Letter from Berlin Searching for Facts in Germany's Integration Debate

Everyone has something to say about immigration in Germany these days. Unfortunately, most politicians and pundits have shown a preference for hyperbole rather than level-headedness. The debate has suffered as a result.
Muslim children taking part in Koran lessons in a mosque in Augsburg. Germans are increasingly skeptical of Muslims in the country.

Muslim children taking part in Koran lessons in a mosque in Augsburg. Germans are increasingly skeptical of Muslims in the country.

Foto: DDP

"Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." The sentence has long been the leitmotif of mass-circulation rags the world over. If a detail doesn't quite fit into the narrative one is spinning, just act like it doesn't exist -- and make sure the story is exciting enough that no one notices.

Tabloid journalists, of course, aren't the only ones who occasionally sacrifice truth on the altar of a scintillating story line. Politicians too show a weakness for the periodic departure from reality, particularly when there are votes to be gained -- and, as recent experience has shown in Germany, particularly when the subject is the integration of Muslim immigrants.

The most recent example was provided by Horst Seehofer, who is not only governor of Bavaria, Germany's most economically powerful state, but is also the head of the Christian Social Union, a party which is tightly allied with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat Union (CDU) and has three ministers in her cabinet.

"It is clear that immigrants from other cultures such as Turkey and Arabic countries have more difficulties (with integration)," Seehofer intoned in an interview with the newsmagazine Focus published on Monday. "From that I draw the conclusion that we don't need additional immigration from other cultures."

Disregard for the Facts

The statement, predictably, drew all manner of protests  from Germany's opposition, particularly from the center-left Social Democrats and from the Green Party. With his comments, Seehofer made it sound as if the number of Muslims coming into the country were some kind of growing phenomenon that threatened to spiral out of control. But his statements also show a blatant disregard for the facts.

As it happens, there is no Muslim immigration to Germany to speak of. In 2009, a total of 721,000 foreigners immigrated to Germany according to the German Federal Statistical Office -- and 734,000 moved away. Of those who arrived, a mere 30,000 were from Turkey, roughly equal to the average number of people of Turkish origin who have left Germany annually in recent years. The rest of the Top Five source countries for immigrants to Germany were Poland, Romania, the United States and Bulgaria, hardly countries known for their outsized Muslim populations.

When it comes to asylum seekers from Muslim countries, the numbers are just as inconsequential. In 2009, 6,500 people from Iraq, 3,375 from Afghanistan and 1,400 people from Turkey (primarily Kurds) applied for asylum in Germany -- the three largest sources of asylum applications. On the one hand, Germany is obligated by international agreement to accept asylum seekers. On the other, it is difficult to imagine that Seehofer is genuinely concerned about allowing a few thousand persecuted Muslims into the country each year.

But the facts in Germany's ongoing integration debate have long been shunted aside in favor of scoring political points and generating controversial headlines. Many speak of the fact that immigrants from Turkey are over represented on Germany's unemployment roles, but efforts to simplify the process whereby academic qualifications earned abroad are recognized in Germany have gone nowhere. Almost 30 percent of immigrants in Germany have qualifications that are not recognized.

Furthermore, even as the focus of politicians such as Seehofer falls on Turkish immigrants, a study presented this week by the University of Duisburg-Essen reveals that, when it comes to the labor market, other immigrant groups do worse. Indeed, the percentage of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, including ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union, on the country's long-term unemployment roles is higher than that of those originating from Turkey, the study found.

Frenzy Instead of Facts

Few, of course, would deny that Germany has had difficulties integrating many of the 4 million Muslims who live in the country. Knowledge of the German language is not always up to par, education levels tend to be comparatively low, even among second and third generation immigrants, and they are twice as likely as Germans without immigration backgrounds to be unemployed. Improving that situation, politicians from Chancellor Merkel on down have repeatedly intoned, is a priority. And, as is frequently ignored, progress has been made in recent years.

Yet the integration discussion in Germany has often been characterized by frenzy more than it has by facts. The recent best seller by German central banker Thilo Sarrazin , in which he claims, among other assertions, that Turkish immigrants in Germany have detracted from the country's prosperity rather than contributed to it, is just one example. His statistically dubious claim that immigrants, because of their lower levels of education and higher birth rates, are making Germany, on average, dumber, is another example. Neither statement is backed by a serious analysis of the available statistics.

Not surprisingly, rather than promote integration, such contributions have, on the contrary, done great damage.

"Statements like those from Mr. Seehofer and Thilo Sarrazin are very counterproductive," Vural Öger, a successful Turkish immigrant who has helped advise the government on integration issues, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Tuesday. "They make people who have come to Germany and their offspring feel like second-class humans."

Increasing Skepticism of Muslims

Öger went on to say that "surveys show that 40 percent of those with Turkish origins who have earned degrees here in Germany return to Turkey because they don't feel at home here. ... I find it tragic that people who are born here leave the country again because of the atmosphere that is unfortunately repeatedly poisoned by people like Sarrazin and Seehofer."

There is some evidence that politicians such as Seehofer and talking heads such as Sarrazin are merely trying to profit from a developing skepticism of Muslims in Europe. While Germany doesn't have the kind of right-wing populist firebrands  that are to be found in many neighboring countries, recent surveys have shown that up to one-fifth of Germans would be willing to vote for a political party to the right of Merkel's (and Seehofer's) conservatives .

Indeed, in his interview with Focus, Seehofer himself mentioned the danger of allowing extremist voices to take the initiative in the debate should politicians fail to address existing problems to the public's liking.

But he also said, "I don't think it is smart to artificially inflame the debate." Should that indeed be a concern of his, a good place to start would be with the facts.

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