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Praying Muslim girl, Germany 2004
© Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.

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© Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.

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Migrant children at sports, Germany 2004
© Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.

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Asylum seekers from various countries
© UNHCR / September 1998

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School friends in Germany
© Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.

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German-Polish border
© UNHCR / September 1998

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Asylum Seekers, Germany
© UNHCR / September 1998

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Finger-Printing, Germany
© UNHCR / September 1998

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Detention Camps in Europe, 2005


In 2005 6.8 million ‘non-German’ residents were registered in Germany, accounting for 8.9% of the total population. The majority of foreign passport holders were Turks with more than 1.7 million residents, followed by Italians with 540,800, and Poles with 326,600 residents. Another 10 % of the total population are Germans ‘with a migrant background’, meaning that either they have at least one migrant parent, are themselves so-called Aussiedler or naturalized immigrants (Federal Bureau of Statistics).
German society is shaped by the immigration of individuals who came to the country over years for various reasons and in different phases. In post-war Germany first, the migration of ethnic Germans and second, the recruitment of so-called guest workers as well as the reunion of families were main sources of immigration. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the socioeconomic and political transition in Eastern Europe and the German re-unification the numbers of immigrants – refugees, ethnic Germans and labour migrants – dramatically increased from 860,000 in 1988 up 1.5 million in 1992. In response, the German government restricted options of legal entry and permanent residency in respect to ethnic Germans and asylum seekers. Simultaneously, a new system of recruiting temporary migrant workers has been implemented.
The late 1990s saw another significant change in migration and integration policies. In 1999 the Citizenship Law was amended and in 2005 the new Act Controlling and Restricting Immigration and the Integration of EU-citizens and Foreign Nationals – Immigration Act (Zuwanderungsgesetz), came into effect. These changes reflect the recognition of already existing immigration and the need for deliberate proactive management. Previous governments had insisted that Germany was ‘not a migrant country’ (‘Deutschland ist kein Einwanderungsland’).The Immigration Act brought some improvements in terms of the definition of political asylum, but also tightened up controlling and sanctioning measures against asylum seekers and migrants in the name of ‘counter-terrorism’.

Ethnic Germans and Aussiedler   

In the aftermath of World War II until 1950, about 12.5 million German refugees fled or were expelled from Eastern Europe. These refugees mostly migrated to West Germany and, to a lesser extent, to East Germany. From 1950 to 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built, about three million Germans, so-called Übersiedler, moved from East Germany (German Democratic Republic or GDR) to West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany or FRG). Until 1988, about further 400,000 Übersiedler still managed to move to West Germany. Between 1950 an 1987, another 1.4 million ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe, so-called Aussiedler, immigrated to West Germany, the majority of which from Poland. Their numbers had significantly increased since the late 1980s and peaked in 1990 at 400,000.
German law allows persons of German descent living in Eastern Europe, to move to Germany and acquire German citizenship. In contrast to any other immigrant group Aussiedler were broadly supported by official integration measures concerning housing, language and general orientation courses, vocational training and financial help. Confronted with high numbers of immigrants in the aftermath of the transformation of the Communist Bloc, the German government tightened the requirements to be accepted as an Aussiedler. Since 1993 ethnic Germans from foreign countries apart from the former Soviet Union have had to prove that they were still suffering disadvantages due to their German ethnicity (Volkszugehörigkeit). Subsequently, the numbers of Aussiedler from Poland declined noticeably. Since 1996 it is required that applicants prove their German language skills. As a consequence the number of Aussiedler from the CIS has also significantly declined.
Despite the restrictions concerning the immigration of ethnic Germans as Aussiedler, it is still legally possible to immigrate to Germany as a person of German descent and to obtain the German citizenship (Staatsangehörigkeitsausweis). The number of citizenship documents delivered to Poles accounts for about 20,000 p.a. between 1998 and 2002. Numerous Poles use their double citizenship to work legally in Germany while keeping their household in Poland. In contrast to Aussiedler, they do not qualify for special benefits and integration measures.

Recruitment of Migrant Workers: ‘Guest workers’ in West Germany

In the 1950s and 1960s in response to a combination of high economic growth and internal labour shortages Germany signed a series of bilateral recruitment agreements, first with Italy (1955), then with Spain (1960), Greece (1960), Turkey (1961), Portugal (1964), and Yugoslavia (1968). Additionally, some workers were also recruited from Tunisia, Morocco, and South East Asia. On the basis of these agreements between 1960 and 1973, some 18.5 million so-called guest workers (Gastarbeiter) were recruited almost exclusively in the industrial sector. About four million of these workers became permanent settlers. In 1973, due to economic recession, the recruitment of guest workers was generally halted. The unintended consequence of the recruitment ban was that many migrants decided to stay and let their relatives join. By then, the most important country of origin was Turkey. After 1973 family reunion became a major source of immigration to West Germany. The number of so-called ‘foreigners’ (i.e. residents without German passport) stayed relatively constant throughout the 1980s at between 4 and 4.5 million. However, their labour force participation decreased as they were, in times of recession and economic re-structuring, the first ones to lose their jobs.

