Migration & Integration Germany Interview

“There has been a constant neglect of the migration reality”

Interview with Meike Behrends on migration and asylum policy in Germany

© Left: Ineedawsomepics/pixabay / © Right: Private

In 2015, almost one million asylum-seekers came to Germany and the country still has to cope with the repercussions of this development – in social, political and economic terms. Yet, migration and integration is not a new phenomenon to Germany. In this interview, Meike Behrends, an expert on European migration policy talks about the historic development of migration in Germany and how the country’s integration approach has changed during the last decades.

First question is could you tell me something about the history of migration in modern Germany? What are the historical experiences that Germany has with migration and could you briefly describe them until today?

The first and second World War caused a movement of about 30 million people within Europe. Especially after the WWI and WWII peace treaties, people had to migrate within Europe because they were displaced, deported, repatriated. I think these were the most painful movements in Europe in the last century, but I want to focus more on the time after World War II to understand what is going on today.

I think you can divide the time from 1945 until today into three periods. The first would be between the 1940s and 1970s, when both East and West Germany hired many foreign workers and brought them to Germany, around half a million in the East and more than a million in the West. Many of those who came to West Germany came from Turkey, Portugal, Spain – this was labour migration.

The second phase would be the 1990s, when many asylum seekers fled the war in former Yugoslavia. Also, many people called “Spätaussiedler” – ethnic Germans, who used to live in the former German territories until WWII – came when the Soviet Union broke apart. They were allowed to settle back in Germany and were granted citizenship.

The last phase started in the early 2000’s, when you could see a lot of migration from other EU member states. Then two years ago there was a high number of refugees arriving to Germany. I think these are the three most important phases and I think that the German migration and integration narrative has been changing among these phases.

How has the migration and integration policy changed during the last decades?

For a long time, there have been no policy changes at all, which was the actual problem: We have had fifty years of migration and developed no concept for dealing with these dynamics. When trying to understand German migration and integration policies, you always have to keep two things in mind. First, the German conception of nationhood is an ethnic one. A German is believed to be white, speaking without any accent and of German descent. This means that people who do not fit into this concept have constantly been perceived as or remained “foreigners”.

German conception of nationhood is an ethnic one

The second factor shaping German integration and migration policy is that there has been a constant neglect of the migration reality on the ground. Until 2005 the political doctrine was that “we are not a country of immigration” – even though there were millions of people with migration background in Germany. This was repeated again and again. Even though the reality on the ground was different, people were exposed to this discourse created by politics, the media and in their minds, Germany was the same as 20-30 years ago. I think there was a huge discrepancy between reality and the dogma, the political doctrine. Therefore, no real concept for integration has been established.

The first alien law for people with a foreign passport was issued in 1999. 30 years after people started migrating in high numbers. There was no regulation of migration because of the neglect of the situation. You can already see it in the labelling of the people. They were called “Gastarbeiter”, which can be translated to “guest workers”, because they were expected to come, work and leave again. There were no integration classes, no language classes, no central organisation of integration at all

Migration was very restricted, but for the labour recruitment agreements with Turkey and other countries. Asylum has become very restricted from the 1990s onwards. In the 90s, just like today, there had been many attacks on asylum seekers and shelters, few people were killed. In the wake of the discussion on asylum and under strong pressure from the public and the political right, the right to asylum was severely limited in the so-called “Asylkompromiss”. After the parliament had passed this law, it became impossible to apply for asylum in Germany if you came through another country – which is almost always the case, except when you come by plane.

The general doctrine was “us” vs. “them”

I think the general doctrine was “us” vs. “them”. It changed from 2000 onwards when the discourse started to focus on demographic change and lack of skilled labour force. It is a pretty utilitarian approach, with a very economic perspective on migration: we pick the people that we want, we manage some kind of controlled migration, and we only open these possibilities for the few selected and close it for others.

