German Immigration: A Primer

In Part 2 of our article on Berlin’s refugees, Nina Roßmann and Paul Sullivan examine the broader context of German immigration…


If you’ve ever visited Berlin’s Reichstag, you may have gazed down from one of the cupola’s upper terraces and spotted the words “der Bevölkerung” (“to the population“). Written in neon and placed in a flowerbed, they’re easy to spot – though their meaning is perhaps more difficult to grasp.

Inspired by a Bertholt Brecht quote that reads “Wer in unserer Zeit Bevölkerung statt Volk […] sagt, unterstützt schon viele Lügen nicht.” (“In our times, anyone who says population in place of people or race … is by that simple act withdrawing his support from a great many lies.”), the installation – created by German-American artist Hans Haacke – created much controversy when its draft  was presented, both for its words and its materials.

The critique came from opposite directions: Antje Vollmer from the Greens argued that the flowerbed, which was created from the soil of all German constituencies, invoked the terrible “blood and soil” associations of Nazi ideology; on the other hand, Volker Kauder of the Christian Democrats felt that Haacke’s choice of contrasting the term German Volk, infamously abused by the Nazis, with the more generic and neutral word Bevölkerung was in itself a sort of attempt to “denigrate the German people by reducing it to a short period of its history” and to bring about a “dissociation of the German Bundestag from its own people”.

Nonetheless, after a heated debate, Parliament voted for “der Bevölkerung” by a narrow margin and the work is largely now understood in the way Haacke intended it: as a semantic expansion of the words engraved into the Reichstag’s neoclassical pediment outside: “Dem Deutschen Volke” – “to the German people”.


Haacke’s work reflects a question that has become increasingly central in the last few decades: who exactly are the German people? The traditional European method of determining nationality – jus sanguinis, or by descent, which the Reichstag’s facade refers to – has been called into question by successive waves of immigrants who may not have German blood, but still consider themselves German.

An Immigration Country?


Turkish guest workers arriving in Germany during the 70s. Image: DPA
Turkish guest workers arriving in Germany during the 70s. Image: DPA

Germany has been accepting immigrants for over a century, though the process intensified in the post-war boom years when, due to a need for extra labour to support the Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle), guest workers (Gastarbeiter) were officially recruited from Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Portugal and Yugoslavia.

These labour agreements ground to a halt in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, which led Germany into a recession and a subsequent ban on the recruitment of foreign workers. By then many of the (mostly male) guest workers had successfully applied for family re-unification, and the migrant population continued to rise instead of fall. The combination of rising immigrant numbers and a paucity of available jobs created public resentment – to the point where the government tried to convince the guest workers to return to their home countries instead of fostering their integration.

By 1982, the Conservative coalition government stated clearly in their coalition agreement that “Germany is not an immigration country”. That same party, this time as the opposition, also rallied against the introduction of dual citizenship foreseen in a law proposal to reform German nationality law. The law was eventually passed in 2000 – shortly after Haacke’s controversial piece – and allowed children of immigrants German citizenship upon birth (ius soli) alongside their parents’ nationality on the condition that at least one parent has lawfully lived in Germany for at least eight years: a “step of historic dimensions” according to Minister of the Interior Otto Schily. It wasn’t perfect though: because of resistance of the Conservative parties, these children still had to chose between two nationalities when they turned 23. Only when unrestricted dual citizenship will be introduced later this year after the final approval of the Bundesrat (the Federal Council representing all German Länder), they will be able to keep both passports.

In 2005, another change came with a law known as the “Zuwanderungsgesetz” (Immigration Act), which aimed to address all aspects of immigration, with new regulations ranging from work permits for highly qualified workers and self-employed migrants and eligibility criteria for the admission of refugees (in particular on grounds of non-state and gender specific persecution) to enhanced measures to support overall integration. Even though the new legislation fell short of the expectations of the red-green government at that time, this represented an overt acceptance of the need to actively shape immigration and integration and that Germany, de facto, is an immigration country.

Federal President Joachim Gauck
Federal President Joachim Gauck

During a recent speech on the eve of the 65th anniversary of the German ‘Basic Law’ (Grundgesetz), German President Joachim Gauck talked about how Germans still tend to have a “them” and “us” attitude when it comes to immigrants, but that he believes in the existence of a new German “we” – a “union among the diverse” (Einheit der Verschiedenen); further official recognition that the co-existence of different cultures has been an enrichment to German society.

With every fifth German living in the country today possessing a migrant background and more people moving here than leaving, it’s fairly safe to say that Germany is indeed an “immigrant country”. Immigrants, though, come in two varieties: those who are invited – highly qualified migrants that Germany wants to attract to fill its skills shortage – and those who have entered the country on their own initiative, such as refugees and asylum seekers (the latter defined as someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated).

