01 Oct, 2019

Immigration to Germany: a model country or a deterrent example?

by Bettina Biedermann

1. Introduction: Changing contexts and trends in migration to Germany

Germany has been constantly changing its migration policies for the last 60 years. In the immediate aftermath of the second world war, no one could imagine that the country would need more migrants, especially when 11 million Germans had returned from the lost territories in Eastern Europe. Still, ten years later, the Western German economy was already looking to increase its workforce. This led for example the governments of Bonn and Rome to sign an agreement that committed Italy to send its so-called Gastarbeiter to Germany. 
The arrival of migrants from Italy and other European migrants has gradually changed food habits 

Migrants’ arrival has gradually changed food habits on Germany even since the Fifties. Recipes which were unknown then are part of German food traditions nowadays. Spaghetti and lasagne number among dishes which are not exotic anymore. In big cities, you can find foods from all over the world. Moreover, adopting new food habits involves getting nearer to the people who introduced these habits, as Mahren Moehring writes in her book “Foreign Food”. 

German politics used to adopt a strategy whose purpose was to limit migration as a temporary phenomenon. Still, this strategy proved to be effective only with reference to certain groups such as South Korean migrants. Germany has gradually become an established destination land for migrants. Migration is broadly accepted in German society even though it keeps being discussed in the public domain. The purpose of migration numbers among the most debated topics: Should humanitarian factors determine immigration policies, or must Germany accept migrants only in case they contribute significatively to the national economy?

These doubts - or even paradoxes - became apparent in 2015 and 2016 when Germany welcomed a huge number of refugees. Public debate seldom distinguishes between the migration of workforce and the acceptance of persecuted people. This approach is reflected by the words of Katrin Goering Eckardt, a member of the German Green party, on the occasion of the massive influx of migrants in November 2015: “Suddenly, we received human beings”.

On the one hand, Germany could be deemed as a successful example of integration of migrants both on the labour market and in society. Nowadays, integration of people arrived from 2015 comes at a price. The federal government invests a lot of money to provide refugees with the skills necessary to enter a demanding labour market. Still. These efforts are not always successful. 

Therefore, Germany is probably both a model and a dissuasive example. A model when we consider that millions of migrants (especially from Southern Europe) found their place in Germany. A dissuasive example since the integration of around 1,7 million refugees has largely failed and the German welfare state could be on the verge of collapse.

2. German remarkable success in migrants’ integration

Nowadays, around ten million foreign citizens live in Germany. This estimate rises to around 19,3 million people if Germans with a migration background are included[1]. Therefore, almost a quarter of the people living in Germany have a foreign passport, was born abroad or has a foreign parent at least. The biggest national group of people with a migration background is composed of Turks (around 2,8 million people), followed by Poles (2,1 millions), Russians (1,4 million), Kazakhs (1,2 million) and Rumanians (0,9 million)[2]. 

Starting from 2005, economic growth has made the integration of migrants on the labour market successful. This becomes apparent if we look at unemployment statistics. In 2005, 9,8 percent of adults with no immigration background were unemployed, whereas 17,9 percent of migrants did not have any job. The same meaningful difference can be remarked even eleven years later. Though, the unemployment rate among migrants amounted to 7,1 percent in 2016, significantly lower than the rate among German nationals in 2005 (3,4 % in 2016)[3].

The positive evolution of German economy made possible event to unqualified workforce to enter the labour market. In 2005, dependent workers amounted to 26,3 million people (39 million people if we include entrepreneurs and freelance too). In 2018, 32,8 million people were dependent workers, that is around 6,5 million people more than in 2005. The same rise can be applied to the total number of employed people, hitting a record of almost 45 million people[4].

A question springs to mind: Would the professional integration of migrants have been as successful if Germany had not experienced such a boom? There is no doubt that the unemployment rate - and the consequent dependence on welfare state - would have been higher in case of economic stagnation or even recession. In other words, Germany could afford its open-door policy because it benefited from its integration in the European and world economy to such an extent that both jobs and tax revenue were enough to provide migrants with either an income or welfare. 

Germany could therefore be forced to acknowledge that migration is a social problem rather than a moral one. In the last years, not just foreigners flew in, but specifically poor foreigners in concurrence with poor locals aiming to find a job and affordable accommodation[5].

As to food supply, difficulties arose already at the beginning of the migrant crisis in 2015. In spite of the slogan “Hauptsache satt” (Food first of all) and of 2,2 billion euro spent on food yearly (at least three meals per day for 800 thousand refugees for an average daily expense of 7,50 euro each), food quality has not been always acceptable[6].

3. The migrant wave in 2015 and 2016: Has integration succeeded?

Even though refugees fled their country because of civil wars or political persecution rather than because of starvation (in fact, the poorest cannot even fund their journey to Europe), cuts in food provision in Middle Eastern refugee camps in 2015 pushed more and more people to leave for the West.