But the realisation that some migration and immigration into Germany is necessary was also channelled into two new laws. One was the one entitling the children of immigrants in Germany to obtain citizenship, the other came in 2005 and was the first comprehensive immigration act (the so-called “Zuwanderungsgesetz”). For the first time, the state acknowledged the need for integration policies: language classes were introduced for everybody, integration courses and regulations for accessing the labour market. Before that, integration was left to the municipalities and everybody had to deal with it as they could. It sounds really strange if you think of it: 40, 50 years of migration into Germany and no central concept or idea, no long-term planning?

What is the impact or emphasis of the current migration policy? What are the biggest challenges of immigration policy in Germany today? What strategies proved useful and which did not?

I think you have to differentiate the subjects of migration policy. There is the group of EU citizens who enjoy freedom of movement and they are the highest number of people moving into Germany. I looked up a number for 2015 – it was 600,000 people. So about 500,000 or 450,000 of them came mostly from Bulgaria, Romania, Poland. In the beginning, there was a lot of fear that these people would come and ruin the labour market with low wages. Nothing like that happened and there is not much discussion about people coming from these countries any longer.

40, 50 years of migration into Germany and no central concept or idea, no long-term planning

So we have people coming from EU member states, which are of course free to move under the EU regulations. And then we have the third country nationals, who are a different story because there is still high emphasis of preventing migration in every manner possible. Legal migration to Europe is a very hard process for third country nationals: one has to have a job, before getting that job the employer needs to prove that the employment conditions fit the criteria. For asylum it is as hard. The EU policy is focused on pushing the issue to the external borders and trying to move irregular migration to third parties, like transit countries or countries of origin, for instance Turkey or Libya. In other words, when it comes to migration from non-European countries it has been very restricted, and Germany has been in a very favourable position because it is not Italy or Greece.

So, what would be the biggest challenge nowadays?

I think the biggest challenge is to develop better schemes for regular migration into Germany: to make it possible for people not to risk their lives when they want to come to Germany and to establish transparent, fair and acceptable schemes and regulations that people can understand and follow if they want to move. It is a problem for nation states to control migration and there must be some sort of mechanism, priorities.

Regarding integration policy in Germany: what are the biggest challenges? How is Germany dealing with integration?

It has changed within the last 10-15 years. The word “integration”, especially in German, not in the Anglo-American context, still has a negative meaning for many: people expect immigrants to come and integrate, it is not understood as a mutual process, where both parts have to integrate into a common new narrative. Speaking of integration in Germany basically means assimilation.

The word “integration”, especially in German, still has a negative meaning for many people

The policies of the government are also based on that assumption. The doctrine is “fördern und fordern” – to support and to demand. I think that people are expected to really make a huge effort in order to be allowed to be part of the national fabric. They have to earn it and prove that they really want to belong, even if this means giving up on their own beliefs and origin.

Today you have at least mandatory integration and language classes. The biggest problem was that there was no long-term concept, but even now I do not see any master plan. The recent influx of people will have an impact on the country for many years to come and now is the time not to repeat mistakes. I see that there is much more money being spent on integration classes, language classes and schemes that try to validate and acknowledge the qualification that people are coming with. This has been made easier and therefore entering the labour market has become easier, too.

Unfortunately, the procedures still can take very long, and it happens that someone lives here for 10-20 years without a permanent status, in limbo and in frustration of not being allowed to work. Access to integration courses and programs is linked to the residency status. Sadly, it also has an impact on the children. If their parents do not know the language, how can they help them with homework? I am a bit afraid that these kinds of mistakes are being repeated now. There has been no public discussion on what went wrong regarding integration policies in the last decades. The blame is mostly being put on immigrants who are believed to refuse integration. Somehow people feel that multiculturalism failed in Germany and that “parallel universes” have developed. I do not see these universes though. I believe that our priorities are still trying to process all the latest asylum applications, but I am afraid it will take too long. And it might be wasted lifetime for many people.

Do you think it can repeat now with the people who came from Syria?

The discussions are really nasty between the right and the left now and the climate is really violent and harsh. Only because of mobilizing people against refugees, the AfD was able to enter the parliament. I think now it is time to redefine the German concept of nationhood. The political fights are so fierce because people still hold on to this ethnic understanding of being a German. Changing national mentality is a very long process because it has been hammered into our heads for a long time. Now is the chance to overcome this old national self-understanding and giving the people who came here a chance. But if we continue the way we have been doing things in the last decades, the same mistakes will be repeated.

