By Joseph Nasr
BERLIN (Reuters) - Nigerian Iyke Anakua had been working for 14 months as a welder, a job he got through a recruitment agency in Berlin, when he received news in mid-March that he would be made redundant.
"I waited so long for a job and now I have to start all over again," he said, wearing a black cap and a broad smile in Berlin's poor district of Neukoelln. "It's tough but I'm trying to stay positive."
Anakua, who is 46 and has three children, considered himself fortunate because his wife's job as a security guard at a supermarket was not affected by coronavirus lockdowns. Her wages combined with the unemployment benefits he received were sufficient for them to get by on.
The pandemic is pushing up unemployment among migrants at a faster rate than among German citizens, hampering the country's previously successful push to integrate into its labour market the record 1.1 million people who arrived in 2015 seeking asylum.
Unemployment among migrants, who are largely employed in the services sector that was crippled during a six-week lockdown, rose by 27% from March to June, Federal Labour Office data show. This compares with a 20% increase among Germans.
"Migrants are more affected by the crisis because they largely occupy jobs that can't be done from home," said Herbert Bruecker of Humboldt University of Berlin. "We are talking about jobs in restaurants, hotels, cleaning, transport, and security."
With relatively low education levels and language skills, migrants are over-represented in the services sector. The sector is slowly reviving, but is still held back by weak demand.
About 28% of asylum seekers and refugees were employed either in hospitality or through temporary employment agencies last year, compared with 4% of Germans, a study by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW Koeln) shows.
"Migrants are also disproportionately employed in small companies, where employment protection is weaker so layoffs are easier and cheaper," said Bruecker. "There is also the rule of 'last in, first out'. All this puts migrants at a disadvantage."
Since 2015, Germany has spent tens of billions of euros on an integration strategy focused on language and vocational training, hoping to get the newcomers off welfare and into work.
This effort was helped by an economy that had been in its 11th straight year of growth before the pandemic, and by a labour market hamstrung by chronic shortages.
Almost 40% of migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria and Somalia, who make up the bulk of asylum applicants, were employed at the start of the year, up from 16.4% in January 2016.
Experts had been expecting this figure to hit or even surpass 50% by the end of the year.
But the pandemic is undoing those gains.
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The crisis is making integration difficult in other ways.
As mandatory integration and language courses were moved from classrooms to home-based e-learning and social interactions were limited, migrants lost contact with native speakers.
"The closure of schools also has an adverse effect on migrant children, whose parents often struggle with home schooling because of weak language skills," said Wido Geis-Thoene of the economic institute IW Koeln.
Despite the setbacks, the outlook for migrants remains broadly positive, especially as the economy appears to be on the mend and the fast-ageing population means labour shortages are set to increase, creating more opportunities for migrants.
"The employment perspective for migrants will be unfavourable for a year or two," said Geis-Thoene. "But the big picture remains favourable because of the negative demographic development."
Germany's working-age population shrank by 360,000 last year and the trend is forecast to accelerate.
"We had a surge in migrants coming to us seeking advice after they had lost their jobs in March and April," said Olga Klus, a consultant with Work and Live, a charity funded by the government's IQ Network Fair Integration project to assist migrants.
"It is very sad to see that most have no idea about their rights under German labour laws," added Klus. "But the situation is starting to stabilise."
Almost four months after he had lost his job as a welder, Nigerian Anakua received a call from his former employment agency last week asking him if he would like to come back.
"I couldn't believe it. They said their clients are coming back asking for welders and they were satisfied with my work and wanted me back," he said. "I'm very happy."
(Reporting by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Frances Kerry)