Germany vows to tackle integration problems
By Karin Strohecker
BERLIN (Reuters) – Lale Cebe, a 23-year-old who works in a clothing shop in Berlins Kreuzberg district, was born in Germany, has a German passport, a German education and speaks the language fluently.
But as she walks wearing a headscarf through the city centre on a hot summer day, she cant help but notice the stares that make her feel like a stranger.
“I dont think I will ever really feel totally accepted here and I have been here all my life,” said Cebe, who is of Turkish descent. “People are more cautious and distant, and some even speak slower to make sure I get it — even though I havent said a word yet.”
After decades of denial and avoidance, Germany has vowed to tackle integration issues raised by Cebe and some 15 million others with immigrant backgrounds who live in the country.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to meet 85 members of immigrant organisations, religious and business communities as well as politicians on Friday in what is being billed as an “integration summit”.
The aim of the four-hour meeting is to draft the outlines of an integration plan for a country that has often seemed uneasy with foreigners and those of immigrant descent living within its borders.
For decades, Germany actively recruited unskilled labourers from Greece, Portugal, Turkey and Italy to drive its postwar economic boom. Meant to stay only a few years, many later brought their families and made Germany their permanent home.
Yet for a long time Germany did not consider itself a place where foreigners could settle. The countrys conservatives even made this their mantra in the 1980s.
Now the conservatives and their Social Democrat coalition partners have put integration at the top of the political agenda. Whether the rest of the country is ready to do the same is an open question.
“A rethink within the broader society hasnt really happened yet,” said Isabel Schaefer, a political researcher at Berlins Free University. “Most people still see immigrants as a security risk rather than a chance for Germanys ageing society.”
Some 7.3 million of Germanys 82.5 million people hold foreign passports, while roughly an equal number of people of foreign origin are German citizens.
The Turks represent the biggest group. Some 1.8 million Turks holding Turkish passports live in Germany, and another 700,000 are first and second generation Germans.
On average, they are younger, have higher birth rates and higher unemployment rates than the broader German population.
Germany has not witnessed the sort of open riots or upheaval in its immigrant community that France experienced last year.
But a recent outbreak of violence at a Berlin school where more than 80 percent of pupils were immigrant children, and the “honour killing” last year of a Turkish woman by her brother has pushed the issue of integration to the fore.
German parties agree that learning the German language is a precondition for successful integration. At the summit, working groups are due to be set up to monitor the success of existing policies.
But already, immigrant groups, politicians and experts are questioning whether the meeting will yield more show than substance.
Complicating government efforts to draft a national approach is the decentralised nature of the German system.
For example, the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg has introduced a test for people seeking a German passport that grills them on details of German history, culture and politics. Elsewhere in Germany they might not have to undergo such a test.
Some states offer special language learning for toddlers while in others there are no such services.
While it is understood that most measures will have to be organised on a local or regional level, immigrants say the most important thing is for Germans to change their attitudes.
“Germany needs to embrace its immigrants and tell them you are not a danger, you are not a foreign object, you are part of us,” said Bekir Alboga of Turkish umbrella organisation DITIB.
Because no matter how well you speak German, if people dont recognise and respect you, all the language skills in the world dont help,” he added