Immigration Debate Germany Needs More Foreigners

A new book by Thilo Sarrazin, a board member of Germany's central bank, accusing immigrants of dragging down the country, has unleashed a new immigration debate. Yet neither side is addressing the real issue: Germany's rapidly aging population.

A Commentary by Reiner Klingholz


We don't know if Thilo Sarrazin intended to stall the debate on immigration to Germany, but it's clear that his polemical book has had precisely that effect.

His work has split the debaters into two camps: an outraged faction that includes politicians from all the major parties and that can hardly be avoided by anyone in public life, and a semi-public forum and blogger scene, which generally applauds Sarrazin. Neither camp is actually helping to address the issues at hand.

The political correctness of one side prevents any rational reflection on the problems that Sarrazin has rightly brought up, although he is by no means the first critic to do so. At the same time, the opposing online community mixes half-truths with prejudices to cement such a negative, distorted image of immigrants that it precludes any balanced immigration policy. Both factions thwart a debate about what Germany urgently needs: significantly more immigration.

The majority of Germany's politicians -- and presumably also the German people - are of the opinion that the country has already had enough immigration. There may be minorities such as Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle, employers' associations, the German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK) and the German Engineering Federation who are calling for new immigrants, but no one appears to be listening to them.

Integration Shortcomings

Of course it's important to realize that the integration of immigrants here in Germany suffers from enormous shortcomings. Studies have confirmed that past immigration has become a cost factor for the economy. The OECD says that there is hardly any other country in which immigrants have such a low level of education as in Germany. Furthermore, no comparative study can hide the fact that people with roots in Turkey have the greatest problems with integration.

Nevertheless, such information causes us to lose sight of all the immigrants that lead perfectly normal average lives, or are even better qualified and earn more money and pay more taxes than the average members of the old established population. Negative experiences and the fear at the back of politicians' minds that the issue could cost them votes are all it takes to trigger a political and societal reflex: "More of the same? No, thanks."

The labor market triggers a second reflex, which could be summed up as follows: As long as there is even just one unemployed individual on Germany's streets, then we don't need any workers from other countries. Frank-Jürgen Weise, head of the Federal Employment Agency, tells us again and again that we have to mobilize our hidden reserves and better train our own people. It's certainly a good idea to sit down and do your homework before you look for outside help. Yet despite the billions of euros that have been pumped into qualification measures and employment-boosting initiatives, it's estimated that up to a million people with no prospects of getting work remain parked in apparently ineffective programs -- while job openings for skilled workers still remain unfilled.

Unfortunately, the immigration policy based on these reflexes is "effective": Germany's borders have been virtually sealed. Tougher asylum laws mean that Germany has practically stopped accepting refugees. In 2008, only 233 people were granted asylum.

After Germany stopped recruiting guest workers in 1973, the main way to emigrate was for family members abroad to join their relatives in Germany. However, because these family reunions primarily allowed women and children to move to Germany -- thereby causing the already low educational level of immigrants to drop even further -- they were later severely impeded. Since then, an ever-dwindling number of Turks have been emigrating to Germany. Their net immigration plunged from 10,130 in the year 2000 to 1,746 in 2005. In the meantime, the direction of emigration has even reversed itself. In 2008 -- the most recent year with available concrete figures -- there was a net emigration of 10,147 persons to Turkey.

Germany Seals Itself Off

Sarrazin's argument that we are being infiltrated by Turks can thus hardly hold water today -- particularly since there is no longer anything close to a population explosion in Turkey, a country that is also not able to escape the demographics of the modern age. Turkish women currently have on average 2.1 children -- just enough to maintain a stable population. And the birth rate will almost certainly continue to fall there.

Nonetheless, it looks as if the politicians in Berlin have long since embraced Sarrazin's problem group definition and tailored their immigration policies accordingly. The numbers, in any case, support the assumption that Germany is sealing itself off. Neither unqualified nor qualified immigrants are apparently welcome. Only poor EU countries, from which the flow of immigration cannot be stopped, still provided significant numbers of new arrivals to Germany in 2008: 8,103 from Bulgaria and 10,447 from Romania. Statistics also reveal that over the past two years the number of people from majority Muslim countries who returned home significantly outstripped the number who immigrated to Germany.

And we are by no means being overrun by highly-qualified foreigners either: In 2008, a total of only 157 individuals from non-EU countries were granted permanent residency status -- 71 of whom came from the US. That is an impressively low number in view of the 40,000 to 80,000 vacant skilled worker positions upon which up to a quarter of a million jobs depend. One reason for the relatively low productivity of immigrants here in Germany is that we don't even allow qualified individuals into the country.

