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IN NUMBERS: Five things to know about Germany’s foreign population

There are more than 20 million people with a migration background living in Germany but who are they all, and what are their backgrounds? The Local takes a look at the latest facts and figures.

The Ministry for Migration and Asylum Seekers in Nuremburg
The Ministry for Migration and Asylum Seekers in Nuremburg. Photo: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb | Peter_Roggenthin

What counts as ‘foreign’ in Germany?

When discussing the migrant population in Germany, you might hear a few different terms used – with some overlap between them. The first, Ausländer (foreigner), generally refers to anyone without a German passport: first-generation migrants, refugees and expats that aren’t naturalised, as well as some children of migrants who have opted to keep their parents’ nationality. 

The second category is people with a migration background (Migrationshintergrund), who may be naturalised Germans but were born elsewhere, or have at least one foreign-born parent. The term Migrationshintergrund entered into political parlance in 2005, when a micro-census in Germany started looking more deeply into the backgrounds of people living in Germany – both with and without German passports.

Since then, discussions of Germany’s migrant population has become much more nuanced than simply splitting people up based on their nationality. Nowadays, statisticians and pollsters understand that people with German passports are a diverse group and that many naturalised Germans have strong ties to other parts of the world.

People with a migration background make up a significant proportion of the German population as a whole. More than a quarter – 26.7 percent – of the population was either born elsewhere or has at least one parent who was born elsewhere. That’s almost 22 million people. 

Meanwhile, at the end of 2020, around 11.4 million foreigners were living in Germany without a Germany passport. That equates to 12.6 percent of the population. Of these non-Germans, around 6.1 million are men, and 5.3 million are women. 

The remaining 15.3 million people are German nationals who come from a multi-nationality family. This group accounts for 14 percent of the German population as a whole.

READ ALSO: ‘Germany is a country with a migrant background,’ says President Steinmeier

Highest proportion of ‘foreigners’ come from Turkey

Due to the strong historic ties between Turkey and Germany, it’s perhaps unsurprising that people with a Turkish passport make up the largest Ausländer group in Germany. According to the latest government statistics, around 1.5 million Turkish ‘foreigners’ live in Germany – though in many cases, the term ‘foreigner’ may be a little misleading.  

In the 1950s and 1960s, Germany opened up its borders to a large group of so-called Gastarbeiter, or guest workers, who contributed to rebuilding the country after World War Two. Many of these people came from Turkey and went on to start families here – but despite being here for decades on end, many have never become German, possibly due to Germany’s tough dual nationality rules.

In fact, a number of people who were born in Germany and have never lived in Turkey are still considered foreigners due to their Turkish nationality.

One example is ex-professional football player Mesut Özil, who grew up in Germany as a Turkish citizen and eventually surrendered his Turkish nationality in order to play for the German national team. Despite his German upbringing, Özil repeatedly complained that he was caught between the two countries and generally held accountable for anything that went wrong in the team’s performance.

“I am German when we win and an immigrant when we lose,” he famously said in a statement announcing his retirement from the German team in 2018.

Mesut Özil
Mesut Özil practices ahead of a match in the 2014 World Cup. Though born in Germany, Özil felt he was always considered an “immigrant”. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Marcus Mueller-Saran

In addition to this group of so-called Ausländer, younger first-generation migrants who’ve moved to Germany more recently also count among the 1.5 million Turkish foreigners in the country. 

There are around 2.75 million people with a Turkish background living in Germany, and around half of them have either a German passport or dual nationality. 

Many come from post-communist countries 

The next two biggest groups of foreigners in Germany are people from former communist countries, most notably Russia and Poland.

At the end of 2020, more than one in 10 people with a migrant background in the country (10.4 percent) came from neighbouring Poland, equating to a whopping 2.2 million people. Meanwhile, there were around 1.4 million people with a Russian background or nationality living in the country, making up 6.6 percent of the migrant population.

The influx of people from Russia can also be seen as markers of Germany’s history. Before reunification, many Russians settled in the communist GDR, and afterwards, an even larger number moved from Russia or East Germany to the West. 

Between 1992 and 2000 – after the Berlin Wall had been razed to the ground – around 550,000 Russians came to live in Germany. Many of these were ‘repatriates’: ethnic Germans whose ancestors had moved to Russia several centuries earlier during a great period of emigration towards the East. According to government statistics, there are about 3.5 million Russian speakers living in Germany today. 

