Let’s Show Our True Colors: Germany is an immigration country

Why right-wing populists are in denial and why now is the time for Germany to position itself as an immigration country

The Federal Republic of Germany has been an immigration country ever since it was founded. Slowly but surely, all of our democratic parties have come to acknowledge this fact, mostly because statistics cannot be ignored. Every fifth inhabitant of this country can tell a tale of immigration, whether his or her own, or that of at least one parent. And more than half of them hold German citizenship.

Still, the interminable, heated debate about whether Germany should be viewed as an immigration country has left its mark. The Federal Republic lags noticeably behind other countries when it comes to legislating on this issue, and there is fierce resistance to any law on immigration. Moreover, it will be much harder to have a constructive debate on immigration now that right-wing populists have gained representation in parliament.

Immigration opponents are in denial

Demands to rein in immigration are politically perilous, not only because they call into question the idea of an open, democratic society, but even the reality in which we live. Opponents of immigration hark back to a society that never existed: “the” homogeneous nation-state. The reasons for excluding human beings from society keep changing as time goes on. The lines of exclusion have followed—and still do—gender, religion, and social status, to cite a few examples. In fact, societies are never static; they are in a constant state of flux. Human history without migration movements would be unthinkable. For that matter, migration itself rarely runs in one direction. History shows that Germany has never been exclusively an immigration country; it has also witnessed its fair share of emigration movements. Currently, the numbers of those who are emigrating has begun to increase again. Given ongoing globalization and international integration, a world without immigration and emigration for modern societies would be really hard to imagine.

By the same token, anti-immigration rhetoric overlooks the fact that migration is motivated by a variety of factors. For example, people may leave their homes to be closer to members of their family, because they are hoping for a better economic future, or for other individual reasons. Anyone who claims that “all of them” are just out to get a piece of the pie of imagined German prosperity is engaging in generalizations that are ultimately dehumanizing and often tinged with racism.

Also, many right-wing populists seem to forget that the right to asylum is non-negotiable. Over the past few years, the debate about taking in refugees has dominated public discourse in Germany. As a signatory of the Geneva Convention on Refugees, Germany has pledged, under international law, to render humanitarian aid and grant access to asylum proceedings to those who have fled their countries of origin. This obligation cannot be changed by setting upper limits on the intake of refugees, since that would be unconstitutional in any case. For that matter, it would be equally contrary to the constitution to treat asylum as an act of mercy that the sovereign can grant or withhold arbitrarily, rather than as a matter of law.

We need a proper immigration law

Of course, Germany is not merely obliged to accept persons with a claim to its protection; rather, society as a whole should have an interest in immigration. This is the case because demographic trends—a declining population coupled with a labor shortage—can be partially offset by controlled immigration. Moreover, immigrants are more likely than native-born citizens to start new businesses and thus to create jobs. That is something that should be encouraged and for which a new legal framework should be found.

The Immigration Act of 2005* carried out a thoroughgoing reform of migration and integration policy; nevertheless, even today it is quite difficult for anyone to immigrate to Germany from a third country. The regulations concerning immigration are scattered over numerous laws and ordinances, while the Residence Law is rather vaguely worded. This patchwork needs to be replaced by an attractive and effective immigration law that would bring coherence to the rules on topics such as family reunification, residence permits, and citizenship.

An immigration law could create legal paths for migrants, thus sparing them the need to take more dangerous ones. In particular, it would help undermine the business model of human traffickers and smugglers who attempt to profit from the desperate situation of refugees. Apart from simplifying the legal code, an immigration law would send the message that Germany is a country that welcomes and encourages immigrants.

If Germany wants to remain attractive, it must take a stand in favor of diversity

Germany’s constitution, the Basic Law, also should incorporate a commitment to diversity. This could be done by including “diversity, participation, and integration” among the state’s objectives. This step would insure that those issues would be taken into account by all institutions of the state and be understood as cross-sectional responsibilities.

More generally, by passing an immigration law and identifying diversity as an official goal, Germany would acknowledge that migration opens up new prospects, not only for immigrants themselves but for society at large. Diversity and difference enrich both state and society. Democracies grow stronger when they enable many actors to participate and settle conflicts peacefully.

The goals of the next federal government remain undefined at this writing, so the topic of immigration is once again on the table. By taking in large numbers of refugees, Germany has managed to gain a positive international image as a cosmopolitan society. If the Federal Republic wishes to present itself as an attractive immigration country in the future as well, its politics must send the right message.

*The German language has two words for immigration, often used synonymously in public discourse: Einwanderung (migrating into a country) and Zuwanderung (migrating to a country). Although there is no real legal distinction between the two terms, the prefix “Zu” suggests that the migrant coming to Germany is not a member of its society. Therefore, we shall call those individuals who come to Germany with the intention of remaining there for good “Einwanderer” or immigrants.



Lilia Youssefi  is a policy officer with DeutschPlus e.V.—Initiative for a Plural Republic

FES Contact: Felix Braunsdorf, Policy Officer for Migration and Development


This contribution refers back to the message “Migration opens up prospects for a better life” of the project “Shaping Migration – Justly and Globally”.

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