Immigration to Germany: The Long Way to Reality

by Mekonnen Mesghena

A stroll through Germany’s history and its cities shows that Germany has always been a country of immigration. Nevertheless, there is no topic in Germany today which invokes so much ideology, emotion and irrational argumentation as the contested politics of immigration and the subject of foreigners.

According to the most recent data from the Federal Statistical Office, 8.8 percent of those who live in Germany are ‘foreigners’. Of a total German population of around 82 million, this means that 7.3 million people have no German passport.  Those who have resided briefly in the country as well as the Mozambican who has lived 18 years with his German family in Halle, the Indian IT specialist, or the Turkish shopkeeper in Berlin-Kreuzberg who has made Germany his home for more than 30 years and whose children and grandchildren have since become German citizens – all pile into the undifferentiated category of ‘foreigners’. Such statistics tell you little about the migration situation in Germany: and even less about the  ‘balance’ between immigration and emigration.
In fact, except in the early 1990s, net migration to Germany has been quite low. Since the mid-1990s the emigration of foreigners has been rather higher than is reflected in official immigration figures. In the EU as a whole, annual recorded immigration totals approximately 1.3 million people. There is, therefore, no basis for talk of “floods of refugees” or "uncontrolled mass immigration” either to Germany or to Europe. Until now, most migration has been due to people moving within the European continent. Or leaving it.

Germany: Destination of Numerous Migratory Movements

A glance at history shows that Germany has been a destination or transit point for countless migratory movements, and continues to be so today. The immigration of eastern European Jews to Germany more than a century ago accompanied a wave of German emigration to America. The blossoming of industrialisation led to the settlement of a great many Polish migrant labourers in the Ruhr Valley, who today are an integrated constituent part of the population. Those now living in Germany without citizenship owe their situation to the so-called “guest worker recruitment” of the 1950s and 1960s.

The history of migration to Germany is not essentially different from that of the rest of Western Europe. The period since the Second World War can be generally divided into two phases: the first, defined by the significant labour demands of the booming economies in northern and western Europe. As early as the 1950s, the Federal Republic of Germany began an active ‘guest worker’ recruitment policy in the Mediterranean region, despite the fact that in the preceding years it had absorbed more than 10 million displaced persons, and ethnic German repatriates. Other European countries met their increased labour needs with immigrants from their former colonies. Altogether, the industrialised countries of Western Europe recruited some 30 million migrant labourers during this period.

The second phase began with the economic crisis of the 1970s – the oil crisis. Most EC states reacted to the crisis by halting recruitment. Since that time, migration to Europe has consisted primarily of asylum applicants and dependents involved in family reunification. A tightening of asylum policy at the beginning of the 1990s, however, narrowed down even this legal means of access to Europe. In this way, a spiral-like pattern has emerged that continues today: the more restrictive the opportunities for the migration of labour, the harder migrants try to achieve asylum in the EU. And the more restrictive the asylum criteria, the harder migrants try to enter the EU through irregular means.

Diverging Histories in East and West Germany

Since the end of the Second World War, the immigration story has unfolded quite differently in the two German states. In the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), the presence of foreigners primarily reflected the political priorities of state leaders: for example, the considerable presence of Soviet troops or the students and trainees from Asia, Africa and Latin America. By the end of the 1970s, unanticipated economic pressures led to the procurement of contract workers, who established immigration as a ‘reality’ for the first time in the history of the GDR. The integration of these migrant labourers was certainly never envisaged. Aside from gatherings officially organised ‘in the spirit of solidarity and international understanding’, few personal connections emerged and were in many cases discouraged.

Migration to the new federal states today is rarely a matter of immigration in the narrow sense of the term. Non-Germans there comprise merely 2 percent of cases. More often, it is a matter of asylum seekers, Jewish immigrants and repatriates who have been assigned to these states in accordance with the federal quota arrangement. These groups of immigrants are restricted in their freedom of movement, and upon achieving any freedom often leave for the federal states of former West Germany, where they find work and expect a better multicultural environment.

A New Era of German Immigration Policy

In the year 2000, an historic ‘paradigm shift’ in the immigration debate – namely, from the politics of renunciation, “Germany is not an immigration country”, to the recognition of the reality, “Germany is an immigration country” – paved the way for the setting up of an independent commission on immigration (Süssmuth Commission). Then, in March 2002, the red-green coalition government ‘adopted’ the Immigration Law (Zuwanderungsgesetz) following tough negotiations involving all parties and societal stakeholders.
There commenced a protracted legislative procedure accompanied by vigorous discussions in the upper and lower houses of Parliament and among the public. This dynamic, unique in the history of Germany’s migration politics, experienced a major setback in December 2002, however, when the Federal Constitutional Court admitted a complaint from the opposition against the ratification of the Immigration Act and declared the law invalid. Not until January 1, 2005 did the Act for Controlling and Limiting Immigration (Gesetz zur Steuerung und Begrenzung der Zuwanderung) finally come into effect.

