Idle By Law

Things are looking a lot better for Imer Duraku now than when he was fleeing war-torn Kosovo eight years ago. Granted a haven in Germany, the 41-year-old attorney and his family just moved into a comfortable, three-bedroom apartment in Bernau, a leafy suburb north of Berlin. Today his six children--the youngest born in Berlin--speak perfect German, have many German friends, and their bombed-out homeland is no more than a remote memory. They would be an upwardly mobile immigrant family with a bright future, if it were allowed.

Germany does not allow it. The government keeps tens of thousands of war refugees like Duraku barred from the labor market--even if they have been here for years, bring needed skills and have already assimilated into society. So even though he has learned German, taken a computer course and found an employer who wants him as a paralegal, the local labor office keeps saying nein. His children have stamps in their passports that say all work or education beyond high school is verboten. Next year his oldest daughter, Kosovare, would like to go to university, but will go on welfare instead. The German taxpayer pays the rent for the Durakus' apartment, and gives them 1,250 euro a month in food coupons and welfare payments. "There's nothing I'd like to do more than work," Duraku says. "Instead they're making me live like a beggar."

Though Europe's leading economy has long attracted migrants from around the world, a legacy of mistrusting foreigners keeps Germany from putting their skills to good use. Foreign engineering students get shipped home after they finish their studies in Germany. Even the millions of Turks, Greeks and Italians who came to Germany as badly needed Gastarbeiter--ostensibly temporary "guest workers"--in the '50s and '60s have only reluctantly been accepted in the Germans' midst. Fuzzy ideas of an ethnically pure Germany coupled with a jealous fear of low-wage labor have kept the borders shut, even as German businesses complain about a dire shortage of high-tech workers. "Our immigration restrictions have been a real brake on growth," says Stephan Pfisterer, spokesman for German IT-industry association Bitkom in Berlin.

It's the cold threat of economic loss that's finally shocked Germans into a rethink. German high-tech companies warn they are falling behind the U.S. competition. Economists looking at Germany's aging populace foresee a collapse of the pension system if more young immigrants aren't let in. Though conservatives still like to play on popular fears of Uberfremdung--literally, "overforeignerization"--there's now a broad if reluctant consensus that the country needs more immigrants to fill jobs and balance the aging population. Last month a commission advising Chancellor Gerhard Schroder offered a radical suggestion. Starting next year, it said, Germany should admit skilled immigrants at the rate of 50,000 a year--and allow them to stay permanently.

Inane regulations still make it easier for refugees to get welfare than to get work. Under what is arguably the world's most liberal asylum policy, Germany has taken in more Balkan and other war refugees than the rest of the EU combined, yet strict rules keep most shut out of work. Duraku's idle neighbors include a neurosurgeon who fled Afghanistan, an electrical engineer from Kosovo and an Iranian mechanic who's been there for 12 years. "It's the exact opposite of America," says Barbara John, commissioner for Foreigners' Affairs in the Berlin state government. "There, immigrants are barred from welfare the first few years so they have to work. Here we force them to live on welfare and don't let them work. It's an absurd waste of talent and money."

The government is under pressure from big business to let the refugees earn their livings. Earlier this year lobbying by the Hotels and Restaurants Association forced the Bundestag to draft new rules allowing refugees to work after two years in Germany. But the rules require employers to go through a monthslong procedure to prove that no German or EU citizen wants the job. That's more time than many employers are willing to spend. "It's silly," says John. "We're afraid foreigners might take a slice of our pie and don't realize that immigrants are like yeast--they make the pie grow." Given a choice between growing or just growing old, Germany seems likely to make the practical choice.