A Brief History of South Asians Living in Germany | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 12.02.2007
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A Brief History of South Asians Living in Germany

The first South Asians arrived in Germany after World War II during the "economic miracle". There has been a steady flow ever since which continues even today.

Three South Asians in Bonn

Three South Asians in Bonn

In the early years of immigration to Germany during the 1950s and 1960s when the country's economic boom necessitated workers from abroad, only a few thousand came from South Asia. They were mainly young men from Bengal (today Bangladesh and West Bengal) who came to work or to study. They chose Germany because of its economic power, its free education and also because of the absence of a colonial history. Most were intending to strive for qualifications in the higher education sector but they ended up working as labourers and skilled workers.

Many of these migrants married German women or brought their wives from their country of origin. Today, as they reach retirement, their children are at university or already well into their careers, having established themselves and founded families of their own.

In the late 60s and 70s, a second wave of immigrants from South Asia arrived in Germany. Thousands of young Christian nurses from Kerala were recruited by hospitals to boost the numbers in the ailing state-run health system. These new immigrants came in groups and were taken care of by German institutions.

Soon, a Malayali community had developed here in Germany. In contrast to the other South Asian communities, the Malayali community retained their "Indianness", had arranged marriages in India or married other Malayali men who had migrated to Germany. They remained confined within their own community, going to special Indian masses and to special Malayali schools. They wanted their children to have a higher professional status than themselves, with a preference for a career in medicine.

Other groups of South Asians, especially Sikh asylum seekers from Punjab, Ahmadi asylum seekers from Pakistan and Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka came to Germany in the 1970s and have younger family structures.

After German unification in 1991, immigration policy in the new country went through a significant change. In 2000, the German chancellor Gerhard Schröder announced a ‘green card’ programme for IT specialists which was countered by right-wing forces in the CDU/CSU opposition which launched a campaign that soon became known as "Kinder statt Inder" ("children instead of Indians").

The hostility from within Germany and also the restriction of the green card validity to five years deterred many Indian computer specialists from migrating to Germany. Nonetheless, a significant number of young ‘Indian’ professionals did choose to come and brought along their families.

There are approximately 43,000 Indian citizens living in Germany, as well as over 10,000 Bangladeshis currently living in Germany, on top of the many thousands of second-generation South Asians who were born in the country.

Whether from the first or second generation, these migrants look and feel different, in many ways both within German society and themselves. Most have German citizenship by now, and yet they choose to remain in very close contact with their roots. Some feel they still belong to their home country, whereas others identify themselves as Germans.

Just one example is 19-year-old Fatima who has discussed these conflicts of identities on the web-sites www.theinder.net and www.pak24.de. "I went through phases when I was almost depressive, because I thought: 'Oh no, where do I belong?'," she says. "A conflict of identity, when one does not know, where or what one is. You look into the mirror and you see somebody with black hair. You go outside, talk to people and when you listen to yourself, you think: 'Yes, naturally. For myself, I am German.' But there are small things said by others, my friends, small remarks like: 'How is it done at your place?' Then again I think: 'Oh no, I am different after all.'"

One of Fatima's grandfathers was born in Africa, the other in Afghanistan. Both grandmothers came from India. Her father is from Punjab in Pakistan and her mother was born in Kashmir. What then is her identity in Germany? For many Germans she is a foreigner and for some Pakistanis she is a German.