Immigration has been a sensitive topic in Germany for four decades, since the country opened its doors wide to guest workers from Turkey and the Balkans in the 1960s and 1970s. But the issue has heated up in recent months as the ruling Social Democrats have pushed for a law to increase the number of skilled immigrants to fill positions in the high-technology and medical sectors. RFE/RL reports, in this third in a four-part series on immigration in Europe, that the political opposition has made the bill a campaign issue ahead of elections in September. It's drawing on widespread fear that any new influx will only swell jobless ranks and further dilute German culture.
Munich, 24 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Immigration has become one of the most important issues in German elections in September because of government proposals to open the door to a limited increase in legal immigration.
The government, led by Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, wants to ease restrictions to allow the entry of thousands of highly qualified experts to work in industry, science, medicine, and other fields. Without them, he says, Germany cannot remain competitive in the global economy.
Schroeder points to Germany's falling birthrate as one of the reasons it needs to import workers. A number of experts have said in recent years that Germany's population of 82 million could fall by as much as 25 percent in the next 50 years, leaving an unfillable gap in the labor market.
The opposition, led by Edmund Stoiber, says the government exaggerates the problem and the country does not require as many foreign specialists as Schroeder says. It argues that with unemployment still hovering around the 4 million mark, or about 10 percent of the workforce, the answer is to train Germans to fill many of the empty positions.
The opposition stresses that Germany already has the largest number of legal foreign residents of any European country, about 7.3 million in a population of 82 million. That is about 9 percent of the overall population. Last year it had a net influx of about 100,000 immigrants.
Stoiber told a Christian Democrat party congress in Frankfurt last week that the country could not take any more immigrants and must impose a limit. "We are currently the country that has accepted the most foreigners. Those who want more will ask too much of Germany. And therefore Germany needs a restriction and a control on immigration," Stoiber said.
In its election campaign, the opposition is demanding that much more should be done to integrate into German society the millions of foreigners already in the country. Stoiber says if he comes to power, he will insist that immigrants and anyone else seeking a long-term visa, such as asylum seekers, be compelled to take courses in German traditions and history, as well as language classes.
However, critics say he has not made clear whether he wants foreign residents to become citizens or simply integrate into German society. At present, Germany has no program to encourage foreign residents to become citizens, as is the case in France and the United States.
To promote desirable integration, parliament passed a new law in March. German President Johannes Rau signed the legislation on 20 June, but its implementation remains uncertain because the opposition says it may file a protest with the Constitutional Court.
The new law sets no ceiling on the numbers of immigrants that could be admitted.
Opposition leader Stoiber says one of his first acts if he becomes chancellor in the September elections will be to repeal the law and replace it with legislation stressing the need for integrating foreigners. It will recognize the need to import foreign experts in some fields but will be much more restrictive than the present legislation.
Germany's large number of legal foreign residents includes more than 2 million Turks, many of whose parents came as so-called "guest workers" in the 1960s and then produced families and remained in Germany. But today, thousands of Africans, Asians, and South Americans are also found in German cities.
A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Gerda Schneider, said the opposition continues to claim Germany is not what is called an "immigration country" in the sense that Britain, France, the United States, and Canada are. She said the reality is different. "Some people refuse to admit it, but the truth is that Germany has already become a land of many cultures. The present reality is that Germany urgently needs to attract immigrants to fill jobs for which suitable people cannot be found in this country. We have to recognize that to maintain our prosperity, we are dependent on people from other countries," Schneider said.
Most reports on the German economy note a shortage of specialists in computer technology and in industrial and scientific research. But even the medical profession says it is in a desperate situation.
The president of the German Medical Association, Joerg-Dietrich Hoppe, said nationwide Germany lacks around 27,000 doctors. There is also a shortage of qualified nurses. Germany is currently seeking around 5,000 hospital nurses and other hospital staff in Romania.
Last year, the government appointed a commission of 21 political and business leaders and trade-union representatives to examine the situation. Its report said Germany needed immigrants and should look at them as an enriching element in society.
It recommended that Germany accept as many as 20,000 highly skilled workers annually for permanent residence. It said they should be chosen through a points system that ranks potential immigrants on the basis of their educations, skills, and age. Such a system is already used in immigration countries such as Canada and Australia. The report also suggests that about 10,000 visas should be set aside for business executives and students.
The falling birthrate is another major problem recognized by all of Germany's major political parties. In practice, it means that fewer young people will be entering the workforce in future and paying the taxes that finance old-age pensions, unemployment payments, and other social benefits.
The German Institute of Economic Research has suggested that if things remain as they are, the workforce will shrink drastically after 2020. It says that if nothing is done until then, Germany will need to bring in 1.2 million immigrants annually and notes that it would be extremely difficult to integrate such a high number. It recommends an earlier and less dramatic increase in immigration.
In campaigning for the September elections, all parties are promising programs to make it financially attractive for German women to have more children. These include higher monthly payments for each child and easier access to nurseries and day-care centers. However, many experts say modern German women enjoy having a job and earning their own money, and doubt whether the political programs will achieve the hoped-for success.
(This is the third of a four-part series on immigration.)