What immigrants are versus immigration

Country Profiles Migration: Data - History - Politics

Vera Hanewinkel

Vera Hanewinkel is a research assistant at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies (IMIS) at the University of Osnabrück.
Email: [email protected]

Jochen Oltmer

Dr. phil. habil., born in 1965, is apl. Professor of Modern History and member of the board of the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies (IMIS) at the University of Osnabrück.
Email: [email protected]

Germany has seen extensive immigration and emigration movements in its history. Today, more than 22 percent of the country's residents have a migration background. The long-standing maxim that Germany was not a country of immigration, however, blocked migration and integration policy reforms well into the 2000s. In particular, the high immigration of asylum seekers in 2015 and 2016 triggered emotionally charged debates and posed considerable challenges for politics and society.

The choir "Singing of Cultures" sings in the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder). The choir consists of foreigners from the asylum seekers' home "Seefichten" and residents from both sides of the German-Polish border towns of Frankfurt (Oder) and Slubice. (& copy picture alliance / ZB)

The year 2015 went down in the collective memory of the population of Germany as the year of the "refugee crisis". Never before in the history of the Federal Republic has the number of newly arriving asylum seekers been higher. The reactions in the population fluctuated between euphoric willingness to accept and violent defense against those seeking protection, between welcoming culture and calls for isolation, between cosmopolitanism and nationalism. On the one hand, there was an unprecedented level of civil society commitment to refugees, which often made it possible to accommodate and care for those seeking protection in the first place, as the state structures now seemed completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of asylum seekers. On the other hand, violence against refugees and their accommodation increased significantly. According to records, an arson attack was carried out on a refugee shelter every third day on average. [1] The right-wing populist AfD, which instrumentalized the issue of immigration for itself, managed to get into several state parliaments, in some cases even with double-digit approval ratings. In the federal election on September 24, 2017, the AfD received 12.6 percent of the second votes nationwide. It moves into the Bundestag as the third largest parliamentary group. The societal polarization is also noted by the authors of a study on group-related misanthropy in the population of Germany: "The topic of refugees is an example of the division in society into a majority that wants open-mindedness, tolerance and equality and that not very small and loud minority, isolation , calls for national reflection and inequality. "[2]

Against this background, questions about social integration are gaining in importance: How can and how do we want to live together in this country in the future? Politicians and civil society must find answers to this. This is also shown by a representative survey of the population entitled to vote in January 2017: According to the respondents, the issue of immigration and integration was the most important issue that the Federal Government should deal with in 2017, followed by the issue of internal security. [3] Against the background of Islamist-motivated terrorist attacks in Germany and other EU countries, the issue of internal security has not only gained in importance, but is also increasingly closely linked to the discourse on (asylum) immigration. For example, the terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market, in which 12 people were killed and 48 others seriously injured in December 2016, was carried out by a Tunisian man who came to Germany as an asylum seeker. The fact that he was living in Germany with a Duldung because he could not be deported to his country of origin due to a lack of papers fueled the debate about stricter deportation laws and more efficient deportation practice. In July 2017, the "Law for the Better Enforcement of the Obligation to Leave" introduced stricter rules for tolerated people and people who are considered to be "dangerous". According to this, people who pose a "danger to the life and limb of third parties" can be detained more easily. The possibility of monitoring with the help of an electronic ankle cuff is also provided for this group of people. Tolerated people who deceive the authorities about their identity and who do not participate in the procurement of travel documents should be allowed to be deported without notice. In addition, their freedom of movement is restricted by the fact that they are not allowed to leave the district of the responsible immigration authority. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees will also be allowed to read data from laptops and mobile phones in the future in order to determine the identity and origin of an asylum seeker. Asylum seekers "with no prospect of remaining" can also be obliged by the federal states to live in an initial reception facility for up to two years - instead of the previous six months. Like other tightening of asylum law in 2014-2016, this law has also met with criticism from welfare associations and refugee aid organizations. The accusation: All refugees who come to Germany would be treated like potential criminals and increasingly disenfranchised.

The focus of the debate has shifted: in 2015, issues of overcoming the "refugee crisis" and a possible "load limit" were discussed. In 2016, against the background of a sharp decline in the number of newly arriving asylum seekers, the integration of people who remained in Germany for the long term came to the fore. At the same time, security issues received more attention.

