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Valuable immigrants

Christoph Hasselbach
March 3, 2015

The current discussion in Germany about an immigration law is just the beginning of a fundamental social debate that needs to continue, writes DW’s Christoph Hasselbach.

Zentrum für Asylbewerber in München 10.10.2014
Image: Reuters/Michaela Rehle

Germany has long shied away from dealing with the immigration issue. Initially, many claimed that Germany was not an immigration country; there was a refusal to see immigration for what it was. Nothing better expresses the German attitude better than term that was long in use: "Gastarbeiter," or "guest worker."

The term sounded temporary, indeed, it was meant to. The conservative parties avoided talking about immigration so as not to scare their supporters. But no one needs statistics anymore to prove that Germany is the second-most popular destination for immigrants in the world after the United States. Germany has become visibly more diverse in recent years. Serious politicians no longer deny that we are an immigration country.

Despite this, many people still confuse the description of the status quo with a demand. But does saying that Germany is an immigration country automatically mean it should be one? In political and economic circles at least, it seems that people have already answered this question with a resounding "yes!" They're already asking themselves the next question, about what sort of immigrants the country wants.

A broader social debate is long overdue. Other countries began formulating selection criteria long before Germany, and are using these in the international competition for highly skilled immigrants. Germany has been doing poorly in this regard for reasons to do with language, bureaucracy, or politics. But it also has to do with the fact that Germany didn't see itself as being part of the competition.

Who's on the outside?

Those who welcome the new openness should also be aware of its consequences. Firstly, those who say who they want are also saying who they don't want. Here, it's easy to confuse the recruitment of skilled workers with the issue of political asylum, where the economic interests of the state have no role to play. Bold politicians and business representatives have been quick to recognize that there are some asylum applicants who could be valuable to the German economy if they were allowed to work. The question of whether or not they are entitled to political asylum is then no longer relevant. But what about the rest? The value of a refugee – of a human being – very quickly becomes linked to his or her job qualifications.

Christoph Hasselbach
Image: DW/M.Müller

Winner and loser states

The international competition for the smartest and most skilled immigrants has long divided countries into winners and losers. Poor countries are losing their best and brightest, and the brain drain makes it harder for them to create more wealth at home. Rich countries, on the other hand, stand to benefit from a host of poorly paid, but highly motivated workers.

Recently, the media reported about the fact that there were more doctors from Malawi working in the English city of Manchester than in Malawi itself. European aid organizations then respond to the lack of doctors in Malawi by sending European doctors, whose salaries are paid by European donations. The inequalities between states can also be seen in Europe. How should a country like Greece get back on its feet if its skilled young people all move away? While this shouldn't be an argument against job mobility, it is the harsh reality.

Massive integration effort

One very important factor in this discussion, is that of acceptance. German employers who bemoan a lack of skilled workers are thinking first and foremost about their economic interests, not the common good. It serves our economic interest to accept lots of people who have been educated in other countries and who are likely to be less demanding than German workers.

Just as the "guest workers" are by no means "guests" in this country, so will skilled workers remain living here, even if the economy were to head south. And if it really is the goal to replace all the babyboomers hitting retirement age, then we are talking about bringing millions of immigrants into the country within a short timeframe. Who can guarantee the successful integration of so many people into German society?

It's also far from clear whether the world's developed economies will even need as many workers as they have today. But once people are here, it's not so easy to send them away again.

None of this speaks against having a debate about immigration; just the opposite. It's high time for Germany to get down to brass tacks on this issue. It is, after all, something that will bring massive, long-lasting social change. And that's why we should think very carefully about what we're doing.

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