The economic miracle in the Federal Republic of Germany that lasted until the early 1970s formed the framework for the recruitment of millions of migrant workers (“guestworkers”) of both sexes from south and southeast Europe. From the late 1950s until recruitment was stopped in 1973, some 14 million foreign workers came to Germany. Roughly 11 million returned home, while the rest stayed and were joined by their families. Initially, the largest groups were Italians, Spaniards and Greeks. At the end of the 1960s there was an increase in the proportions of Yugoslavs and, above all, Turks.
By the late 1970s a majority of these families of foreigners in Germany were already living in a social paradox – they were immigrants in a non-immigration country. This was either repressed or tabooed in the policy-making process. As a result, the overdue overall strategy for immigration and integration failed to materialize – until the debates on the report of an independent commission into immigration in 2001 and on immigration legislation between 2002 and 2004. To a small extent, foreigners were also employed in the GDR on the basis of intergovernmental agreements. These migrant workers primarily came from Vietnam and Mozambique.
Refugees and asylum seekers
The number of foreign refugees and asylum seekers in the Federal Republic was much lower than the number of foreign workers, although public debates on immigration since the early 1980s frequently revolved around the issue of asylum. The fundamental right to asylum that was anchored in the Basic Law after the Second World War was meant to ensure that all those who laid claim to this right would be granted safe refuge until a decision on their application. Increasing recourse to this right by refugees from all over the world led to greater support for restrictions on its application. A right of asylum also existed in the GDR, however, not as a right of the applicant, but merely as a right of the state to grant asylum. Compared to the Federal Republic, the number of asylum seekers in the GDR remained low.
In the Federal Republic, the number of asylum applications peaked at almost 440,000 in the reunified Germany of 1992. That formed the background to the restriction of the fundamental right to asylum in 1993. Since that time, individuals who come from countries considered “free of persecution” or enter Germany from “safe third countries” generally have little chance of receiving asylum. The annual number of asylum applications has been falling since the end of the 1990s and shrank to just over 19,000 in 2007. However, these measures have also led to an increase in the number of illegal stays. Additionally, the irregular and illegal migration of workers leads into the black economy. Focal points of such activity are found in the construction industry, cleaning and nursing services and other substitute and ancillary forms of employment.
Ethnic German resettlers
In the late 1980s and early 1990s the migration of ethnic German resettlers to the Federal Republic increased considerably. The migration of these resettlers includes ethnic German groups from east, central and southeast Europe whose destinies had been strongly defined by the Second World War. After refugees and expellees and economic migrants, they formed the third largest wave of migrants. Since 1950 a total of 4.5 million ethnic German resettlers have moved to the Federal Republic and reunified Germany. The migration of ethnic German resettlers to the GDR was also relatively low.
The immigration of Jews from the successor states of the former Soviet Union is still a relatively new phenomenon. The events that preceded it took place at the time of the fall of the Wall in 1989. In 1990, after distancing itself from the SED’s anti-Zionist doctrine, the GDR People’s Chamber declared itself willing to “grant persecuted Jews asylum in the GDR”. By April 1991 almost 5,000 Jews from the Soviet Union had applied to be accepted on the territory of the former GDR. After a lot of political toing and froing, this GDR initiative was implemented in reunified Germany. A total of almost 200,000 Jews from the CIS migrated to Germany by the end of 2007. They have a special collective status which is similar to that of recognized asylum seekers. The preferential treatment of Jews from the CIS in the home of the Holocaust is one of Germans’ answers to the darkest chapter in their history.
When the Immigration Act came into force in 2005, the changes involved restrictions for the two groups from eastern Europe: in the case of German resettlers, language tests also became mandatory for accompanying family members of non-German origin and, in the case of Jews, the so-called “integration prognosis”, which in some respects resembles a points system, was introduced. This has led to a significant decline in the immigration of ethnic German resettlers and Jews.
The debate on migration and integration
German never consciously intended to become an “immigration country” during the second half of the 20th century. Yet, in effect, that is what it became due to the normative power of social development. Gradually, it adapted its legislation and institutions to the concrete needs of the situation, each step following hefty political controversy.
At the beginning of the 21st century, discussion of German migration and integration policy centred on the political and media debate on the Federal Government’s Immigration Bill, which eventually came into force in 2005 and was amended in 2007. For the first time, this legislation made integration a statutory duty and introduced mandatory measures to promote integration – in the form of language and orientation courses. It also established a new, centralized migration and integration administration at the federal level – otherwise the individual Länder are responsible for integration – in the shape of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) in Nuremberg.
A criteria-based points system for the controlled approval of immigrants, based on the Canadian model, and analytical support from a migration council were eventually left out of the bill in 2004. As a result, the law largely failed to achieve the original goal of controlling migration. It led to highly counterproductive results in the international “competition for the best minds” so that the debate about the introduction of a points system and the foundation of an independent advisory body for migration and integration has begun again in 2008.
Despite various weaknesses, the Immigration Act of 2005 was an important step on Germany’s path from being an informal to a formal immigration country. Since the early 1980s, at the very latest, the Federal Republic has been an informal immigration country in social and cultural terms, if not in the legal sense. However, that has gradually changed: first, as a result of the 1990 reform of the Aliens Act, which facilitated naturalization; second, due to the reform of the German citizenship laws in 2000, which led to the limited introduction of citizenship through birth in the country combined with the time-limited acceptance of dual nationality; third, as a result of the Immigration Act of 2005; and fourth, due to the political initiatives of the integration summit and the German Islamic Conference since 2006, which actually describe Germany as an immigration country.
While the debate about Germany as a immigration country moved into the background in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, attention began to focus more and more on “Germany as an emigration country”. Since the late 1990s there has been a significant increase in emigration from Germany to other European countries and especially to the United States. Nevertheless, Germany’s transformation into an emigration country, which would involve the long-term net loss of population, is still a long way off. In fact, a substantial proportion of German emigrants return to the country. For the time being at least, Germany would appear to be on the way to achieving a migration balance. Clearly, however, that means it will not be possible to reduce the pressures on social security systems resulting from an aging population through the immigration of individuals of the best working age. The pressure for reform will therefore continue to increase at an even faster rate. How far it will be possible to answer this challenge is one of the central issues affecting the future of the Federal Republic of Germany as a welfare state.
Prof. Dr. Klaus J. Bade is Director of the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies (IMIS) in Osnabrück and one of Germany’s most renowned experts on migration.