German Immigration Issues

Nov 21, 2005

Germany's Federal Minister of the Interior Otto Schily addresses the problems of integrating immigrants into German society and talks about the progress made, which includes overhauling the Nationality Act for the first time since 1913 and introducing integration courses for new arrivals.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Merrill House Programs. On behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank you for joining us for this breakfast program.

Before we begin, I would like to take a moment to thank the German Consulate, especially Karsten Voigt, for his assistance in arranging this event. This morning we are very privileged to have as our guest speaker Otto Schily, the German Federal Minister of the Interior. As many of you may know, Minister Schily has a very challenging portfolio, for it is his office which is responsible for cross-border operations, migration, immigration, repatriations, and combating terrorism. He is also the Minister of Sports.

If you have been reading the paper or listening to the news recently, you know that this has been an especially troublesome time for Europe. In Germany, recent elections have only added to the overall anxiety. Therefore, we are extremely honored that you, Minister Schily, have taken the time out from your busy schedule to meet with us today.

In Europe, for some years now, Germany has been the chief destination for refugees and asylum seekers. While in the past Germany has been conflicted about the large number of foreigners coming into their country, recently the government has worked hard to adopt a more liberal policy in this area. It has done so knowing that morally it is not only the right thing to do, but if their economy is not to become moribund, they will need more immigrants to bolster economic development and fill the vacancies in the labor force in the years ahead.

It could be argued that throughout history many nations have had to confront complex issues that dealt with absorption and assimilation of minorities and migrants, especially during periods of wars, ethnic conflicts, and economically difficult times. However, because of recent events in both France and Britain, we are more acutely aware of the unintended consequences that can arise when an influx of foreigners is not properly integrated in the new world that they have recently entered.

In this age of terrorism, discontented immigrants and migrants have the potential to impact, not only within one's own country, but in other parts of the world as well. The overarching test is how to make it possible for people of different backgrounds and beliefs, coming from disparate nations around the globe, to live harmoniously side by side in a multicultural society.

Our guest today has had a great deal of experience working with this issue and has earned a reputation as both a man of principle and one of action. Over the years, he has gained wide respect among members of both the Green Party and the Social Democrats. He has served in the Bundestadt representing each party at various times. After Gerhard Schröder became Bundeskanzler in 1998, he appointed Mr. Schily to be Minister of the Interior.

Managing an influx of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrant workers is a tough, but not impossible, challenge. That being said, we are extremely interested in hearing your views and learning how Germany is meeting this complex set of problems.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest today, Otto Schily. Thank you for being here.


OTTO SCHILY: It is my pleasure to be with you, and I thank you very much for the invitation to come to the Carnegie Council. The bad news is that I am about to leave my office, but the good news is that I am staying in Parliament and will involve myself in foreign policy. The other good news is that my successor is a good friend of America, and he will continue the same job that I have been able to do in the past seven years.

Migration has long been an issue in Germany. Before I came into government, I had the impression that we were not able to admit what migration was all about. There was a shift when we came to office in 1998 that we had to acknowledge and recognize reality.

When migration is discussed in Germany today, it is almost always in terms of immigration. We often forget that in earlier times hundreds of thousands of Germans emigrated, many of them to the United States. This is a good lesson for my compatriots. For many of them, their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty meant that they had arrived in a free and better world.

In Bremerhaven recently, I spoke at the opening of a museum commemorating these German immigrants. Among those who are documented is Johann Augustus Roebling who arrived in New York in 1831 as a young man to seek his fortune in the new world.

The U.S. is a good example for us of a country with a positive history of immigration. Immigration is regarded as a major force behind the United States' rise to become the most economically and politically successful nation in the world.

By contrast, Germany had long ignored immigration or had treated it primarily as a burden and a problem. For half a century, German policy on migration claimed that Germany was not a country of immigration, which clearly contradicted the reality. As early as 1955, West Germany began recruiting labor from southern Europe. Indeed the second-largest immigrant group in the country after the Turkish is Italians.

After World War II, the German economic miracle demanded labor. By 1964, a million foreign workers were living in Germany. These immigrants were known then as gastarbeiter, guest workers, which indicated what policymakers expected of them; they were supposed to work in Germany and then return to their home countries.

But the policymakers were wrong. They wanted workers, but what they got were human beings who came with their families, their customs, and their culture. The longer they stayed in Germany, the looser their ties to their home countries became. But for the Germans these immigrants were still only guests, and were treated as such.

Initially, no state intervention was needed to ensure that these immigrants became successfully integrated at their work place, sport clubs and in their neighborhoods. This immigration was essential to Germany's economic success and brought enormous cultural enrichment.