It is absurd that for years Germany has steadfastly ignored all the warning signals and refused to become a country of immigrants -- with the result that it is now de facto a country of net emigration. For many years, an annual average of 250,000 people came across the border. According to official statistics, however, since 2008 more people have been leaving the land of poets, thinkers and engineers than have been arriving. This puts Germany in a league apart -- along with Japan -- among the world's highly-developed rich industrialized nations.

Japan is a perfect example, though, of how not to do things: The birth rate there is even lower than in Germany, and foreigners make up only 1.7 percent of the population. The country resists immigration in a way that borders on xenophobia, and it is currently pursuing a repatriation program for the few immigrants that it has. All of this means that Japan is rushing toward a demographic hara-kiri. It's estimated that by the year 2050, the Japanese population will shrink from the current 127 million to 95 million and, at the same time, become extremely aged.

Shrinking and Aging Population

The future doesn't look quite so grim for Germany. But Sarrazin's visions -- slightly modified -- could come true. Even with an annual immigration rate of 100,000 to 200,000 people, Germany's Federal Statistical Office predicts that the population would decline by 12 million by the year 2050. This bloodletting, which numerically corresponds to completely emptying Germany's 12 largest cities, from Berlin to Leipzig, is optimistically calculated, however, because it is based on a level of immigration that is currently no longer taking place.

Without outside demographic help, over the medium term we will shrink to a small group of elderly citizens, barely affected by a minority of Turkish origin which, after one or two generations, will be approaching the low birth rate of the rest of the country. Although it is true that people of Turkish origin have more children in Germany than the old established population, this wouldn't produce the kind of population explosion that Sarrazin presumes -- in fact, it's not even enough to maintain the existing population.

The average age in Germany would rise toward 60 by the year 2050, over 15 percent of the country's citizens would be over 80, and one-third of these would be senile. Such a society would no longer be capable of playing a role in the global economy. It could also simply consign terms like "border security" to the dustbin of history because, within the same timeframe, the number of our neighbors in Africa would double to 2 billion.

Hardly anyone in Berlin's political circles is asking questions concerning this long-term development. And no one would say that he or she wants to maneuver our country into such a situation. But that is exactly where we are headed.

No one is apparently questioning either what will happen to the wonderfully refurbished old towns, the renovated palaces and castles, or the restored UNESCO World Heritage sites in eastern Germany. Since reunification, hundreds of billions of euros have been pumped into programs to bolster the infrastructure of the former East Germany -- but to what end? Certainly not for parts of this region to stand vacant -- as is currently the case -- and for them to become even more widely abandoned in the future. Yet that is precisely what will happen, as the dwindling population will primarily affect those regions of eastern Germany that have by far the best infrastructure in the country -- because everything is brand new. Lynx and wolf populations have already become the winners of Germany's demographic development.

No Plan for the Future

Germany's immigration policy is in a schizophrenic state. It rejects immigration yet it wants to prevent large swaths of the country from becoming completely deserted. The politicians only know what they don't want. They have no plan for the future.

This aimlessness has held sway for so long that by now even bringing in tens of thousands of the urgently needed foreign skilled workers would provide no real relief. If we really want to effectively use our valuable infrastructure, and not write off large parts of it, if we want to remain young so we can compete on global markets, then what we now need is not an immigration policy, but rather an outright settlement policy.

Countries like Canada, Australia and the US have always taken this approach. They realized long ago that they are relatively empty countries, and if they can recruit more skilled people from the outside, they will be better off. The Great Elector, Frederick William I, adopted a similar course when he encouraged the French Huguenots to emigrate to Brandenburg-Prussia. In the 18th century, Russian Empress Catherine the Great invited dirt-poor skilled farmers from Bavaria, Baden and Hesse to settle on the Volga, in order to cultivate the steppes and secure her empire to the east. At the time, the Germans were on the other side of the immigration issue -- and this experiment also proved to be a success.

Modern immigration countries like Canada tremendously benefit from their new citizens. This is due not only to proactive recruitment practices, but also to a guaranteed family reunion policy. Canada doesn't want human working machines, but rather intact social networks that feel welcome and thus actively integrate themselves into society. The strategy has paid off and today, across all Asian groups, the number of Canadian-born immigrants' children who receive a university degree is already significantly higher than the Canadian average. Opinion polls show, year after year, that the Canadian public feels that the large number of immigrants is appropriate.

Competing with China for Immigrants

Germany needs now -- not in a few decades -- a policy of massive immigration with outstanding conditions for integration similar to those found in Canada. Due to demographic factors, the German working population will shrink by some 30 percent as the large group of baby boomers reaches retirement age over the coming years. During this critical phase, there will be too few young, productive people who can produce the prosperity required to care for the country's aging population. Raising the official retirement age to 67 may be a way of alleviating the problem, but it can't solve it.

