The goal of integration is creating equal opportunity, not a homogenous cultural identity, Manfred Schmidt, president of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, told Deutsche Welle in an interview.
Immigrants and the host country share the responsibility for integration, says Schmidt
Deutsche Welle: A study by the German Institute for Economic Research shows that Germans place a greater emphasis on German language skills and adaptation to the German way of life than a person's ancestry when asked about who is entitled to German citizenship. Why do you think that is the case?
Manfred Schmidt: That's because the situation in Germany has changed. We introduced new citizenship laws in 2000. Society has also changed. We have around 16 million people living in Germany with ethnic minority backgrounds. That means that people have a different understanding of what integration means, of what community means. Germany is a part of a globalized world. That means people have different conceptions of ethnicity and nationality, of immigration and migration. Germany has participated in the development of the world.
The study indicates the increasing importance of acculturation to the "German way of life." What do you think is meant by that?
One of the difficulties with the study is that it remains unclear about what that term means. I believe that the adaptation to the German way of life means that when I move to a country in which I would like to live for a long period of time it requires that the host society, as well as the immigrant population, need to be open to cultural differences. That means that I need to come to grips with the cultural climate in that country. Integration is not only an issue for immigrants, but also for the host society.
How have attitudes towards immigration changed over the last 10 to 20 years?
Germany marks 50 years of Turkish immigration
Things started to change around 10 years ago, when people from all sides of the debate were in agreement that German society had changed. We had the issue of the guest workers in Germany. We are now celebrating 50 years of Turkish immigration through the recruitment agreements. In the meantime, every fifth person in Germany has an ethnic minority background. That changes the parameters of the discussion about integration and the question of immigration. The integration debate in Germany is often emotionally charged. That has a lot to do with the fact that, for decades, we failed to recognize that immigration is a fact of life in Germany.
What is the aim of integration policy in Germany and the work of Federal Office for Migration and Refugees?
We aim to achieve equal opportunities for all in the work place, in the education system, in society as a whole - regardless of a person's ethnicity, cultural or religious beliefs. That is the goal of integration. It is not about creating a homogeneous cultural identity. Cultural diversity enriches Germany. Our country will only be successful and able to develop in the globalized world by being culturally diverse. If we don't encourage cultural diversity, then I believe that Germany will begin to stagnate.
Chancellor Angela Merkel declared last year that multiculturalism had failed in Germany. Do you agree?
Integration has become a fraught political issue
If one believes that multiple cultures can live together, if one believes that that can happen by itself, if that is what is meant by multiculturalism then obviously it does not work. But if one understands multiculturalism to be different cultures living together in the same country, not only side-by-side, but together, then we have multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is a fact in Germany. Twenty percent of people have an ethnic minority background and they have brought with them their own cultures. Here in Nuremberg we have people from 148 different countries living here. That is multicultural. As my home town, and for Germany, we can be proud of that.
Can you describe an example of successful integration?
There are thousands of examples of successful integration in Germany. To name one would be reductive. We have ethnic minority politicians, actors, journalists, lawyers, pilots, and look at the German national soccer team in which we have players with Turkish and Polish backgrounds helping us to victory. We currently have around 80,000 businesses in Germany run by ethnic minorities. They provide jobs for between 300,000 and 350,000 people in Germany. That equates to 80,000 success stories.
What particular challenges do foreigners face in their integration into German society?
German is not the easiest language to learn. Language is most definitely the basis for integration, no matter in what country one wishes to live. But I do not just want to concentrate on how immigrants should integrate themselves - that is only half of the story. We need to think about the responsibilities of the host society. One of the most important elements of our work is to inform German society about the actual facts relating to immigration in this country and to create a basic framework for integration. We have to show people that they are welcome here and ensure that they themselves feel welcome.
Is it politically taboo to say that Germany needs immigration?
Successful integration is about equal opportunities, says Manfred Schmidt
On the issue of whether or not Germany needs immigration, politics is polarizing. One side of the debate says we need skilled workers from abroad in order to cover the skills shortage in Germany. Others say that we should be training Germans to do this work. I believe the reality lies somewhere between the two. Obviously, we need to invest in education for people already living in Germany but that alone will not be enough to cover the shortfall, so we need the immigration of skilled workers.
Does Germany recognize itself as a country constituted by immigration?
Germany is a country constituted by immigration. That is a fact. We have immigration everyday, every year. 40,000 come to Germany each year to join their families. It took a long time for Germany to recognize that. Germany took too long to face reality.
Interview: Helen Whittle
Editor: Kate Bowen