In It For the Long Run: Integration Lessons From a Changing Germany

October 24, 2016
Astrid Ziebarth
Jessica Bither
4 min read
Photo Credit: Tobias Kleinschmidt

With a record number of people displaced worldwide, and the movement of people in search of jobs, better lives or fleeing violence, natural disasters or war, the issue of integrating newcomers into societies will remain a core policy challenge and a crucial aspect of global migration. This is true not only for countries with a longer history of integration measures, such as Germany, but also countries such as Turkey or Morocco, which are also seeking ways in which to integrate newcomers.

In July 2016, Germany passed its first comprehensive Integration Law on the national level, which includes a range of supportive as well as punitive measures (though integration measures and policies existed before then). While Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed it as a ”milestone,” others have criticized it for its supposed implicit assumption that newcomers are unwilling to integrate; other critics contend the mandatory residential requirements may run counter to labor market needs. The law was a response to the arrival of over one million asylum seekers in Germany in 2015, which has created a growing sense of urgency and significant increases in new funding at the federal level for integration policies. Policymakers in Germany by now understand the potential costs of non-integration: from wasted economic and human potential to serious strains on social cohesion and internal stability. Germany is not starting from scratch and already has integration experience and governance initiatives to draw from, which serve as lessons not only for Germany itself, but also for other countries that may need to design integration policies.

The integration picture in Germany is neither perfect nor dire. This paper argues that Germany has drawn valuable lessons from its own immigration experience, in particular in terms of labor market integration, and also, though to a lesser extent, in education and urban planning. However, it also points to persistent challenges that Germany must address, such as social and structural discrimination for people with a migration background, as well as policies geared toward managing diversity and inclusion, and addressing the receiving society. Here, Germany itself is at the beginning of a learning process that will become increasingly important as German society becomes more ethnically and culturally diverse.

Germany: A Country of Immigration

Germany has a history of immigration and emigration that started before World War II. Since the 1950s, Germany has experienced different types of immigration, all of which shape the integration debate today. The most prominent period of migration was the era of postwar labor migration. Agreements with Turkey, Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece, Spain, and other countries between 1955 and 1973 brought a total of 14 million guest workers, or Gastarbeiter, to Germany, of which approximately eleven million returned home. Following the oil crisis and economic recession, the recruitment ban of 1973 halted all labor recruitment of foreign workers. But family reunification continued for those who decided to stay. Furthermore, from 1950 to 2005, 4.5 million Aussiedler (ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states), most of them in the early 1990s, settled in Germany. Recent labor migration, mainly from other European countries, has further led to the growth of Germany’s immigrant population. Germany experienced a previous peak of asylum seeker arrivals: approximately 400,000 from the Balkans in the early 1990s. Finally, there was the recent arrival of over one million people in 2015, mainly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Today, Germany is the second-largest immigration country in the world in terms of absolute numbers in the OECD, right behind the United States (though it ranks only 15th relative to population size). 

In 2015, 2.1 million people migrated to Germany: 45% from other EU countries. Almost one million people moved out of Germany, leaving net migration at 1.1 million. In comparison, net migration was at 550,000 in 2014. In 2014, of Germany’s 81 million inhabitants, almost 17 million, or roughly 20%, were first-generation migrants or are had migration history in their family. 

Germany was a latecomer in officially recognizing that it had become a country of immigration. Only in the late 1990s did public discourse come to terms with this new self-understanding. This helped launch a process of legislative changes that began with the reform of the Nationality Act of 2000 and the Immigration Act of 2005, which for the first time made the promotion of integration a federal responsibility. Several federal initiatives on integration followed the Immigration Act (see text Box 1) and, in 2014, the German government accepted limited forms of dual citizenship. These changes marked a paradigm shift and departure from long-held German cultural conceptions of nationhood and belonging based solely on blood ties. It also exposed the biggest fallacy of the German relationship to immigration-that “guest workers” would eventually return home, a notion that itself posed an obstacle to integration. Since then, the topic of integration has been the subject of controversial and emotionally laden debates, in particular in 2010 when former banker and politician Thilo Sarrazin published a highly controversial book called Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Abolishes Itself) in which he claimed that immigrants were “dumbing down” German society, blaming Muslims for refusing to integrate. As in other European countries, the integration debate in Germany is inextricably linked to the issue of religious pluralism and Germany’s Muslim community, which today constitutes approximately 6% of the population.

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