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'Poverty migration'

Naomi Conrad / bkDecember 31, 2013

The conservative Christian Social Union has ignited yet another debate about "poverty immigration" into Germany. The integration commissioner for the government, which includes the CSU, has condemned its proposals.

Symbolbild Armutsmigration Europa
Image: imago/epd

"We hear the same thing from the CSU every year," Aydan Özoguz said angrily. Whenever another European Union country is granted freedom of movement for its workers, Germany's conservative Christian Social Union (the Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union) warns of mass immigration into the German welfare system. "Then afterwards they have to admit it didn't happen," Özoguz, the German government's new integration commissioner, said in a radio interview on Monday morning (30.12.2013).

In a newly-published paper, the CSU is demanding tougher action against what it calls "poverty migrants" from Romania and Bulgaria - as of the beginning of January, Romanians and Bulgarians will be able to move freely across internal EU borders to seek work. The CSU fears a flood of socially-disadvantaged people coming to Germany to live on social welfare and child benefits.

"Everything needs to be done to prevent this," CSU domestic spokesperson Hans-Peter Uhl demanded in a newspaper interview on Sunday. The CSU also wants to see deportation and travel bans imposed on those who commit benefit fraud, and a three-month delay period for granting social welfare to immigrants.

Right-wing populism and stereotypes

The center-left SPD, now in a newly-minted government coalition with the CSU, criticized the paper - as did Bernd Riexinger, chairman of the socialist Left party, who accused the CSU of inciting hatred against foreigners.

Aydan Özoguz, German integration commissioner
Özoguz, the first integration minister with migrant heritage, is weary of the CSU's anti-immigrant rhetoricImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Also independent researchers like Klaus Zimmermann, director of the Institute for the Study of Labor, criticized the CSU's proposals as "irresponsible propaganda."

In fact, said Zimmermann, the majority of the immigrants from these two countries are skilled workers like doctors and engineers, "who we urgently need here." In addition to that, the unemployment rate among Bulgarians and Rumanians in Germany is lower than average among immigrants, and they receive less social benefits than other immigrant groups: According to Germany's Labor Ministry, only 0.4 percent of all welfare recipients in 2013 were Romanian or Bulgarian.

The German-Romanian Chamber of Commerce agreed that warnings about a massive influx of immigration to Germany were melodramatic. After all, as chairman Sebastian Metz pointed out, German companies have long been hiring skilled workers from Eastern Europe.

'200,000 at most'

Zimmermann also says there is unlikely to be a huge wave of immigrants in 2014 - he estimates a maximum of 200,000 will arrive from Bulgaria and Romania next year, though this will be "probably much fewer."

The Labor Ministry's own estimates back this up. They are largely based on 2011, when German borders were opened to eight EU countries including Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

Özoguz, a member of the SPD, does admit there are plenty of poor immigrants in Germany. Specific cities like Dortmund and Berlin have seen a larger influx of Roma, who are often persecuted in their home countries.

Symbolbild Armutsmigration Europa
Some immigrants do live in poverty in GermanyImage: imago/epd

Many in this marginalized group are poorly educated and rely on badly paid part-time work to get by. But instead of spreading xenophobic slogans and branding all "poor people as swindlers," the problem would be better tackled by providing local authorities with fast, red-tape-free help, Özoguz said.

German courts are currently trying to decide whether EU citizens who have only just arrived to Germany already possess a legal right to social benefits. If they're working, they do have the same claim as Germans to children's allowance and other benefits to top up low-paid work.

But the law also states that citizens from other EU countries have no claim to welfare if they are only in Germany "for the purpose of seeking work." Two separate state-level German courts recently handed down contradictory verdicts on whether this contravenes European law - a final decision has yet to be made.

Mere campaigning?

Despite all the figures that dispute the CSU's claims, the party appears determined to cling to its position. Party political factors may be playing a role here: Bavaria is facing municipal elections on March 16, and European elections are set for May 25.

Germany's ruling CDU/CSU alliance has used anti-immigrant rhetoric in past election campaigns - in 1999, for example, the CDU's Roland Koch won the state premiership of Hesse under the slogan "yes to integration, no to double citizenship."

Stanimír Dragíev, a Bulgarian student in Berlin, dismissed the whole debate as ridiculous and absurd, but added that it makes him angry. "It annoys me that influential people willfully use statistics to spread dangerous opinions," he told DW. In this way, he said, certain prejudices are able to take root in society.

Others have made the same point: Michael Hartmann, the SPD's parliamentary spokesman, said that anti-immigrant rhetoric often paves the way for far-right extremists.