In 2015, it was often asserted that refugees would rapidly find a job and would not weigh on social services. Expectations which have not been fully satisfied. The fact that most refugees could count just on limited qualification and education meant that their integration on the German labour market was an issue difficult to solve.

According to polls conducted by the Federal office for migration and refugees, most refugees rely upon limited formal education. A lot of them did not undergo any professional training (76%) or cannot show any school certificate (40%). Moreover, diplomas issued in their home country cannot be compared to German ones in most cases (85% of the interviewees)[7]. 

In light of these data, the German economist Bernd Raffelhuschen considers the assumption according to which integration will take up to six years as fairly optimist. According to a poll conducted by the Institut für Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung (IAB) among employees in job centres in charge of refugees, the situation is far from being easy. Most refugees lack the basic prerequisites to find employment such as language skills and work qualifications. Furthermore, several among them share an old-fashioned concept of women’s role in society and have no idea of how the labour market works in Germany[8]. 

Nowadays, around 1,7 people live in Germany for humanitarian reasons. Half of them arrived in 2015 and 2016[9]. In August 2018, 6,8 percent of the total population benefited of unemployment subsidies whereas 63,7 percent of the refugees did so. Just 361,000 refugees out of 1,7 million can rely upon an employment covered by health insurance. 

The bill is bound to be expensive. Raffelhueschen estimates that every refugee will cost 450,000 euros to the German welfare state during his or her lifetime. This also because of low skills and qualifications. If we consider around two million refugees, the total expense amounts to 900 million euros[10].

German Willkommeskultur (Welcoming culture) proved to be extremely expensive. That is way the Bundesrepublik cannot be deemed as an example for other countries: Hardly any other economy could afford such high costs. Destination countries such as the USA or Australia provide refugees with a much more limited range of social services and have a much less generous welfare state overall. On the contrary, high taxes weigh on German workers. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average tax in Germany amounted to almost 40 percent of gross income in 2018. The average value for OECD countries was 25 percent and even lower in Canada, USA and Australia[11]. Beneficiaries of this fiscal policy are migrants, the German Finance Ministry and German enterprises, whose tax burden is pretty low if compared to international standards.

The double nature of Germany as both destination country and welfare state is a dangerous combination. And complains about the unfairly generous treatment of migrants can already been heard in the public debate.

4. Cultural variety without a model

Even though Germany has been elaborating a migration strategy which is both socially and economically viable since the end of WWII, neither a clear legal framework nor social consensus has been reached around migration. Some fundamental questions are still with no answer: How should locals and migrants live together? Is Germany interested in migration? If yes, why? Should Germany become a multicultural society where migrant keep following their own unchanged traditions[12]? 
Food plays an important role in this context. Germany offers integration initiatives to refugees which also include the promotion of group cooking. In fact, to know foreign food traditions can be a way to get acquainted with other cultures as a whole. It is a German tradition to organize parties at schools where migrants are asked to contribute with food from their home countries as a tool to transmit their culture. The migrant is not just a viewer but also an actor in a process of cultural interchange. A number of groups organize cooking lessons held by migrants. Among them, the NGO “Ueber den Tellerrand”, whose name literally means “over the edge of the plate” but is also a German idiom meaning “to look beyond the horizon, to think out of the box”. This organization was funded in Berlin in 2014 and is now active in over 30 German cities[13].

Supporters of immigration often stress how necessary migrants are for the German economy. Humanitarian obligations towards persecuted people are equally highlighted. On the contrary, critics oppose multiculturalism and warn of the negative effects of massive immigration. “Alternative fuer Deutschland” but also some leftist politicians belong to the latter category.

It is remarkable how long migration has been debated in Germany. In the Seventies, social democratic chancellor Helmut Schmidt warned of the consequences of massive immigration from Turkey. A warning which he extended to “foreign cultures” in 2005. Even though migration as a means to oppose the aging of the German population is not contested, the arrival of people from the poorest Turkish and African regions do not solve the problem according to Schmidt. On the contrary, they worsen the situation[14]. In 2011, he even added it had been a mistake to keep Gastarbeiter in Germany[15]. 

The approach promoted by the former chancellor is not supported by the coalition formed of pro-migrant politicians. Social democrats and leftists have mostly swept away their doubts with regard to migration. Sceptical voices were silenced and denigrated during the migration crisis in 2015 and 2016. 

The then chairman of the social democrats, Sigmar Gabriel, changed his mind several times. In fall 2015, he said that Germany was a rich country which could tackle successfully the effects of massive migration. He also praised German humanity and added that the country would have benefited from the arrival of foreigners in light of its ageing population. Gabriel forgot all what he said two years later during the election campaign when he advocated the closure of all the EU's external borders[16]. 

5. Conclusions: The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.

There is no topic which excites the public debate more than migration and refugees policies. German chancellor Angela Merkel herself / who has always defended her own policy - declared during an interview in September 2018 that “the migration subject divides this country significantly"[17]. 

