Germany’s long walk to becoming an immigration nation

By Jörg Kleis

“Why do they have to make it so hard to get an appointment with the Embassy to apply for a visa? How is it possible they say that the German population is aging and they need young qualified talent to fill the gaps, and then don’t provide for the laws to solve that? Why would nobody speak English at the Ausländerbehörde (foreigners registration office). Why are they so mean to you at the Ausländerbehörde? Why do they attract university students from abroad, offer all these degrees in English and yet not tell you how hard it is to find a job or that a high proficiency in German is required? How can I ever get a job if a German will always be chosen over me?”

The truth comes first: Germany is not an immigration country. Correction, it is not an immigration country yet. What you are about to read may not make you happy, especially if you are a foreign student, graduate or professional looking for a job in Germany. But it hopefully makes things clearer.

Germany is no longer the same country it was sixty years ago

First of all, since the end of World War II, Germany has experienced large migratory movements: war refugees and resettlements after 1945; guest worker recruitments, mostly in the 1960s from Italy, Greece and Turkey until an abrupt ban in 1973 in face of the oil crisis; the unification and integration of East Germany after 1990; integration of European labour markets, including the Eastern enlargement of the EU in the mid-2000s; and, most recently, the so-called European ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015 and thereafter.

That being said, Germany is no longer the same country it was sixty years ago, thirty years ago and, consequently, five years ago. The curiosity in all of this is that the de facto status of Germany being a country of immigration has until today not been fully accepted by German society, meaning by a large portion of the population. The major reason for this is that over decades, our Federal Government(s) were unwilling to.

Germany is (only) a de facto immigration country

Researchers who evaluated the West German immigration experience found that Germany has been an immigration country since the beginning of the 1950s. Adjusting for population size, they found the inflow comparable to that of the United States at the beginning of the last century, when immigration there was at an all-time peak. So, Germany was, de facto, an immigration country from early on.

Nonetheless, it is accurate to argue that the country did not want to be an immigration country, which was still the case in 2018. This was reflected in a lack of legislation, a denial of the long-term challenges of an ageing population and in ignoring the long-term needs of migrants. At the same time, rumors about welfare shopping, an increase in criminal acts were supported by the media and exploited by right-wing politicians. Talk about identity issues!

It is hard to describe why that is. Germany is not Germany. It is a diverse and sometimes paradox system of 80 and some million people with different views, levels of education, backgrounds and biographies. One could ironically claim this to be a perfect breeding ground for any immigration nation. But, what has been missing is a necessary long and intensely conducted public discourse. Germany has been shying away from that, and it may in fact be closely connected with the cautiously led debate on “German identity” – for whatever that may be. I like to refer to what we are currently witnessing as “Wachstumsschmerz”, somewhat of a German growth pain, including all the successes and struggles connected with our history and our stance on immigration.

You will hear high quality debates on this big issue on public radio, you will sometimes watch good ones on public television, but that is pretty much it. No public figure, especially not anyone who ever ran for a significant office at the federal level, has ever made this their political theme, has ever stimulated a large public debate that would last longer than a few tweets. As long as I have witnessed political debates about migration, I have not identified politicians, across party lines, who even though they understood the need for a more flexible and open labour market-oriented immigration regime, often acted helplessly and were either too defensive to fight openly for such a policy or were overwhelmed by political pressures, from the voters or their own party members.

A new and extensive public debate is long overdue

So, what does this mean for today? The Ausländergesetz (Work Migration Control Act of 2008) is still the pertinent law. Under this policy, all those considered qualified (either by virtue of a university degree or a high salary) mainly needed a concrete job offer to be able to take up work in Germany. This policy continued and was refined through the next two Merkel cabinets, the last again a cabinet with the Social Democrats. 

It will – at last – be replaced by the Fachkräftezuwanderungsgesetz (Skilled Workers Migration Act) next year, but it is still not sufficient. The next step must be a points systems in immigration laws, for instance, though providing transparency for migrants and the host country. They have been effective in screening and guiding mobility for regular migrants, especially in Canada and Australia. This enables a government to base the selection criteria on integration indicators such as education, language proficiency, job characteristics, the professions needed and social activities.

Since the general public has a broad misperception of the need of migrants and their economic effects, the policy-makers often only engage in low-dimensional or simplistic migration policies. Over the years, I have seen few German politicians who regard themselves capable of explaining the benefits of mobility for society to their voters. It is, however, the job of policymakers to make it transparent to voters where society’s long-term needs are. An new and extensive public debate on Germany as an immigration nation is long overdue.

This article largely draws from the following contribution that is worth reading: Klaus F. Zimmermann, Gaps and Challenges of Migration Policy Advice. The German Experience, chapter 8 in: Martin Ruhs, Kristof Tamas & Joakim Palme, Bridging the Gaps. Linking Research to Public Debates and Policy-making on Migration and Integration. Oxford University Press 2019, pp. 111-126.

Back to