Immigration: The German case

Valentina Bruns
Valentina Bruns

From emigration to immigration country

Due to its relative small size and high population density, Germany was not considered, historically, to be a country presenting favourable conditions for international migration. Also, there was no sustained official policy, by government or parliament, to encourage immigration, as has been the case and still is of the United States, Canada or Australia. But the picture has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. According to the latest statistics of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Germany has become, in absolute figures, the second most important destination country for migrants after the United States. During 2013, legal migration to Germany recorded a double-digit increase to over 450,000 people, compared to about 1 million people for the United States. Out of a total German population of 82 million inhabitants, about 7.5 million are foreign nationals, whereas about 20 percent of the total German population are classified as having a so called “migration background”, including both foreigners with legal status and naturalised citizens originally from abroad.

Labor and economic immigration

Germany started to be a major immigration country after the end of World War II which left the country heavily destroyed and, due to war casualties, without a sufficient labor force. In order to help to rebuild the infrastructure and revitalize the economy, foreign workers (called “guest workers”) were brought in, first from Italy, then from Spain, Portugal, Greece, Yugoslavia and finally from Turkey. While the majority of those labor migrants went back to their countries of origin, after the German government had decided to put an end to the guest workers-program in 1973, the Turkish migrants stayed in large numbers and made Germany their home. Nowadays, there are almost two million legal Turkish residents in Germany, many of the second- and third-generation immigrants from that country having meanwhile adopted German nationality.

European Union’s single market policy

More recently, after the enlargement of the European Union and the accession of countries with lower per capita earning rates like Bulgaria or Romania, Germany has seen a new influx of immigrants, based on the European Union’s single internal labor market policy. As a principle, citizens of one member nation of the European Union are allowed to work and live in other member nations with little to no restriction on movement. Under this legal umbrella, about 200,000 migrants from Bulgaria and Romania have come to Germany in the year 2013 alone.

Specific political immigration schemes

There is yet another factor which has contributed to the steady increase of immigration to Germany. After the end of the cold war, ethnic Germans who have been living as national minorities in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern European countries like Romania, Poland and the Czech Republic for centuries, were suddenly granted greater freedom of movement and chose to move with their families to the economically prosperous Federal Republic of Germany. As long as they could prove to be part of the relevant German minority, they were entitled almost immediately to receive German citizenship and government subsidies for their re-establishment. In total 4.5 million people have immigrated to Germany under those circumstances. At the same time, Germany facilitated the immigration of the descendants of all citizens of Jewish faith who have been persecuted and driven out of the country during the Holocaust. About 220,000 people accepted the German government’s offer to compensate symbolically for the historic injustice inflicted and brought back Jewish life to German society.

Fundamental right of asylum

In the pursuit to render for ever impossible any violation of human rights and systematic persecution of ethnic minorities or political opponents which occurred on German soil before World War II, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany of 1949 states in its article 16 a) first paragraph that the right to asylum is a basic right which is applicable without any further conditions to any foreigner who is politically persecuted in his country of origin or residence. Any person who declares to be politically persecuted at the moment of entering Germany has the right to be admitted to the country together with his or her family and will receive free housing, medical attention, language courses and financial help. Before the asylum-seeker is given definite residence and work permit, there will be an administrative and, in some cases, judicial procedure to determine if the claim of political persecution is valid or not.

In 2013 alone, about 125.000 foreign immigrants asked for political asylum in Germany (twice as much as in the United States).  Sadly, the German experience is that over 90 percent of the claims are baseless. In fact, more and more people seeking asylum are no political refugees but economic migrants, trying to escape economic hardship and poverty in their respective countries of origin. If the status of political refugee has not been recognized, the applicant is requested to leave Germany or face deportation. Another preoccupying fact is that the vast majority of those migrants who do not qualify for political asylum will go into hiding and thus into illegal immigration.

Legalization of undocumented immigrants

According to official estimates, there are up to 500.000 foreigners staying in Germany as illegal immigrants, without valid residence title or work permit and usually living under precarious conditions. Most of them are hailing from Eastern Europe and also Arab and African countries. There are two groups: Firstly, there are people who are already in Germany and have their claim of political persecution been rejected or people who are entering the country with a tourist visa, obtained by incorrect declaration or forgery of documents. Secondly, there are people who try to reach Germany by avoiding border control with the help of criminal organizations of human trafficking.

Some pressure groups and charitable institutions are pleading the government to legalize the status of all or part of those illegal immigrants but the government so far has not been inclined to do so and prefers to discuss ways to prevent illegal immigration altogether. To the contrary to what happened in the United States, there has not been until now any politically motivated legalization of illegal immigrants in Germany. Any progress in preventing unauthorized entries into the country or regularizing the illegal status of immigrants would largely depend on a closer co-ordination of immigration policies and more efficient border control within the European Union and, eventually, with the respective countries of origin.

Integration versus restriction

Germany has never been a “melting pot” like the United States. Therefore the national political debate on the immigration issue, while being one of the major themes for government, political parties and civil society, has traditionally centered on restricting the influx of foreigners and preventing the criminal smuggling of migrants into Germany. Although there is no political consensus in Germany on what to do with illegal immigrants, there is a growing feeling that the problem needs to be solved in the long run in a non-conflictive way, as the massive forced deportation of men, women and children out of the country is unacceptable to the German public. The debate in Germany shifted more recently to a new main focus.

Aware of the fact that even legal foreign residents, especially the ones from Turkey and Arab countries, do not adapt well to the German way of life due to their very different cultural and religious background, the government has adopted a number of measures to facilitate their integration into German society. These measures are also meant to discourage immigrants in developing radical political tendencies. Lastly, there is yet another issue which becomes more and more important for the running of Germany’s high-tech economy. The German immigration system does not attract, in its current form, enough highly skilled professionals from abroad. Unlike the United States or Great Britain, Germany did not promote “white-collar immigration” through a system of country quota and numbered lotteries. Germany needs to find a way, both through “guided” immigration and integration efforts, to increase the professional level of migrants who wish to live and work in the country, if she wants to stay on top of the largest economies in the world.