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E.g., 06/20/2024
Germany: Immigration in Transition

Germany: Immigration in Transition

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Since the 1990s, analysts have pointed to Germany's ongoing need for immigrants to bolster economic development and maintain a dynamic workforce, given the rapid aging of the country's population. However, a process of policy review that began in 2001 with a government commission's report on immigration and integration policy only recently overcame legislative gridlock. An immigration law based on the report's recommendations, prepared by the governing Social Democrat and Green coalition, passed both houses of the German Parliament and was subsequently signed by President Johannes Rau in March 2002. However, it was procedurally contested by the country's conservative coalition, which successfully filed a lawsuit with the Federal Court. Since then, government and opposition negotiators have been trying to reach a compromise. Only recently, after difficult, long-running negotiations, have the government and opposition agreed on an immigration law, which was passed by the lower and upper chambers in June/July 2004. The law will take effect on January 1, 2005, setting the stage for how Germany will deal with labor migration, newcomers, and resident migrants in the years to come.


Many business, labor, and religious organizations welcomed the 2002 effort to pass an immigration law, but the deadlock that followed until recently could be interpreted as ongoing resistance to formally opening Germany as a country of immigration. This is despite the fact that the country's foreign population has exceeded seven million people for each of the last 10 years, not counting those migrants who have acquired German citizenship. Meanwhile, other factors, such as the accession to the European Union of 10 new countries in May 2004, promise new challenges for Northern Europe's economic powerhouse.


In the 19th century, Germany was a country of emigration. This changed somewhat at the turn of the century, when larger numbers of Polish workers were imported to work in the mining sector. The next wave of foreign workers was counted in the millions, as able-bodied men from Nazi Germany's occupied territories were forced to work in the German heavy manufacturing sector during World War II. Since the mid-1950s, Germany has become one of the most important destination countries for immigrants. In this sense, it has been similar to other industrialized countries such as the United States, France, and the United Kingdom.

Germany's post-World War II immigration history is distinguished by the nature of its parallel flows: one of ethnic Germans returning from abroad, and another of foreigners with no German ancestry. At different times, immigration laws have made the distinction less or more important, especially in terms of the privileges granted to ethnic Germans.

Ethnic German Inflows

Between 1945 and 1949, nearly 12 million German refugees and expellees flocked to the territory of today's Germany. They were either German nationals who had lived in areas intermittently under German jurisdiction prior to 1945, or ethnic Germans from other parts of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. About two-thirds of these returnees settled in the western part of the country. Their acceptance and integration was eased by two factors: their ethnic origin, and the post-war economic boom.

Between 1945 and the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, 3.8 million Germans moved from East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR) to West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany, or FRG). In fact, obstacles like the wall failed to completely stem this flow, and migration from the GDR totaled nearly 400,000 between 1961 and 1988. This immigration was welcomed economically by the FRG's expanding industrial sector and politically as a rejection of the GDR's communist political and economic system.

At the end of the 1980s, the immigration of Aussiedler (ethnic Germans, as distinct from East Germans) from places beyond Eastern Europe rose dramatically. Up to that point, virtually all Aussiedler had come from Eastern Europe, where they had managed to stay despite systematic expulsions in the aftermath of World War II. Between 1950 and 1987, about 1.4 million such Aussiedler immigrated to West Germany. Most of them came from Poland (848,000), while another 206,000 arrived from Romania, and 110,000 immigrated from the Soviet Union following the German-USSR rapprochement of the late 1970s and 1980s.


With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of travel restrictions from the former Eastern Bloc countries, an additional three million ethnic Germans returned to Germany between 1988 and 2003. Almost 2.2 million of these arrived from the former territory of the Soviet Union, with Poland (575,000) and Romania (220,000) providing the remaining flows.

The number of these arrivals peaked at 400,000 in 1990. However, by the early 1990s, after the initial euphoria of the end of the Cold War and German reunification, the government had begun to take measures to moderate the returns. These included aid to ethnic German communities in countries of origin to improve their living standards and entice them to remain there. In addition, the government established a quota system. From 1993 to 1999 the quota was set at 225,000 people per year; this was subsequently reduced to 103,000. As a result, in 2000 and 2001, the immigration of ethnic Germans hovered at roughly 100,000 per year. In the following years, the number further declined and amounted to 91,000 in 2002. In 2003, the number was still much lower, when 73,000 immigrated to their ancestral homeland. Germany's Ministry of Interior estimates the number of remaining ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe and the territories of the former Soviet Union at around 1.5 million.