Since 2015’s migration crisis, Germany has changed visibly. The attack at the Christmas market in Berlin in December 2015, knife attacks and rape episodes constantly feed the debate. Several violent acts were committed by refugees who had already been charged with other crimes or should have already been expulsed since their asylum application had been refused. Phenomena which contributed to the polarization experienced by Germany in the last three years. 

Meanwhile, the opposition against the Willkommenskultur has radicalized. In June 2019, politician Walter Luebke was murdered by a right extremist allegedly because of his support to a generous migration policy. This embittered climate shows how German politics missed the occasion to prepare the German population to social change and to develop a framework for peaceful coexistence. What lacks is the “consent of the governed”, as it is called in the United States. 

The development of a leading culture as advocated by Syrian scholar Bassam Tibi twenty years ago does not find support in German society. Tibi talked of a civic identity including different cultures. In this way, both locals and migrants should merge their own identities to produce a fruitful synthesis, moving towards each other[18].  Unfortunately, the debate in Germany does not include TIbi’s ideas. The current narrative is rather dominated by fear and taboos.

Bettina Biedermann is Research Advisor at the Berlin School of Economics and Law.

  1. Statistisches Bundesamt;
  2. Statistisches Bundesamt. Press release, 1/8/2018: https://www.destatis.de/DE/Presse/Pressemitteilungen/2018/08/PD18_282_12511.html
  3. Statistisches Bundesamt. Press release, 16/11/2017: https://www.destatis.de/DE/Presse/Pressemitteilungen/2017/11/PD17_413_12521.html;
  4. Sozialpolitik Aktuell, Erwerbstätige 1992 – 2018, http://www.sozialpolitik-aktuell.de/tl_files/sozialpolitik-aktuell/_Politikfelder/Arbeitsmarkt/Datensammlung/PDF-Dateien/abbIV2.pdf;
  5. Herbert, Ulrich (2001): Geschichte der Ausländerpolitik in Deutschland. C.H. Beck: München 2001, pag. 344;
  6. Mühleib, Friedhelm (2016): Hauptsache satt.!?!. Zum Stand der Flüchtlingsverpflegung Momentaufnahme Februar 2016. https://slidesdocument.com/philosophy-of-money.html?utm_source= fluechtlingsverpflegung-hauptsache-satt-zum-stand-der-fluechtlingsverpflegung-momentaufnahme-februar-2016-dr-friedhelm-muehleib;
  7. Bundesagentur für Arbeit, Statistik/Arbeitsmarktberichterstattung, Berichte: Arbeitsmarkt kompakt – Fluchtmigration, Nürnberg, Ottobre 2018, pag. 5;
  8. Gehm, Florian (2018): Diese Hemmnisse erschweren die Integration Geflüchteter am Jobmarkt, Die Welt, 13/11/2018, https://www.welt.de/wirtschaft/article183781704/Fluechtlinge-Was-die-Integration-in-den-Jobmarkt-erschwert.html;
  9. Statistisches Bundesamt, Press review, 23/11/2018, https://www.destatis.de/DE/Presse/Pressemitteilungen/2018/11/PD18_457_12521.html;
  10. Bok, Wolfgang (2017): Die Flüchtlingskosten sind ein deutsches Tabuthema, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 15/09/2017 https://www.nzz.ch/meinung/kommentare/die-fluechtlingskosten-sind-ein-deutsches-tabuthema-ld.1316333;
  11. Eckert, Daniel (2019): Deutsche Steuerlast ist „Weltspitze“ – doch die Infrastruktur verfällt, Die Welt, 11/04/2019 https://www.welt.de/wirtschaft/article191736757/OECD-Studie-Bei-der-Steuerlast-gehoert-Deutschland-zur-Weltspitze.html;
  12. Herbert, Ulrich (2001): Geschichte der Ausländerpolitik in Deutschland. C.H. Beck: München 2001, pag. 322;
  13. https://ueberdentellerrand.org/;
  14. Weitere Zuwanderung unterbinden, Interview mit Helmut Schmidt, Focus Online, 11/06/2005 https://www.focus.de/politik/deutschland/helmut-schmidt-ii_aid_95473.html;
  15. Topçu, Özlem; Ulrich, Bernd (2011): Zehn Millionen Türken: Die Furcht des Helmut Schmidt, Die Zeit, 20/10/2011, https://www.zeit.de/2011/43/50-Jahre-Migration-Schmidt;
  16. Sandner, Wolfgang (2018): Wie man eine deftige Suppe kocht, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 18/04/2018, pag. 9;
  17. Angela Merkel interviewed by Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung, 29/09/2018;
  18. Tibi, Bassam (2018): Die Veredelung des Fremden ist ebenso falsch wie seine Verteufelung: Hilfreich wäre hingegen ein nüchterner Blick auf die Migration, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 28/09/2018 https://www.nzz.ch/feuilleton/die-veredelung-des-fremden-ist-ebenso-falsch-wie-seine-verteufelung-hilfreich-waere-hingegen-ein-nuechterner-blick-auf-die-migration-ld.1422946.