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Germany: Foreigners Benefit From New Citizenship Laws

  • Roland Eggleston

Germany has opened the new century with a law that makes it easier for thousands of foreign residents to obtain citizenship. The new law has been hailed as a sign of a more liberal approach by Germans to foreigners in their midst. But RFE/RL's Roland Eggleston reports that there may be practical reasons for the change: Demographers say the country desperately needs young foreigners to sustain an aging population.

Munich, 10 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For one Turkish family in Berlin, New Year's Day brought an extra reason to celebrate. Seyma, the daughter of Mesut and Saliha Kurt, was the first foreign baby born in Germany in the new millennium.

The family was celebrating more than just the arrival of a new child. Because of the timing of her birth, the baby automatically became a German citizen -- although there is not a drop of German blood in her veins.

Seyma benefits from a new law introduced by the Social Democratic government that took effect with the new year. Not only does it grant automatic citizenship to newborns, but it also opens the way to citizenship for many of Germany's more than seven million foreign residents.

Seyma's parents, for example, are not citizens, although her father was born and educated in Germany. Now, however, he and his wife may apply for citizenship this year. Some experts believe up to four million foreign residents will become citizens in the next few years. In the city of Berlin alone, some 40,000 applications have been received.

Until now, Germany's citizenship laws were based on legislation approved in 1913 that views nationality as based on ancestry. Under these laws, German nationality basically belonged to those who had German blood.

In practice, that meant a foreigner who had spent most of his life living and paying taxes in Germany and who had children and grandchildren in the country found it difficult to obtain citizenship. But an ethnic German whose family had lived in, say, Romania for 300 years was granted citizenship almost automatically soon after arrival.

The new law introduced by the center-left government led by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder grants dual citizenship to children so long as at least one of the parents has lived in Germany for eight years or more.

By age 23, a child must decide whether to keep a German passport or adopt the citizenship of its parents.

Another provision allows foreigners to apply for citizenship after eight years. Previously they had to wait 15 years. Applicants must show that they have good knowledge of the German language and of everyday laws.

The federal commissioner for foreign residents, Marieluise Beck, commented at the weekend that Germany was becoming what she called "a colorful land with many cultures."

The law is expected to benefit the Turkish population most. More than two million Turks live in Germany; many of whom were born there. Some experts estimate that about 40 percent qualify to apply for German citizenship if they want it.

Not all do. Beck says many older Turks are reluctant to break their ties to their homeland. Some fear they would no longer be able to inherit family property in Turkey if they surrender their citizenship.

The largest of the other minorities are those from the former Yugoslavia (about 800,000).

But while many Germans welcome the new law as signaling a change in national attitudes, demographers say Germany desperately needs new blood if it is to maintain its present industrial output and standard of living. Germany has about 82 million citizens, but the population is aging and the birthrate is one of the world's lowest. A recent government report says one in five Germans is already past retirement age and half the population may be retired within 50 years. The payment of pensions and other social benefits will be a heavy burden on those still working.

Some experts feel the answer is immigration. It is an argument which wins little support among conservatives and traditionalists.

But similar ideas are presented in a report now being drawn up by the United Nations. Details of the report have not been released, but according to a German government spokesman, it suggests several European countries will have to relax their immigration laws in the coming years if they are to maintain present levels of a working population.

The UN report is said to suggest as a worst-case scenario that Germany might need to import as many as 500,000 foreign workers a year to maintain its present levels of working and tax-paying communities. Italy might require as many as 300,000 immigrants a year. The UN report suggests the crisis could come as early as 2025.

Most experts dismiss these fears as exaggerated. But even the skeptics acknowledge that the aging of Europe's population will create a problem. Germany's break with tradition to grant citizenship to more foreigners may or may not help overcome it. But the move will certainly be watched by other European countries with similar problems.