If refugee immigration is perceived as a security risk, then the logical consequence is to expand isolation measures. In the EU, Germany is campaigning for countries bordering the EU to be more closely involved in the European border regime. The system of "apron security" would be re-established, which had collapsed in the course of the "Arab Spring" and the associated destabilization of various states in the neighborhood of the EU. In addition to the refugee agreement between the EU and Turkey, there are also efforts to cooperate more closely with Libya, arguably the most important transit country for refugees and migrants from Africa who want to enter the EU via the Mediterranean. Agreements have also been made with other African countries. As part of these so-called "migration partnerships", they undertake to curb irregular migration towards Europe and to take back rejected asylum seekers. In return, the EU is increasing its development aid in these countries in order to combat the causes of displacement. People should be prevented from making their way to Europe. Europe itself seals off many of its borders with fences against immigrants. The European border protection agency Frontex has been expanded into an agency for the border and coast guards and given significantly more powers. For example, it should support the EU member states in returning rejected asylum seekers to their countries of origin. The measures are having an impact: the number of new refugees arriving in the EU and thus also in Germany has fallen significantly since 2015. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), around 117,000 (refugee) migrants came to Europe via the Mediterranean in the first seven months of 2017. During the same period, around 106,604 asylum seekers were registered in Germany.

The declining number of asylum seekers has been declared a success by politicians, but human rights organizations are viewing the developments with concern. They point out that the foreclosure measures mean that numerous asylum seekers are no longer given the opportunity to apply for asylum, a right that they are entitled to under the UN Convention on Human Rights. [4] More than 65 million people worldwide are on the run. Ascending trend. The declining number of asylum seekers in Germany may hide this global refugee crisis. The question of Germany's humanitarian responsibility remains.

Shaping the immigration society

The topic of asylum, which is currently dominating the debate, and the call to limit refugee immigration, obscures the fact that, in view of its demographic development, Germany will continue to be dependent on immigration from abroad in the future. The number of deaths in Germany has been higher than the number of births since the 1970s. Without immigration from abroad, the population would shrink. The high level of immigration in recent years has contributed to population growth. The Federal Statistical Office nevertheless assumes that this is only a temporary trend. In addition, a high immigration of mostly young people from abroad can slow down the aging of Germany's population, but it cannot stop it. More and more older people will face fewer and fewer younger people. As a result, there will also be a shortage of workers in the future. In some branches and regions of Germany, many companies are already complaining about problems in finding suitable personnel. There are especially shortages of skilled workers in the engineering professions, in the medical and nursing sectors. The gradual opening of Germany to (qualified) labor migration [5] from abroad can also be explained against this background: The lobbying work of the German economy for a liberal immigration law has contributed to the dismantling of immigration barriers and a paradigm shift in migration policy. Migration is no longer vehemently rejected and understood as a burden (on the social systems), but also as a potential. The migration policy reforms have contributed to Germany becoming one of the most liberal countries in the field of labor migration policy in the opinion of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) among the 35 member states of the organization. The selective opening to qualified immigration has to put up with the criticism that immigrants are only judged according to their economic (and demographic) usability and are practically negotiated as "goods". [6]

In order to counteract demographic change and shortages of skilled workers, a high level of immigration alone is not enough; the immigrants must also choose to stay in Germany for a long time. In order to have a positive influence on this decision, representatives from politics and business have been discussing the establishment of a "welcome and recognition culture" for several years. This should make Germany more attractive for potential (qualified) immigrants and a real "home" for migrants living here and their descendants for the long term. Initially, the term primarily referred to the influx of skilled workers from abroad, but from 2015 onwards it was increasingly linked to the refugee issue. The pictures of Germans welcoming refugees to train stations with applause and posters with the slogan "Refugees welcome" went around the world. The initial euphoria of welcome in the "long summer of migration" [7] then cooled significantly. Doubts grew as to whether Germany could really integrate that many people. [8] Studies by the Bertelsmann Foundation on the welcoming culture in Germany show this trend. A central result of the study "Welcome culture in the 'stress test'" published in 2017 is that Germany presented itself as an "open and mature immigration society" in 2015 and 2016, but skepticism towards immigration has grown. Respondents were less likely to attribute positive effects to immigration in 2017 than in the 2012-2015 study period. However, the results of the study also show that the immigration society is predominantly viewed as normal, especially by the younger generation.

The future assessment of immigration will also depend on how well the immigrant refugees are successfully integrated into society. A report by the Institute for Employment Research, using the example of labor market integration, shows that this does not succeed overnight and that it takes a lot of patience instead. According to this, experience with refugee immigration in the past shows that five years after moving to Germany, 50 percent of refugees of working age were in employment. After 15 years, the employment rate was 70 percent, in line with that of other immigrant groups.

The course of integration depends not only on the efforts of the immigrants to integrate, but also on the opportunities for participation offered by the host society. What kind of society do we want, what kind of (immigration) country should Germany be? This will also be negotiated further in the future. The result of the 2017 federal election will indicate the direction in which it is going (in terms of migration policy).


Both opening and closing tendencies dominate German migration policy as well as media and public debates. Neither at the federal German nor at the European level can the will be identified to develop an overall migration policy concept that sets medium and long-term goals for the most diverse forms of migration (EU freedom of movement, recruitment of highly qualified workers and workers in areas of shortage, education and training migration, handling with temporary immigration, asylum) and developed instruments that enable a holistic migration policy. Only when such an overall concept was in place would it be possible to make it clear from what drive and from what perspective migration policy is being pursued in Germany and Europe.

This text is part of the Germany migration profile.