Stories of migration

Emigration: a downward trend

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“Switzerland tops the list” of preferred destinations for German migrants, as I found out while researching a book which aimed to present a true picture of the typical migrant of German nationality back in 2007. Based on the sobering figures from the Federal Statistical Office, however, it was clear that these were no adventure-hungry fortune-hunters – the image so often associated with the notion of emigration. Instead, a study by the Prognos research institute concluded that out of 160,000 or so German nationals who emigrated that year, it was mainly well-educated young men who were attracted by the career prospects available in the Alpine republic and elsewhere. After Switzerland, the USA and Austria were other destination countries offering equally good career opportunities.

Three years on …

More recent statistics confirm this picture of cross-border labour migration. And yet despite favourable legal frameworks – at least within the EU – long-term migration for work purposes does not appear to suit everyone, or is time-limited from the outset. By 2009, the number of migrants returning to Germany was clearly on the increase: out of around 700,000 immigrants entering the country, more than 100,000 were German, and although many of them were ethnic Germans resettling from Eastern Europe, there were also numerous German “returnees”. In 2010, the figure increased again – a clear indication that for many migrants, emigration is career-related and in many cases, therefore, is of limited duration.

Of course, this begs the question whether, in these circumstances, it is appropriate to speak of emigration at all. No accurate figures are available, however, as the Federal Statistical Office only registers people’s identities, where they come from and where they are heading. Their underlying motives are largely a matter for speculation. The relief agency Rafaels-Werk is one of the main sources of support for outbound and returning migrants before, during and after their departure, but even it only keeps records of cases in which it is approached for help. The statistics don’t provide a full picture.

The most important destination country: Poland

Nonetheless, even without presenting a more detailed picture, the figures send out a clear message. Poland is the country which exerts by far the greatest appeal for people from Germany. Around 123,000 people left the German federal states to live in Poland in 2009. Other destination countries are Romania (44,000), Turkey (40,000) and the USA (36,000), with Switzerland trailing in fourth place (30,000). Besides 141,000 outbound Germans, more than 500,000 non-German nationals who were officially resident in Germany also turned their backs on the Federal Republic in 2009.

Returnees and “returning returnees”

This is a clear indication that there are not only numerous Germans returning home, but that many migrants who have spent time in Germany are now turning their backs on the Federal Republic and heading home as well. Indeed, more than one million people opted to do so in 2009 and 2010. Of course, language skills and the high-quality education or training acquired in Germany make people more employable in their home countries and open the door to jobs, so it’s not surprising that more and more German Turks with academic qualifications are heading back to the Bosphorus – at least for a while – to progress their chosen career. This is the cohort from which “returning returnees” are then recruited after a few years.

In 2010, there were fewer outbound migrants – German and non-German – than during the “high point” of emigration in 2005-2008. There are various reasons for this. One was undoubtedly the much easier situation in the jobs market – the “German employment miracle”. If the labour market situation is looking good at home, working abroad losing something of its appeal.

Our shrinking world

At the start of the 19th century, emigration for many Germans meant a one-way ticket into the unknown, but today, emigration entails far fewer risks. Freedom of movement – especially within Europe – has made the world a much smaller place. It is quite common nowadays to find German doctors working in Great Britain and teachers from Italy in German schools. Modern migration between the major economies is no longer a matter of necessity, with poverty driving people to seek a better life for themselves in the USA or South America, as was the case for past generations of emigrants. Today, it is easier to arrange to spend a few years abroad than it was to move to a different city 100 years ago. But whether someone is a “real” or only a temporary migrant – from the outset, there are bureaucratic obstacles to be overcome, even within the EU. And the further away the destination country is from the EU, the tougher the obstacles tend to be. And unlike TV documentaries, most emigrants don’t have a TV team filming their every move whose presence in the destination country – when the chips are down – can open doors that might otherwise remain closed.
Text: Ralf Meier
Journalist, Düsseldorf

Translation: Hillary Crowe
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V.
January 2012
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