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Jun 3, 2013 | 16:32 GMT

4 mins read

Germany's Struggle to Retain Immigrants

Germany's Struggle to Retain Immigrants
(SEAN GALLUP/Getty Images)

Germany currently benefits from strong immigration as a result of the crisis in peripheral European countries and the relative strength of the German economy, but a recently reported downward correction in Germany's population data suggests that Europe's strongest economy has difficulties getting foreigners to settle in the country. Better integration of immigrants into German society will be necessary if Germany is going to mitigate the effects of its aging and shrinking labor force. The revised statistics will fuel Germany's ongoing debate about its integration policy, which is likely to undergo changes in the coming years.

A census report released by Germany's statistical office May 31 showed that the country's population was 1.5 million people smaller than previously thought. As a result of census data collected in 2011 (the first census since Germany's reunification), the statistical office lowered Germany's population from 81.7 million to 80.2 million. Most of the decline, 73 percent, resulted from a lower-than-expected number of foreigners living in Germany. Previously estimated at 7.3 million, the new estimated number of citizens without a German passport for 2011 is 6.2 million.

Germany still has the largest population in Europe, but the new data makes Germany's demographic outlook — which was already a concern — appear even worse. The country's shrinking and aging population will increasingly strain the pension system and the undersized labor force that must contribute to it. Germany plans to tackle its demographic challenge through pension reform and greater immigration.

In 2012, Germany saw its highest level of immigration since 1995. While most immigrants still come from Central and Eastern European countries, such as Poland or Romania, the strongest increases by percentage are recorded in immigration numbers from peripheral countries, such as Spain and Greece.

Germany is making more of an effort to recruit people from crisis-laden countries by, for example, offering vocational training or more language courses to facilitate integration. One such program was revealed in May, when Berlin and Madrid announced a program for young Spanish workers to get a job and training in Germany in the coming years. In the short term, strong immigration somewhat helps cover Germany's need for skilled labor, but Germany still must develop more long-term policies to retain immigrants.

In the decades after World War II, Germany actively recruited labor from abroad, particularly from Italy and Turkey. However, as immigrants struggle to integrate or see better economic opportunities in their home countries, they leave Germany. The Turkish-German Education and Scientific Research Foundation reports that between 2007 and 2011, nearly 200,000 Turks in Germany reportedly returned to Turkey. The main reasons given were unemployment or discrimination and better economic prospects in Turkey.

Berlin is aware that it has difficulties integrating immigrants and is making gradual changes to address the problem. Over the past years, greater emphasis has been put on attracting immigrants from outside Europe. The current wave of migration from crisis-stricken European countries probably is not permanent, especially since most countries in Southern Europe have declining and aging populations themselves. But drawing in immigrants from beyond Europe is a great challenge for Germany politically and socially because it does not have the same degree of cultural ties of other countries through their colonial pasts.

The sixth German integration summit was held May 28, bringing together officials from the government and the private sector to debate Germany's efforts to attract and integrate foreign workers. Economy Minister Philipp Roesler of the Free Democratic Party called for reforms that would enable Germans to have dual citizenship. Currently, children born to foreigners in Germany must decide by the age of 23 whether they want German citizenship or the citizenship of their parents.

While the opposition parties support these changes, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and its sister party, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, have opposed the changes so far. Furthermore, immigration policy changes, such as the introduction of a point system similar to Canada's and Australia's to make it easier for well-educated workers to settle in Germany, are currently being debated among researchers. The drastic proposals being discussed will likely only be addressed more concretely after the Sept. 22 parliamentary elections.

Scandinavian countries are often presented as countries with successful integration policies, but the recent unrest in Sweden and a growing anti-immigration sentiment in the context of the economic crisis demonstrates the challenges that even those countries face. Germany will probably make changes to ensure better long-term integration, but even then, the policies are not a panacea.

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