From Stranger to Citizen? Germany’s Refugee Dilemma

From Stranger to Citizen? Germany’s Refugee Dilemma

A young refugee waiting at the Austrian border to cross into Germany (JouWatch / Flickr)

During the refugee crisis in 2015, people from war-torn Middle Eastern and African countries escaped in large numbers to Europe. While right-wing governments in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic refused them entry, Germany took them in. An enthusiastic and supportive Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture) swept through most of the country. Aid workers responded to the refugees’ plight by providing shelter, medical care, and clothing. Volunteers lined up to prepare meals and teach them their first German words. Churches organized cooking groups and music, art, and mentoring projects to ease the situation of those who lost everything but their lives. The Germany of 2015 will be remembered for allowing close to 1 million asylum seekers into the country.

In 2016, however, public opinion in the country shifted to the right. After the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne and other cities by asylum seekers of mostly Moroccan and Algerian background, more Germans began to perceive migrants and refugees as threats. While ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks committed by young refugees in the cities of Würzburg, Ansbach, and Berlin, concerns about whether immigrants were bringing in lawlessness and violence increasingly punctuated public debates. Hostility toward the newcomers inflamed by Islamophobic rhetoric—not unlike in other European countries—spiked. By the end of the year, officials counted close to 1,000 attacks against refugee camps in Germany. The refugees who were welcomed just months before became strangers once again.

A large number of the 1.2 million people who made their way to Germany over the last two years are likely to remain in the country. But many will now do so with reluctance and abiding unease. After all, they did not choose to come to Germany for the freedom of driving on the German Autobahn or to partake in the earthly delights of Munich’s Oktoberfest but to flee from the ravaged lands of Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq. They are not economic migrants, but asylum seekers, who cannot return to their native lands for fear of persecution or death.

The crux of the problem for them and for German society is clear: how can they integrate quickly and effectively in order to create new, meaningful lives for themselves as well as contribute to German public life? Under the German Nationality Law of 2000 (Staatsangehörigkeitsrecht) they are eligible for citizenship after living in the country for eight years. In the meantime, how can they begin to make Germany their new home?

Until recently, Germans looked at integration in a lopsided sort of way, presuming it was the responsibility of migrants and their descendants to fit into an existing ethnically and culturally homogeneous society. But in a country where about 21 percent of citizens have an immigrant background, the notion of a Leitkultur (or “guiding culture”) to which migrants and refugees would have to adapt, while a popular conservative trope, is a nostalgic fantasy.

The enormous influx of refugees and the controversy it has sparked have overshadowed the fact that Germany has been absorbing considerable numbers of foreign nationals for the last half-century. After 1945, both German states had to accept many displaced countrymen from their former Eastern territories. Between 1955 and 1973, West Germany actively recruited migrant workers (Gastarbeiter) from southern Europe and Turkey, while East Germany did the same among its socialist brethren in Cuba, Vietnam, and Mozambique. After reunification in 1990, nearly 1.5 million people of German descent left the former Soviet Union for the land of their ancestors (Spätaussiedler). The Balkan War in the 1990s also brought asylum seekers. And the extension of the European Union in 2004 transplanted migrant workers from its eastern borderlands to the Bavarian Alps and the Black Forest. According to the Federal Statistical Office, 17.1 million of the country’s 82.2 million citizens, or their parents, or grandparents, came to the country as migrants.

In response to the recent wave of refugees, the government has boosted the resources devoted to integration: a key development was the expansion of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) from a staff of 2,800 in spring 2015 to 10,000 at the end of 2016. The office oversees the application process for asylum seekers and decides who will be granted permanent stay after a three-year probationary period. It also implements the Integration Act of 2016 that created a set of new regulations. The government encourages (recognized) refugees to enroll in job and training opportunities, and it assigns them a place to live. The office requires them to enroll in 600 units of German language instruction as well as a hundred orientation classes that teach newcomers the most important aspects of German history and culture. Refugees who fail to comply with these requirements lose some of their government benefits.

