“I see myself as a door opener”

Integration Commissioner Aydan Özoğuz is the first person of Turkish origin to become a member of the German Federal Government. An interview about her personal role and her political goals

picture-alliance/dpa - Aydan Özoğuz
picture-alliance/dpa - Aydan Özoğuz picture-alliance/dpa - Aydan Özoğuz

In April 2014 the Federal Government reached agreement on dual citizenship. What message would you like to send with this change in the law and the acceptance of dual passports?
What I’m concerned about here is the reality of life of many young people in Germany. The children of foreign parents who were born and grew up here should no longer have to decide against their origins and against their parents. I’m very grateful to Federal President Joachim Gauck for saying in his speech on the 65th anniversary of the Basic Law that we must accept these multilayered identities and not force anyone into a form of purism that is out of touch with everyday life. Recently at the Federal Chancellery I met a group of young adults who are still affected by the obligation to decide in favour of one citizenship. They told me about the numerous problems they face as a result of this rule. I would recommend any doubters to listen to what they have to say. Afterwards it should be clear to everyone just how absurd this regulation is.

Only individuals who have grown up in Germany will be allowed to receive a German passport in addition to the passport of their parents’ country. Why isn’t the obligation to choose one citizenship being completely abolished?
Unfortunately, we were unable to reach agreement on that in the coalition negotiations. Believe me, we negotiated hard for that. With what we have now achieved, however, the obligation to choose one citizenship has been effectively abolished for the vast majority of young people. I anticipate that the path to its complete abolition is no longer particularly long, and neither is the path to the general acceptance of multiple citizenship. Although I am very pleased about this development, I still consider it important to win over the people who are afraid we will lose our German identity. My job as Federal Commissioner also involves convincing them that this arrangement is good for our country and for our modern and open society.

You refer to a “paradigm change” in integration policy – not only with regard to multiple citizenship. What do you mean by that?
I appealed for a paradigm change in the law on citizenship. It is a consequence of the realisation that we are an immigration country and immigration society. The OECD recently ranked us as the most attractive immigration country after the United States. If we know that people come here to stay, then as a second step everything must be done to ensure that these men, women and children become part of our society. That’s why we need sensible rules to shape immigration and to enable participation. Major steps forward were made with the immigration act of 2005 and the modernisation of citizenship law in 1999/2000. These advances also include clear signals, such as Federal Chancellor Merkel’s Integration Summit, the National Integration Plan and the upgrading of the Federal Government Commissioner to the rank of Minister of State in the Federal Chancellery. All this is taking us in the right direction. Nevertheless, we must still continue making progress along this path.

Which other political projects are especially important to you?
First of all, there is still quite a lot to do in the coalition agreement. One important point is the improved integration of young people with immigrant backgrounds into the vocational training and labour market. We can see that Germany’s record employment rates are not benefiting everyone. The coalition agreement also has a lot to say about refugee policy. In particular, I am referring to an arrangement on the right to remain for people whose stay has been tolerated for many years. Far too many people still live in Germany without secure residence status. They are often left for many years with the fear that they may eventually have to leave the country because an obstacle to their deportation could cease to apply. Up to 80,000 people could benefit from such an arrangement on the right to remain. They include many children who were born here and who naturally and successfully attend school in Germany.

What is the situation with regard to the “culture of welcome” in Germany? How can it be improved?
Although a great deal has already been done in this area, this work urgently needs to be continued. I would very much like to see immigrants receiving help to settle down in Germany sooner. Let us consider the work of the immigration authorities. In many municipalities, a culture of welcome is already integrated into administrative activities. There are combined structures and well-trained staff. Thought is given to what people who have just arrived in our country really need. It is noticeable that the political leadership in these municipalities has clearly spoken out in favour of this approach in advance. In the course of my visits, however, I also experience authorities where rigid formalities and complex procedures unnecessarily complicate the integration of immigrants.

You are the first cabinet member of a German Federal Government whose parents immigrated from Turkey. Do you consider yourself a pioneer or do you view your appointment as a sign of normality?
Probably both. The surge of attention that I have been fortunate to experience suggests that it really is something exceptional. At the same time, more and more people in our country have an immigrant history – and so do more and more members of state parliaments and the Bundestag. Of course, I also see myself as a door opener; that is something I would like to be. If, by doing a good job, I can make it clear that it is totally irrelevant to any office where you, your parents or your grandparents once came from, then we will have taken another step forward. I can remember when there were just two of us in the Hamburg Parliament. Today, there are 300% more members with immigrant backgrounds.

The office you hold has become considerably more important in recent years. Do you have more influence than your predecessors?
It is good that I have a seat in the Cabinet. As a result, I am directly involved in all relevant bills. Together with my staff I accompany all these projects, which are usually implemented by the Interior Ministry as the responsible body. It is in the nature of things that this is not always easy. I take my job very seriously and am not afraid of controversy when I have any doubts. However, cooperation with Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière is extremely collegial. It also certainly helps that as Commissioner and Minister of State in the Chancellery I have a clear statutory role.

According to the OECD, Germany is making progress with integration, but children from immigrant families still have worse opportunities – for example, at school or when it comes to finding apprenticeships. How do you want to change that?
The terrible thing is that even young people with really good school qualifications are less likely to find apprenticeships if they come from immigrant families. I will not accept that these young people leave the training market empty-handed or are permanently parked in measures organised by the Federal Employment Agency. That’s why I have decided to make training the main emphasis of my work this year. One of my goals is to find apprenticeships for more young people. I would like more companies to offer apprenticeships and for us to counteract the existing discrimination against young people with supposedly foreign-sounding names. I am very pleased that Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel supports me in that. She is also devoting her Integration Summit at the end of the year to the subject of training.
Interview: Helen Sibum

The SPD politician has been Federal Government Commissioner for Migrants, Refugees and Integration since December 2013 and has the rank of Minister of State in the Federal Chancellery. She has been a Bundestag deputy since 2009. Before that she worked for 15 years at Körber-Stiftung where she coordinated integration projects. Aydan Özoğuz was born to Turkish parents in 1967 in Hamburg, where she still lives with her family today.