Dear Herr Sarrazin: Immigration and integration in Germany

In the second of two posts on immigration and integration in Germany, our opinionated columnist Daniel Winter shifts the focus to the groups which former banker turned controversial author Thilo Sarrazin would claim are ruining the country.

Last week’s post was all about how Germany needs more skilled immigrants to fill in the increasing gap left behind by retirees – and as Germany’s birth rate is one of the lowest in the world at 8.21 births per 1,000 people, immigration is necessary in order to keep up the economic pace at which the country is currently operating. This week, I would like to analyse another side of Germany’s immigrant population: the ones who are ruining the country, according to one Mr. Thilo Sarrazin.

Although his controversial book Deutschland schafft sich ab, roughly translated as ‘Germany is doing away with itself’ in English, was published in August last year, the topic is just as relevant five months later. Of particular relevance to us here in January 2011 is a programme broadcast this week by the BBC World Service, where Sarrazin answered questions from listeners.

Sarrazin asserts in his book (and reasserts on the radio show) that non-skilled immigrants to Germany, especially Muslims or those from a Muslim background, fail to integrate due to their own lack of willingness to accept the country’s language, people and way of living. He has also put forward the notion of Jews being genetically distinct from other people – though I must add he has never expressed any extreme anti-Semitism to my knowledge, though some would say these comments alone are tantamount to racial profiling and, by default, are racist.

Perhaps the most discussed group of immigrants are those of Turkish background, of which there are as many as 3.5 million.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the bilateral recruitment agreement between Germany and Turkey, signed in 1961 during a period of economic boom known as the ‘Wirtschaftswunder’ – Germany needed more workers in the industrial sector. Whereas many of these so-called ‘guest workers’ returned to their country after a few years, Germany had not anticipated the significant amount of Turkish people who would decide to stay, and therefore had no useful measures to promote integration in place.

With 16 million Ausländer residing in the country, Sarrazin’s book touched a nerve amongst the media and the public, immigration and integration having been a hotly discussed topic for decades. His book went on to become one of the most popular non-fiction books of all time in Germany.

On the BBC World Service programme, Sarrazin makes an interesting point which is hard to ignore: how come some immigrant groups seem to underachieve across many European countries, while others persistently do well?

Why do the Turkish underachieve, whilst the Vietnamese thrive?

I cannot personally corroborate these facts but I think it is clear that a significant amount of immigrants have a tough time integrating and it could perhaps be said that Germans have a tough time accepting them.

Unfortunately, much of Thilo Sarrazin’s rhetoric centres on the generalisation of immigrant groups, something which is not helpful at all in tackling the problems they face. Whilst it is true that Germany needs to rein in immigration (and, as discussed last week, actively attract skilled foreign workers), there is a long path still yet to be tread in the area of integrating resident immigrants. Angela Merkel would tend to agree, according to a speech she made last year: integration policy in Germany has failed.

Perhaps it is time we stopped looking at them to jump through hoops to please us. Yes, these groups need to be integrated, they need to be offered help in language and support to get onto the first rung of the ladder of German society. But a true multicultural society cannot be achieved by the ‘Germanisation’ of foreigners. Rather, perhaps it is time we learnt to become less racist, we learnt who these people are, as opposed to making sweeping generalisations about their lives and culture. I don’t know many people who could tell me something about Muslims, Jews, Vietnamese or Turkish people that they didn’t learn from TV, or worse, rumours.

The only alternative to a society which fails to understand those 16 million foreigners in its country is a society which is inherently naive and, as naivety can often breed racism, unwelcoming to outsiders.

And who, Mr. Sarrazin, would want to integrate with that?

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