But the BAMF is a behemoth of a bureaucracy, and the social integration it aims to facilitate can hardly be decreed from the top. It still has too few staff members who speak languages other than German or English. And, as with all bureaucracies, it is prone to awe-inspiring gaffes. Its website, for instance, vaguely states that “if you would like to live in Germany you should learn German [and] you should know certain things about Germany.” Yet application forms for integration courses are only available in German.

Compared to other European countries, Germany has been generous with refugees. While they live in their designated accommodations (the English translation of the German Flüchtlingsunterkunft as “camp” has misleading connotations), individuals receive an allowance of 135 euro per month as well as food, clothing, and toiletries. Those who manage to find residence outside the “camp” to run their own households, however, receive an allowance of 354 euro and subsidized rent, an incentive to encourage refugees to live independently. (The allowance is less per individual when they live together with a spouse or children who are also receiving benefits.) An individual allowance amounts to almost 88 percent of the monthly government support for the long-term unemployed (Hartz IV). After fifteen months in Germany, refugees receive an additional 10 percent plus extra rent support and additional benefits towards utilities and furniture. But enough money to survive in Germany is not sufficient to turn refugees into engaged citizens.

What is also needed is social support for preparing refugees for life in Germany. While they wait to enroll in an orientation class, the government helps fund a number of small nongovernmental grassroots programs that prepare refugees for life in Germany. These mentoring and sports, music, and arts programs are crucial for its participants to develop a sense of belonging in their new country.

Indimaj in the city of Kassel, is one such program. (“Indimaj” is Arabic for “integration.”) It was founded in May 2016 as a private initiative by some citizens of the city and offers separate programs for refugee men and women. Before noon, women meet to cook, bake, and do needle-work. After noon, men meet under the guidance of a German master woodworker. Before work starts, the group spends half an hour talking about their lives in Germany, and their latest experiences with people and with German customs, laws, and culture. Strict rules apply to all participants. Those who speak Arabic during work hours pay into the group’s piggy bank. Anybody who shows up late for work three times also pays.

The program is managed by Arras Marika, whose experiences shed light on some of the challenges as well as the benefits of integration. Marika is a straight-talking thirty-year-old who works as a counselor for refugees and migration at Indimaj. A Syrian-born Kurd, his family migrated to Germany when he was a teenager. He picked up the language quickly and adjusted with relative ease to life in his small German town of Borken in northern Hesse. Here, Marika also chaired the local chapter of the Social Democratic Party’s youth organization, Jusos. He then returned to Syria to get an advanced degree in sociology before the civil war began. Marika is fluent in Kurdish and Persian as well as Arabic and German. He considers himself a bridge-builder, and often uses “we” when addressing participants in his programs.

But Marika is justifiably worried that newcomers from his original homeland won’t be able to assimilate as easily as he once did. For him, part of the blame rests with the earlier generation of migrants who he thinks are somewhat ignorant of the needs of the latest arrivals. Unlike the new wave of asylum seekers, most of the older migrants came to Germany as Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, and they adjusted more easily to a country that offered them employment. Marika relates that he was recently invited to the city’s Advisory Council for Foreign Nationals (Ausländerbeirat), an important institution in many German cities since the 1970s and ’80s. He was by far the youngest member of the Council. “For hours, Council members talked about a festival of cultures,” Marika says with irritation. “But not a single word about concrete programs to help with the transition from the backwaters of Syria to modern Germany.”

Marika is even more bothered by those newcomers who are unwilling to leave their own closely knit communities. As a sociologist, he understands that it is natural for new migrants to prefer to stay close to their own communities. But he also believes that one needs to cross cultural boundaries in order to succeed in a new country. To drive home his point, he tells the story of a Muslim refugee from Iraq who did not want his wife to participate in the program because some of the other participants were non-Muslims. When Marika explained to the husband that by his own logic, he should also be unwilling to accept any support from a non-Muslim German government, the husband reluctantly agreed to her participation.

