Is Germany open for migration?


In the coming years, Germany will need a certain number of immigrants to reinforce its shrinking workforce due to a declining birth rate. For a long time hesitant to say so, it is now on the brink of officially declaring the country to be open for immigration. Quite well known for their enthusiasm for travelling, some Germans, however, have their reservations about accepting foreigners in their own country. Reported violence against foreigners jumped by a third last year. How will the country be able to integrate the influx it needs to maintain its social security systems? A widely-publicised debate is currently going on in Germany by politicians, economists and citizens.

Most societies wish to have a homogeneous set-up. Certain traits in its citizens are upheld and rated more highly than others – depending on the society’s historical, political and economic background. Minorities that differ from these traits may experience a hard time. Yet history creates other facts than homogeneity through wars, famine, conquests or migrations. In a country in which most citizens are doing well and feel secure, minorities are usually treated kindly. It is in times of hardship that conflicts arise between the various groups and factions. In such imps it can be helpful for immigrants to have integrated well into a new society, in other words, to have learnt the language and to observe and respect traditional customs.

Up until about 50 years ago, in Germany the main internal conflicts were based on the religious factions of Protestantism and Catholicism. Yet the disruptive Second World War was to bring about new social problems. The slowly reviving economy was in dire need of a workforce that was not available at home. The erection of the Berlin Wall, separating the capitalist West from communist East was another reason for initiating a new policy. There were no longer refugees coming from the other side of the wall looking for employment and freedom. This meant that it became necessary to look for workers abroad.

The years between 1955 and 1973 marked the first period of work migration, a period of active recruitment abroad. In 1955 an agreement was signed with Italy, in 1960 with Spain and Greece, in 1961 with Turkey. Further agreements were signed with Morocco, Portugal, Tunisia and Yugoslavia. A kind of rotation of workers was aimed for. The recruited would one day return to their home countries, it was perceived, making room for newcomers among their compatriots.

In 1960 there were only around 700,000 foreigners in Germany. In 1970 the number had climbed to three million. Between 1955 and 1973 14 million foreign migrants had come to the Federal Republic and around eleven million returned back home. In 1973 the energy crisis, recession and the threat of unemployment prompted the German government to discontinue its recruitment policy. To begin with, the number of foreigners declined. Yet the immigrants had a high birth rate and took on many more family members who were still back home. By 1999 the number of foreigners had risen to 7.34 million.

The number of immigrants has increased in all countries of the European Union during the past decades – even in those countries which formerly had a large  workforce that was ready to emigrate. Luxembourg has the largest proportion of foreigners with 33%. Germany, Norway, Belgium and Austria have a rate that is slightly above the European average: nine per cent. Ethnic minorities are not evenly distributed throughout Germany. The eastern states only have 2.2 per cent of foreigners among their residential population, yet, unfortunately, they are known for the least tolerance towards them, with a high rate of criminal offences that have a racist background. Frankfurt has the highest concentration of foreigners with 29 per cent.

Some towns and regions have a successful record in integrating their foreign residents. In Hamburg, for instance, the number of foreigners wishing to become naturalised has doubled – a good sign for being on the right track towards integration. What are the reasons for hostility to foreigners? A representative survey was carried through in Hamburg to ascertain some of the causes. A personal contact with foreigners having a similar standard of life helps to dismantle prejudices. National pride plays a role, as does the feeling of being personally threatened economically.

The ombudswoman for foreign citizens in the city of Hamburg, Dr. Ursula Neumann, points out that many Germans have the notion that the German constitution stipulates that the German culture – however, it is to be defined – and the German language are to be preserved. She maintains that the opposite is true. What was safeguarded above all was the dignity of the individual and the plurality of the cultural forms of expression. The constitution granted the immigrants individual protection from the majority and the state. At the same time, the foreign citizen was also legally bound to safeguard the Republican order. At present, foreign citizens coming from countries outside the EU are not allowed to vote at community level. This ought to be changed, maintains Dr. Neumann, for very good reasons: The first reason is a democratic one. People ought to have a say in the community they live in. In Hamburg there is a certain district in which only 25 per cent have the right to participate in local government. This is because they do not belong to the category ‘children’ or ‘foreigners’. Frequently elderly German citizens determined the fate of the district, whereas the young foreigners with children and with their different needs of Kindergarten and playing grounds and so forth, simply had no right of vote. This is a strong democratic deficit according to Dr. Ursula Neumann.

Germany needs to make a strong effort economically if it is not to fall behind in international competition. There is an insufficient number of young qualified scientific academics. This is already being felt to such an extent that the German Chambers of Commerce (DIHT) have demanded an active immigration policy which is adapted to the needs of business and commerce. The Chamber demands that qualified immigrants be given the perspective of an unlimited stay in Germany, in order to make the effort of migrating.

The Dutch sociologist and political scientist, Ruud Koopmans, who lives and works in Berlin,  has examined the situation of immigrants in many countries and has come to several conclusions. He is in praise of the official commission that has been set up by the government, because it aims to find a regulation of immigration and thereby sees to it that immigration does not come in too big waves. It also allows for a control of the kind of immigrants that Germany needs. This, he says, is not just being egotistical, because it cannot be in the interest of immigrants to come to Germany and not be needed or end up on the dole.

