Germany’s Immigrants ‘Most Come to Work’

Aydan Özoguz, Germany’s commissioner for immigration, refugees and integration, tells Handelsblatt about the challenges facing a country that has become second only to the United States in attracting immigrants.
Immigrants' prospects are improving slowly, said Aydan Özoguz.

Azdan Özoguz sat right next to Chancellor Angela Merkel at Germany’s “immigration summit” last week in Berlin, marking a highpoint for the 47-year-old politician from the center-left Social Democratic Party. Born in Hamburg to Turkish parents, she says German society has made progress but still needs to do more to stop immigrants being marginalized.

Handelsblatt: Ms. Özoguz, in 2013, more people moved into Germany than any other country, with the exception of the United States, but no-one's talking about the boat being too full. Is Germany accepting its role as an immigration country?

Ms. Özuguz: People immigrate for different reasons. Refugees are coming because of crises such as in Syria and northern Iraq, and need our protection. At the same time, Germany is attracting more and more qualified and skilled workers. The debate about poverty immigration shows people now understand these differences better than they did in the past, they know that most Romanians and Bulgarians come here to work and pay social security contributions. That's changed how people talk about immigration, people can't get away with blanket statements about immigration any more.

Conservative politicians can't score points with this subject anymore?

In the past, fear shaped the debate but now, we're more focusing on specific issues, like job training for example. That's helped bring more facts into discussions, for example about whether young people are more likely to get jobs thanks to their qualifications or whether their parents' background affects their chances.

Chancellor Merkel recently said integration is not a one-way street. Conservative Christian Democratic Union politicians tend to apply that statement mostly to the immigrants, but Ms. Merkel was actually talking to society as a whole.

Large parts of our society have known for a long time that Germany needs to open up. The idea of a one-way street is good, but it's a little too narrow, I think. It implies that integration can only go in two directions — those taken in and those doing the taking in, but immigration is complex. Immigrants have very different backgrounds and a country needs to be able to handle that. If a young person applies for job training but doesn't get the position because their name sounds foreign, for example, that's a problem with our system, not the immigrant. I think that's the kind of thing the chancellor was referring to.

People are still prejudiced about the guest workers who came to West Germany after the war – does that legacy shape how immigrants are perceived nowadays?

The first generation was happy to be able to work here and didn't have great expectations, they wanted to work and earn money. The second generation had bigger problems: They grew up in Germany and know how it felt to be marginalized; often they were seen as foreigners, although many were born here.

Your parents immigrated from Turkey in the 1950s – you're part of that second generation.

It's easy to forget how much this generation was shaped by this exclusion, and how much it today affects the way our children are educated. Many parents refuse to accept this marginalization for their children and are willing to assert their rights. It remains to be seen how much progress we can make.

Immigrants are still starkly underrepresented in professional and well-paying jobs.

That's because guest workers didn't come here because they were top managers, they were invited to do tough jobs in heavy industry. Their children went to school here and struggled to overcome a lot of adversity. It would be a lot to expect many children of immigrants to reach the boardrooms. Though there are enough qualified, skilled people who have immigration backgrounds. I hope we'll reach a position soon where people's potential is really being used.

People criticize the German education system for not allowing more social mobility.

Children's social background still plays a huge role in how far they succeed in education. That's something we have to change – and fast. But parents' expectations also have to change. Many have unbelievably high expectations of their children, but the kids don't get the support they need. It's a huge burden for young people when they want to meet their parents' expectations but are unable to do so. But the new program with 10,000 supported trainee positions will really help to build bridges.

How much discrimination is there still in the labor market?

Study show it's still widespread unfortunately. Even graduates with really good grades are likely to be rejected if their names sound foreign. That's disastrous! Achievements should be rewarded, no matter what people's names are or how they look.

The coalition has just agreed to a quota for women. Can you also imagine a quota for immigrants?

People's views on this differ strongly, even within immigrant organizations. I think we should first try for targets, this has sometimes worked well. Hamburg and Berlin set targets for public employees of 20 and 25 percent, respectively. Within a few years the number of employees with immigration backgrounds rose considerably.


Would people be stigmatized if there was a quota for immigrants?

There would be the danger that applicants would always have to state their immigration background – one day I hope that will be immaterial. Whether or not an applicant is named Ali or Sergei really shouldn't matter, the most important thing is who's best for the job.

The federal government could lead by example, but you're the only minister with a foreign roots.

I prefer to say that I am the first, and many should follow. Together with Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière I have written to all ministers, asking them for the first time how many of their employees have immigration backgrounds. When we know the results, we can set targets and talk about how to reach them.

Studies keep showing that Germany profits financially from immigration, but it's still considered a burden. Why?

Germany also said for decades that we're not an immigration country, though all findings show the opposite. But many people were persuaded that immigrants are above all a burden. The debate about poverty immigration really shows this; people said things like those who cheat the system have to go. But the vast majority of E.U. citizens from Romania and Bulgaria work in jobs where they pay social security contributions. But, as I said earlier, taking some of the emotion out of the debate has led to more nuanced views. That's a path we have to continue on if we want to make progress, socially and economically.


Till Hoppe is a correspondent in Berlin for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]