Building a Wall: Germany and Anti-Immigrant Sentiment

Wir schaffen das. We can do it. So said Chancellor Angela Merkel regarding the decision to allow over a million asylum-seekers into Germany. However, the last German election in September 2017 saw the collapse of her governing coalition, and the rise of the far-right, anti-immigrant AfD (Alternative for Germany). The recent failure of coalition talks to form the new government was partially due to disagreement over immigration and refugee policy, leaving the Bundestag (German House of Commons) at a standstill.

Politicians and policymakers absolutely must turn their attention to addressing anti-immigrant sentiment within civil society (i.e. individuals and organizations outside of government and business). Closed borders, protectionism, the rise of right-wing nationalism: this is how anxieties about a globalizing world driven by undertones of racism, manifest into politics and policy. This sentiment is not new, but in recent years right-wing parties have mobilized these feelings, leading to widespread electoral successes across Europe. It is becoming more and more critical to look at immigrant integration in terms of social and cultural participation, and not only labour market outcomes.

Zahlen, Daten, und Fakten: The research and evidence

Research shows that immigration is, on the whole, beneficial for destination countries. Immigration increases per capita GDP in advanced economies, by increasing labour productivity and expanding the workforce.  Through filling occupations for which native workers are in low supply, immigrants allow the resident population to take on more high-skilled jobs (as these often require better language skills, where resident populations tend to have an advantage). A study of the 2015 German refugee influx  found that refugees did not displace jobs from the German resident population (nor did refugees contribute to increased crime, another popular misconception).

Despite the fact that immigration does not negatively impact the economies and labour markets of destination countries, such statistics donot lead to the acceptance of immigrants. And a strong economy is no deterrent to popular resentment; national unemployment in Germany has plummeted to under 4% in 2017, a 10-year low. Something else is at play.

Warum haben wir Angst: Why are we afraid?

Economic insecurities and anxieties about the effects of globalization are commonly cited reasons for the resistance against immigration. However, increased immigration, unemployment, or economic downturn is not correlated with anti-immigrant sentiment. In Europe, the “culture of anxiety” around the economy and immigration have led to the mainstreaming of anti-migrant political discourse, and an increase in racially-motivated attacks.

Interestingly, the most resistance to immigration is found in areas with the least immigrants. In the German election earlier this year, the AfD made its biggest gains in areas with the fewest immigrants. In the USA, voting behaviour also reflects this pattern. And yet again, the same with Britain and Brexit.

Given this context, more and more experts are drawing attention to the critical role of civil society. Involvement with the resident population is key for integration, yet is often cast aside in favour of policies focused on economic growth (e.g. targeted entrepreneurship opportunities, mentoring programs for skills development). The European Union has recognized the need to engage civil society: while they note that employment is very important, integration is also a social process and involvement at the local level (the report cites schools and clubs as examples) is important. For example, in Berlin, the Refugees Welcome solidarity movement fuses refugee integration with the city’s dance clubs.

Keine Mauern mehr: No more walls

The anti-immigrant sentiment within the resident populations of receiving countries needs to be addressed. In the German context, this has included diversity-promoting youth programs, and tackling stereotypes within media. Otherwise, the consequence of anti-immigrant populist politics will be a destabilization of evidence-based policy, and the proliferation of racism throughout our societies. At this point in time, when developing immigration and refugee policies, governments need to place a heavier emphasis on incorporating civil society and social integration, instead of focusing purely on the economic side of the equation.

Diversity is a fact; inclusion is a choice.”  These were the words of Canadian ambassador to Germany, Stephane Dion, in his keynote speech at the “Inclusive Societies?” conference in Brussels. While Germany has previously looked to Canada as a model for successful integration, Canadians would also do well to remember these words—and truly take them to heart.

Emily Wong is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance. She received her Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Geography from Queen’s University. Her policy interests include urban and social policy, with a focus on equity and sustainability. When not buried in stacks of grad school readings, she enjoys being outside, preferably surrounded by mountains and/or trees. She is currently on exchange at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, Germany.