The pension schemes for Germans is headed for trouble. In a healthy social climate, around three active employees contribute to the upkeep of one retired elderly citizen. Soon the demographic figures will tell a different story: Germany’s statistical office predicts that if the present trend continues, Germany’s population will decline from the 82 million inhabitants that live here at present to 59 million in the year 2050.

The commission is due to report soon on proposed measures to alleviate the situation in the country. Another commission, the enquete commission of Germany’s parliament, estimates that around 200 000 immigrants will be needed annually in future. The official commission has let it be known that it estimates the figure to be 300,000, and that it will become necessary from the year 2010 onwards. In certain sectors of industry a need for qualified immigrants will already be felt at an earlier date.

However, achieving a broad acceptance of immigration among the general public will only be possible if a perspective is given to those Germans who are unemployed. An office for the integration of foreign citizens could replace the austere ‘Auslaenderamt’ – authority for foreigners – that exist today, the commission suggests. Germans should not expect immigrants to eat and behave as Germans do, it further states, but what could in fact be expected is that foreign citizens respect the laws and abide by the principles and rules of the Basic Law.

The commission that was established by the opposition party CDU to work out their own viewpoint on immigration has also come up with some conclusions. Anyone wishing to come to Germany must respect its constitution, its legal system, the European tradition of enlightenment, humanism, Christianity and Judaism, it says. Anyone willing to live here permanently has the duty to integrate into society. This includes above all learning the German language.

 How best to integrate newcomers from abroad? The Dutch political scientist, Ruud Koopmans, suggests stimulating contacts between Germans and foreigners, because “it is important to convey acceptance of immigrants both to the young as well as to adults, and to promote the fact that Germany has become a multicultural society. It is evident that racist and right extremist attacks against foreigners are above all committed in regions where there are few foreign residents.”

Germany’s Social Democrat Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, has let it be known that new laws to regulate immigration are not to infringe upon the fundamental right of asylum. But a modern immigration act was needed now in order to keep up with international competition. The possibility of further extending the Green Card regulation for non-European foreigners is also to be examined by the commission. This is at present only granted to expert computer engineers. However, the opposition parties and the President of the Federal Labour Institute, Bernhard Jagoda, have spoken out against such an extension, arguing that first the European workforce should be drawn upon.

Another project has been implemented to curb hostility towards foreigners, called ‘Xenos’. It supports the integration of ethnical minorities at the workplace and in educational institutions.

Each newcomer is to have a 6-months’ German language training. A further course to help integrate immigrants conveys the basic legal structure and constitution of Germany and gives social as well as professional orientation. The possibility of being given permanent residency after three or four years instead of after five years upon successfully completing the course is to be given as an incentive to learn.

Minority protection and religious tolerance are necessary conditions for stability and peace in a society, we learn from history. Hamburg has started its own initiative by introducing religious instruction of a different kind. Both Islam and the Christian religion are being conveyed in the same lesson. This way the different religions are compared and discussed. The possibility of establishing a chair for Islamic theology is at present being examined in Hamburg, so that Islamic instructors in mosques may be given training in Islam under western conditions, as Islam in western countries is confronted with different religious and social questions and, therefore, needs a special approach, according to Hamburg’s ombudswoman for foreign citizens, Dr. Ursula Neumann. Likewise, ongoing instructors of the Christian belief could interact with Islamic theologians and learn about Islam at university in an authentic way. This might promote a weakening of the ‘concept of enmity’ that Westerners frequently have of Islam.

The political scientist; Ruud Koopmans, has examined Germany’s European neighbours in their dealings with right extremists. It is possible to learn from the good examples of others, he says. He has come to the conclusion that other countries, such as the Netherlands, have a more relaxed approach to the problem. Emotional debates on the topic are strictly avoided. With the entry of a radical party into parliament in the Netherlands, the right to vote at the community level was granted to foreign citizens, in order to speed up their integration and to alleviate fears by including them in normal political procedures.

In other countries, such as Great Britain for instance, immigrants were made more present and visible in society by admitting them to professional groups such as the police force, schools or politics.

It is also possible to learn from negative examples made by other countries: France has pursued a policy of strict assimilation. This has brought about a strengthening of right extremist groups. The Netherlands have tried a too generous acceptance of multicultural diversity. Now the country needs to rectify the policy it pursues as too many immigrants have failed to learn the Dutch language and cannot find employment.

As usual in life, it is all about fighting to get the best resources, the best ideas, methods and conditions. World-wide competition has arrived at a local scale. Our European ancestors discovered other countries, and inhabitants of these countries are now discovering Europe. Competition can enrich or threaten. Fears and instincts also have the function to protect oneself. But the more successful long-term strategy is surely to convince others, or to be convinced by them. This applies to all of us, anywhere in the world, whether we live in a minority or in the majority.