Besides affecting numbers, the government measures also affected the composition of the countries of origin. Since 1993, more than 90 percent of the total Aussiedler immigration has come from the territory of the former Soviet Union. The remaining Aussiedler from other Eastern European countries, meanwhile, have had to prove that they face discrimination because of their German ethnic origins in order to immigrate to their ancestral homeland.

Compared to other immigrants, Aussiedler enjoy certain privileges that are thought to foster their integration into society and the labor market. These privileges include assistance with language training, employment, and welfare. Nevertheless, Aussiedler, especially those who came since mid-1990s, continue to face severe economic and social integration problems. One reason is their poor knowledge of German. In 2003, only 20 percent of the immigrants admitted under the Aussiedler quota were ethnic German. The remaining 80 percent were dependent family members. Unlike their ethnic German relatives, the immigrating family members do not have to prove sufficient knowledge of German. In 1993, the composition of ethnic Germans and dependent family members was nearly reversed, when only 25 percent were family members and 75 percent ethnic Germans.

In political and public debates about immigration and integration, however, the Aussiedler attract much less attention than other immigrants, as they are viewed primarily as Germans and not as foreigners. This is also reflected in how most statistics about them are reported. Aussiedler are not categorized separately. Rather, they are simply collapsed into native-born German categories, which holds true for naturalized migrants as well.

Post-War "Guest Worker" Boom

Inflows of immigrants with non-German ancestry began in a serious way in the second half of the 1950s. In response to a labor shortage prompted by economic recovery, Germany signed a series of bilateral recruitment agreements, first with Italy in 1955, then with Spain (1960), Greece (1960), Turkey (1961), Portugal (1964), and Yugoslavia (1968).

The core of these agreements included the recruitment of Gastarbeiter (guest workers), almost exclusively in the industrial sector, for jobs that required few qualifications. Under the so-called rotation principle, mostly male migrants entered Germany for a period of one to two years and were then required to return home to make room for other guest workers. This policy had a double rationale: preventing settlement and exposing to industrial work the largest possible number of workers from sending countries. In 1960, the number of foreigners already stood at 686,000, or 1.2 percent of the total German population. At that point, the most important country of origin was Italy.

After the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the consequent reduction of the number of German migrants from the GDR, West Germany intensified its recruitment of guest workers. Up until 1973, when recruitment was halted, foreigners increased in terms of both numbers and their share of the labor force.

At the same time, the dominant source countries also changed. The number of foreigners now amounted to four million, and their share of the population reached 6.7 percent of Germany's total population. Some 2.6 million foreigners were employed — a level which has not been seen since then. By 1973, the most important country of origin was no longer Italy, but rather Turkey, which accounted for 23 percent of all foreigners. Other countries of origin included Yugoslavia (17 percent), Italy (16 percent), Greece (10 percent), and Spain (7 percent).

Halting Guest Worker Recruitment

The demand for foreign workers fell off in 1973, when Germany entered a period of economic recession, fueled in part by that year's "oil shock." The government declared a ban on the recruitment of foreign workers, and began to wrestle with how to deal with the still-increasing number of foreigners in the country.

A large proportion of earlier guest workers had already acquired residence permits of a longer or permanent duration, attesting to the limits of the rotation principle. In addition, Italians now had the right to free cross-border movement, a right extended to all member states of the European Community in 1968. With the rotation model a distant memory, it was clear that many foreigners were now planning a longer or even permanent stay in Germany.

While many guest workers were leaving, high levels of immigration persisted due to family reunification of the remaining workers. The number of foreigners thus stayed more or less constant throughout the 1980s at between 4 and 4.5 million. The labor force participation of immigrants, however, decreased.

In 1988, the 4.5 million foreigners in Germany accounted for 7.3 percent of the population as a whole. Some 1.6 million of them were wage and salary earners; another 140,000 were self-employed. The most important countries of origin remained the former recruitment countries. Greece held special status in terms of freedom of movement due to its full membership in the European Community — a status that would also be achieved by Spain and Portugal in 1992.

By this time, a growing share of the foreign population was being born in Germany, the so-called second generation. Unlike in the United States and elsewhere, these children were not granted German citizenship at birth and were treated as foreigners in a legal sense.

Asylum Seekers and "Safe Countries"

By the end of the 1980s, Aussiedler were not the only immigrants whose numbers had increased. Changing geopolitics and numerous crises within continental Europe led to dramatic increases in the number of people seeking asylum in Germany. Whereas in 1987, 57,400 individuals applied for asylum, between 1988 and 1992 a total of 1.1 million asylum applications were lodged. The peak was reached in 1992, when nearly 440,000 asylum seekers filed applications.

