Immigration to become an issue in Germany's next election

Support migrant centric journalism today and donate

A recent opinion piece reported in the Toronto Star, asserts that Germany's Christian Democrats want to make immigration an election issue and Schroeder should oblige.

With the lowest birthrate in Europe, the article says, Germany cannot fix its economy without first making its existing immigrants more productive by integrating them and second, by attracting new immigrants.

One in nine Germans is foreign-born, compared to one in 10 in America. Germany is nearly as much of an immigrant "melting pot" as the US. Therein lies one of the central dilemmas confronting Europe's economic powerhouse, as it suffers high unemployment, high deficits and an even higher quotient of self-doubt, especially about its identity.

The 7 million immigrants here hail from 180 nationalities. But their main components are: 2.6 million people of Turkish heritage; 1.5 million ethnic Germans, invited in from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe; 600,000 Italians; 550,000 Serbs; 500,000 Arabs; 350,000 Greeks; 320,000 Poles; 170,000 Bosnians; 75,000 Russian Jews; and 65,000 Afghans.

Almost half the immigrants are European and more than half have lived here longer than 10 years. Yet too many have failed to integrate.

The jobless rate for the foreign-born is twice as high as the national rate of 11 per cent. Many live in ghettoes with high rates of crime and juvenile delinquency, especially in the Russian and East European communities.

Turks in Germany

The problems faced by the Turks are unique. Brought in as guest workers, they were denied citizenship. Most bought property in Turkey and went there for family holidays.

With only 600,000 citizens, Turkish Germans have too few votes and too little political clout to battle the racism in the workplace, public policy and public discourse.

Their unemployment rate is 25 per cent nationally and 48 per cent in Berlin, says Kenan Kolat of an umbrella Turkish German group here. While 13 per cent of German families are poor, 70 per cent of Turkish ones are, he adds.

Many Turkish kids are channeled into non-academic streams after Grade 4. Only half finish the apprentice program ending at Grade 10. Only 10 per cent graduate from Grade 13 and go on to university.

Turks not alone

It's little comfort that the young in some other ethnic groups are not doing well either. A study has shown that the public school system perpetuates the rich-poor divide, rather than act as an equalizer, as in Canada.

Nearly 80 per cent of the Turkish 16-21 age group are German-born. They are thus a German problem, not a Turkish one as some Germans would have it.

Politicians, bureaucrats and the media routinely cite the lack of proficiency in the German language among Turkish and other "ethnic" kids to rationalize teachers' prejudices, as also the lack of language training.

The latter should be a priority to save problems and money down the road and, more immediately, raise standards to stave off white middle-class parents from pulling their kids out.

It's a measure of the outdated thinking here that even otherwise sophisticated people say, with a straight face, that the Turks have problems because most came from the poorer eastern Turkey, rather than Ankara or Istanbul.

"Some 19th-century concepts still exist in Germany," says Christine Regus of the House of World Cultures, which hosts non-European artists from around the globe amid all the narrow-mindedness about things "foreign."

"We are just beginning to accept that we are an immigrant society," she adds.

Credit goes to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for starting a national dialogue. But he is expected to lose the fall election to the immigrant-baiting Christian Democrats.

"They see integration as a one-way street," says Riem Spielhaus of Humboldt University in Berlin. "Immigrants must adjust, not us. The German society can be as discriminatory as it wants.

"They just don't get it," she said in an interview.