The discussions are really nasty between the right and the left now

I do not consider 2015 as a re-direction in migration politics in Germany at all – it was a one-time emergency solution. Nevertheless, the number of people who became active and volunteered with refugees and are still volunteering is amazing. Millions of people volunteered in 2015 and started to get engaged for a new idea of society. There are studies that show that most of them, around 95% of the people, also do it because they want to stand up against right-wing populism.

So maybe there is actually a new German welcome culture and maybe something changed or maybe this phenomenon is so new that you have to see whether it is sustainable?

There was also solidarity in the 1990s when the attacks on refugees occurred, but not on such a scale. Numbers of volunteers have decreased in the last months though. Volunteering now means looking for jobs and accommodation – this is much more frustrating and takes a lot more effort than handing out food and clothes – activities that were needed in the beginning. But I am not sure if I would speak of a “German welcome culture”. There is also the dark side of civil society: PEGIDA, the new right, “die Identitären”. Many people are very angry and very frustrated. Thus, there should be more appreciation for what some people are doing. Politicians should take take them seriously and listen to them. It would be important to tie policies to the experiences volunteers are making on the ground. There is a lot to learn from small initiatives, because they really have a lot of expertise and they went through a lot.

There is a lot to learn from small initiatives, because they really have a lot of expertise

So your point is that the meaning or the role of the third sector and the dialogue with authorities is not enough. Even though in Germany there is a strong civil society and umbrella organisations and there are funds for the third sector, yet it is not really included when it comes to serious policy making?

It remains on a very local level. Some initiatives are very well connected with local authorities in the municipalities, in the cities. They discuss, they exchange ideas, they work together. But there are also many tensions between volunteers and public administration. Sadly, hardly anybody is interested in their experiences. The civil society is not enough organised at the federal level. If they could mobilise throughout Germany, they would have huge power. Let’s say, if the volunteers today said “ok, tomorrow we will go on strike. We no longer do X, Y, Z because we are doing many things that duties of the state” – they would have huge leverage to enforce changes. But at the same time, they know if they go on strike, the refugees will be the first ones to suffer from this.

If civil society could mobilise throughout Germany, they would have huge power

You mentioned that migration is instrumentalized in political discourse. During the last election campaign, we saw AfD posting anti-migrant slogans, like “Burkas, Bikinis, we make new Germans our selves [neue Deutsche machen wir selbst]”. Is this the first time in history of Germany that migration was so pronounced in the campaign?

On my way here I saw a poster of the AfD “Schluss mit Asylbetrug”, which means “end asylum fraud”. This word was created in the 1990s, when people were coming from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Back then, the conservatives from CDU and the CSU were riding on this ticket and they also introduced (and the social-democrats eventually passed this law as well) the asylum compromise, which was very controversial. Many politicians back then were not as outspoken as some are today.

The climate now is the roughest ever, especially on the internet

Today, if something happens you see that the mayor of every municipality arrives to condemn the attack, or the minister of the federal state or maybe even a minister of the federal government. People are coming to show that they do not agree with violence. But back then, attacks in Rostock-Lichtenhagen occurred and no-one really prevented it. The politicians did not go on TV and did not travel to Rostock-Lichtenhagen to talk to the public. But despite of that change, many people say that the climate now is the roughest ever, especially on the internet, which became a new platform for such arguments. Before the emergence of social media, the attacks on journalists and politicians were not possible to such an extent. I think this is a problem everywhere in the world: in France, or when looking at Trump. Migration is something that right-wing people love to use in order to mobilize people.


This interview has been conducted by Maria Skóra.

Meike Behrends studies European Studies and Middle East Studies in Osnabrück, Istanbul and Tel Aviv. She focuses on externalization of European migration policy in Turkey. She also is interested in the topic of political engagement of immigrants in Germany and diaspora communities. Her professional experience embraces work in human rights organisations, today she is professionally engaged in civic education for volunteers working with the refugees in Germany.