Berlin and German Politics

Germany’s New Integration Law: A Mistake

Version 2

26 MAY 16. Yesterday, Germany unveiled new proposed legislation for integrating refugees into society. The law should be adopted by this summer.

And it’s terrible.

Several aspects of the proposed law strike me as condescending and ill-advised. I’ll focus on three:

First, the law stipulates that refugees have no freedom in determining where they live. Pro Asyl says this is a fundamental attack on people’s rights of freedom of movement under the Geneva Convention. That refugees can be banned from certain communities by regional authorities is also a great cause for concern.

Second, refugees will be required to attend one hundred hours of integration courses to teach them about ‘German’ moral values. Proposed job training and language learning make sense––because I do think that new arrivals need to have the language to succeed in the German labour market––but integration courses can become a vehicle for cultural chauvinism.

The moral programming is an initiative of Manuela Schwesig, the Family Affairs Minister, from the SPD. Schwesig had, in 2010, a religious conversion and joined the Lutheran Church in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in former East Germany. In her testimonial, ‘Why I am being baptised’, she wrote that while in the GDR she had no connection with the church, she now joins it because: ‘all people are equal before God. He loves us with all our faults and weaknesses, strengths and talents… That is also what drives me as a politician’. I have no problem with her private religious views; they don’t sound dangerous. But here she overtly declares a lack of separation between her private Church-going life and that of her vocation working for the State.

This bodes ill for Muslim refugees who deserve to be welcomed into a Germany that approaches religious difference even-handedly, rather than into a country that considers the moral values of the State as fundamentally Christian. Germany, of course, is not even-handed: it is entangled in system of massive State support for Catholic and Protestants, through its collection of Church Tax, and Muslims are excluded from this fundamentally prejudicial convention.

Yes, there should be discussion of civic obligation, and the rights of, say, women and homosexuals in Germany.  But ‘citizenship classes’ have a more positive ring to them than the proposed cultural ‘integration’. ‘Integration’ so often goes beyond learning the rules for being a law-abiding citizen. It means: if you come here, you also need to acculturate, to become like us. And, so often––in the spirit of Étienne Balibar––although newcomers are obliged to ‘become German’, racism prevents them from fulfilling the obligation.

Something else makes ‘integration’ condescending: the approach assumes refugees are not bringing a worthwhile culture along with them. It assumes they have nothing to give, nothing to add to a country’s rich diversity, and that there are no pre-existing common values. It does not allow for the possibility that newcomers might want to hold on to their ‘culture’. ‘Integration’ risks being a talking-down-to. I have in my mind the image of a German teacher instructing grammar alongside Christian-inspired moral values, taking up the ‘white man’s burden’, in what is essentially a colonial approach, implemented at home.

Why does the law not ask in which ways Germany will have to change in order to become a successful multicultural society? How Germans should take courses to learn about pluralism? Or question the assumed shared nationalism of an imagined historic majority (whose bad past should make one question their qualifications as good teachers)? Meanwhile, certain wealthy expats––Americans, Europeans––are told that we can ‘keep our culture’. As a Canadian, I was never told that I needed to take an integration course. We don’t need to learn about ‘German values’. Is the double standard because so many of us are white and seen to have enough money?

Speaking of money. The third problematic part of the law is that refugees, announced labour minister Andrea Nahles (again, SPD), will be offered 100 000 jobs that will be paid a meagre one Euro per hour. I kid you not: the proposal is to pay them 84 EUR/month. Mind you, this provision is for the period before their asylum papers are processed and they are authorized to work. But these days, this process can take years; the system is overburdened with a half-million open asylum applications. The average wait-time for an Afghan fleeing war is 15 months; for a Pakistani it is now 19 months.

In the press conference, Nahles said, ‘The 100,000 one-Euro-jobs are an alternative to doing nothing’.  They are meant to help refugees make contacts in the community and understand the German workforce (to learn ‘responsibility and punctuality’ said the Bavarian CSU politician Emilia Müller, with the preposterous assumption that refugees now have neither) . But, fundamentally, this program––which ignores a huge body of research in migration studies––tells the new arrivals that their time and skills are worth less than that of other people. Even though most Syrian refugees arriving have, on average, very highly educated, even in comparison to their German hosts, according to UNHCR. One might ask too how is it ‘Christian’ to welcome so many people into your country. Schwesig might believe all people are equal before God, but they are obviously not deserving of equal pay.

I spoke to one Syrian, Fathi, from Damascus, who has a degree in Engineering. He said that it is undignified for him to work for almost nothing. ‘I would rather volunteer. The one Euro an hour is an insult. Plenty of people will work on the black market instead’.

SPD Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel says the law is supposed to send the message to immigrants: ‘if you make an effort something will become of you’.  But I don’t think this is how the law is being heard by refugees, and the government risks making an error of forcing many people into a growing shadow economy, of making newcomers feel abandoned by the State, and of marginalising a million new residents.

Appalled? You should be.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

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