But does this mean that “der Bevölkerung” really includes everyone who lives in Germany today? Well, not quite. Refugees, even though many of them have lived here for many years, still often slip through the net.

A child of refugees born or raised in Germany and who knows no other reality than life in Germany is not automatically considered German, and might still fear deportation. According to German government figures every sixth Roma deported back to Kosovo has lived in Germany for more than 14 years – many of them children and youth.

A Short History Of German Asylum


German refugees after World War 2
German refugees after World War 2

Germany once had a very liberal asylum system. After the horrors of WWII’s National Socialist persecution and its aftermath, the principle of asylum was inscribed into the constitution in the shape of Article 16, which stated that politically persecuted persons are guaranteed asylum in Germany with the intent to alleviate any future suffering inflicted by conflict and expulsion.

When the Nazis started the annihilation of the German Jews, some 700,000 were forced to flee Germany and had to find refuge in other countries. On the other hand, enormous numbers of German nationals from former German territories were displaced after the War and had to be absorbed in new German borders.

Up until the 1970s only marginal numbers of refugees, mostly from the former Eastern Bloc, applied for asylum in Germany. It was only then, influenced by the introduction of increasingly accessible air travel, that larger numbers of asylum seekers from trouble spots in the (so-called) Third World began to arrive in Germany, a trend that rose continuously through the 80s and 90s with more than 400,000 asylum applications in the early 1990s following the war in Yugoslavia.

Following German reunification resentment amongst the native population in both east and west and populist statements rose in tandem, stoked by prominent politicians such as Secretary General of the Christian Democrat Party (CDU) Volker Rühe, culminating in a series of xenophobic incidents such as attacks on Vietnamese hawkers during the Hoyerswerda Riots in 1991, 1992’s Rostock-Lichtenhagen, where an asylum shelter was set on fire by Neo Nazis, and a 1993 arson attack in Solingen, in which three girls and two women died after their house was set on fire.

The subsequent “Asylkompromiss” (asylum compromise) worsened conditions for asylum seekers in Germany and severely restricted the possibility to seek asylum. Refugees from countries regarded as alleged „safe countries of origin“  do not have a claim to asylum and a new regulation was introduced allowing for asylum requests to be assessed – and refugees be sent back – right at the airport. Additionally, the third country clause stipulates that refugees who enter Germany via a safe third country (usually another EU state) do not have a right to asylum in Germany and can be sent back to this country. This deterrence mechanism was later incorporated in EU law in the Dublin II Regulation. The result of this is that legal access is made almost impossible.

These law changes prompted Iranian-German author Navid Kermani to declaim the “mutilation” of Article 16, pointing out that it “practically abolished the right to asylum as a fundamental law“.

Accordingly, in 2013, only 1.1 % (919) of refugees applying for asylum were accepted according to Article 16 (Grundgesetz) because of political persecution; 9,996 (12.4%) were granted asylum in respect of the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and 9, 213 (11,4%) were are granted subsidiary protection. The great majority (75.1%), i.e. 60,850 applications were not accepted – in around 30,000 cases because Germany was not responsible, in most cases due to the the Dublin Regulation’s permission to send refugees back to their country of first entry.

According to Pro Asyl, however, the majority of those rejected stay on in Germany because an imminent deportation is not possible, for example due to bad conditions in their home countries. At the end of 2013, there were 94,508 of these “tolerated” refugees (geduldete Flüchtlinge) in Germany – 34.5% (32,640) of those having been here more than 6 years and 23,6% (22,361) even more than 10 and 25,469 (26,9 %) are children and youth.

Some improvement is in sight: the coalition agreement of the current government foresees a new provision for granting tolerated refugees having lived in Germany for more than eight years (or six for families with children) a 2-year (renewable) residence permit on the condition that they are able to sustain their livelihood or that it is probable that they will be able to do so in the future. It remains to be seen if the new provision delivers its promise: it is supposed to be more extensive than previous ones but opinions of refugee organisations are mixed.

A Welcoming Society?

blue-cardJust as asylum and immigration policies tend to be seen as two separate things – one a humanitarian obligation, the other a means to counter demographic change and improve the economy – so immigrants tend to be also perceived in two different ways: “useful” migrants, whose skilled labour we sometimes desperately try and recruit from abroad, and “useless” migrants, the uninvited people who decide to come here themselves and are – sometimes – mercifully allowed to stay here.

Very few people would describe this second scenario, which generally involves no legal channels for entering Germany and blocking access to labour markets and attempts at integration, as particularly “welcoming”. Aside from a few exceptions (for example if a refugee already has close family in Germany), the only legal ways of entering are the Blue Card or via the UNHCR resettlement programme.

