Fellmer, S.: Two new momentums of Welcome Culture, 2013

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Since a few years a more and more lively debate about labour shortages and the role of migration policy to counteract them is taking place in Germany. In this debate the word ‘Welcome Culture’ (Willkommenskultur) became popular and is getting more and more influence since. Annette Schavan, the former secretary of education, for example argued, Germany needs such a culture to participate in the competition for highly-qualified migrants. Similarly the ex-home secretary, Thomas de Maizière, regretted that Germany does not really have a Welcome Culture (Schammann/ Kretzschmar/ Gölz 2012: 27–28).

What is the content that is hidden under the headline ‘Welcome Culture’? The two citations before might give the hint, that the term works like a political program. It might function as a slogan, which on the one hand promises that there is room to improve German migration policy but on the other hand allows defining the content of improvement in the future. From a political viewpoint the term therefore might be important, because it can be used to motivate for further reforms. From a more scientific perspective the question comes up, if Welcome Culture is really something new or if it means only a shift of the content within the well-known categories of migration and integration policy. In this respect, the essay wants to give some hints and show, what might be interpreted as two ‘new momentums’ of Welcome Culture. The text ends with some critical reflections regarding the actual construction of the concept.

First new momentum: Seeing the nexus between migration and integration policy

As the content of the term Welcome Culture was never officially defined there is a wide range of ideas, what might belong to it. Sometimes it seems that Welcome Culture is the generic term for migration, integration, antidiscrimination and equal treatment policy. But looking at the debate in which the term originally came up, it becomes rather clear, that it has a very strong – not wide – focus: Welcome Culture is there seen as an instrument to attract highly-qualified migrants, motivated by domestic labour market and welfare system interests. Its target group are those migrants, who will come in the future, not those, who are already living in the country.

The migration researcher Tomas Hammar (2003: 232–233) has developed a definition which is useful in this context. He defines the political decision who to let immigrate into a country and who to exclude as ‘migration policy’. ‘Integration policy’ in contrast are those measures that take place, when the immigration has happened and it is conceivable, that a migrant will stay longer or permanent.

Although the definition from Hammar is only a scientific way of building categories it seems like Germany for a long time took it serious and behaved like there was no connection between the process of migration and integration. To exaggerate: In the “Undeclared Immigration Country” (Thränhardt 1996) for decades existed two separated programs. There was a program called ‘migration policy’ which defined who should come – and go after a while, like the so called guest workers (‘Gastarbeiter’). And there was integration policy for those who came without being called or stayed without being wanted them to.

This changed with the reforms of the German immigration law in 2005. Generally these reforms were thought to make Germany more attractive for highly-qualified migrants. This was not such a new goal as it seemed, because Germany has attracted migrants for labour market reasons, also highly-qualified, even before, albeit this was not advertised in public intensively. But some aspects of the reform brought fundamental changes with them, although they were not widely recognized in public. Since 2005 for the first time German migration law foresees that foreigners who come for labour market reasons have the possibility to stay permanently and are not meant to return after a certain time (Sachverständigenrat deutscher Stiftungen für Integration und Migration (SVR) 2011: 66; see also Bast (2010): 24–25). This reform is relevant in this context for two reasons.

The first reason is simple. The reform paved the way for the discussion on Welcome Culture. Without the political will to attract labour migrants and without having it fixed in the law there is simply no nutrient solution for discussing about Welcome Culture. The second reason is a little bit more hidden. If Germany accepts that foreigners who immigrate will stay for longer or even permanently, it can develop a more holistic view on migration and integration policy and see the nexus between it. Thereby it becomes possible to exploit (in a positive meaning) integration measures for the aims of migration policy: Because if a country sends a clear signal to the world that its institutions like schools, bureaucracy or the labour market are able to cope with migrants and thus everyone has the possibility to participate in the main areas of society, it becomes more likely that a foreigner chooses this country as his new place of residence.

