Asparagus harvest in Hesse, March 2020 Photo: A. Arnold/picture/alliance
Asparagus harvest in Hesse, March 2020 Photo: A. Arnold/picture/alliance

Because of the coronavirus crisis, foreign seasonal farmworkers cannot enter Germany right now. Could refugees and asylum seekers replace them? This is being debated among German politicians. According to the interior ministry, there are over 150,000 refugees looking for work.

Earlier this week, German Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner suggested that employment bans for asylum seekers should be relaxed to prevent a food supply crisis in Germany as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, the interior ministry has said that many refugees are already able to work under the current regulations.

According to a ministry spokesperson, more than 156,000 refugees were available for the job market as of late February.

In the statement released on Thursday, the spokesperson said that while the number refers to recognized refugees, it is also possible that asylum seekers can receive a job permit.

On Wednesday, the German government had closed the border to seasonal workers from eastern European countries. This leaves Germany potentially short of hundreds of thousands of workers needed for this year's harvesting and planting.

Wanted: 85,000 farm workers

Minister Klöckner said that Germany's agricultural sector was currently in need of 35,000 farm workers; and that by May, the number of required workers would more than double to 85,000.

According to Klöckner, more than 16,000 people, including asylum seekers, have already responded to online appeals for help in the medical and agricultural sectors.

"There is a great deal of willingness on the part of many people who are asylum seekers finally to be able to work here," she said.

On Thursday, the federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture launched the online job portal ("the country helps") to better match farmers with those who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Working despite employment ban

Following Wednesday's entry ban for seasonal workers, Klöckner said that Germany should change its laws so that asylum seekers with an employment ban could work in the agricultural sector.

When are asylum seekers banned from working? Usually only for a certain period of time, after they just got to Germany, when they are still staying in a community facility ("Gemeinschaftsunterkunft," or GU).

Asylum seekers from so-called safe countries of origin ("sichere Herkunftsstaaten") such as the Balkan states, though, are generally banned from working. But according to the interior ministry spokesperson, merely 11,000 asylum seekers from so-called safe countries are registered in Germany, and only close to 6,000 of them are of working age.

Reactions from the industry, politicians

The German Farmers' Federation (DBV) reacted rather reluctantly to Klöckner's suggestion.

While each "additional helping hand" was cordially welcome, DBV President Joachim Rukwied told the Protestant News Service (EPD), "we need our experienced and reliable seasonal workers from abroad who have come to us for years."

Green party member Filiz Polat said the possible lifting of the employment ban needed to be permanent.

"We cannot allow that those seeking protection who now help with the strawberry harvest also need to worry about getting deported," she told EPD. Polat called for a commitment to secure the right of residence "beyond the times of the corona crisis."

With material from EPD

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