Immigration and Citizenship in Germany Twenty Years After Unification: Deutschland einig Einwanderungsland?

One of the most resilient fixtures on the domestic policy agenda of the old West Germany was immigration and citizenship. By the late 1980s, it already had a thirty year long history, with the first recruitment treaty for temporary Gastarbeiter signed with Italy in 1955. It had also been over fifteen years since the end of recruitment (Anwerbestopp) in 1973 heralded the start of the transformation of a hitherto temporary migrant population into a more permanent community, as well as the advent of dependant migration. Even so, throughout this entire period West Germany remained resolutely wedded to the notion of not being a country of immigration (kein Einwanderungsland), a position which especially the CDU/CSU maintained on the basis that, in contrast to countries such as the United States, West Germany had not actively sought to attract new permanent migration to increase its population. At the same time, for good historical reasons, West Germany had maintained a comparatively liberal policy on political asylum and offered a homeland for ethnic Germans who had been persecuted under Communism (so-called Aussiedler).

Unification in 1990 had a seismic impact on all aspects of this self-understanding. For one thing, the associated end of the Cold War and collapse of the Iron Curtain triggered unprecedented migratory flows to Germany: Between 1988 and 1993, over 1.4 million asylum seekers and over 1.6 million ethnic Germans and their dependants arrived in the country. The sheer scale of this migration led to its curtailment in two separate items of legislation in 1992. At the same time, the demise of the GDR formally allowed united Germany to reconsider the basis of its citizenship and to move away from the pan-Germanic and ultimately ethnic definition which underpinned it. This culminated in the 2000 Citizenship Law, which inter alia introduced ius soli for the first time in history into German citizenship.

So, twenty years on after unification, does this mean that Germany is now an undisputed Einwanderungsland? Even when one moves beyond the rather simplistic interpretation of this question during the 1980s to consider whether Germany now reflects the structures and experiences of other countries with large migrant populations, the answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, remains a resounding ‘Jein.’

On the one hand, Germany’s immigrant population is more settled than ever. At the end of 2009, almost 7 million non-Germans resided in the country, including 1.7 million Turks. Over 95 percent of non-Germans lived in the old Länder, with an overall average residence period of over eighteen years; indeed, over one-third had more than twenty years’ residence. Around one-fifth of the total population of Germany is formally considered to have a ‘migration background.’

In policy terms, Germany has witnessed a visible convergence with other countries in the EU. Thus, over the past five years, and in addition to the citizenship reform of 2000, Germany has passed not only the first immigration law but also, thanks to the EU, the first dedicated anti-discrimination legislation in its history. High-skilled migration is now possible from outside the EU. There has been a concerted policy focus on integration, with the introduction of formal language courses in 2005, a national integration plan in 2006, and citizenship tests in 2007. Institutionally, integration is now recognized as a core policy task under the auspices of a government minister in the Federal Chancellery, as opposed to a non-governmental commissioner located in the Labor Ministry in the 1980s. And although the educational attainments and labor market outcomes of migrants generally remain well below those of the indigenous population, this too is common to other countries with a similar migration history.

On the other hand, despite the 2000 reform, and in clear contrast to countries such as France and the UK, citizenship in Germany remains largely exclusive. Contrary to initial expectations, the number of naturalizations has actually halved over the past decade. Dual citizenship remains formally rejected and thus constitutes a key impediment to higher numbers. More broadly, and despite their long residence periods, migrants in Germany have struggled to make an impact on society as a whole and, some notable exceptions notwithstanding, remain largely under-represented in the professions, public service, and especially in politics. Perhaps even more fundamentally, Germany is no longer a major recipient of migration. Ethnic German and asylum migration flows have slowed to a comparative trickle from their peak in the early 1990s and net migration too has been broadly around zero since 2006. If anything, Germany is becoming a country of emigration once more, as both Germans and high-skilled Turks increasingly seek opportunities elsewhere.

In general, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Germany continues to struggle to come to terms with its situation as a culturally diverse and pluralistic country. Discussions about a German Leitkultur in 2000, or more recently Thilo Sarrazin’s tendentious and frankly prejudicial claims about what he perceives as the apparent inability of Muslims to integrate into German society, completely miss the point. For better or for worse, Germany has and will continue to have a permanent and large migrant population. Migrants cannot be expelled for integration deficits, as such a policy could scarcely be reconciled with the principles of the Rechtsstaat. Germany therefore has no choice but to do much more to give this significant part of the population a full and active stake in Germany’s economy and society at large. Calls for Turks to do more to ‘integrate’ are thus not only by definition tinged with a hefty dose of hypocrisy, they are also unrealistic and counterproductive: By tarring entire groups with the same brush, they, if anything, risk alienating those migrants who might otherwise have been willing to play a more active role in German society.

In any case, the demographic realities Germany is facing dictate that the country will need more, not less immigration. The most recent Statistisches Bundesamt demographic projections show that the country’s population is set to fall from currently 82 million to 65 million by 2060, with the proportion of the population of working age falling from 61 percent to 50 percent over the same period. Crucially, as well as a constant fertility rate, this assumes annual net migration of 100,000 persons – a level Germany last experienced in 2003.

Perhaps Germany could learn more from immigration countries such as the United States. For all its problems, the ‘American Dream’ remains a powerful image, which helps to attract thousands of determined and often highly able migrants from across the world. Tales of first generation migrants who are now millionaires abound in the U.S.; by contrast, in Germany there are literally only individual parallel stories. And yet this is not, as Sarrazin would have us believe, a question of the genetic make-up of migrants; rather, German policymakers have long overestimated the country’s attractiveness for high-skilled migrants from across the world, especially compared to the U.S. The ‘Green Card’ program of 2000 filled only two-thirds of its very modest quota of 20,000 places over five years, and those who came quickly found out just how conservative the immigration authorities remained. Tellingly, although such migrants can now be granted immediate permanent residence in Germany, only 450 persons obtained this status between 2005 and 2008 – that’s just 150 each year.

Germany has certainly come a long way since the late 1980s, something which is already reflected in the fact that the term Einwanderungsland no longer appears in public discourse, on either side of the political spectrum. But Germany has not yet grasped the extent to which recent migration has already changed it, as well as the extent to which it must change itself in order to prepare itself for the future.

This essay appeared in the Advisor of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) on 1 October 2010. It is part of a series of AICGS essays celebrating twenty years of German unity.

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