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Integration commissioner plans a multicultural Germany

In a new study, a panel of experts led by the government's point woman on migration has called for increased rights and better prospects for immigrants to Germany. It is an election-year rebuke to factions such as AfD.

Deutschland Hamburg Proteste gegen Abschiebung von afghanischen Flüchtlingen (DW/B. Rasin)

Migrants and refugees will be a campign issue in 2017

If the government's commissioner on migration, refugees and integration gets her way, immigrants to Germany will be able to vote in local elections, enjoy better protection against discrimination and maybe even benefit from affirmative action measures.

On Tuesday, Commissioner Aydun Özoguz presented "Together in Diversity: A Guiding Concept and Agenda for a Society of Immigration," a study written by 38 experts on the topic. Calling the country a "society of immigration" is a deliberate provocation as the right wing has long argued that, unlike the United States, Germany has not sought to integrate large numbers of foreigners. And the 50-page study flies in the face of right-wing politicians and the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

"We have to recognize that we live in a time of contradictions that can't be easily escaped," Özoguz, a lawmaker for the Social Democrats (SPD), said at the presentation ceremony in Berlin. "To name one example: One in two Germans support growing diversity, while at the same time one in three demand greater nationalism and want to exclude immigrants."

Co-author Farhad Dilmaghani, of the advocacy group DeutschPlus, said the report was the first of its kind to include input from people with immigrant backgrounds. Perhaps for that reason, the document is an uncompromising rejection of the AfD.

"It's unacceptable if a dissatisfied minority dictates the public agenda, ignores facts, and advocates anti-democratic and inhumane positions," the introduction of the paper states.

Instead, the authors advocate bolstering the rights of resident aliens in Germany nearly across the board.

Aydan Özoguz Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Migration (picture alliance/dpa/M. Becker)

Özoguz and her co-authors are directly confronting the right wing

Creating access

The report calls for a series of reforms to make it easier for people to settle in Germany, and to facilitate their participation in the labor market and the political culture once they do.

The authors support reducing the length of prior residency required for citizenship, lowering the prospective income levels needed for foreigners to obtain work permits and exercising greater flexibility in granting people permission to come to Germany.

The report comes out in favor of dual citizenship and allowing permanent residents to vote in local elections. The proposal would also strengthen protection against discrimination by allowing activist associations to file lawsuits on people's behalf and encouraging "ethnically blind" application processes for jobs and places to live.

Perhaps more controversially, the authors suggest that laws should be passed to support "positive discrimination" to raise the low proportion of people with immigrant backgrounds in government positions. They even say Germany should consider a "federal equal participation law."

When asked whether this would amount to full-bore affirmative action, Özugun said the panel of experts had disagreed internally about the issue and had purposely left that open to interpretation.

Positive discrimination of that sort would be absolute anathema to the AfD and its supporters, who claim that immigration is hurting Germany's economy and destroying the country's cultural identity. By contrast, Özugun and her co-authors argue that, throughout its postwar history, Germany has been a society of immigration and that the country benefits from foreigners.

Blue Card EU Deutschland

The report's authors would like more people to get German residence permits

'A problem'

The economist and labor market researcher Herbert Brücker said it was essential for Germany to attract immigrants to counterbalance its aging demographics and remain competitive in the future. He dismissed the idea the idea that new residents - and especially the many refugees who have arrived in the past two years - are putting lower-class Germans out of work.

"Smart societies open their labor markets from below because we know that everyone profits even when someone who may not be qualified to do skilled labor helps out in the market," Brücker said at the presentation of the report. "That has been economically proven. When people work, the collective profits from that."

Brücker called for further legal reforms to attract more immigrants. And, he added, in contrast to claims by the AfD, the arrival of more than a million humanitarian refugees in 2015 and 2016 has benefited people whose families have been in Germany for generations rather than hurting them.

"What worries me is the perception that the migrants come and take something away from people," Brücker said. "That's the danger posed by populism ... When problems in the low-wage sector that have existed for years are wrongly projected onto migrants, then we have a problem."

Özogun pointed out that the AfD and other right-wing movements were most popular in the parts of Germany - often in the east - with the fewest migrants.

Infografik Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund in Deutschland Englisch

Immigrants tend to move to western Germany, while the AfD is most popular in the east

The 2017 campaign

It's no accident that Germany's current party-political landscape is playing a role in the discussion of the paper's recommendations. With national elections coming in September, there is little chance that the recommendations by Özogun and her co-authors will be transformed into proposed legislation before the seating of a new Bundestag, which will almost certainly include the AfD.

The report, drawn up under the aegis of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is closely affiliated with the SPD, is an indication of the strategy that the party is planning to take this fall to meet the nationalist challenge.

Whereas Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats have been content to defend the chancellor's decision to grant entry to refugees while promising that the high rate of arrivals will diminish, the SPD is actively embracing immigration and internationalism. That fits in well with the choice of the former European Parliamentary president Martin Schulz as the party's chancellor candidate.

The "guiding concept" that Özugun and her co-authors have put forward for an aggressively multicultural Germany is part of that campaign.

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