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Integration questions stir passions in Germany

With tensions rising between Muslim immigrants, their children and the native born populations in Western Europe, the question of how to integrate foreigners has stirred passions across the continent.'s Rachel Elbaum reports from Berlin.
Two participants of the so-called \"Girls
Two participants of "Girls' Day" work on a motor at the DaimlerChrysler's Berlin workshop. The day, created by the German government and unions, aims to awaken the girls' interest for typical men's professions.Johannes Eisele / AFP - Getty Images file

BERLIN — With tensions rising between Muslim immigrants, their children and the native-born populations in Western Europe, the question of how to integrate foreigners has stirred passions across the continent.

Germany, like the Netherlands, France and Belgium, has a large Muslim population which, by and large, clings to the language and traditions of their home countries.

Unemployment is rampant both among immigrants and native-born Germans, and violence in schools with large immigrant student bodies has caused many teachers to be worried for their safety.

But how did Germany, whose tradition of accepting newcomers dates to World War II's aftermath and includes asylum seekers, religious refugees and economic immigrants, come to be in this situation?

Germany is home to millions of immigrants, 3 million of whom are Muslim. The majority were invited to the country as gastarbeiters, or guest workers, mainly from Turkey. Faced with a labor shortage in the 1950s, and 60s, then-West Germany encouraged foreigners to fill positions in factories and in construction.

“The Germans recruited untrained and uneducated people,” said Steffen Angenendt of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “It didn’t seem necessary to have academics come to Germany to work on an assembly line. They were trained on the job.”

Given temporary visas, the Germans expected the workers to come, make money and then head home.

What the government didn’t count on was the employers’ reluctance to let trained workers leave. So the men stayed and then brought their families — along with their traditions, religion and culture.

The immigrants settled together and neighborhoods slowly began to reflect their new inhabitants. Signs were hung in Turkish, supermarkets sold Turkish products and stands selling kebabs — a traditional meal in a sandwich similar to a gyro — popped up in nearly every German city.

“They came in the sexual revolution and they saw the communes — men, women and children living together. It was a shock for these people, so of course, they put up borders,” said Seyran Ates, a lawyer who works with immigrant women. “It was automatic. They felt, they don’t want us here, and on the other side, we don’t want to be like them; they are immoral,”  Ates said.

A changing market
As German industry changed and the need for more qualified workers rose, the jobs filled by many of these laborers disappeared, leading to widespread unemployment.

“The discussion on integration problems you have today is to a large extent a result of this immigration,” said Angenendt, who was part of a committee which suggested future immigration policies for the government. “These workers had no ability to adjust to the labor market.”

Although there were efforts at the city and state level to assist in integration, little effort was made on a federal level -- an oversight that has ramifications even today. Language has proved to be one of the bigger challenges. Many immigrants and their families don’t speak German, which makes it more difficult for them to find work.

“Integration never really started,” said well-known actor Mehmet Kurtulus, who came with his parents as a baby to Germany from a small town in Turkey. “The Germans missed the point that workers are people with families.”

This is especially obvious in the German school system, in which even second-generation children perform significantly worse than their native-born counterparts, according to a report by the international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Even more notable is the finding that immigrant students of Turkish origin perform worse in Germany than in Switzerland, which also hosted a guest worker program in the 1950s and 60s. In addition, the schools which immigrants attend are overwhelmingly homogeneous, leaving little room for students to build relationships with native-born children, according to the report.

The failure of the education system has sharp ramifications for these students after graduation. Unemployment rates are significantly higher for immigrants and their children than among native born individuals.

‘More than speaking German’
Today there are about 200,000 immigrants a year entering Germany, mostly family members of former Turkish immigrants.

Recently the government has taken steps to encourage integration. In January 2005 government introduced free language and orientation classes to help with integration. Yet experts are skeptical about its value.

“Being integrated means more than speaking German,” said Angenendt, who says that Germany needs to recruit more skilled workers to survive in the future. “There’s no discussion of how to bring people into the labor market.”

Perhaps provoking the already tense relationship between the government and its immigrants, the German parliament is now debating the implementation of citizenship tests. Germany has one of the lowest citizenship application rates in Western Europe and its laws to become a citizen are much stricter than in the United States, for example.

Yet Germany has no choice but to find a solution to better integrate immigrants and their families.  Falling birthrates, along with steady immigration mean that in several decades the country will come to rely more and more on immigrant labor.

For all the problems, children of Turkish immigrants who have assimilated are somewhat hopeful for the future and believe that each generation will both become part of German society and contribute their own background to the melting pot.

“The question of immigration and integration never really ends,” said Kurtulus. “My hope is that the third generation will be more integrated, more established, more relaxed.”