This growth coincided with an intensification of xenophobia, which resulted in sometimes lethal violence against foreigners and asylum seekers. This volatile situation led to a heated debate in the public and parliament.

In the political arena, the Christian Democrats, who were the senior partners in the ruling coalition, set reducing the number of people applying for asylum as their primary goal. Meanwhile, the opposition Social Democrats and many among the Free Democrats (the ruling coalition's junior partners) argued for broader and more "progressive" measures concerning immigration, integration, and citizenship. The final outcome was a 1993 inter-party agreement to make the asylum law more restrictive by amending the FRG's "Basic Law," or interim Constitution.

One key provision of the new agreement designated scores of nations as "safe" countries of origin and/or transit. Would-be asylum seekers entering Germany from or through one of these safe countries were prohibited from applying for asylum and were returned to their place of origin/transit, and "frivolous" applications were discouraged. The change spread throughout the European Union and had a dramatic effect on asylum applications. In the following years, the number of asylum seekers declined steadily. In 2002, asylum applications totaled to 71,127 and markedly declined to 50,563 in 2003. The countries of origin accounting for the largest numbers of applications were Turkey (6,301), Serbia/Montenegro (4,909), Iraq (3,850), and Russian Federation (3,383).

In addition to the asylum seekers, Germany offered protection to 345,000 refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early to mid-1990s. However, this was on a temporary basis, and by the end of 2002 more than 90 percent of them had returned home.

The Re-emergence of Temporary Labor Programs

Soon after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Germany once again entered the temporary labor market. This time, the geographic focus was exclusively on countries from Central and Eastern Europe, among them Yugoslavia (1988), Hungary (1989), and Poland (1990). The sending countries were chosen partly out of pragmatism, partly for geopolitical and long-term economic reasons.

On the one hand, the German government hoped to capture some of the migration potential in the region and to channel it into labor-hungry sectors, while also advancing long-term foreign and economic policy objectives in the region. On the other hand, the remittances and experiences of the returning workers were expected to help the fledgling economies of the sending countries. Guest workers in several categories, such as trainees, contract, and seasonal work, received temporary residence and work permits ranging from three months for seasonal workers to a maximum of two years for contract workers. Contract workers generally came to work on a larger project directed by their firm, e.g., construction projects. In 2002, a total of 374,000 temporary work permits were granted. Of these, 45,000 were for contract workers, about 50 percent of whom came from Poland. Some 298,000 permits were issued for seasonal workers, 85 percent of them Polish citizens.

Some of the sending countries of temporary workers, like Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, became members of the European Union on May 1, 2004. In principle, citizens of European member states have the right to work in any other member state. Prior to the EU expansion, this prompted fears of a wave of new EU citizens swamping Germany's labor market and straining social welfare systems.

Responding to these domestic fears, Germany, like many other "original" EU states, enacted exceptional measures restricting access to their labor market until 2006. Temporary work permits for citizens of the new member states will be required at least up until that time. After assessments of the labor market situation, which are planned for 2006 and 2009, it is possible that the period of exceptional measures will be extended. Starting in 2011, free movement for workers from the new member states is guaranteed.

In 2003, the number of legally resident foreigners in Germany was 7.3 million, which comprised 8.9 percent of the total population. Citizens of the former guest worker countries continue to make up the largest share of this number, which notably included 1.9 million Turkish citizens, of whom 654,000 were born in Germany. Another 575,000 Turks have been naturalized since 1972 and do not show up in statistics of the foreign population.

The foreign population also included 1,050,000 people from the former Yugoslavia, 600,000 Italians, and 355,000 Greeks. Other important countries of origin included Poland (325,000) and Austria (190,000). About 25 percent of the total foreign population was from countries of the European Union, and an additional 55 percent came from other western and eastern European countries like Norway, Switzerland, Russia, Ukraine, and Hungary. Overall, 80 percent of the foreigners came from Europe, while almost 12 percent were Asians.

Since the asylum law was tightened in 1993, illegal immigration has been growing. However, there are no reliable estimates on the number of illegal migrants staying in Germany. In contrast with countries like the U.S., Greece, or Italy, a legalization program for undocumented immigrants has not been carried out, or even seriously discussed in political circles.

In 2001, the government also counted an estimated 1.1 million refugees in the legal foreign population of 7.3 million. This included 301,000 recognized asylum seekers and their family members, along with another 164,000 refugees whose applications for asylum were still being processed. There were also 416,000 de facto refugees and foreigners whose deportation was suspended — those who either did not apply for asylum but enjoyed temporary protected status, or whose application was not accepted but could not be returned to their home countries for a variety of reasons and therefore received a temporary residence permit. Another 173,000 of the 1.1 million refugees are Jews from the former Soviet Union who have come to Germany since reunification. This last group is not required to prove that they, as individuals, have been persecuted in order to immigrate to Germany.

Key Policy Developments

Since 1998, when a coalition of Social Democrats and the Green Party came to power, several immigration-related bills have become law, with far-reaching consequences for immigrants.

In 2000, a new citizenship law came into force, the first such measure in nearly 90 years. For the very first time, children born to foreigners in Germany automatically receive German citizenship, provided one parent has been a legal resident for at least eight years. Children can also hold the nationality of their parents, but must decide to be citizens of one country or the other before age 23. This provision became necessary when the German conservative opposition to the ruling coalition did not accept dual citizenship. Therefore, it is generally granted only in exceptional cases, e.g., temporarily or if the applicant's country of origin impedes the process of releasing him or her from citizenship. However, the latest figures on naturalization show that dual citizenship is significant. In 2002, 43 percent of those who became German citizens could retain their original nationality, while in 2001 the share was even higher at 48 percent.

The demographic effects of the new citizens have already become visible. In 2000, 41,300 children born of parents with non-German citizenship became German by birth; in 2001 the figure was 38,600. Without the new rule, these children would have appeared among the statistics on the foreign population and therefore would have increased the number of foreigners by about 80,000.

In August 2000, Germany introduced a "green card" system to help satisfy the demand for highly qualified information technology experts. In contrast with the American green card, which allows for permanent residency, the German version limits residency to a maximum of five years.

Through this new immigration program, about 9,614 highly skilled workers have entered Germany through December 2002, with 2,008 Indians accounting for the largest group, followed by Romanians (771) and citizens of the Russian Federation (695). While 8,678 of these highly skilled individuals immigrated from abroad, 936 had completed their university studies in Germany and were allowed to stay and work for five years under the provisions of the green card program. Without the green card, they would have had to leave.

Structuring Immigration, Fostering Integration

Despite Germany's long history of recruiting foreign workers, the turn toward a more organized and focused recruitment of highly skilled labor in 2000 marks a watershed. This change, coupled with a demographic shift toward a more elderly population and a continuing low total fertility rate (now at 1.4) led to a broader discussion about a formal immigration policy that takes these factors into account.

Supporters of new legislation pointed to demographic deficits and growing shortages of qualified personnel. Opponents countered by spotlighting a persistently high unemployment rate, which in 2000 stood at nine percent for the total working population, but hit 16 percent for foreigners. Opponents also questioned the German society's capacity to integrate more foreigners. Both groups, nevertheless, agreed on the need to improve the integration of foreigners — especially those from former recruitment countries.

In 2000, the government appointed a commission to work out proposals for an immigration and integration policy. In July 2001, the commission presented a report titled "Structuring Immigration, Fostering Integration." It highlighted well-known demographic developments, such as increasing life expectancy, low birth rates, and a workforce that is shrinking due to an aging population. In light of such developments, the commission argued for initiating a controlled immigration program for foreigners with favorable characteristics for integration into both the labor market and society. They proposed the implementation of a point system as a tool for selecting 20,000 immigrants per year based on criteria of education, age, and language skills. In the event of urgent labor shortages, another 20,000 immigrants should be let into the country on a five-year basis. By that time, the authorities will have gathered some experience, and changes and improvements can be made.

Furthermore, the commission recommended certain measures to speed up the asylum procedure and make it more difficult for fraudulent applications to succeed, while rejecting proposals to eliminate the "fundamental right of political asylum" guaranteed by the Constitution.

Finally, the commission report calls for serious efforts to foster the integration of immigrants, citing knowledge of the German language as a crucial point.

A bill introduced to parliament in November 2001 by the ruling Social Democrat and Green coalition picked up on several commission recommendations, including highly qualified migration and integration. The immigration of those who plan to establish a business was also welcomed, and there was no cap on the numbers of such entrepreneurs. However, companies could only hire temporary migrant workers outside of the categories outlined above if there were no Germans (or foreigners such as EU nationals, who are legally treated as Germans) available for the work. The legislation also provided for language classes for immigrants in the future — with failure to attend possibly translating into difficulties in extending residence permits.

The bill arrived at a time when immigration itself was in transition. In a trend that could be seen across many developed countries, low-skilled laborers, recruited to feed an economic boom, were (and still are) giving way to a generation of skilled workers who are more carefully selected to meet the needs of the information age.

Despite vocal criticism by the opposition, the bill was passed by both chambers of parliament. It was subsequently signed by President Johannes Rau in March 2002 and was set to take effect on January 1, 2003. However, it was procedurally contested by the country's conservative opposition, which successfully filed a lawsuit in the Federal Court. In December 2002, the court blocked the immigration law.