Second new Momentum: Accepting, that there is something behind the law

Having in mind the high net-migration-rates of the 1990s and the experiences with the guest worker-system the Germans believed for a long time, that giving foreigners the possibility to immigrate by law might be sufficient to attract a lot of migrants and within them even the best and the brightest. It is just a note that even today a majority of 56 percent of the German population sees its own country as the most attractive one for highly-qualified migrants (Bertelsmann Stiftung 2012: 19). But the facts differ: The experiences with the Green Card program from 2000 to 2004 and with the new German immigration law of 2005 were disappointing. The number of high qualified, which indeed immigrated to Germany, was low (SVR 2011: 67), even some gradual reforms to make immigration law more generous have been undertaken afterwards (see Fellmer/ Kolb 2009). What the recently established Blue Card will bring for Germany will be shown in future (Steinhardt 2012).

These experiences (may) have led to the insight, that reforms of law alone are not the only factor for influencing migration flows (Kober/ Süssmuth 2012: 16–17; SVR 2011: 70). And it is surely no coincidence that the boom of the term Welcome Culture took place parallel. Therefore Welcome Culture also stands for a shift in the way of thinking on migration decisions. Instead of believing in the rule of law it is accepted that there exists a more colourful picture of factors that influence migration flows. Three of these factors will be exemplified below.

The symbolic function and the meta-level of law

Since a few years there is a discussion whether a points-based system would be an attractive option for Germany because it is more efficient, transparent and flexible as the actual migration system. This discussion is lasting so long, that it is already outdated before concrete political steps have been undertaken to establish it: Experiences of Canada and Australia show, that this system may also lead to inefficiencies and a low fitting between the needs of the domestic labour market and the skills of the highly-qualified migrants (SVR 2011: 74–76). Nevertheless: points-based systems might bear one feature that does not exist in other migration systems: they show not only by law but also in a symbolic way, that a country is generally open for migration. This symbolic effect of a points-based system is contrary to what is still the status-quo in Germany. Because disregarded of the reforms described before, German immigration law is still generally limiting immigration and allowing it only in particular cases (Steller 2012: 180). One step to attract more highly-qualified migrants without establishing a points-based system therefore could be to reform the law and foresee immigration generally and forbid it after an individual check (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2013: 22).

But a country can also symbolize in another way by law that it is open towards migration. There is something one might call the ‘meta-level of law’. This means, that it is not only relevant, what is regulated by law but even how this law is designed and how easy it can be understood – even by foreigners. First steps towards this goal have already been undertaken in Germany: Information on residence can be found in four different languages on the homepage of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge (BAMF) 2013). And the ‘Migration Check’ of the ‘Zentrale Auslands- und Fachvermittlung’ (a department of the ‘Federal Employment Agency’ caring about questions of international experts and labour) helps foreigners, who are willing to migrate to Germany, by providing them with information, if they can migrate and under which circumstances (Bundesagentur für Arbeit/ Zentrale Auslands- und Fachvermittlung 2013). A milestone going far beyond this would be to restructure German immigration and foreigners law that is today still scattered between different laws, decrees and implementation rules (SVR 2011: 68–69).

No welcome without service

The symbolic function is the first layer behind the German immigration law which might influence migration decisions positively. The second is, how and under which circumstances the law is carried out in the daily routine. One might easily imagine, that bureaucratic processes and controls are able to make it more or less easy to get ones right as a foreigner, unremarkable of the question, what the right is in the end. One can wait long for a decision or short, one has to fill out a lot or only some forms, the stuff in the offices is friendly or not. The institutions which are most relevant for these questions, because every foreigner has to deal with them, are the aliens departments. Correspondingly they have been identified as key actors in the debate on Welcome Culture.

Even before the reforms of the immigration law in 2005 some communes have been going ahead. They saw the necessity to change the picture of their aliens departments as ‘dark and stuffy offices’ and prescribed them a better service and customers orientation (Ramm 2012: 233–236). Looking at the landscape today one can conclude that they have been the forerunners of what is accepted mainstream at present. The prominence of the topic is proved by the fact that even the German government claimed in its coalition agreement of 2009 that the service of the aliens departments shall be improved (CDU/ CSU/ FDP 2009: 75). Actually (2013) the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees is heading a project that supports aliens departments to become ‘Welcome Offices’ in the nearer future (BAMF 2012).

