Stories of migration

Germany: A Country of Emigration?

Umzugswagen; © flashpics - Fotolia.comMoving van; © flashpics - Fotolia.comAfter losses in the previous years, in 2010 Germany may again have seen a vigorous hike in immigration, as the German Federal Statistical Office (DESTATIS) reported in January 2011. Whether this means, however, that Germany’s long-lamented trend from being a country of emigration to one of immigration has been broken, remains moot. Migration and its actual causes are difficult to understand.

Certain is only that the probably nearly six-figure balance between immigration and emigration fell out comparatively favourably for the last time in 2004, with a plus of 83,000. Favourably, because the bottom line for Germany, in the opinion of the overwhelming majority of experts, is that it urgently needs immigrants in order to get a grip on its demographic problems and secure its future viability. These problems are reflected in statisticians’ prediction that, despite the clear rise in immigration last year, there will be a slight decrease of 0.1 per cent in population, to 81.7 million. This is due to an estimated deficit in births – the difference between the number of newborns and those dying – between 180,000 and 195,000.

Distorted figures

© Colourbox.comWhat is surprising is DESTATIS’s casual admission that the recorded rise in emigration in 2008 and 2009, amounting to 13,000 to 56,000 people, is traceable to the census carried out by local authorities following the introduction of the tax identification number. The result – that for the second year in a row there was more emigration from than immigration to Germany – raised plenty of concern. Since the reunification of the country the net balance of migration had previously always been positive. In the 1990s Germany could even welcome 300,000 more people than left the country.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung spoke of a “brain drain“ and, using the example of a doctor who went to work abroad after his studies, maintained that such cases brought about economic losses of about 300,000 euros in tax revenues alone. It cited the head of the Experts Council of German Foundations for Integration and Migration, Klaus J. Bade, who diagnosed a loss of the brightest minds, for which the current immigration rates of highly skilled professionals could not compensate. As the chief motive for emigration, Bade cited the steep hierarchies, lack of career prospects and insufficient compensation for high performance, crippling tax regulations and a pervasive and obsessive envy directed against so-called high earners. These perceptions coincide with the findings of a study published in November 2010 by the Federal Institute for Population Research commissioned by the Bertelsmann Foundation.

Quest for happiness

© Colourbox.comThe historian Michael Stürmer already came to a similar assessment in 2006 when, in a feature for Deutschlandradio Kultur, he voiced concern that in the past year 144,814 “mainly young, talented, active and well-educated Germans” felt driven to turn their back on their homeland and go abroad. Today the cause of this was not, he argued, the heavy hand of the authoritarian state that had led to mass exodus in the time of Bismarck. It was not even so much the power cartel of tax state and interfering government that Stürmer pilloried as “the coalition of trade unions, legal system and political party calculation that inevitably protects the job holder against the outsider, the old against the young, the lazy against the venturesome” and the burden of taxes and social contributions.

The historian saw the principal motive for emigration in the old quest for happiness: “To change and shape the world, to develop one’s talents, to breathe the air of economic freedom, to explore what no one has explored before, to dare what no one has dared before”. All this, he felt, was threatened by the hostility to technology and aversion to risk, which had become the peculiar form of “German angst”, as by the lacking spirit of enterprise and excessive bureaucracy. “It is not the students that gain experience for a couple of semesters elsewhere. It is not the skilled workers and engineers that are sent abroad for a few years. No, it is those who leave the country never to return that we can least spare and for whom nevertheless no official tears are shed.”

“Exaggerated media echo”

Prof. Dr. Jürgen Schupp; © Detlef Güthenke / DIWSuch possibly equally typical German alarmism is qualified by several studies commissioned by the German Institute for Economic Research (Deutsches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung /DIW). According to the findings of the Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), for example, one in eight Germans has seriously considered emigrating, including many academics; “but the concern that Germany is permanently losing more and more highly skilled professionals to foreign countries is currently unfounded”, said the author of the study, Jürgen Schupp. “Past figures show that between stated intentions and actual emigration there is a considerable difference. Moreover, many Germans that are ready to emigrate want to do so only temporarily.” As central motives for emigration, in addition to hope of financial improvement, Schupp identifies professional development and personal contacts.

In a joint analysis for the DIW from 2009, Marcel Erlinghagen, Tim Stegmann and Gert G. Wagner mock what they call an “exaggerated and shrill media echo” in view of an average annual decrease in population of 0.8 per cent. All the more so seeing, as they point out, that most emigrants have an immigrant background and their emigration is only a continuation of this or a return to their home countries. And as for those of German origin, a large part move to neighbouring Austria or Switzerland, whence a return migration is comparatively simple. Thus for both Germans and immigrants, according to the findings of the DIW researchers, the essential role played in their decision to migrate is not so much dissatisfaction with their lives or a lack of confidence in the future as rather specific phases in the individual course of their lives such as career development or retirement.

Roland Detsch
The author is a freelance editor, journalist and writer based in Landshut and Munich.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
January 2011

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!

Related links

Funny stories about horses and soccer-players – read out on Arabic and downloadable as a podcast to be listened to anywhere!

Where to? 21 questions on migration and refuge

Learning German for Refugees

Arriving App

The guide for your first weeks in Germany

My way to Germany

Videos and practises for German learners