During this phase, young, booming nations with a thirst for knowledge like India, China and Brazil have a clear advantage. They will continue to gain ground and, in some cases, overtake us.

But in roughly 15 to 20 years, a fundamental change will take place in this competitive race. It is then that these young societies will gradually begin to age -- and the impact of this demographic development will be even more dramatic. While among us Germans the birth rate has fallen from 2.5 children per woman in the 1960s to 1.4 children, China has had to absorb -- during a different timeframe -- a decline from roughly 6 children per woman to just 1.5. This means that China will face correspondingly big challenges when the millions of workers who are currently driving its enormous economic growth reach retirement age.

Countries like China will then need young workers from other countries. And when China starts to recruit, nothing will be left over for good old Europe.

These are all things that we have to know when we debate immigration. It is absurd to believe that we could plan our development as if we lived on a demographic island, as if everything will remain just as it is, minus a few million people. We won't be able to shape our future with our own demographic power.

It is perfectly clear that our culture will change in the process -- as will the cultures of the immigrants. Nobody knows how "Western" this new culture will turn out to be. That thought alone is frightening for many people. But it helps if we realize that constant change is part of the very nature of culture. If a culture ceases to adapt, it becomes history.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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lhuckj 08/30/2010
Zitat von sysopA new book by Thilo Sarrazin, a board member of Germany's central bank, accusing immigrants of dragging down the country, has unleashed a new immigration debate. Yet neither side is addressing the real issue: Germany's rapidly aging population.,1518,714534,00.html
I have not read the book, but from the headlines generated by Sarrazin, there are a lot of truths in them. Those politicians who are condeming the book, are just using this opportunity to show that they are not racists. Our societies have evolved such that the notion of nationhood slowly vanishes. The world is divided into 2 camps, those in the upper class vs those in the middle and lower classes. The upper class worries talks about the aging demographic and how affects the economy and is the proponent of more immigration. Whereas the middle and lower classes are facing the competition for jobs, living space from more immigration. I believe Sarrazin is inevitably touching the issues faced by the middle and lower classes. I applauded him for being straight forward in his opinions.
mandy_simons 08/31/2010
I agree with the article that Germany needs to rethink its immigration policy. The following sentences of the article briefly explain why: “The OECD says that there is hardly any other country in which immigrants have such a low level of education as in Germany.” “Mobilize our hidden reserves and better train our own people. It's certainly a good idea to sit down and do your homework before you look for outside help.” “Only poor EU countries, from which the flow of immigration cannot be stopped, still provided significant numbers of new arrivals to Germany in 2008: 8,103 from Bulgaria and 10,447 from Romania.” Some action needs to be taken in order to prevent the consequences of an ageing and demographically declining society, not only in Germany, but also in many other western countries (
tleave2000 09/06/2010
3. A very sick place.
Europe is overpopulated, surely that's one of the pressures that are preventing Europeans from having children. A moderately low birthrate would bring that into balance over time, whereas large scale immigration can only perpetuate the problem. Instead, you need to identify and address some of the other pressures that are preventing people who live in Europe from having children. In the UK one of those pressures is: house prices so high that you can hardly afford to live yourself, let alone support a family. A society that delegates the "task" of having children to other people is a very sick place. We need to fix this.
thack 09/11/2010
Your correspondent claims that, like Canada and the US, Australia has always taken ‘an outright settlement policy’ and ‘realised long ago that they are relatively empty countries, and if they can recruit more skilled people from the outside, they will be better off’. That was once true but is now being challenged. Certainly, after the Second World War, Australia embarked upon a major immigration program supported by both sides of politics. However, following predictions last year that Australia’s population, which currently stands at about 22 million, would increase to around 45 million by 2050, there was considerable public concern. To Europeans I’m sure this seems a tiny population but it must be recognised that Australia, as large and empty as it is, is essentially one huge desert with fertile strips around the coastlines. The country suffers from a lack of water and poor soils, while cities (Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world) grow faster than services can be provided. The idea that Australia could accommodate a population of 45 million was rejected by many as being unsustainable and both major parties avoided endorsing a large population in the recent federal election. The debate isn’t about immigration per se; it is a debate about sustainability. What population can Australia support and still provide a decent quality of life for residents? Of course such a discussion has to consider immigration and the xenophobes will certainly use it to push their bigotry. That does not mean we shy away from the debate, though, which still has a long way to go. Your correspondent also puts forward a common argument that we need continued population growth (whether via immigration or increased fertility rates) to deal with the ‘ageing problem’. This is of course absurd. Unless you plan to grow the world’s population indefinitely, with each generation needing to be bigger that the last, you will eventually have to find another way to solve what is, in effect, a human Ponzi scheme. Over-population is the biggest problem facing the planet, yet economists, religious obsessives and the criminally optimistic continue to encourage this madness. It’s time to recognise that a stable or even a shrinking population is not a bad thing – it is the first step to a sustainable world. Sure it will require some creative policies as this generation ages but isn’t that what we a good at, solving problems? Perhaps it’s time to move to a steady-state economy. All of this does not mean we cannot and should not help those in genuine need. There is a difference between a migrant and an asylum seeker and we can always find room for those in need of help. Unfortunately, the attitude of many Australians in this area is an embarrassment and a disgrace.
Uwe4270 09/17/2010
5. Demographics, Economics, Ecology & Environmental Sciene:A plea for a unified approach
Our Germany of 2010 needs a fundamental immigration debate and clear principles toward a much revised, much more open immigration policy for the coming decades. But such new immigration policies are actually rather more urgent than most ordinary (non-expert) people in Germany seem to realize. The recent spectacle of Thilo Sarrazin’s book and his personal dominance of intense public scrutiny, albeit naturally fleeting, transient and thus in its current intensity short-lived, is certainly an example of how not to do it, meaning the overall immigration debate. Yet there may be lessons to be learned from Sarrazin as a sociological phenomenon. In the broadest sense, Sarrazin lays out a “reductionist ideology” approach, which is that he sadly reduces the discussion to his personal ideology of a biologistic and cultural threat to the German people through the forecasting extrapolation of current immigration and birth rate patterns, combined with the concept of significant genetic inheritance of intelligence. Without discussing the particulars of Sarrazin’s ideology here (it’s being done elsewhere, even here in other SPIEGEL Forums), it must be critically stated that the current, apparently near cult-like apocalyptic Sarrazin-centrism of the immigration and integration debate in Germany is not helpful. It appears to practically preemt an exegesis that is a priori openminded, multidisicplinary and thus would that of an interdisciplinary think thank, which clearly would be what is needed here. The problem is even confounded by the metastory of the current Sarrazin debate as such, namely all the secondary descendant discussions and debates of the ordinary German people, such as in the pubs (“Stammtischdebatten”), or even in the locker rooms of fitness clubs and so forth. Unfortunately that proliferated debate is much shaped by the simplistic juxtaposition of elements of Sararzin's ideology with personal, even irrationally prejudicial beliefs, often rather only on a level of mass-tabloid papers and magazines. (These phenomena of cascading proliferation of debates in everyday life are all of course a subject of active ongoing research in contemporary social and political linguistics etc.) Naturally, politicians are not scientists, since history shows it is rare that a successful scientist later becomes a politician. And even if a politician is a capable, superior and sharp intellect of the natural sciences, such as our German chancellor and physicist Dr. Angela Merkel, she is of course not free to devise and implement an open think-tank approach to immigration. Because the problem is not just within the political system, my personal plea here here going toward a fundamental revision of the overall attitude and belief system of the German people toward its own understanding of immigration in the proper context of its own demographics and its national economy. Germany in the year 2010 has certainly arrived at a critical crossroads of its overall approach to immigration, integration and multi-culturalism. Unfortunately, as of yet the debate is by no means moving toward the full, multidisciplinary approach that it needs. The German people are for now apparently rather preoccupied to digest immigration within the subjective ideological framework of Thilo Sarrazin and his book. Eventually, the discussion will hopefully broaden, so that Sarrazin will be looked back upon perhaps as the initial catalyst starter who helped to jumpstart a much broader and much more fundamental debate. The critical element is the proliferation of an open-minded, multidisciplinary understanding into the German people that immigration is here a long-term basic existential problem, and that it ought to be taken out of just being a matter of what Americans in particular call “partisan politics”. Right now, in the Germany of 2010 the future of immigration is much more at the very heart of the future of the German economy, demographics and culture, much more so than the German people seems to realize. Perhaps its an understandable collective psychoanalytical repression out of fear of the existential dimensions here. This points to the nowadays almost proverbial existential anxiety of the German eople (“Existenzangst”). It will be critical and absolutely indispensable that people overcome that existential anxiety, first individually as a human being and then collectively as the German People. Intriguingly, the classical immigration countries of the 20th century, namely USA, Canada and Australia, clearly do not have an existential anxiety at their base on the level characteristically found in Germany. And perhaps that is the key here to really fundamentally transform the understanding of immigration: *The German People must overcome its collective existential anxiety!*
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