The probably most highly institutionalized aliens/ welcome office in Germany today is the Hamburg Welcome Center (HWC). The HWC is offering a service consisting of different measures. It is running a webpage, where foreigners can find first information about living and working in Hamburg. Furthermore newcomers can make an appointment for a personal counselling interview on housing, family or childcare in Hamburg. Services and advice can be offered in English if wished. Since Hamburg is as well a local authority as it is a Federal State it was possible for the HWC to bundle different tasks that in other cities might have to be shared between different authorities. E.g. the HWC can supply a one-stop-government for highly-qualified migrants for issuing residence permits or registration of the place of residence (Steller 2012: 190–199).

Welcome Culture as an exercise for actors outside politics and bureaucracy

To make Germany more welcoming for foreigners it might be necessary to activate more actors than those dealing with migration questions anyway.

First: Doing things good or better is worth nothing if no one knows. Thus, the actual and maybe forthcoming changes in German immigration policy have to be advertised worldwide as well. It might therefore be necessary to incorporate more players than before for lobbying for immigration to Germany: diplomatic representations, internationally operating companies or chambers of foreign trade (SVR 2011: 95).

Second: In the end it may be much more important that all these change are not only worked out by officials but are supported by those, who will be in contact with the newcomers daily – the public. According to actual surveys, there is only little reason to worry. The SVR-Migrationsbarometer – a survey of 2,450 persons with or without a migratory background in Germany – shows that 60 per cent of the German population support more immigration of high qualified to Germany; 70 per cent wish less immigration of low qualified. Interestingly nearly half of the interviewed demand to be more generous concerning refugees as well (SVR 2011: 27). A little bit more sceptical is the picture found in a survey of the Bertelsmann Stiftung (2012). It shows that the attitude of the population is divided regarding immigration and that participants see as much advantages as disadvantages resulting from it.

Some critical reflections

This essay has described two new momentums that are relevant for the discussion on a Welcome Culture in Germany. It has shown that a lot of changes have taken place in the recent past and that (much) more are planned for the nearer future. In the end, some critical reflections may show that indeed the goal is still not achieved and that a few aspects have not been addressed or deliberated so far:

As mentioned before, the debate on Welcome Culture is motivated by the will to attract more highly-qualified migrants to come to Germany. It was further shown, that integration measures are one instrument to fulfil this goal. Looking at this in detail one might identify a logical mistake: The reason, why highly-qualified migrants (instead of low-qualified) should be attracted is, that their potential insures, that they will be net-contributors to the social systems, that they will create jobs or fill vacancies on the job market. To put it the other way round: the better migrants are selected according to the needs of their new home country, the less they are addicted to integration measures. Stressing this argument further means, that campaigning with integration measures is less interesting for high qualified than it is for low qualified.

Focusing only on the highly-qualified migrants might bear another problem. Obviously there is the risk of discrepancy, if a society is debating about migration of high qualified positively, but negatively about migration in general. Highly-qualified foreigners willing to migrate to Germany might anticipate, how other migrants – that arrive today, are not allowed to immigrate or are living in the country for decades – are treated, if they are not highly-qualified (see the results of the SVR-Migrationsbarometer cited before). The picture of a Germany that is welcoming newcomers must be much wider if it wants to be coherent.

A point missing in the debate is the proportion between the amount of migration from third and European countries to Germany. More than 60 per cent of the migrants today are Europeans (SVR 2011: 38). This means, that they have been immigrating on the basis of the inner European freedom of movement. Immigration law thus has not have had any influence on their decision to migrate. Therefore, while for 40 per cent of the migrants, law plus Welcome Culture are factors that influence their migration decision, for the other 60 per cent Welcome Culture is the only instrument to be more attractive than other countries.


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Simon Fellmer, Researcher at the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration and at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies of the University of Osnabrueck, 2013. This essay represents the personal opinion of the author.