Orkan Kösemen: Learning from Each Other

May 31st, 2012

Dr. Orkan Kösemen is a project manager at Bertelsmann Stiftung and works on issues of migration, integration and democracy. He is currently in Toronto visiting Maytree to learn more about Canadian approaches in these matters and to share new perspectives from Germany.

Arriving in Toronto from Germany at the end of March, I didn’t expect to have any problems adapting here. Why should I? It’s Canada after all, I thought. This is part of the image every traveler has in his or her mind when coming to this country: a society born out of global immigration, yet with a common identity; people from all over the world, yet peaceful and embracing difference. “Diversity is our strength” is the official motto of the City of Toronto.

In Germany, the closest to that might be the city of Cologne. The people of Cologne have a distinct self-understanding that expresses itself in the saying “Jede Jeck ist anders.” It means everybody is different and that’s ok.

A few Canadians have told me that their country is not perfect, and everything has two sides. While I can see their point, I came here to explore what Canada does differently compared to other countries where the issue of immigration is usually handled tediously and is more conflict-laden.

Maytree has a history of international exchange of ideas and practices, as we have at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Germany. Learning from each other is a good way to develop your own ideas further without making the mistakes others may have experienced.

Classic immigration countries like Canada have shifted to the centre of attention after immigration became a major issue in Europe at the end of the 1990s. This is actually your chance to shine.

But even in Germany the times are changing, and sometimes these changes are not perceived by others when they happen. I understand that most people won’t put Germany on top of their priority list when it comes to look for examples on how to handle immigration. Still, it might be useful to know that not all German stereotypes are true anymore. Maybe you are following the changes we have experienced in the last years, maybe you aren’t. But let me clarify three aspects about immigration in Germany you may think you already know but are in fact not longer true.

Three myths about immigration and Germany:

1. Germany is a country of guest workers: Well, maybe it was originally. Germany even coined the term “guest worker.” But that was back in the 70s and 80s. Today, nobody uses this term anymore, and neither the German public nor the immigrants themselves think that any of the former guest workers and their offspring will leave Germany. It was a painful process until everyone involved realized (and accepted) that Germany in fact turned into an immigration country. That was almost 10 years ago. Since then “integration” has become one of the big topics in German domestic politics.

2. Germany is a homogenous country: Not true. Apart from the fact that no country on earth with a population of 80 million can be called homogenous (especially in modern times when individualism and urban sub-cultures are just normal phenomena), Germany is not even homogenous under ethnic viewpoints. Nowadays, roughly 20% of the German population (16 Million) have – in one way or another – non-German roots. That includes foreign citizens, foreign born Germans, as well as people born in Germany who have been naturalized. And this part of the population is growing.

3. Germany wants to assimilate its migrants: Even though some people in Germany think that would be the best way to handle immigration, that’s not what happens in Germany. Germany is proud to have a civil society where every social group can express its interests and is encouraged to take part in shaping the country. Everyone has the right and the freedom to live a self-determined life as long as you meet some basic requirements, like speaking German and honouring the constitution. What is true is that there is growing public pressure on religious Muslims to adapt more to secular mainstream.

Of course, Germany is far from being a perfect immigration society: We still don’t have impactful anti-discrimination regulations, there is no offer for migrants to be part of a new German identity, diversity is still not being perceived as a societal advantage and the education system filters those children out who aren’t native German speakers. But considering the progress that Germany has made in last the 20 years, we are – though slowly – on the right track.

Even though in the past immigration has been experienced differently in Canada and Germany, the future of immigration will be much more similar due to matching migration flows. The more migration regimes all over the world become mainstream and similar, the more we can learn from each other how to shape migration societies for the better. The next decade will be decisive for Germany if it wants to successfully mend an aging and fragmented population. I’m sure that it will be interesting for other countries to see how we tackle that challenge.

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This article first appeared on the Maytree blog.

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