In German cuisine, for example, Italian pasta, Spanish paella, and Turkish doner kebab took the place of sauerkraut and bratwurst long ago. When I visited Afghanistan, I met a German police officer from Berlin. I asked, "How's it going? Are you feeling good?" He said, "I'm here for a year, and I'm a little bit homesick." Then I asked him, "What makes you feel homesick?" He answered, "I miss doner kebabs."

But as more immigrants began arriving from countries and cultures further and further away, and as economic conditions in Germany worsened, immigration-related problems grew. Today a disproportionate number of foreigners and young people from immigrant families are unemployed and dependent on welfare benefits.

On average, immigrants in Germany have lower levels of education than native Germans, often because of a lack of language skills. Conflicts between Germans and foreigners have also arisen out of cultural differences, such as the equality of men and women.

These are all results of a lack of adequate legislation. Because there was no immigration law, Germany's very liberal asylum policy was used to fill the gap. In the early 1990s, 78 percent of all refugees in Western Europe went to Germany, but only a tiny proportion of them were victims of political persecution. The majority went to Germany in the hope of improving their economic prospects. Understandable, but it is not the purpose of the legislation to give them shelter.

German policymakers ignored all of these problems for far too long. The conservatives long relied on the assertion that Germany was not a country of immigration. The political left long relied on laissez-faire, defending the Utopian notion that a harmonious, multicultural society without conflict would simply develop naturally, by itself, automatically.

When I began my term as Minister of the Interior in 1998, there were 7.3 million foreigners living in Germany, or more than the total population of Ireland, Denmark, or Switzerland, and about 9 percent of Germany's total population. In the major cities, the percentage is much higher. For example, in Frankfurt am Main, in the area known as "Mainhattan"—not Manhattan, Mainhattan—25 percent of the population is immigrants.

Over the past seven years as Interior Minister, I have worked to overhaul German immigration policy and change my fellow citizens' attitudes towards immigration. I do believe that we have succeeded in this effort.

Germany today is a modern and cosmopolitan nation which is confident in dealing with immigration. One pressing reason to deal with the issue is that we will host the World Championship in soccer in 2006.

There is a broad social consensus that Germany is a country of immigration. We have succeeded in initiating the first systematic policy on immigration and integration based on the following basic principles:

  • Germany needs immigration, which serves the economic and demographic interests of our country. We need immigration because, despite high unemployment, certain economic sectors are experiencing labor shortages, and we need smart, highly educated people to come to Germany. We must welcome immigration in order to win the global competition for the best minds. Lastly, immigration is needed as compensation for a shrinking and aging population. I serve as living proof of the German problem; I am seventy-three years old and still have to keep working as minister.
  • Because of its history, Germany has a special obligation to accept political refugees. We are grateful that thousands of those persecuted during the Nazi regime on the basis of their race and political convictions were able to find refuge in other countries. For example, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann were granted asylum in the United States, and Willy Brandt in Norway and Sweden. The United States has a glorious past of accepting these kinds of refugees. Germany takes its responsibility seriously to grant asylum to victims of political persecution and to provide a new home for Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

But the right of asylum must not serve as a substitute for the possibility of legal labor migration. Misusing the right of asylum in this way would undermine society's willingness to help true victims of persecution.

Such immigrants living in Germany long term are entitled to receive help in order to become integrated into society. But they are also obligated and must be willing to become integrated into Germany.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we overcame the political division of our country. We don't want a new ethnic division or any parallel societies in Germany. We do not want Berlin to be divided anew, this time into a German and a Turkish city.

But social conflicts are unavoidable when a significant part of the population doesn't speak German and does not accept, or even actively opposes, our culture, values and laws. We must, therefore, not isolate immigrants, but take targeted measures to promote their linguistic and cultural integration. This is a complicated matter to address, because some people say, "Okay not to assimilate; let them have their profile by origin, and by their cultural background." In the United States in the past, one always spoke of the "melting pot," but now I am told that the better expression is "salad bowl."

There is no place in our society for anyone who abuses the freedom and security which he or she enjoys as an immigrant in Germany to support terrorism. We must, however, make sure we do not place immigrants, especially Muslims, under general suspicion, which would be unfair to the millions of Muslims who live in Germany and abide by its laws. But we refuse to allow foreign terrorists or their sympathizers to operate on German soil.

When putting these principles into practice we draw a distinction between two groups of immigrants: first, those who arrive legally in order to work or study in Germany; and second, those foreigners whom we allow to stay in Germany for humanitarian reasons, because they are refugees or victims of political persecution. Our new Immigration Act contains provisions for both groups, tailored to the various purposes of foreign residents in Germany.

