Who are the precarious migrants in Berlin?
(Some of the the names in this piece are pseudonyms)
I meet with Tito in a café near Alexanderplatz, who self-identified as a self-employed social worker. “I have a legal background, and a good understanding of the social, family and work subsidies in Germany. I’m from South America, and I specialize in counselling migrants from Spanish speaking countries who are intimidated by the bureaucracy here.” People know to find Tito from word of mouth. He doesn’t have a website, and everything he does is underground. When I arrive at the café a few minutes before our scheduled meeting, I see the various bits of paraphernalia on the table that have become central to this work: various administrative forms scattered over the table (all in German), a calculator, a couple mugs of now lukewarm coffee, and a final under the table exchange of a 10 euro note before a cordial handshake with the customer, a “new Berliner” amongst so many others, who is just trying to better understand ‘the system’.
“The thing to understand here is that the rights to social subsidies for asylum seekers is totally different to those for other migrants who come here seeking work. This is of course because as an asylum seeker you don’t have the right to work until your status is decided, whereas if you are European, you don’t have immediate right to subsidies because you have the right to come to Berlin due to ‘freedom of circulation’ within the EU, so you can look for work right away. That means you can’t get subsidies, which can be difficult if you’ve just arrived and have to look for a job, learn the language and all.”
Andrea’s case explains this distinction well. Andrea is from Cadiz, South of Spain, one of the areas that was most affected by the 2008 financial crisis. Andrea is in her mid-40’s, and was a construction worker. “It’s a very macho sector, very difficult for women and there are not many women working in construction. But I loved it, and I was good at it. I ended up managing people, progressing up the ladder. But then the recession hit, and there was a construction freeze. So I lost my job, as did so many other people, So I stayed 5 years without a job. And one day I decided I needed to do something. I couldn’t stay there, with my son seeing his single mum unemployed like that. So I decided to go to Berlin. I literally saw a TV programme featuring Berlin, and it looked like a nice city. I borrowed money from my mother, and I bought my one-way ticket. That was about a year ago. In 6 days I found shared housing. I found work, as a cleaner in a hotel. My boss is from Portugal, she gave me the opportunity, and now I work in a 4-star hotel in the city centre, Friederickstrasse. I work with women from different countries, Nigeria, Portugal, Poland… We get along so well, because we’re all women, struggling and making a living in a foreign country. We are all mothers, some of us have our kids back home. My son is 10, and he stays with his grand-mother, my mum. I am planning on bringing him to Berlin. But first, I have to be a bit more settled.”
Andrea sends 500 Euros a month to her son. She is going to see him for the first time for his birthday. During our conversation, Andrea spoke candidly of her struggles, open about the hurdles but emphasized the solidarity between the women with whom she worked. She loved Berlin, but missed Cadiz terribly. “I am very proud to be from Cadiz, you know the music and the singing, it’s part of my soul and my people… I sing all the time. But there is nothing for me there. In Berlin I have found work, and a purpose. Now I just need to find a way to bring my son with me. He says he can’t wait to come.”
Thomas is a social worker with Polish roots who works with both refugees and other EU migrants (notably from Poland). I ask him why he thinks half of the homeless community in Berlin is from Poland that are being given money to go back to Poland (something I had read in the news in October 2017, just before my trip to Berlin).
Thomas explains, “Many go back to Poland on this scheme but they come back to Berlin, because it’s better to be homes in Berlin than living in Poland if you have no work and no security. At least in Berlin you can get a meal somewhere, or if it’s really cold, you can find a place to stay.”
I ask if they get any assistance from the job centre, any subsidies. Thomas says, “They don’t get assistance right away. You have to work a year before you can apply for job centre support. But the other issue is you only tend to hear about the Polish problem cases, like low skilled, precarious Polish migrants. The highly skilled Polish migrants are not talked about. They also often don’t like to admit that they are from Poland, because there are prejudices towards the Polish community in Germany. But you know, Polish migrants are the second largest group of migrants after the Turkish community.”