The Blue Card, like the US Green Card, allows highly qualified skilled migrants to enter the European Union – but the criteria are generally too high for a skilled refugee leaving his home country in a rush. For a start, applicants need to have already found a job that will pay 47,600 Euros per year or 37,100 Euros in bottleneck jobs: even highly skilled expats from Western European countries regularly struggle to find such jobs in Berlin.

Maybe not very surprisingly, the number of highly qualified workers entering Germany via the Blue Card fell short of expectations with only 7,000 using it since its introduction in 2012, 4,000 of whom had already been living here before. The number of refugees Germany receives per year via the UNHCR resettlement programme is 300, which equates to four refugees for every million inhabitants. For some perspective, consider that Sweden accepts 140 and the USA 170 per  million inhabitants.


 Improving Situation or Vicious Circle?


Syrian Refugees
Syrian Refugees

Germany’s pledge to take on altogether 20,000 Syrian refugees in the framework of the UNHCR Humanitarian Admission Programme as well as additional possibilities for family reunification for Syrian nationals in 15 German states, provided that their relatives can come up for their cost of living (execpt for medical insurance, which are assumed by the Länder), raises hope for greater humanitarian responsibility – as does the fact that these Syrian refugees are now allowed to work right away. Also the Dublin III regulation, which came into force on January 1, 2014, has also made improvements, for example with regard to the protection of unaccompanied minors and the obligation of informing asylum seekers about their rights. But the principle of sending them back to the country of first entry currently remains in place.

Not only that, but asylum seekers who have made it to Germany still experience a great many inconveniences and obstacles on their way to integration. Bad conditions in German refugee shelters have been the subject of many international media reports, including the strict regulations that forbid them to cross certain boundaries dictated by the relevant authority they applied for asylum in (Residenzpflicht), and, in some parts of Germany, the distribution of vouchers for food and toiletries instead of cash – the latter another deterrent introduced in the early 90s in order to discourage refugees from entering or staying in Germany (a rule that Berlin and some other federal states have meanwhile abolished). [Please see UPDATE at the end of the text.]

Asylum seekers are also denied the right to work for the first nine months after their arrival. For tolerated refugees whose asylum application has already been rejected but cannot be deported it is still one year, even after employment legislation has been improved in 2013; even if the nine month ban is reduced to three months, as the coalition government has promised, access to the labour market is still very restricted.

It has to be proven that no German or other citizen from the EEA (European Economic Area), Switzerland or people from third states with unrestricted access to the German labour market could be found for any given job (Vorrangprüfung) – and this rule is only dropped after the asylum seeker (or tolerated refugee) has spent four years in Germany; vocational training is now allowed after one year. [Please see UPDATE at the end of the text.]

It goes without saying that this is a major hindrance to integration. As mentioned above, many refugees stay in Germany for years and years as “tolerated” refugees. Pro Asyl therefore warns that we are repeating the same mistake as with the Gastarbeiter, of whom we also thought that they would leave again and never did – missing the opportunity to invest in their integration early. In 2010, chancellor Angela Merkel grabbed the headlines stating that multiculturalism has “utterly failed“, her explanation being that “the failures of the last 30 or 40 years cannot be resolved so quickly.” Assuming that Joachim Gauck’s more hopeful “union among the diverse” actually reflects a greater optimism among the population, it is even more important that we don’t miss that chance once more.

It’s true to some extent that Germany has been under some kind of strain of late. In 2013, the country received the highest number of refugees since the early 90s, when the right to asylum was severely restricted. And Berlin is especially overburdened with many refugees entering through the German capital, even though the city state, under federal distribution plans, is only supposed to take 5%. As a result, there have been cases where the authorities have temporarily sent refugees, among them families with children, to homeless shelters without providing them with food or medical care.

NPD Party activists hold up German flags in the Hellersdorf-Marzahn district. Image by Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images.
NPD Party activists hold up German flags in the Hellersdorf-Marzahn district. Image by Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images.

New refugee shelters have been opening up in residential areas, raising age-old fears of the unknown. In areas like Hellersdorf and Westend in the more bourgeois district of Charlottenburg, some of the residents have met these shelters and their inhabitants with skepticism or, as was the case with Hellersdorf, outright racism stirred by neo-nazi groups. Reasons cited for hating such establishments and their inhabitants are well-known by now: falling house prices, increases in criminality, a general resentment that “foreigners” are profiting from “our wealth”.

In our recent story about the current refugee protests in Berlin, we met Habir, an Afghan refugee. Habir is one of the lucky ones: after three years in Germany, an initially rejected asylum application and several 6-months residence permits, he has now finally received a temporary work and residence permit up until 2017. But that leads him directly onto a new problem: the kind of work he is allowed to do.

