Integration in Europe How Germany Has Failed Its Immigrants

It's time, say German politicians, for Germany's immigrants to finally get integrated. They've been living in parallel societies for too long. But shouldn't Germans be doing something as well? The country's approach to integration has proven a complete failure.


A mosque in the Berlin neighborhood of Neukoelln. It's time for the German government to get serious about integration.

A mosque in the Berlin neighborhood of Neukoelln. It's time for the German government to get serious about integration.

The commotion -- no, the hysteria -- of the last few weeks has been astounding. German politicians from both sides of the aisle have been falling all over themselves to be heard: "The idea of a multicultural society is dead!" scream some. "Muslims in Germany need to distance themselves from terror!" insist others. Language courses for new immigrants will be mandatory starting Jan. 1, 2005, and the city-state of Berlin's senator for justice demanded over the weekend that foreign criminals be given harsher penalties.

The subtext of the recent scrutiny on immigration in Germany has been clear: It is time, finally, for those Turks and Muslims (who make up the majority of Germany's immigrant population) to integrate themselves. The immigrants, in other words, are to blame.

Yet while large chunks of Germany's 7.3-million foreign population have resisted learning the language and have preferred to live insulated from German society in dozens of largely immigrant neighborhoods in big cities, that isn't the whole story. Increasingly, Germans are realizing that they, too, are to blame for the failure of integration. And the further below the surface of political polemic one searches, the louder the voices critical of German integration policy become.

"We in Germany have completely forgotten that integration is a process requiring action from both sides," says Heinz Buschkowsky, mayor of the Berlin neighborhood Neukoelln, 33 percent of which is made up of immigrants. "We have just assumed that the second and third generation immigrants would just become more German. But to expect someone from a foreign culture to abandon their culture was wrong."

Neukoelln mayor Buschkowsky: "It's time for a discussion on integration."

Neukoelln mayor Buschkowsky: "It's time for a discussion on integration."

The renewed focus on integration in Europe was primarily triggered by the religiously-motivated killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in early November -- a murder that quickly, and briefly, spiralled into attacks against both Muslim and Christian facilities in Holland. Recent headscarf bans in both France and Germany, and the devastating terror attacks in Madrid on March 11 this year have also played a role in turning the public's attention toward Europe's immigrants.

Immigrants face high unemployment

The problems with integration in Europe are not -- at least in Buschkowsky's Neukoelln neighborhood -- immediately apparent. Sure dark hair and Doner Kebabs are much more prevalent than blue eyes and schnitzel restaurants. But the neighborhood, made up of imposing turn-of-the-century Prussian apartment buildings interspersed with newer buildings, shopping centers, and housing projects has a sort of New York ethnic feel to it.

Beneath the surface, however, the numbers tell a different story. Unemployment among Turks in Neukoelln is between 35 and 40 percent and the city quarter spends 60 percent of its budget on social security and welfare payments, according to Buschkowsky. Seventy percent of Neukoelln's school children either don't finish school or only manage the bare minimum. Only five percent generally enroll in job-training programs. Many who live in the neighborhood don't speak German at all, despite having lived in Berlin for decades. Not surprisingly, Buschkowsky argues that the most important area that needs to be addressed is education.

It is a situation that is now getting the attention of the federal government as well. "For decades, we have failed to define ourselves as a country of immigrants and have failed to draw the necessary consequences connected with such a definition," says Marieluise Beck, the German government's appointee responsible for migration, refugees, and immigration. "There was nothing done for them. No language courses or anything."

Turkish immigrants demonstrated against terror in Cologne this autumn.

Turkish immigrants demonstrated against terror in Cologne this autumn.

The problem, says Beck, began with the assumption that tens of thousands of foreign workers imported -- first from Italy but then, in greater numbers, from Turkey -- during the so-called "economic miracle" from the 1950s to the 1970s, would eventually return home. Because these "guest workers" were leaving anyway, so went the logic, nothing really needed to be done for them.

"Guest workers" never left

But it didn't turn out that way. The guest workers had children, families moved to Germany from Turkey and the immigrant community began to develop an identity of its own. The only thing that didn't change was the attitude prevalent among many Germans that these immigrants were still only guests. The term "guest worker" survived until the end of the 1990s and is still used occasionally today.

Now, according to some within Germany's Turkish community, the attention paid to immigrant groups has increased, but the paternal attitude -- that of German parents trying to bring the immigrant children into the fold -- is still there.

"Acceptance is the most important part of the whole thing," says Ahmet Iyidirli, head of the Federation of Turkish Social Democrats in Germany. "I have been in the business for years and have a number of suggestions. We would really like people to listen and stop telling us what to do. But a discussion on this level doesn't take place. Both sides need to do more -- we and the Germans as well. The majority has to be ready to accept us the way we are."

Paliamentarian Marieluise Beck, government representative for integration, has a difficult job ahead of her.

Paliamentarian Marieluise Beck, government representative for integration, has a difficult job ahead of her.

Some steps have been taken to improve the situation. In 2000, for example, a law was passed granting citizenship to children born in Germany and whose parents are long-time immigrant residents. Subsidized language courses are available, and politicians in the national parliament in Berlin have at least been talking about integrating immigrants.

Mostly, though, the German federal government has left it to cities and towns to deal with integration. They have taken important steps; intercultural dialogue programs have long been underway, language classes are offered and even culturally sensitive clinics and retirement homes have been established.

German cities are facing the problem alone

"Many cities are much further along than the federal government," says Alexender Thamm, Project Manager for a current Bertelsmann Stiftung contest for the best integration programs in the country. "The question that is debated on the national level, "Are we an immigrant land or not?" is no longer the right question to ask for many cities. They already have recognized that they are centers of immigration. Munich, for example, is 26 percent to 30 percent immigrant. One can't really act as though it doesn't exist."

But on the national level, political leaders quite often do exactly that. Former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt recently went on record, for example, as saying that bringing guest workers to Germany was a mistake. That, say many, is symptomatic of the main hurdle facing integration in Germany.

Much of what politicians have been saying in the past weeks, says Werner Schiffauer, professor of ethnology at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder, has been harmful rather than helpful. "The problem," he says, "is the idea that the immigrants are the 'other' and integration is 'their' problem. Politicians have been reinforcing the 'us' versus 'them' rhetoric. It shows that the Germans don't accept immigrants as part of their society. The dichotomy is still there."


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