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Rise of Germany's far right may deter skilled workers

July 6, 2023

Germany is desperate to attract more immigrants to bolster its workforce, but racism in German society and the success of the far-right AfD hasn't made things easy.

Jindam Shirkant operating a machine at a factory in Dresden
Germany needs to attract tens of thousands of skilled workers each yearImage: Gunter Hübner/dpa/picture-alliance

The German government is currently tackling two of the most pressing challenges that face the country, and they have turned out to be connected: the growth of the far-right and long-term demographic decline.

The first is more immediate: The Alternative for Germany (AfD), the far-right anti-immigration party, is currently the biggest political force in several eastern German states and its populism is reaching new voters.

The second is longer-term and more practical, and according to economists it may threaten the country's prosperity: An impending demographic gap in the country's workforce, which business leaders say will require much more immigration.

The German government recently introduced a law meant to lower the bureaucratic hurdles for applying for work in Germany, but the political atmosphere is harder to control. German Finance Minister Christian Lindner summed up the issue earlier this week: "The biggest business location risk for eastern Germany is the AfD," he said at an event in the region. "A party that wants to seal off the country and serves xenophobic clichés is sand in the gears of the economy."

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News on the far-right makes headlines in India

The fact that racism is a problem in Germany is hard to dispute: A government-commissioned report on Islamophobia, published last month, concluded that anti-Muslim racism is "spread throughout broad swathes of society and an everyday reality."

To what extent such concerns discourage people from moving to Germany is open to question. Ulrich Kober, director of the Democracy and Social Cohesion program at the Bertelsmann Foundation think tank, believes there's some truth to Lindner's warning, but had caveats: "We know from research that decisions to migrate are very complex," he told DW. "There's never just one factor: People have different priorities when they choose where to migrate."

Kober noted that reports about Islamophobia and the successes and scandals of the AfD did make it into media outlets abroad, including the Times of India. "When far-right groups are on the rise in Germany, or when far-right politicians win offices, that is a news issue in foreign countries," Kober told DW. "People are aware of what's going on in Germany."

 Shivam Mehrotra, IT Manager in Brandenburg
IT manager Shivam Mehrotra chose Germany over many other optionsImage: privat

That much is underlined by Shivam Mehrotra, an Indian IT manager who has spent the last five years working for a company in Brandenburg (one of the states where the AfD is currently leading opinion polls). Mehrotra, who advises other immigrants on how to navigate German bureaucracy, said Indians who are thinking about moving abroad do take note of such stories.

"I don't think it would be a determining factor to decide whether or not to come to Germany, but the direction the country is moving would be a consideration," he told DW.

Mehrotra said he hadn't personally experienced much racism in his time here ("Maybe I've been lucky") but the rise of far-right populism does disturb him. "It impacts me," the 33-year-old said. "It's divisive anywhere in the world but especially in Germany, which I call my country now. I like to believe that Germany cherishes the values of equality and diversity."

Opportunity and quality of life

Several institutions, from business-funded think tanks like the Bertelsmann Foundation to international organizations like the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), carry out regular research on what makes countries attractive, and for whom.

They have found that the most important factors are potential income, professional prospects, and quality of life. In all those things, Kober said, Germany is fairly well-placed. But it is of course in competition with other wealthy countries who need a new workforce — and the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK all have a serious advantage because most of the world speaks English.

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An OECD survey that came out last year asked skilled workers from around the world what they saw as the biggest obstacles to coming to Germany: Around 38% named lack of German language skills, while only around 18% cited concerns about discrimination and racism. "It does play a role, but you do need to put into the context of other, bigger factors," said Kober. "I think that's also down to the fact that most people know there's no society anywhere that's free of racism."

"Other countries, the classic Anglo-Saxon countries of immigration, have developed a culture of openness, and that's still lacking in many sectors of the population in Germany," he added. "And of course, the AfD — or rather, the mindset that leads people to vote AfD — doesn't exactly represent a culture of openness."

Shivam Mehrotra said that, for him and his wife, there were two things that swung the decision in Germany's favor: "One was the humanitarian and economic way Germany managed COVID. That was amazing. And the other thing that really moved us was the ethical part of this country: I come from a country that was a British colony, and if you look at the research, people of our generation in Britain still believe that colonization was a good thing.

"While in Germany in schools, the children are taught about Nazi history: Really accepting the past is such an ethical thing. That made me really connect with Germany."

Edited by Rina Goldenberg

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight