Germany to expand job-seeker visas, seeks skilled workers

The German government said Tuesday it will expand a system of six-month visas allowing people from outside the European Union to seek jobs as part of an effort to tackle a shortfall of skilled workers. It also said it has agreed on a solution to help rejected but well-settled asylum-seekers, an issue that has divided the coalition.

The six-month visas, currently available to university graduates, will be expanded to migrants with professional qualifications, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said after leaders of the governing coalition met.

He stressed that Germany, Europe's biggest economy, doesn't want "immigration into the welfare system." Applicants will have to prove they can support themselves and speak German.

Like many other European countries, Germany is trying to strike a balance between the needs of its labor market, an aging native population and popular concern about immigration.

Labor Minister Hubertus Heil said the government also agreed on a "pragmatic" solution to resolve the status of rejected asylum-seekers who have found work in Germany and are well-integrated.

He said the government aims to give them a "reliable status ... so we don't send the wrong people home and then try hard to recruit skilled workers from third countries."

Details were vague, with the government promising only to draw up "clear criteria" in residency law over the coming months.

The question of whether to make it easier for asylum-seekers to join the workforce — and thereby avoid deportation if their asylum request is rejected — has been a bone of contention between Heil's center-left Social Democrats and conservatives such as Seehofer in Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition.

"We are sticking to the principle of keeping asylum and labor-related migration separate," Seehofer said.

He noted that there are many people who have been rejected for asylum but whose presence is "tolerated" under German law because they can't return home for various reasons, such as the risk of mistreatment. At present, their employment status is handled differently by different German regions, he added, and the aim is to clarify rules across the country and create "certainty for business."

German leaders acknowledge that various sectors and regions face shortages of skilled workers, and say they want to prioritize domestic workers and EU migrants.

"But that's not enough if we want to preserve and stabilize economic growth ... and our social security systems," Seehofer said. "So we need trained workers from third countries."