In Afghanistan he worked as an electrician, but may not find an opportunity to employ those skills here. Though Germany has been making efforts concerning the recognition of foreign qualifications, and has introduced a law to improve the recognition of qualifications acquired abroad and established a nationwide network of guidance centres, obstacles remain. Problems for refugees include possible costs for translations and appropriate fees, missing documents (left behind during a spontaneous flight or the country of origin refusing to hand them out), mistakes in the translations of important documents and transcriptions, or official staff not knowing how to deal with, for example, different versions of refugees’ names, due to different name giving systems.

Not only is this potentially wasting an individual’s potential – the longer a refugee does not use the qualification they had acquired in their country of origin, the less attractive they are for the economy and the harder it gets to switch back to what they have been trained to do.

It is also a paradoxical situation: while on the one hand the system hinders their access to the labour market and the German language (apart from a few model projects, there are no nationwide language classes for asylum seekers and tolerated refugees), it also insists that to enhance their residence status, or even acquire it in the first place (in the case of tolerated refugees), it is important not to be drawing state benefits.

Lacking sufficient language skills and confronted with these many obstacles, it is not surprising that especially tolerated refugees are at a high risk of ending up in the low-pay sector.


Re-Thinking The Asylum Question


Image by Paul Sullivan
Image by Paul Sullivan

As most of us appreciate and accept, a large part of what makes Berlin – or any metropolitan centre – attractive, is its diversity. The German capital is home to people from around 190 different nationalities that often add to its cultural richness and creative potential. It goes without saying that the way we receive and treat asylum seekers shapes both our self-image and the image others have of our country. If we need to open up the labour market for skilled workers in order to fill a shortage and to counter demographic change, why not build on the potential which is already here?

Following Lampedusa, the recognition that the European asylum question needs to be re-assessed has sunk in and politicians have started to suggest new strategies. Martin Schulz, president of the EU Parliament, argued for a radical re-think of Europe as an immigration continent, in which Germany should assume its responsibility as the richest and politically strongest country and accept more refugees. Also, asylum seekers should have the possibility to enter Europe legally and be distributed according to the different member states’ capacities.

Schulz’s view that the asylum problem needs embedding into the wider context of a more liberal immigration policy in Europe, is backed by experts like Klaus J. Bade, chairman of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration, who demands the possibility of legal access to Germany as well as easier and more flexible access to the labour market. If it were possible to apply for asylum abroad, Bade argues, with permission granted according to a credit point system and refugees distributed according to EU states’ capacities, asylum flows could be better managed and a lot of suffering diminished.

Canada already recruits migrant workers among asylum seekers, and Rita Süssmuth, former Federal Minister of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth who also chaired the Independent Commission on Migration in 2000 and 2001 (known as “Süssmuth-Kommission”, an expert comission temporarily established that year to issue recommendations for migration legislation), recently pleaded for fairer distribution of refugees among European countries and for a less strict distinction between migration and asylum.

Of course, the acceptance of asylum seekers should always be based on humanitarian grounds. But it doesn’t make sense that potential is wasted and that we reject out-of-hand people whose capacity to work is needed here. Sitting back and waiting while the suffering at the doors of Fortress Europe increases is no substitute for innovative solutions and open-minded thinking.

To put it in Habir’s words. “People cannot all be Christians, this doesn’t work, in the same way that people cannot all be the same. We need many different people, otherwise the world has ‘no flavour'”. The planned change of law allowing dual nationality for immigrant children born in Germany could well be a sign that Germany might finally be ready to embrace its new role as an immigration country – and further develop its “flavour”.

Part 1 of this article, which looks at Berlin’s refugee protests for better treatment, can be found here


This article is also available in Italian at Il Mitte.

UPDATE, 6 October 2014:

On 19 September 2014, a reform of the German asylum legislation was approved by the Bundesrat, the second chamber of the German Parliament.  The new asylum law declares Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia to be safe countries of origin. This means that refugees can be deported back to these countries more easily. Human rights organisation have sharply criticised this and pointed to massive discriminations against Roma as well as homo and transsexuals in these countries.

However, the new law also foresees some improvements: the principle of  ‘benefits-in-kind’ (“Sachleistungsprinzip”), which means that instead of money asylum seekers receive food packages, clothes etc., will be abolished (except in first reception centres) and Residenzpflicht (the obligation to stay within certain boundaries) softened, which means that after three months, asylum seekers and tolerated refugees can move freely within Germany. According to Pro Asyl, a permanent change of residence, however, is still almost impossible. Access to the labour market will also be improved: the „Vorrangprüfung“ (the principle that an asylum seeker or tolerated refugee can only get a job, for which no German or other European national can be found) will be reduced to 15 months. Besides, the complete ban to work is reduced from nine to only three months. Pro Asyl, however, fears that exceptions will still block access to the labour market for many of the tolerated refugees and criticises that the new regulation will so far only be valid for the next three years and that it is still at the discretion of the authorities if a work permit is issued in the first place.