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German politics: Are immigrants left out?

April 10, 2019

A new study says that Germans with an immigrant background trust the country's political system, but lack the confidence to engage with it. Political analyst Jan Schneider talks to DW about how this could change.

Merkel takes a selfie with an immigrant
Image: Getty Images/S. Gallup

In Germany, around 20 million people (almost a quarter of the population) have an immigrant background, which means they or at least one of their parents do not have German citizenship by birth. However, around half of these people now have a German passport and are therefore eligible to vote in local, state and federal elections.

The Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration (SVR) recently conducted a study on the extent to which people with an immigrant background in Germany engage in politics. The SVR, which is an independent body, regularly compiles statistics on migration, but this study marks the first time it has conducted a survey on political self-efficacy.

The aim of the study, in essence, was to measure the level of political engagement among people with immigrant backgrounds living in Germany. Do they understand the political system? Do they feel politicians represent their interests? Do they feel they are in a position to be involved in politics? Generally, when it comes to these issues, people with an immigrant background often view themselves as worse off compared to those without an immigrant background.

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The head of the SVR research department, Jan Schneider, spoke to DW about the study.

DW: What insights surprised you?

Jan Schneider
Schneider says education level often defines how people engage in politicsImage: SVR/M. Setzpfandt

Jan Schneider: We were surprised at how evident the differences in the perception of political self-efficacy were between people with and without an immigrant background. We asked people how well they understand the political discourse in Germany and how confident they feel in participating in it. The study showed interesting differences; for example, among those with a Turkish background, there was a lower political self-efficacy compared to other migrants.

Why do you think that is?

A defining factor is education level: People who have completed a high school education and perhaps have gone on to higher education tend to have much more confidence in asserting themselves politically compared to those who only have a partial high school education or none at all. This, for example, explains differences among those with a Turkish background.

Is that because among the Turkish population in Germany, there are still many guest workers?

Exactly, and the findings were that among the second generation [of Turkish migrants] participation in the [German] school system was lower. Looking at these statistics alone, the educational level almost completely explains the differences.

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One group where political self-efficacy is particularly low regardless of origin is women. Why?

There are so-called gender-specific barriers in the realm of politics. These can be due to different cultural practices or stereotypical conceptions of gender that designate politics, so to speak, as a "men's business." It can also simply be an issue of discrimination. Women have always been systemically disadvantaged when it comes to political participation. And this is also the case in the countries from which most of the migrant groups come.

How are Syrians faring in Germany?

Your study also looked into whether people feel politicians in Germany are listening to the concerns of ordinary people. Migrants especially those who have moved here recently tend to hold a more positive view of politicians than native Germans. Why is that?

This can be explained by the fact that among the migrants of the last 10 years, many come from countries where democracy and participatory politics are typically not very good. And so they think it is better here. You could say there is a sort of "honeymoon effect" or a kind of bonus of trust in the political system and its figureheads. But considering this, it is equally important that we say to politicians: We must not allow skepticism to grow as people stay in the country longer. It could be important to focus on those who have fled here in recent years and take advantage of this honeymoon period.

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Your study shows that people with an immigrant background feel less able to get involved in politics. What can people working in German politics do about it?

One of our key recommendations is not just to impart political knowledge through media and events, but also to make politics tangible, and also perhaps show how one can influence it ... [particularly] on the local level.

Do you mean this should take the form of direct citizen participation?

Yes, this provides the opportunity to show young people and students that they can bring about change through engaging in politics. And it is the chance to show that participating and having a political commitment pays off, and also is fun.

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What about the people who are not involved in education or integration programs?

There are various adult education programs offered by the government, although these have apparently not been successful enough. If institutions such as schools are not accessible, there should be other offerings for political participation and engagement. Also, beyond schools, if people are able to feel as though they can participate, and that they can enact change, then interest and trust in a representative democracy can rise again.