Endless Pledges German Integration Summit Delivers Little
The German chancellor is calling for greater accountability for all parties when it comes to pulling her country's immigrants from the margins to the center of society. But so far, Merkel's annual Integration Summit has failed to deliver the goods. This week's Berlin meeting proved to be no exception.
Germany's recent integration debate has been far from civil. Former German Central Bank board member Thilo Sarrazin kicked it off with his book portraying foreigners as welfare freeloaders who have little intention of integrating into German society.
It has been downhill from there. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has gone on record as saying that multiculturalism has been a dismal failure in Germany. The Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats -- the Christian Social Union -- has demanded a stop to immigration from "alien cultures." And the head of the center-left Social Democrats has demanded that tougher measures be taken against immigrants who refuse to integrate.
As such, all eyes were on Merkel's annual integration summit on Wednesday, the first such meeting to be held after the most recent spate of German hand-wringing over its immigrant population.
An open letter to Merkel released in the run-up to the summit made clear how immigrants in Germany feel about the current debate. "We do not want to be reduced to the level of youth gangs who beat people to death on the subway," the letter read. "We are sick of sweeping prejudices against us." "The debate as it has been conducted up until now has harmed and damaged us." Even some of the best integrated immigrants in Germany have been left feeing unwelcome in the country.
Three Decades of Failure
On Wednesday, Merkel sought to turn down the heat on the debate. At the summit, 120 participants from business, public life, organizations representing the interests of immigrants and politicians convened to discuss issues including language acquisition, education, social welfare issues as well as the economy and labor market.
One of the most important aspects of Germany's program to bring immigrants to the center of society is through government-sponsored language and integration courses. Merkel said the classes would help Germany accomplish in 10 years what it had failed to do for over three decades. "In five to seven years, we will have offered all those who are interested the chance to take an integration course," the chancellor said.
In addition, each immigrant is to be given an individual plan, a kind of contract that will codify the support and help an immigrant can expect. "But also what our country expects of them," said Maria Böhmer of the CDU, the government's coordinator for integration. Böhmer said that would lead to a greater commitment from both sides. She added that the expectations for an immigrant's language skills, level of education and professionalism would be anchored and that, at the same time, an individual offer of support would be given to each. Böhmer said the government would begin testing the integration agreements in 2011.
German Education and Research Minister Annette Schaven of the CDU also presented draft legislation that would improve the recognition of foreign degrees and training certificates. The government believes that as many as 300,000 qualified immigrants will profit from the law. Many foreigners living in Germany have trouble getting their academic qualifications and degrees from abroad officially recognized by German authorities.
Still, apart from Schavan's draft legislation, the summit ended with a handful of plans and declarations of intent that are as vague as they are well-meaning. The government has insisted that progress is being made, but after four years, the summit's credibility is waning. The government may be talking the talk when it comes to campaigning for immigrants to learn the German language, but in reality it is cutting budgets for the programs even as demand for them and waiting lists in cities across the country grow.
Representatives of Germany's municipalities complained at the summit that they receive too little federal funding for integration courses. Frankfurt Mayor Petra Roth of the CDU, who is the president of the German Association of Cites and Towns, said: "If municipalities are supposed to do more, then we need the financial leeway to do so." German cities have suffered particularly badly from the recent economic and financial crisis. German state governments have also seen tax revenues shrink.
Böhmer countered by saying that states haven't lived up to their pledge of reducing the number of immigrant children who drop out of school to the same level as that of German students. Currently, the drop-out rate for children of immigrants is 13 percent, but only 7 percent from children who come from German families.
'The Multicultural Society Is a Reality'
Kenan Kücük -- who heads the Multikulturellen Forum, or Multi-Cultural Forum, and spoke at the press conference as the representative of the immigrants participating -- criticized the fact that the integration debate in Germany is too focused on language. He called on the government to show greater commitment rather than always falling back to the debate over whether or not Germany is a nation of immigration. "The multi-cultural society is a reality," he said, going on to quote German President Christian Wulff, who said in a recent address that Islam is part of German society. "One-sided discussions fuel rejection, xenophobia and racism," Kücük said.
Nevertheless, one concrete proposal did come from the government this week that could help immigrants. Typically, it happened outside of the Integration Summit. German Family Minister Kristina Schröder of the CDU said her ministry would provide more money for daycare centers where children of immigrants are provided with care. Schröder said 400 million ($565.6 million) in additional funds are being earmarked to hire additional personnel to help children of immigrants learn German.
With reporting by Anna Reimann