Already in 2000, we initiated a green card program to invite information and communications technology specialists to work in Germany. Now we have improved the conditions for foreign workers even further. Highly skilled workers qualify for a permanent residence permit from the time they enter the country. In addition, residency for top-level managers, scientists, and academics has been made more attractive, in that the requirements for their family members to live and work in Germany have been simplified.

Another improvement benefits university graduates. It made no sense for us to educate thousands of foreigners in German universities every year without making the least effort to keep them in Germany once they finished their studies. Allowing such skilled and motivated young people to leave the country after graduation was an enormous waste of Germany's resources. This is why the new Immigration Act allows foreign graduates to remain in Germany for a year while looking for work. This strengthens Germany's position in the global competition for the best minds.

Streams of refugees and asylum seekers have an impact not only on individual nations, but on Europe as a whole. There are no longer any border checks between the fifteen Schengen states, so it is possible to travel unhindered between Iceland and Greece, Finland and Portugal. Immigration policy with a strictly national orientation would, therefore, be completely ineffective.

All of the EU member states are affected by the growing pressure of migration. The major reason for this is, in addition to the desire to live in a free and democratic country, the enormous differences in living standards between Europe, Africa, and Asia. Europe, therefore, needs to increase its effort of helping neighboring regions with their democratic and economic development. The only way to reduce the enormous pressure of migration on EU states is by allowing people to gain a chance at a happy and peaceful future in their home countries. Many people drown in the Mediterranean, and risk their lives to cross the sea to Europe. We need to resolve the problems of Africa inside Africa, not in Europe.

Because all of Europe is affected, we need joint policy solutions in German asylum policy. We decided in the 1990s that whoever has already found refuge and security in another country or has applied for asylum in another EU member state cannot re-apply for asylum in Germany. By giving this policy a European dimension, we put an end to the misuse of German asylum law and to so-called "asylum shopping." This allowed us to offer protection from persecution to a broader group.

You are familiar with the cruel ritual known as female genital mutilation practiced on girls and women in Africa. Women who wish to escape this fate can now find refuge in Germany. Under our new Immigration Act, persecution on the basis of gender has the same status as political persecution.

At the core of our new policy is better integration of immigrants. The most important prerequisite for integration is language skills, as they make communication and mutual comprehension possible. Language opens the door to reveal what a culture is thinking and feeling. Without language skills, you can't follow legislation.

This is why immigrants have the right under certain conditions—and also the obligation—to participate in an integration course consisting of 630 hours of instruction over about six months. During this time, immigrants learn German, and they are also taught about German laws, history, and culture. This form of integration is based on the principle of offering assistance and requiring results. It is up to both sides—the receiving country and the immigrant—to do something.

This integration course is very inexpensive and everyone who successfully completes the program improves his or her chances of obtaining a permanent residence permit and becoming a naturalized German citizen. If a foreigner who is required to take the course does not do so, he or she risks losing the right to reside in Germany.

The second building block of our integration policy is the new Nationality Act. When I assumed the office of Interior Minister, the relevant law dated from 1913. It still bore the signature of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Under this law, a German citizen was someone whose mother or father was German. The law also excluded from citizenship those people whose parents or themselves had come to Germany as "guest workers." Although they may have lived in Germany for decades, or even been born there, they did not have German citizenship. Practically speaking, they were Germans, but in legal terms they were still foreigners.

According to the new Nationality Act, a child born in Germany whose mother or father is a permanent legal resident of Germany automatically becomes a German citizen. With this, we ended a policy which excluded a significant part of the population from citizenship for generations. Their parents and grandparents came from Italy or Turkey, and the new Nationality Act says to their children and grandchildren, "You belong in Germany, and you have the same rights and duties as everyone else." This is also a tool for integration.

At the start of my remarks, I mentioned a young German immigrant, Johann Augustus Roebling. He did indeed make his fortune in the United States. He worked here in New York as an engineer, and the results of his labors can still be appreciated today. He designed the Brooklyn Bridge, which was finished by his son after his death. People like Johann Augustus Roebling were bridge builders also in the figurative sense, because they created a bridge across the Atlantic and helped forge the friendship between Germany and the United States.

Their biographies demonstrate how successful a nation can be when it sees immigration as an opportunity rather than a burden. Germany still has a great deal to learn from the United States in this regard.