Labour Migrants in the GDR

In the 1960s the GDR also started to recruit workers from allied countries because of its high shortage in labourers. On the basis of bilateral agreements thousands of workers were hired on a temporary basis, officially for the purpose of further training. In 1989 about 190,000 ‘foreigners’ lived in the GDR, which accounted for approximately one per cent of the total working population. In the period of transformation and unification of the two German states most of the former contract workers lost their jobs and had to leave the country.

New Recruitment of Migrant Workers

After the rise of the Iron Curtain the German government aimed to channel and control the new migration flows from Eastern Europe. Germany signed bilateral agreements with almost all Eastern European countries on special temporary work opportunities. The new employment scheme was supposed to support the economic development in those countries by transferring knowledge through temporary labour migration – an objective which showed not to be easily achieved. The limitation of the stay of these new guest workers is more consequently enforced than it was in the case of the guest workers of the 1960s. The new guest workers work up to three months as seasonal workers in agriculture, or up to two years as project bound contract workers in the main in the construction sector; additionally, the scheme gives some border commuters, trainees or specialists the opportunity to work in Germany. In 2002, a total of 374,000 temporary work permits were granted, the majority of which were issued for Polish citizens.
After the EU-expansion in May 2004 German labour migration policies for citizens of the new member states only slightly shifted. Instead Germany opted for a seven year transition period before granting migrants an unrestricted access to the German labour market.
The Immigration Act brought further options for labour migration and even permanent settlement for high-skilled and self-employed migrants.

Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Undocumented Migrants

By the 1970s, but remarkably in the 1980s and early 1990s, the immigration of refugees and asylum seekers rose due to civil wars, hunger crises and ecological disaster in the so-called ‘Third World’ countries and in continental Europe. In 1992 the number of asylum seekers had peaked at 438,000.
The right for asylum for political refugees is manifested in the German constitution. After several changes mainly in order to accelerate the asylum procedure already in the 1970s and 1980s, a decisive change of the constitutional right occurred in 1993. Since July 1993 refugees cannot apply for asylum in Germany if they enter the country from a ‘secure third country’ or if they originate from a country the legislator considers not to be persecuting its citizens. Since Germany is surrounded by ‘secure third countries’, the only remaining legal options to enter the country and apply for asylum are by plane or through seaports. Furthermore, since 1993, appeals for asylum are examined in an accelerated procedure in an exterritorial transit area at the airport. As a consequence, the numbers of asylum seekers and of cases of granted asylum sharply declined. Social benefits for asylum seekers and so called ‘tolerated foreigners’ – those who are not granted asylum but cannot be deported, for instance due to humanitarian reasons – have been cut down. In addition to those restrictions regarding political refugees the legislator decided to take in refugees from (civil) war regions without regarding single cases, apart from asylum right. In the early 1990s About 345,000 refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina found protection in Germany, although only on a temporary basis. In the last years the main countries of origin of refugees were Turkey, Iraq, Serbia/Montenegro, the Russian Federation, and China.
The GDR also granted asylum to political refugees from dictatorial countries, but only allowed rights of asylum according to their discretion.
Since 1991 the unified Germany continues the former East German policy from 1990 to allow Jews from the Soviet Union respectively Commonwealth of Independent States to immigrate to Germany. Between 1991 and 2004 about 220,000 Jewish so-called contingent refugees (Kontingentflüchtlinge) came. In July 2006, the immigration requirements for this group have been tightened up. For instance, the applicant is now required to demonstrate a ‘realistic perspective’ not to permanently rely on social welfare benefits in Germany.
With the implementation of the Immigration Act in 2005 the definition of political asylum has been decisively improved. Not only persecution by the state, but also by non-state actors is now recognised as a ground for granting refugee status under the Geneva Convention. Protection from gender-specific persecution is also specifically anchored in the new law.
Since November 2006 persons under subsidiary protection (Duldung) may receive a settlement permit, however, only if they can prove they are regularly employed. Before this new regulation has been implemented, those refugees had remained in an insecure legal status, although many of them have lived in Germany for years.
According to the Immigration Act the obligation to leave the country is more strictly enforced in the case of persons who are supposed to be responsible for obstructing their return. Refugees are strongly under suspicion to deceive the authorities with regard to their identity or the destruction of their passports. Migrants without legal status and refugees whose application for asylum had been denied, even minor children (not younger than 16), may be detained in custody pending deportation (Abschiebehaft) for a period of up to 18 months. It may occur that a migrant, whose embassy is not willing to certificate a passport or who comes from a country which does not keep accounts of the births of its residents, is unjustly detained in custody.
As a consequence of fewer legal options of entry and residence in Germany the number of undocumented migrants rose in the 1990s. The term ‘undocumented’ or ‘illegal’ migrant encompasses persons who entered the country without a permit, rejected asylum seekers who stay in the country, migrants who overstay their permitted stay, or for instance tourists who get employed. Another group are women, men, and children who are trafficked to or through Germany for the purposes of sexual and labour exploitation. As a matter of fact, exact figures about undocumented migrants are not available. Estimates range between a half and one million. Undocumented migrants constitute the most vulnerable group as they lack nearly any legal rights in Germany. In contrast to former drafts the Immigration Act does not provide any legal or social improvements of their situation.

