Integration debate

How Well Are Immigrants Integrating into German Society?

Informationsbroschüren (rechts in türkischer Sprache) für den Nationalen Integrationsplan; Copyright: picture-alliance/ dpaA sign points the way to the 2nd Integration Summit at the chancellery in Berlin (12 July 2007). Copyright: picture-alliance/ dpaIntegration processes are going on around us everyday – sometimes with outside support, but often independently of the aims and programmes of state integration policies. Immigrants have become a permanent fixture of our society, mainly through their own efforts.

That includes so-called "guest workers" recruited from Mediterranean countries decades ago, their children and grandchildren, many of whom were born here, as well as ethnic German immigrants (mostly from the former Eastern bloc) and refugees. For immigrants to Germany and their children born here the rather cumbersome term "persons with an immigrant background" has been officially adopted to cover both foreigners and naturalized immigrants (1.36 million people between 1997 and 2006 alone) as well as ethnic German immigrants chiefly from the former Eastern bloc.

Some immigrants have achieved economic success by making the most of market niches, building up social networks and civil-society structures. But these accomplishments mustn’t blind us to the enduring handicaps, everyday discrimination and widespread disregard they face in our society.

Limited career prospects

Essential to integration is equal access to gainful employment – and to every level of the occupational hierarchy. Although some immigrants are indeed software engineers, doctors and lawyers as well as entrepreneurs and steelworkers, their professional status is, on average, markedly lower than that of Germans without an immigrant background. About half the foreign population still have blue-collar jobs. The mining and manufacturing sector, however, which used to provide most of the jobs for foreign workers, has considerably dwindled in importance. The concentration of immigrants among unskilled and semiskilled workers continues to reflect the recruitment policies of the 1950s and ’60s. Contrary to the fairly widespread image of the "Turkish greengrocer", people with an immigrant background are still somewhat more seldom self-employed (9.6% of those with gainful employment) – than their native-born German counterparts.

Whilst asylum-seekers and tolerated refugees are only allowed restricted access to the labour market, immigrants on the whole also suffer from high unemployment: their jobless rate in 2006 was 23.6%, more than double the total figure for Germany (10.8%), and the rate for ethnic Germans from the former Eastern bloc is above average too. Immigrants have been particularly hard hit by structural changes and mass layoffs.

Educational stagnation

Information brochures (on the right, in Turkish) about the government´s National Integration Plan; Copyright: picture-alliance/ dpaScholastic qualifications will in large measure determine the next generation’s career prospects. To be sure, the educational level of immigrant children has risen since the 1980s, but in the mid-1990s this positive trend gave way to stagnation, even deterioration in some areas. In 2005 only 8.2% of all school-leaving foreign nationals graduated from liberal arts high schools with university entrance qualification, whereas 17.5% of them did not even successfully complete Hauptschule (i.e. the German equivalent of secondary modern or junior high school): the corresponding figures for German nationals were 25.7% and 7.2% respectively. The results of the Europe-wide PISA study confirmed the fact that the German school system is doing a rather poor job of fulfilling its educational mandate.

The rifts are similarly glaring in the domain of vocational education: only 23% of 18–21-year-old foreigners successfully completed vocational training in 2006; the figure for their German coevals was 53%. Even with comparable marks at school, immigrants have slimmer prospects of obtaining an apprenticeship. Now as in the past, students with an immigrant background are likewise underrepresented at German universities.

A number of factors can be adduced to explain these disparities. Generally speaking, social stratification is a key determinant. Children and teenagers from working-class and socially disadvantaged families that don’t put a premium on education have dimmer educational prospects. And a great many children of immigrants in Germany come from such families. What’s more, the later children immigrate, the harder a time they have of it at German schools. Imparting German language skills more effectively is absolutely crucial to successful education in Germany. On the whole, the German school system has yet to adequately offset the inferior conditions under which immigrant kids begin their schooling here.

Indeed, language skills are the key to everyday and professional communication. 80% of ethnic German immigrants and 54% of Turkish immigrants consider their spoken German good or very good. This is true of almost all children born in Germany to immigrant families: they generally speak German with their friends. The vast majority of those with an immigrant background, however, lead bilingual day-to-day lives.

Similar values

Contrary to widespread notions, young people, whatever their origins, tend to have very similar values on the whole. There are moderate differences in their "sense of family", for example, which seems to be somewhat more pronounced among immigrants. Starting a family is particularly important to young people with an immigrant background, who tend to remain in closer contact with their own parents after leaving home. Young people of foreign provenance are more likely to belong to a religious community than their German coevals, and they tend to practise their faith more overtly: 14% of young Germans, 21% of young Italians and 35% of young Turks go to church or mosque on a regular basis.

Media consumption

Whilst there may be huge variation among immigrants and non-immigrants in their actual use of the vast array of available entertainment and information media, media consumption does say something about how they relate to the dominant culture of the host society or to that of their country of origin or their ethnic community. Immigrants normally use media both in German and in the language of their country of origin. Only 22% never read German-language newspapers. Over a quarter of immigrants in Germany read a daily paper in their language of origin several times a week. This is by no means confined to people of Turkish descent: about a fourth of the Greeks and Italians in Germany also frequently read newspapers in Greek or Italian. Cultural integration is not a one-way street. What’s more, there are more and more creative artists, musicians, writers and so on with an immigrant background who have established themselves in mainstream German culture.

Social contacts

As to social contacts between people with and without an immigrant background, it is unusual for young people, at any rate, to "hang out" only with friends of the same ethnic origin: young people with an immigrant background spend 15 to 37% of their free time engaging in various activities with German friends and roughly 60% in mixed circles. However, that doesn’t say how much importance these young people attach to their ethnic background.

On the whole, the most serious problems persist in the area of social discrimination, though there is no solid evidence of the occasionally mooted tendencies toward segregation of ethnic communities. Widespread political participation among immigrant residents of Germany will be significantly facilitated, albeit not automatically guaranteed, by the reform of the laws governing citizenship. Yet there remains an urgent need for action to ensure better educational opportunities and wider access to vocational and university education as well as to skilled occupations. In this regard, old notions about immigrants die hard: the fact is we are not dealing with needy "guest workers", but (apart from recent immigrants) with Germans, some of whom have specific needs and problems to be addressed.

Dr Karen Schönwälder
is a social scientist at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB) (Social Science Research Center Berlin). She studies integration processes and policies in Germany and Europe.
Her recent publications include the essay "Reformprojekt Integration" in: Jürgen Kocka (ed.), Zukunftsfähigkeit Deutschlands. Sozialwissenschaftliche Essays. WZB-Jahrbuch 2006, Berlin 2007, pp. 371-390

Janina Söhn
is a trained sociologist and visiting researcher in the Education and Labour Market department at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB) (Social Science Research Center Berlin). On a doctoral grant from the Hans Böckler Foundation, she is focussing chiefly on educational discrimination against immigrants.

Translation: Eric Rosencrantz
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V. , Online-Redaktion
March 2008

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