“Freedom is hard and needs to be learned,” Marika says. People who have grown up under a dictatorship cannot just flip a switch to become active participants in German democracy overnight. Among refugees, there is genuine concern that rapid integration could mean loss of their own identity and sense of belonging. That said, no one has any illusions about the time and effort it will take to bridge the cultural divide between German citizens and the newest members of society.

Programs like Marika’s Indimaj are just one of many that are figuring out how to respond to the challenges of integration. Trade unions stand out for their involvement in the social integration of refugees, though they focus almost solely on refugees as participants in the labor market. Many unions offer newcomers helpful information on how to obtain work permits, their legal rights, and job opportunities. Union brochures that explain key concepts like work councils, minimum wage, and the mandatory social security system are made available to refugees in English, French, and Arabic.

Labor activist Michael Rudolph explains how unions are trying to do their part to integrate refugees. Rudolph is a regional director of the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) in the district of Kassel where both Volkswagen and Daimler-Benz have major factories. Rudolph does not work directly with refugees, but oversees the district’s programs and general policies. In his late thirties, Rudolph studied in Italy and France, and he holds a master’s degree in public administration. Rudolph thus combines a blue-collar background with a wider European identity, which is typical of a generation of Germans who grew up with international school exchange programs and summer vacations abroad.

Since the 1950s, German trade unions have been struggling with the presence of foreign workers. The Gastarbeiter, the guest workers invited by Germany to labor in factories and steel mills between the 1950s and early ’70s, have now become a part of Germany’s social fabric. Many adjusted well and prospered, though they remained citizens of the countries of their birth. (The German Nationality Law changed only in 2000 to allow foreign nationals to naturalize and to permit German-born children of certain legal residents to acquire citizenship.) Though the path to dual citizenship is a highly complicated legal matter, there are currently about 4 million Germans who hold a second passport.

Rudolph is convinced that refugees, like the migrants that came before them, will adjust to their new country through their work, with all its expectations and benefits. He sees labor as the most important acculturating force, because that’s where people spend most of their time. In his equation, workers are workers. “Refugees, once they gain a work permit, and follow regular employment, contribute to the common good like any other citizen,” Rudolph told me. Get them jobs with fair wages, and the rest will fall into place.

Rudolph is, however, concerned about the relative absence of advanced education and skills among many newcomers. “New immigrants often lack the right qualifications to handle sophisticated machinery,” he explains. “But if they also don’t have the ability to understand and speak German, effective training is hard to come by.” To participate in German society more fully, programs are needed that combine language education with training on the job.

Rudolph also does not mince words when it comes to Islam, which right-wing German politicians frequently cite as a barrier for integration. “Unions are independent of government, party politics, and religious affiliation,” he quotes from the German Trade Union Confederation’s bylaws. “Those are not just words, but indeed social reality.” In his experience, only those co-workers who are prejudiced will raise religion as a problem. He acknowledges that some of his Muslim colleagues have been put on the defensive lately. Colleagues of Turkish origin who were born in Germany or have lived here their whole lives and who never thought much about religion are marked as Muslims and compelled to defend a religion they only practice sporadically, if at all. “So religion is indeed a problem,” he says while squinting his eyes, “but only for those who have a problem with it.”

In Germany, religion as such is not a stumbling block for integration. Germany is a secular country that guarantees individual religious freedom while allowing religious communities a prominent role in public affairs. For Germans, unlike under the strict separation imposed by France’s laïcité, religion is part of the package. Alhough church and state are formally separated, religious organizations have certain legal benefits, religious education at public schools is mandatory, and religious organizations are major players in the welfare system. Efforts are underway to grant Islamic communities the same privileges that have traditionally been granted to the Christian churches and the Jewish community in Germany, and also to introduce Islamic education in the public school system. But most Germans remain concerned that Islam and “cultural differences” may conflict with what they see as their basic values. Germany has yet to develop a new and more inclusive concept to replace the older idea of a Leitkultur. The question of what it might mean for Germany to be more diverse and more open, while creating enough cohesion among its citizens, is very much a subject of current public debate.

