational campaigns about the new approach Germany is taking to migration.
Benjamin Wösten is head of the migration center. He wants to establish partnerships with recruitment agencies in the future. Foto: Nana Kofi Acquah / DER SPIEGEL
“Many Ghanaians have good chances at getting a job in Germany. But we also have to be realistic,” he says. “We won’t be able to focus exclusively on the skilled workers with the best training.” In other words, there will also be room for a woman from Ghana who wants to pursue vocational training to learn a trade. And if applicants don’t have what it takes to be granted a visa for Germany, the advisors will continue providing information about the job market in Ghana.
An hour outside of the capital Accra, in Ashaiman, the future of the German solar industry may well be secured. Seventeen young men and one young woman in green T-shirts are standing in front of a moveable wall covered with cables and plug-in sockets as an instructor tells them what must go where. The solar technician trainees will soon be completing the course, and they are looking for work. Bismark Ashiagbenu is visiting the facility on this day – a staff member of the German Chamber of Commerce in Ghana. He calls the trainees over to him and asks: “How many of you want to go to Germany?” All but three of them raise their hands. Only one of them has thus far found a job in Ghana. Tough times.
Participants in a solar training course run by the Catholic organization Don Bosco Foto: Nana Kofi Acquah / DER SPIEGEL
Godson Amamoo, a trainer at the solar center, has already completed an internship in Germany. Foto: Nana Kofi Acquah / DER SPIEGEL
The trainer, Godson Amamoo, has already been to Germany. The Chamber of Commerce organized an internship for him – two three-month stints at different solar companies in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg. He spent a winter installing solar panels on rooftops. “I had to wear four jackets on top of each other,” he says, smiling. “My coworkers were surprised at first that an African was just as well-trained as they were,” he recalls, adding that the prejudices vanished quickly. At the end of his internship, one of the companies offered him a job, starting immediately.
Christof Baum, head of the solar training center, is sitting at a wooden table in the middle of the room. In his broad, Swabian accent, he vents his exasperation over Germany’s migration policy. “Africa wasn’t even on the radar,” he says. And: “They completely slept on it. They only saw Africans as refugees, not as skilled workers.” Baum has been training solar technicians on the continent for several years on behalf of the Catholic organization Don Bosco. “My dream would be for most of them to spend a couple of years in Germany, where they could earn good money and gain experience, and then come back home at some point and build up something here,” he says.
Course leader Christof Baum says that politicians in Germany have reacted far too slowly to the skilled labor shortage in the country. Foto: Nana Kofi Acquah / DER SPIEGEL
At the moment, the course leader is trying to help two participants from last year’s group get to Germany. They already have job offers, but over the last four months, the process has been moving slowly. The recognition of their qualifications has not yet come through. “It’s a disaster,” says Baum. “They are badly needed in Germany, they can’t find work here, and it still doesn’t work. It’s nonsense.” According to a recent survey conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation think tank, such hurdles have meant that Germany’s reputation among skilled workers abroad has fallen even further.
But what about the situation in Africa and elsewhere in the global south – in the countries on which the skilled workers are turning their backs? Many criticize the situation as “brain drain,” but what does it actually mean for a country like Ghana when the majority of those who earn a diploma or degree want to leave their homeland? When so many talented young people leave the country year after year?
Derrydean Dadzie has just moved his company to new premises. Not exactly a Silicon Valley office space with floor-to-ceiling windows, beanbag chairs and ball pits, it’s more of a labyrinthine villa. In one room, there are two six-sided tables, each of which provides a workspace for three employees. “We’re still getting set up,” Dadzie says apologetically, before leading the way into his office – where there is at least a comfortable sofa and a refrigerator stocked with beer and soda.
Derrydean Dadzie’s IT company in Accra Foto: Nana Kofi Acquah / DER SPIEGEL
“We’re losing all of our good people,” says Dadzie. “We train them over the course of several years, and then they are wooed away by companies from abroad.” Foto: Nana Kofi Acquah / DER SPIEGEL
“We’re losing so many of our good people,” says Dadzie. “We train them over the course of several years, and then they are snatched away by companies from abroad.” At his former company, he says, two-thirds of the staff left for IT companies from foreign countries. Ghana is considered an IT stronghold in Africa, with numerous startups joined by foreign companies that have set up shop here. Ghanaian companies cannot compete with the salaries they pay. Their only chance is to recruit graduates fresh out of university and hope that they’ll remain loyal for a time.
He is growing increasingly concerned about Germany as well, says Dadzie. As proof, he opens WhatsApp on his gigantic screen and spontaneously calls a former employee of his. “He went to Germany; he received a good offer there,” Dadzie explains as it rings. Then, the man answers and talks about his new life in Bavaria, which has much more to offer him and his family than Ghana: a functioning healthcare system, good schools, intact infrastructure. He says he doesn’t have a bad conscience about leaving Ghana. Then Dadzie hangs up, shrugs his shoulders, and asks: “What can you do?” He then directs a plea to companies from abroad: Those who lure skilled workers out of Ghana should at least contribute to training them first.
That is precisely the approach of the German-Ghanaian recruitment agency getINNOtized. The company trains IT experts in Accra, with more than 3,000 people from Ghana having already attended its courses. Once they have finished, some of the newly skilled workers find jobs with German companies, which is how getINNOtized pays for its courses in Ghana. “Ultimately, everyone benefits,” says company founder Ulrich Busch. Just that the bureaucracy in German hasn’t yet gotten the message.