Magazine article Insight on the News

Germany Grapples with Immigration: As an Influx of Immigrants Challenges What It Means to Be German, Particularly within the Muslim Community, Politicians Fumble with a Potentially Explosive Issue. (World: Germany)

Magazine article Insight on the News

Germany Grapples with Immigration: As an Influx of Immigrants Challenges What It Means to Be German, Particularly within the Muslim Community, Politicians Fumble with a Potentially Explosive Issue. (World: Germany)

Article excerpt

The second most commonly spoken language in Germany isn't French, Spanish or even English. It is Turkish, the language of the 2.5 million ethnic Turks who live and work in Germany as a postwar legacy of its guest-worker program.

Walking along the River Spree into the Kreuzberg neighborhood one immediately notices the warm smell of falafel shops, then the veiled woman hurrying from the grocery while men gather in coffee shops discussing issues of the day. Kreuzberg is to Berlin what Little Havana is to Miami: an island of immigrants in various degrees of assimilation. Many consider themselves German; others have no intention of adopting the culture of their host country and openly oppose it.

To some Germans, this type of multicultural nation is to be celebrated--all the more so, given its past treatment of ethnic minorities. A blessing or not, the existence of a large foreign-born population in Germany causes problems that need to be resolved before they explode.

Germany's first ethnic-Turkish Member of Parliament (MP) is well aware of the many problems unassimilated immigrants pose, and he comes down on the side of the German secular state and assimilation. He is Cem Vzdemir, a member of the Green Party who recently resigned in an unrelated scandal concerning frequent-flier miles. Vzdemir has been a strong advocate both of reforming Germany's immigration laws and taking his fellow Muslims to task for demanding special treatment.

"It is wrong when the administrative court in Berlin says that a girl from a Muslim family can be exempted from sex-education lessons" the ethnic Turk said in a televised forum on immigration. "That is precisely the wrong signal. It is an achievement of Western civilization that girls have the same rights as boys to find out about their bodies. And if we start following the view that they are Muslims, so they have the right to stop their children from having to confront that, we can simply dissolve our common society. Everyone has to obey the rules irrespective of whether they are German or non-German."

The question of Germany's immigrants, in particular its Muslim population, has been complicated and given a sense of urgency since Sept. 11. After all, it was an al-Qaeda cell in Hamburg, where some of the terrorists availed themselves of Germany's generous unemployment benefits, that appears to have been the command center for the entire operation. In August, German officials broke up a money-laundering ring that was funneling cash to Islamist groups in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Even before the terrorist attacks against the United States, the question of Germany's "guest workers" was a major political issue. In April 2001, when Germany was attempting to overhaul its immigration policies, there were many calls to require its 7 million foreign nationals to learn German as a requirement for staying in the country. Memet Kilic, head of the federal advisory council responsible for foreigners, shot back by demanding that German politicians learn Turkish.

The language barrier is a difficult one for the older generation of guest workers. When Turkish laborers were recruited for the car, steel and mining industries, they were offered mostly arduous shift work. At the time, they weren't required to take language courses, nor did their shift schedule make it easy to find the time.

Today, Turks account for roughly 30 percent of Germany's immigrants. Along with the waves of refugees and job-seekers from the Balkans and former eastern European countries, new immigrants are challenging what it means to be German. While the colonial legacies of France and Britain long have inured them to the sight of non-French and non-British communities in their cities, Germany is relatively new to these demographic trends.

Perhaps that is why Germany has made up for lost time and now is the least homogenous country in mainland Europe. At this writing, Germany has by far received and absorbed more immigrants than any other country in Europe. According to the latest census, 12 percent of Germany's 82 million inhabitants are foreign-born.

While these numbers are greater than those of its European neighbors, the percentage is far lower than Germany's corresponding cohorts in the United States. In the 2000 census the number of foreign-born and first-generation U.S. residents reached its highest level, at 56 million, or roughly 20 percent of the population. Even the children of illegal immigrants in America are automatic citizens if born on U.S. soil.

Germany, like the rest of Europe, doesn't quite know how to handle its immigration situation. Aside from cultural differences, there's the problem of providing for Europe's aging population--its soon-to-be pensioners, who will enjoy comfortable benefits at the expense of the current working population. A recent report issued by the European Commission warned that immigration, even if massive, would not resolve Europe's problems resulting from aging--particularly the retirement crisis. "Immigration may help fill certain specific gaps in the European labor market, but there is no way we can halt or reverse the process of the significant aging of the population in Europe" the commission concluded.

Nor can the potential political explosiveness be ignored. Before he was assassinated, Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands had used this issue to gain strong support among people who were worried about the increase in immigration and the increase in crime. While German politicians tread lightly around the subject of race, that doesn't mean it isn't on everyone's mind. And not everyone follows the taboos. Barbara John, a Bundestag member for the Christian Democratic Union, has claimed that 42 percent of the 127,000 Turks living in Berlin are unemployed, and that only a few speak adequate German.

Germany's handling of its guest workers is unique because the original mandate never intended for the workers to stay in Germany, let alone become integrated. This is why, even today, citizenship laws are based on blood, not birth, meaning that children of refugees, guest workers or other immigrants aren't guaranteed citizenship.

The guest-worker program was begun to fill low-skilled jobs 40 years ago in the face of the postwar economic environment. According to an immigration study done by the University of California at Davis, when Germany stopped recruiting guest workers in 1973, the country had 300,000 people unemployed and an unemployment rate of 1.2 percent, with almost no unemployment among foreign workers. But since 1993, the unemployment rate of foreign workers has increased steadily and is much higher than the overall numbers. Those changes have been reflected in the welfare numbers as well. Since 2000, roughly 30 percent of welfare recipients in Germany have been foreigners--almost three times larger than their share of the population.

In the run-up to the national elections, neither of the two main candidates took strong or easily identified positions on these issues. But unemployment is flirting with 10 percent, and concern about immigrants taking up jobs isn't as far beneath the surface as it seems, say some political operatives. They point to the neighboring Netherlands, where the slain Fortuyn struck a chord with voters who wanted straight talk on immigration.

Now Fortuyn's disciples have considerable clout in the new Dutch government. One of their own, Hilbrand Nawijn, serves as the new immigration minister. When he recently suggested that illegal immigrants should be locked up in old military barracks for two months and have their social-security payments cut by 90 percent, it was mostly international immigrants' rights groups that protested.

"I think it's a sign of the new hard-line attitude toward foreigners in general, especially those perceived to be causing problems" say Dick Houtzager, a lawyer at the National Bureau Against Racial Discrimination in Rotterdam. "If you look back to Sept. 11, we do notice a change in the climate. People are celebrating the end of political correctness and feel as if they can say what they want."

But in Germany there have been relatively few proposals to deal with the sticky immigration questions. The discussions that have occurred are more about who will pay for the language courses and other technicalities instead of discussing the meaning of integration. Back in May, the conservative candidate to be the next chancellor told the Bundesrat, the upper house of Germany's parliament, "We have, if we are honest about it, no rigorous conception of it so far."

Since then, his party has developed some stronger language. The party platform now reads: "Integration means more than being able to speak German and recognize our legal system. It also includes ... acceptance of the norms and customs that the native population feels obliged to obey. This means accepting the system of values of our Western, Christian culture, which has been influenced by Christianity, ancient philosophy, humanism, Roman law, and the Enlightenment."

That kind of language leaves room for a German clone of Fortuyn to make headway, either from the left or the right.

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