Family Reunion

Since the options of labour migration, political asylum and Aussiedler migration have been restricted, one of the most common options for citizens of non EU-countries for entry and settlement in Germany has been the migration in the scope of family reunion. Family reunion to a non-EU-‘foreigner’ requires that s/he has a relatively consolidated legal residence status, can prove sufficient housing and is able to make a living without depending on social benefits. The residence permit of the subsequently immigrating family member depends on that of the person already living in Germany for up to two years, apart from cases of hardship. This legal dependency makes it difficult especially for migrant women, to emancipate from possibly patriarchal or exploitative relationships with their spouses. Recently, plans to restrict the age of rejoining spouses to a minimum age of 21 are under consideration. It is to doubt, if this restriction would fulfil its aim, namely to reduce forced marriages and human trafficking.
Between 1996 and 2004 the number of visas granted for family reunion accounts for between 56,000 and 85,000 per year. The most important country of origin in terms of family reunion is Turkey; other countries are for instance Serbia, Montenegro, the Russian Federation, or Thailand.

Integration and Control Policies: Citizenship Policies

A growing proportion of the foreign population is born in Germany. These children were treated as ‘foreigners’ in a legal sense until the amendment of the citizenship law in 2000. Since then, children of ‘foreigners’ acquire German citizenship if one parent has been legally living in Germany for at least eight years. These children are then allowed to hold a double passport until the age of 23, after which they have to choose if they want to give up their other citizenship(s) in order to retain a German passport. Since 1913, with the exception of naturalisation, German citizenship had only been based on German descent following the principle of the ‚ius sanguinis’.
In respect to the naturalisation of ‘foreigners’ in Germany the new Citizenship Law reduces the required length of legal stay (7-8 years). On the other hand, apart from some general criteria like not having committed any serious criminal offence, new requirements were implemented: The applicant has to be able to maintain his/her family without depending on social benefits. The application can be denied if the German language skills are deemed not sufficient. In 2006 the federal states agreed on a general citizenship test including a German language test. The Citizenship Law defines another for a refusal of a naturalisation, namely ‘real indications’, which ‘legitimise the assumption, that the applicant follows or supports attempts which are directed against the German constitution’. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 this new legislation has been increasingly used to deny naturalisation applications of Muslims.

Integration and Inner Security

The Immigration Act brought some general simplification of former legislations. It reduces what was previously five types of residency permits to two types; the (temporary) residency permit and the permanent residency permit – and links them explicitly to the purpose of stay. Apart from the afore mentioned elements of the Immigration Act it also contains measures to promote the integration of legal immigrants in Germany. Primarily, newly arriving migrants (apart from citizens of EU-member states and refugees) are entitled and obliged to take part in German language and so-called orientation courses. In contrast, immigrants and their descendants living in Germany since years depend on free capacities in those courses. Further steps in the framework of a new governmental integration policy are the institutionalisation of a dialogue between the government and some representatives of different migrant communities and other institutions as well as a German Islam Conference. Future developments will show if these initiatives are appropriate means to establish an open dialogue and a cohesive integration strategy.
Further, in August 2006, after much debate the EU-directive to implement an anti-discrimination legislation was finally complied. The General Equal Treatment Law aims to abolish illegitimate discrimination because of race, ethnic background, gender, religion, worldview, disability, age and sexual orientation.

The Immigration Act links migration policies with aspects of internal security and counter-terrorism; it continues the policy set by the Counter-Terrorism Act from 2002 which was implemented in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York in 2001. Leaders of banned organizations and human smugglers who have been sentenced to serve time in prison are subject to regular expulsion. Someone who is accused of inciting hate and violence may also be expelled if s/he endorses public acts such as war crimes in a way that could disrupt public security and order. Additionally, the Immigration Act has introduced the instrument of deportation orders. The supreme authority at state level may now order a ‘foreigner’ to be deported without first having to issue an official order to leave the country. A deportation order must be based on ‘factual evidence of potential threat’, even without the evidence of a criminal offence. Accompanying this instrument are new provisions on monitoring the activities of ‘foreigners’ who have been ordered to leave the country. In addition, before issuing a permanent settlement permit or deciding on an application for naturalization, the authorities will make a standard request for information on any anti-constitutional activities of the person in question. After the failed bombings in Germany in July 2006 a ‘Counter-Terrorism Data Base’ has been implemented including information about religious belief.


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Frauke Miera, Faculty of Cultural Studies, European University Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder, Germany, 2008




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