Over the past seven years, we have succeeded in overhauling Germany's immigration policy. Germany today is a tolerant and welcoming country. I very much hope that the new German Federal Government will continue this policy by strengthening and expanding the bridge to the United States.

Johann Augustus Roebling named his son Washington. It would be a bit excessive for future immigrants to Germany to name their children Berlin. In New York and Berlin, young people's successes should not depend on where their parents came from, but solely on their own merit.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much for your comments. I would like to open the floor to questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: You said that it is important in Germany that people learn not only the language but also German culture. Have you been able to define what constitutes German culture so that you can judge whether somebody is integrated into it?

OTTO SCHILY: German culture is a work in progress. It is helpful for immigrants to learn a bit about the history of Germany, the culture, the music. They do not have to put aside their own cultural background. We are happy that a young Turkish man still has the chance to speak Turkish and to have his knowledge of the Turkish language, because he also becomes a bridge between Turkey and Germany. I hope that Turkey will become an EU member in the future.

If you look at Polish immigration in the 1920s, all of the Poles were assimilated. In the Ruhr region where I was born, there is a particular accent in the German language which was influenced by Polish. When we first won the World Championship, it was mainly thanks to players of Polish origin.

We should be open-minded on this subject. But language is necessary. In German, we have the expression "mother tongue," muttersprache. We have fatherland and muttersprache.

If the Turkish mother doesn't speak German and is not prepared to learn it because she is at home—and the old Turkish traditions say you have to stay at home, you shouldn't go out in society—then you create problems. Therefore, we have to have the offer of integration courses.

QUESTION: According to research conducted by the Center for Turkish Studies, of the 2.6 million people of Turkish descent, most with Turkish passports, nearly 80 percent experience discrimination in Germany. You have 72 percent of individuals of Turkish origin who declare that they are religious or very religious. There are also one-third who have little or no contact with Germans, and 22 percent live in Turkish neighborhoods. You have no anti-discrimination laws, as we have in the United States. How do you expect them to assimilate into a culture that appears to be inhospitable?

OTTO SCHILY: Some of them don't want to assimilate. If they don't want to be too close to German society, fine, if they abide by the law and the constitution. This is not only a problem on the federal level; it is also, mainly, a problem of the municipalities. Along with the Bertelsmann Foundation, we have developed a competition among the municipalities who have the best concept for integration. This includes how they deal with the urban planning and housing problems.

If you look at the situation in Paris, we see that the issue is housing problems, unemployment, and lack of infrastructure. When young people have nothing to do, they will engage in the sort of acts which we have experienced recently.

In some places in Germany, we have similar problems. For example, in Cologne we see some neighborhoods where Turkish people come in and the native population is becoming the minority. Germans then leave, and it becomes more or less a Turkish area. This parallel society is an issue we must address. There is no proven recipe for resolving this problem.

QUESTION: What is the dropout rate of children of immigrants in the school system in Germany? I am especially thinking of what in America would be middle school, realschule. How high is unemployment among immigrants compared to German workers?

OTTO SCHILY: It is much higher. Nearly 40 percent of the Turkish young people in Berlin are unemployed. They have handicaps in education. If their language skills are insufficient, it is quite natural that they will lack possibilities in the labor market. Entrepreneurs are often not very wise in their decision-making. An important businessman once told me, "If we see that a Turkish boy succeeds in getting his high school diploma in German, it is a much greater achievement than the native German boy. Therefore, I should be giving him a job." But sometimes the top companies don't subscribe to this policy.

But we are seeing some attempts to improve the situation. In Hamburg, for instance, a businessman has started a corporation with the regional government of Hamburg between schools and business to provide better chances for Turkish or foreign young people and to make a bridge, to bring them into jobs. In Berlin, there is a similar program which we should extend to include other regions in Germany.

QUESTION: To what extent has the government adopted affirmative action programs to integrate the foreign population into Germany?

OTTO SCHILY: We have started an integration program with the course I have mentioned. The office formerly known as the Federal Office for the Acknowledgement of Refugees is now called the Federal Office of Migration. This federal office was set up to cooperate with the municipalities on the various proposals for on how to deal with integration problems.

We need to have an Office of Culture, and an Office of Sports. Sports are a very good tool for integration. The same is true with cultural programs. So I am optimistic that this will lead to good results.

QUESTIONER: Affirmative action in the United States usually means that you favor somebody from a minority, often favor them in place of somebody who is an American, in terms of jobs or government contracts. Is there a similar initiative in Germany?

OTTO SCHILY: No, although we have, for example, tried to integrate Turkish or Italian officers into our police force. But mainly it is a question of competition. If he is more qualified, he gets the job.

We do have integration problems. But, on the other hand, we have many integration successes. Members of the federal parliament are of Turkish origin, and we have journalists, high-ranking people in businesses, on television. Wherever you look, you will find people of foreign origins.

QUESTION: You mentioned that foreign terrorists or their sympathizers should not be able to take advantage of German asylum laws. How do you determine who is a sympathizer, and how do you protect people who may simply be fellow members of a particular mosque?

My second question is on the issue of solving African problems in Africa. Human Rights Watch will release research soon about the conditions in detention facilities in Libya and Ukraine, since immigration is also coming also from the east. The conditions in some of these facilities would shock the conscience of any European. They also would violate European obligations under international law. How do you deal with such a problem?

OTTO SCHILY: Taking your second question, I have been discussing this issue with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, and the Commissioner of Home Affairs in the EU Commission.

I am surprised that humanitarian organizations were not so interested in what has happened in the past, people crossing the Mediterranean, dying there, being drowned by perpetrators. These human trafficking people are some of the worst criminals.

Therefore, we must deal with these issues in the transit countries, like Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia. And we must address the problems as early as possible. When there are refugees, we need to provide them shelter and take measures to get them home, as soon as possible, and not wait for the problems to come to Europe. The solution is not to bring all of these people to Germany or to Europe. This must be a consistent policy on Africa. Perhaps we need to address the problem inside the EU and in partnership with the U.S. and the UN. It is a dramatic situation, and it will become increasingly dramatic in the future.

We need a situation where the Geneva Convention is universally recognized and where we take the measures necessary to assist and support countries. It is a difficult debate, because Libya and Morocco will tell us, "No, we are a sovereign state and we don't want you to get involved in our internal affairs." But the discussion has begun and we need to follow through.

Your first question was about a definition. Terrorism is a threat to all of us. It is not only that we have to address the problems of active terrorists. We know that there are perpetrators and they are planning. In recent years, we have been fairly successful in Germany at uncovering plots and bringing the plotters to justice. For example, when Prime Minister Allawi was visiting Germany, there was a plan to kill him. We were able to arrest the perpetrators.

In 2000 we detected the so-called Meliani Group, which was planning a terrorist attack on the Christmas Market in Strasbourg.

But we also have to deal with the breeding grounds. We will not tolerate preachers of hatred in mosques. Nor will we allow mosques to provide a forum to prepare or discuss terrorist attacks. We must have a clear position.

Peaceful Muslims are welcome. We are tolerant of religion and our constitution says that you can practice any religion you wish. But there are limits. If you don't stick to the constitution and you believe that your religion is above the constitution, that line cannot be crossed.

Sometimes it is not so easy to define who is dangerous and who is not. You can't look into peoples' brains. But there are signs where you can say, "Here you are crossing a line," and therefore, "You have to leave Germany."

We have a strict law that says that if we have evidence that the person is a danger or a threat for our society, for our security, then he must leave the country. The same is true in the United States.

But sometimes we have an obstacle, because we can't send him home because he will be tortured or put to death. What then? We haven't yet resolved this very thorny problem.

I have proposed that sometimes it is necessary to temporarily imprison this sort of person. My proposal has been much criticized, which I understand, because an arrest must be on the basis of very clear evidence which may be difficult to obtain. The new coalition has put my proposal aside and has said, "This kind of security imprisonment will not be included in our new legislation."

QUESTION: Can you provide some figures on illegal immigration and how to deal with this situation?

OTTO SCHILY: We need to make a distinction between legal and illegal migration. If you have opened the possibility of legal migration, then you are also better situated to fight illegal migration. We have no exact figures on how many illegal migrants are in Germany today. This is also affecting the labor market. I am convinced that illegal migration has declined in Germany, but pressure still exists. I always tell people, "Don't believe that the problem in Italy, or Spain or Greece, the pressure coming from the southern part of Europe, is not affecting us, because some of these people landing at Lampedusa, the island near Sicily, will eventually make their way to Germany."

If we detect illegal migrants, we will have to send them home. Sometimes it is very complicated, with technical and humanitarian problems to deal with. We also need better cooperation in Europe. We are creating new passports and visa identification with biometrics to provide a better chance of monitoring these persons.

We created a high-level group in the EU in 1999 which was to study the push and pull factors of migration. They chose some countries like Romania or Morocco to study the situation, but the results were not very promising, and their discussions remained in the theoretical realm.

This leads me to the conclusion that the best chance to resolve this issue is to have a more consistent policy regarding the social and economic problems of the countries of origin.

JOANNE MYERS: We thank you very much for being with us.

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