Integration Policy: Investment in the Future

The red-green coalition government had announced a ‘decade of integration’ when it secured victory in the 1998 elections. It then set about implementing an array of reforms encouraging integration: the right to citizenship for children born here (“ius soli”); the shortening of the time limit on the independent right to residence for spouses joining their family members (to 2 years); the Green Card for qualified high-skilled labourers or specialists (for the time being in the IT sector). The opportunity was however lost for a more progressive immigration act, as well as the adoption of EU anti-discrimination guidelines which should have become effective by July 2003.
Successful social integration requires equality of opportunity in all important areas of society and the economy: in the labour market, education, housing, and social service provision as well as in cultural and leisure activities. Of central importance for integration is participation and success in the labour market. Exclusion from the labour market is economically counterproductive, generates costs for the social system and, moreover, strengthens xenophobic prejudices.

Most Western European countries attempt to satisfy the needs of their respective labour markets with hidden immigration instruments.  In Germany, this takes the form, for example, of the ordinance on exemptions from the recruitment ban (Anwerbestopp-Ausnahmeverordnung) or the Green Card programme. But the use of ambiguous terms, such as the ‘public interest’, leaves the door open to arbitrary interpretations that can be easily challenged. The controversy over the entry of foreign specialists into the IT sector only goes to show how difficult it is to constitute a specific economic requirement as in the ‘public interest.’

The above-average joblessness among newly-arrived immigrants to Germany is often a result of exceedingly complicated controls on access to the labour market. A significant fraction of immigrants have no access to the job market at all, or only qualified access, meaning they receive work authorisation only for those positions for which no Germans or equally privileged foreigners are available. Given the high level of unemployment, this represents virtually total exclusion. Thus, asylum seekers especially, but a number of short-term residency permit holders as well, remain dependent on the social welfare system. A large proportion of remaining immigrants find work primarily in the low-wage sector.

Though many sides – led by the economic sector – cheered the Chancellor’s Greencard Initiative on, this act remains emblematic of the inconsistency of current policies. While other Western destinations for highly qualified skilled workers recognise these specialists’ basic needs concerning family and settlement in their respective immigration and integration policies, Germany continues to look to the collapsed ‘rotation principle’ model, allowing the errors of the past decades’ ‘guest worker policy’, along with its long-lasting fatal consequences for integration, to be repeated.

How closely educational opportunity and social status in Germany are linked together is glaringly evident, as demonstrated by numerous PISA studies and various comparisons with other OECD nations. The deficit in immigrant integration in the education sector appears as a central problem at all levels – from kindergarten to higher education. This, of course, distorts opportunities and prospects for the labour market. To overcome this and to create equality of opportunity in education and the workplace is a challenge for politics, but an inevitable necessity for a multicultural, democratic society.

Limiting access to integration programmes to specific groups of immigrants makes little sense politically. Rather, integration policy should be oriented toward the complex of issues common to all groups, such as the education shortfall or language deficit. The overall concept of language promotion, which at the federal level is extended to family members of ethnic German repatriates as well as diverse other immigrant groups, provides an example of a first step in the right direction.

The investment in the language competence of new citizens is an investment in social integration. In this respect, the comprehensive language and orientation courses to which all legal immigrants with long-term prospects for residence are equally entitled make sense for the first phase of residency. This opportunity should be selectively combined with incentives. For example, the successful participation of subsequently immigrating family members in a language and orientation course could be coupled with direct and unrestricted access to the job market.
One thing must be clear: If the skilled labourers sought after in many places see no future for themselves and their families, they will continue to look beyond Germany. In the global competition for people with specific qualifications and resources, Germany can only be successful if its immigrants also have lasting prospects for a good life. In turn, their readiness for integration depends fundamentally on that.

Yet Germany’s problem seems to lie not only in the familiarly explosive immigration question. While countries like the USA or Great Britain have declared global leadership in economy and technology a national goal and accordingly do all they can to woo the ‘best and the brightest’, Germany is quite unsophisticated in handling even its own human resources. Many up-and-coming and established scholars alike leave for the USA or even other European countries. More than half of these highly qualified persons do not return.

The Future is Europe

In the last decade, Europe has developed without a doubt into more and more of a fortress. All Western European countries have not only tried to bar their doors with regard to irregular migration, but have also considerably restricted opportunities for regular immigration, as well as through humanitarian channels. In so doing, the members of the European Union have tried to outdo one another. Noticeably since September 11, 2001, and its subsequent anti-terror and security laws, the defensive emphasis of migration and asylum policies for many EU countries has been on security.

Nonetheless, the only migration policy for modern times is a Europe-wide migration policy. The European Union’s expansion requires a political crafting of migration rather than more safeguards. Existing acts and regulations must be reviewed. To date, the fears of Eurosceptics and conservative German politicians who see an endangered ‘German interest’, remain unfounded. Since individual national measures are insufficient for a coherent European migration policy, the European Commission has called for the creation of EU-wide legal immigration opportunities for economic migrants.  In general, on questions of asylum and immigration, the European Commission turns out to be an engine for integration, even if it does have the sensitivities of the member states to consider. It operates under the premise that ‘immigration will continue and should be properly regulated.’

Published in: “Pausing to Reflect: on Europe’s culture wars”, edited by British Council Germany.

Bild entfernt. This article is under this Creative Commons-Licence.


Bild entfernt.

Mekonnen Mesghena heads the Migration and Diversity programme of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.