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Germany

Speaking the Language of Integration

Germany's administrative court ruled Thursday that an inability to write German may no longer be used as a reason to deny immigrants citizenship.

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German skills, now a prequisite for citizenship

The landmark ruling of the federal administrative court in Leipzig was delivered in the case of a Turkish man whose application for German citizenship was rejected because he failed German writing tests -- even though 42-year-old Nihat M. speaks the language fluently and has been living in the country for 27 years.

A "satisfactory knowledge"

Germany's new immigration legislation, which came into effect on January 1, 2005, says that a foreigner must possess a "satisfactory knowledge" of German in order to be eligible for a German passport. That includes being able to write in German.

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Applicants should be able to deal with basic paperwork

But judges of the federal administrative court decided to set the bar relatively low, ruling that a basic command of the German language needed to deal with authorities, read simple texts and maintain a general conversation was sufficient to fulfil the language requirements laid out in Germany's immigration legislation -- and deeming it unlawful for state authorities to require applicants for German citizenship to pass writing tests.

The tricky process of integration

But that was exactly what was required of Nihat M., who runs a small restaurant in Stuttgart. When he proved unable to write a postcard without any grammatical mistakes -- a test authorities can now request in the absence of any language proficiency certificates -- he was denied a German passport.

"He passed most of the German test," said his lawyer Ursula Röder Thursday. "But he fell down on written skills. He's been doing fine in Germany for decades, and managing to run his own business, but obviously writing a postcard without making any mistakes is very difficult for him."

Baden-Württemberg's administrative court had turned down his application for citizenship on the grounds that the new immigration law was designed to promote better integration of foreigners in Germany, a process dependent on an adequate knowledge of German.

Bundestagswahl - Stimmabgebe in Templin

Being eligible to vote is a major step to feeling integrated

But Röder argued that for Nihat M., integration was impossible without a German passport. "He wants to be able to vote here after decades living here, he wants to take an active part in public life," she said. "And he's right. That's what integration policies are all about, that was the whole point of the new laws."

100 percent skills not necessary

The judges agreed, and decided in her client's favour. Perfect written skills in the language are not necessary, it said, so long as applicants can speak and understand German adequately.

"Candidates must be able to give active response to written texts -- either alone or with the help of another person - and that response has to be in writing," said court spokesman Wolfgang Sailer.

"But he may seek help from another person when writing in German. So candidates don't have to have one hundred percent perfect skills when writing without help."

"I'm very pleased for my client, but I'm also pleased that there is now some clarity in the rules," said Ursula Röder.

"As the authorities themselves say, there are a large number of cases like this, and they were simply waiting for a ruling before processing these applications. I believe it is very, very important that we now have a national guideline."

A Palestinian applicant who's lived in Germany for twenty years was less lucky. Illiterate even in his own language, the court decided he should be refused citizenship on the grounds that he is unable to read German.

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