This is especially urgent with regards to refugee youth, as in the long term, their accomplishments will be the yardstick for failed or successful integration. While refugees are not migrants, these youths rely on the experiences of their peers, whose fathers and grandfathers came to Germany as migrant workers. Migrant youths also continue to strive hard for identity and belonging. The German government has invested resources in creating opportunities for education and jobs for this demographic because it realizes the importance of getting it right, and quickly.

There are a number of programs reaching out to migrant youth, and work with refugee youth builds on this foundation. Mahmut Eryilmaz works at one such program at the city of Kassel’s Chamber of Crafts. Eryilmaz is a case manager for migrant youth looking for job training programs. He works at an accessible storefront office in downtown Kassel waiting for foot traffic to stop by. Eryilmaz, a German Muslim with Turkish roots, earned his master’s degree in political science at the local university, practices Sufism on occasion, and sometimes spends his evenings talking to church groups about Islam. He is lobbying for a new university chair in Islamic theology who would educate teachers for Islamic religious instruction in the public school system.

It is Eryilmaz’s job to match migrant youth with employers who are willing to offer three years of vocational training—the usual path for students who do not attend college in Germany. The position is funded through a grant from the federal government and a European Union program that aims to raise the educational achievement of second-generation migrant youth. Eryilmaz is the go-to-person for those who cannot get a single call for an interview after they have sent out dozens and dozens of applications. Because it is customary in Germany to send a headshot along with each application, hijab-wearing migrants quickly interpret their consistent rejection as a sign of Germans’ intolerance towards Islam. Eryilmaz then is the first to point out to the student that a bad report card is the real hurdle to getting a training spot, not a head-scarf.

Eryilmaz wants to help, and in half of the cases he handles, he is able to match student and employer. But he is concerned about the other half for whom he cannot find a position for vocational training. If these young men and women don’t find employment, “they will soon fall between the cracks.” He also knows from his own experience that parents’ and relatives’ expectations to succeed can weigh heavily on anyone deciding on a career. “Migrant families anticipate the next generation to go through less hardship and to prosper more and faster,” he says. But meeting parent’s expectations is indeed an uphill climb for many of his clients. When it comes to choosing a professional career, there are also fewer doors open to migrants due to cultural bias and racism.

Eryilmaz emphasizes to his unemployed students the importance of learning German. “Mastering the language is indeed crucial,” he says. Second- or third-generation migrants who are not fluent in German have almost insurmountable difficulties finding work. Eryilmaz adds that migrant youths often are not fluent in the language of their parents either. “They try to make do with a hundred words in German and a hundred words in Turkish,” Eryilmaz says pointedly. “Some kids don’t realize,” he adds, “that they cannot learn the trade of their choice if they are used to communicating in emojis.”

Hannah Arendt in her 1943 essay “We Refugees” explained how Jews refused to call themselves “refugees” and sought instead to quickly become citizens of their adopted countries. However, unemployment, the pressure to assimilate, feelings of displacement, and loss of expression—barriers Arendt herself was all too familiar with—proved to be formidable obstacles to integration. The essay ends with her harsh assessment that refugees will never be fully recognized as equal members and citizens in their new country.

Germany’s challenge in 2017 is to prove Arendt wrong. The country’s progress so far is cause for cautious optimism. The German government has implemented new laws and policies to integrate the refugees that have arrived in the country over the last two years, and union leaders and younger professionals are serving as effective mediators between immigrants and traditional German values. But to really close the gap between citizens and refugees and migrants, the country needs to reconsider what it means to be German in the twenty-first century.


Ulrich Rosenhagen is the incoming director of the new Center for Religion and Global Citizenry and Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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