In January 2003, the government re-introduced the unchanged bill, since the court objected only to procedural failings in how it had been passed. In May 2003, the bill again passed the lower house of parliament. However, a month later it was voted down in the upper chamber, where the federal states are represented and the opposition parties have a majority. Subsequently, difficult negotiations between government and opposition failed to achieve a compromise – until recently.

In June 2004, the long-running and difficult negotiations finally led to a compromise. The agreed-upon legislation picks up several recommendations submitted in the 2001 report of the government-appointed commission, and parts of that year’s proposed immigration bill including sections on labor migration and integration. However, the core of the law, the innovative point system for selecting immigrants, has been eliminated at the demand of the opposition Christian Democrats, who have the majority in the upper house.

The law, which finally passed both chambers in early July, will allow highly qualified non-EU-workers such as scientists or top-level managers to obtain a residence permit of unlimited duration at the outset. However, companies can only hire non-EU workers if there are no Germans (or foreigners such as EU nationals, who are legally treated as Germans) available for the job. In addition, the immigration of those who plan to establish a business will also be welcomed. There will be no cap on the numbers of such entrepreneurs, but they will be required to invest at least a million euros in their project and add at least 10 new jobs.

Under other provisions of the legislation, foreign students will be allowed to stay in Germany for a year after finishing their studies to look for a job. At present they have to leave Germany. The legislation also provides for the establishment of language classes for immigrants — with failure to attend possibly translating into difficulties in extending residence permits. Finally, asylum seekers who are persecuted because of their sex will be recognized as refugees.

For their part, the Christian Democrats negotiated to obtain provisions that facilitate the deportation of foreigners for reasons of national security. This appears to be connected to security concerns that dominated negotiations in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, and later the terrorist attacks in Spain on March 11, 2004. Besides allowing the deportation of foreigners on the basis of a “threat prognosis” supported by factual evidence, the new law will make it easier to deport religious extremists.

The expansion of the European Union by 10 states means another challenge to Germany in terms of migration. Germany was a major supporter of the Eastern European countries that applied for membership; however, at the same time, it feared massive immigration from that region. In the negotiations leading to the May 1, 2004 expansion, Germany succeeded in limiting the right of free movement for nationals of the new members in order to limit their access to the German labor market.

The EU enlargement also appears likely to relieve migration pressure on Germany's eastern border. As a result of negotiations with the prospective member states, Poland has beefed up patrols on its border with Ukraine, Belarus, and the primarily ethnic Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, with support from the EU and Germany. Thus, unauthorized migrants can be picked up by the Polish Border Police and thereby barred from entering Germany. After full implementation of the Schengen Agreement (presumably until 2007/2008) by Poland and the other new member states, this trend towards even tighter border controls could become stronger.

However, the potential for migration from Eastern Europe is declining. The birth rate in many of the new member states has been low since political transformation at the beginning of the 1990s. As in Western Europe, a decreasing number of people will be of working age. Therefore, it seems that Germany will not be "swamped" by migrants from the new member states – though at the same time, this means those migrants may not be available to solve the demographic problems of Germany's aging population. Either way, there is still a need for highly qualified workers in Germany. The initial closure of the labor market to citizens of the new EU states and non-EU citizens, which will be changed little by the immigration law, is likely to channel them to traditional immigration countries such as the United States, Canada, or Australia.

It remains to be seen if the new immigration law will help attract highly qualified migrants to Germany - one of the main goals of the legislation from the beginning. Many analysts are skeptical about what it will accomplish in this regard, since the point system that was widely touted as the best way of reaching this goal has been eliminated. However, the true test of a new approach would not only be how well an immigration law helps Germany meet its need for workers, but also how successfully it eases the handling of domestic concerns about integration and national identity. The current heated debates about Islamic education at public schools, and especially about the headscarf issue (see related article), show that integration and identity will loom large in public and political debates to come.


Aleinikoff, T. Alexander and Douglas Klusmeyer, eds. 2001. Citizenship Today: Global Perspectives and Practices. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Aleinikoff and Klusmeyer, eds. 2000. From Migrants to Citizens: Membership in a Changing World. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Klusmeyer, Douglas and Demetri Papdemetriou. 2003 (forthcoming). Germany's Immigrant Integration Challenge. Washington, DC: MPI.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Continuous Reporting System on Migration (SOPEMI). Trends in International Migration (various editions). Paris: OECD Publications.

The Independent Commission on Migration to Germany. "Structuring Immigration, Fostering Integration," July 2001. Available online.