Time to ask tough questions
The Irish Times
Raudán Mac Cormaic, Migration Correspondent in Berlin
January 26, 2008
In the style of many a wounded politician, Roland Koch delved into the rhetorical repertoire and went for the tune that would resound the loudest. With opinion polls last month showing him under pressure to retain his majority in the western German state of Hesse, the state premier and leading Christian Democrat reacted by picking up on public unease after a spate of violent attacks and pointing an accusatory finger at "criminal young foreigners" who should, he said, be deported.
Koch's intervention came in the wake of a brutal attack on a pensioner on the Munich metro the week before Christmas. The 76-year-old suffered a fractured skull when he was beaten by a 20-year-old Turkish man born in Germany and a 17-year-old immigrant from Greece after he asked them to stop smoking on the train. The victim recovered, but recalled how the men spat at him, called him a "s**t German" and kicked him in the head.
The stakes were already high in Hesse, where voters will tomorrow decide whether to give Koch a third term in office. His party could lose its outright majority or be ousted from power altogether, and for German chancellor Angela Merkel, losing control of Hesse could undermine her authority as party leader.
But it is Koch's remarks on juvenile crime that have made a regional election into a national talking point, generating an uneasy debate on Germany's halting attempts to integrate the 20 per cent of its population with an immigrant background.
Koch followed up a call for tougher youth sentencing with the declaration that Germany was "not a country of immigration" like Canada or Australia.
"In our country, we don't get many cultures meeting to form a new one. Germany has had a Christian-Occidental culture for centuries. Foreigners who don't stick to our rules don't belong here." Moreover, he published a six-point list of values that underpin the Leitkultur (leading culture), including respect for the elderly, punctuality, hard work and politeness.
Ever since its earliest guest worker programmes were initiated (through bilateral deals first with Italy, then Turkey, Spain, Greece and Yugoslavia) in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Germany's immigration policy has been informed by an assumption that newcomers were temporary visitors who would return home when their work was done.
Most of them didn't, and there is almost universal agreement today that that mistaken assumption was the root of decades of neglect. Indeed, the vestiges of this kind of thinking reappear in the current debate: most of the young "foreigners" castigated by Koch and his allies were in fact born in Germany or to German-born parents.
Ireland's experience of immigration is different in several respects from Germany's, not least in its relative novelty and in the composition of its migrants, but it is striking that so many of the issues that a long-standing, migrant-receiving country such as Germany is currently agonising over are those that increasingly preoccupy Ireland: language training, citizenship, education reform, religious instruction and housing. Even confusion over the meaning of integration itself echoes an incipient conversation at home.
CHRISTIAN PAULS, THE German ambassador to Ireland, says he has in the past eight months observed discussion of immigration steadily gaining momentum in Ireland, and suggests that much could be learned from the experience of his and other European countries such as France, Britain and the Netherlands.
Students of Germany's dilemma could do worse than visit Berlin's Kreuzberg district, also known as "Little Istanbul". It is a far cry from some of the monolithic enclaves found in London and Paris, but this is a centre for the capital's immigrants and the everyday furniture of emigrant life is all around.
The facades of the tower blocks that shape Kottbusser Damm are lined with the protruding white satellite dishes that beam television from the home country; at street level are baklava bakeries, kebab shops, Turkish banks and travel agencies specialising in trips to Anatolia.
In one internet cafe, there are three clocks sellotaped to the wall, with the hour in Accra and Ankara on either side of the local time.
On the third floor of one of the blocks, in an office reached by way of a dark stairway filled with the stench of urine, administration official Sabine Gröte estimates that 95 per cent of residents in this block are ethnic Turks. Many of those who live here - even those who have been in the country for decades - don't understand German, so that even filling out simple rent allowance forms is beyond them.
Across the street, in the bar attached to the Türkiyemspor soccer club, a group of middle-aged Turkish men are playing backgammon in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Among them is manager Fikret Ceylan, who speaks with pride of the league they run for kids from Muslim, Christian and Jewish backgrounds and their campaigns to oppose violence against women. A reminder of Roland Koch's comments elicits a resigned shrug from Ceylan, as if he wouldn't have expected anything else.
"It's sad, but he wants votes from right-wing radicals, so it's a political game. But I think he is going to fall on his face." When the season resumes, he is thinking of starting a signature campaign among the kids, under the declaration: "I am a young foreign criminal, Mr Koch."
KREUZBERG IS NO ghetto. Close to the centre of Berlin, it now draws as many students and professionals as newly-arrived immigrants from southeast Europe. At the Maybachufer market, there seem to be almost as many native Berliners buying gourmet cheese as there are veiled Turkish-speaking women sifting through mounds of fabric. But in one sense, that is why Kreuzberg symbolises Germany's problem, its people living at once side by side and isolated from one another. Immigrant leaders suggest that some newcomers were never inclined to invest in Germany because, ever since the guest worker programmes that cast them in the bit-part of economic actors, they were never given the impression that they were wanted in the first place.
The same dynamic would later push them into poverty. That is what Ceylan has in mind when he says the citizenship rules would be the first thing he would change if he could turn the clock back 30 years. By making it easier for immigrants to choose to become Germans, they would reciprocate in other ways.
As in other countries, this question of reciprocity is essentially the contested ground on which the current debate is being fought. How should the cultural give-and-take be weighted between natives and newcomers? On whose shoulders does the burden of accommodation fall?
"It's a question of how much you can ask these people to try to invest in their new country - or invest in their children," says Pauls. "I'm not expecting a 45-year-old who has been working in the fields for the last 32 years to come to Ireland or to Germany to go to night school and come out with his Leaving Cert and have a BA five years later. But what you can expect is that if these people look around. . . they should at least come to the conclusion that in order to succeed, you need to learn the language and you need education."
The live-and-let-live credo of classic multiculturalism has in recent years fallen out of favour in Germany (the shorthand "multi-kulti" has become a pejorative term) and has been replaced, theoretically at least, by a more dirigiste approach founded on certain - albeit contested - core values. This shift is partly explained by the perceived failure of earlier thinking, but it may also have something to do with the diminishing shadow cast by the Nazi past.
"The CDU never accepted [ multiculturalism], but it never pushed its own idea - the idea that there is a leading culture in Germany which has and must have priority," says Stefanie Vogelsang, a CDU councillor in Neukölln, a district heavily populated by ethnic minorities in Berlin. "This has always been my personal understanding, that cultures are very welcome, but they have to get in line behind the main culture. That the CDU didn't push this for years was a mistake, but you have to understand through our history, that it's only in the last few years that you're able to say things like this without being seen as a brown mob."
Vogelsang agrees with Koch's remarks on crime, and says of 400 youths in Berlin who are considered serious criminals, 150 are from Neukölln - and of those, 146 have an immigrant background. However, Koch's critics point out that juvenile crime is falling, and that disadvantaged "German" young people are as likely as their "foreign" peers to break the law.
THERE IS AN acceptance that children are to be the priority for integration strategies, but also that this will be a daunting challenge. One in five children with an immigrant background leaves school before the final exams - double the rate of their peers from German families. They are disproportionately likely to be poor and are too heavily represented in the Hauptschule, the lowest of three hierarchical tiers of the secondary school system. The pattern repeats itself in adult life, where the descendants of immigrants are still poorly represented in the civil service, the media and the police.
According to Kenan Kolat, chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany, the current controversy makes matters worse by pushing these young people further in on themselves. "It's extremely worrying. Forty per cent of people under 25 in this country have a migration background, and if people grow up with a feeling of not being part of the society, in the future they will grow up and they won't necessarily represent German interests. He [ Koch] has excluded them and then blamed them for being excluded."
The high-octane jousting of a closely-fought election may not be the time to find consensus on such searching questions as these, not least after half a century of skirting around them. But when asked about lessons that Ireland could take from Germany, a rare point of agreement tends to emerge. That is the need for the State to speak clearly from the beginning - whether to remind immigrants that they are wanted as well as needed, to assuage fears or to spell out how newcomers are to invest in their adoptive home.
"It's clear, binding rules," says Stefanie Vogelsang. "They can be very liberal rules or they can be harsh rules, but [ you need] clearly formulated expectations of what Ireland is to expect. Just be clear from the start - that's what we never did."
Sunday, January 27, 2008