Most foreigners have automatic residence rights through the EU  

As the swathes of Brits who rushed to move to Germany before the Brexit transition period cut-off date will tell you, migration to Germany has been largely driven by free movement. 

Looking at the residence rights of foreigners currently living here, the vast majority have no need for a visa, since their EU citizenship gives them a mostly unlimited right of abode. 

As the below chart from Statista shows, more than five million foreign nationals are living in Germany from other countries in the EU. In recent years, there has been a large wave of migration from countries like Italy, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania. They also enjoy free movement as EU member states. 

Immigration status of Germany's foreign population

Of the non-EU nationals, around 2.5 million have permanent residency, while around 250,000 are here on a temporary residence permit such as a student, freelance or work visa.

As you might expect, migrants from Syria – who are mostly refugees – make one of the largest non-EU groups in Germany, coming second only to Turkey.

As of December 31st, 2020, there were around 818,000 Syrians living in Germany, compared to just 117,000 Americans and around 90,000 Brits.  

A third of migrants have the right to vote

According to the Federal Statistical Office, around 7.9 million of people with a migrant background were eligible to vote in the German federal elections on September 26th, 2021. This corresponds to about one third (36 percent) of people with a migrant background, and 13 percent of all eligible voters in the country.

As you might expect, the majority of migrants with voting rights were second-generation migrants – meaning they were born in Germany. Just 41 percent of the eligible voters were first-generation migrants who had taken on German citizenship.

The fact that a minority of migrants have voting rights is reflected in the proportion of migrant MPs elected to the Bundestag.

Though German voters elected their most diverse parliament ever in September 2021, just 11 percent of the new cohort have a migration background. Experts believe this has a lot to do with Germany’s tough rules around citizenship and naturalisation, which invariably make it harder for foreigners to become politically active. 

READ ALSO: How people with migrant backgrounds remain underrepresented in German politics

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OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend showed how Sweden’s third party, the far-right Sweden Democrats, has shaped Swedish politics since the last elections four years ago, argues David Crouch

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

In the build-up to the 2018 elections, the world’s media descended on Stockholm, expecting a breakthrough by the Sweden Democrats (SD) who had been polling as high as 25 percent. In the end, SD took third place with around 18 percent of the vote.

Four years later, SD are hovering at around the same level in the polls. However, Swedish politics has been utterly transformed, as the other main parties have moved onto political terrain previously occupied by SD.

This would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. When they first entered parliament, SD were treated as political pariahs, a racist party, held at arm’s length by the other parties who refused to cooperate with them in any way.

Attempts to bring the SD into the mainstream of Swedish politics fell flat. The leader of the centre-right Moderates lost her job after suggesting it was “time to stop demonising” the SD. Her replacement, Ulf Kristersson, said he would neither negotiate nor govern with them. After the elections, two smaller centre-right parties – the Centre and the Liberals – agreed to prop up the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens to prevent the SD gaining any influence in parliament.

It was clear, however, that the only chance for the centre-right to govern would be with SD support. After all, in Finland and Norway right-wing populist parties had entered government with the centre right. And in Denmark, the centre-right had governed with populist support. If it worked there, why not in Sweden?

In early 2019, the SD leader Jimmie Åkesson famously had meatballs for lunch with Ebba Busch, the leader of the tiny Christian Democrats, who acted as a bridge-builder. A few months later, Kristersson met the SD leader for the first time in his Stockholm office. By early 2021 the cordon sanitaire dividing the parties had been truly dismantled, and in the autumn the three parties presented a joint budget.

Meanwhile, the Moderates stepped up their rhetoric against immigration and crime. But perhaps the influence has worked both ways? Maybe the far-right have toned down their policies, compromising with the centre so the parties can work together?

On the contrary, Åkesson and other leading SD figures have stoked up the fire and brimstone in their anti-immigrant message. For the SD, the problem is dark-skinned immigrants from Muslim countries whose values conflict with Sweden’s and who should therefore be deported.

The response among the Moderates – and also the governing Social Democrats – has been a deafening silence.

After the Easter riots in six Swedish cities, the Social Democrat government proposed a package of coercive measures to help the police and social services crackdown on criminals.

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend brought this out very clearly. More than that, it showed how the Sweden Democrats have shaped Swedish politics since the country last voted four years ago.

In the debate on Sunday, prime minister Magdalena Andersson talked about being tough on crime and boasted that Sweden now has one of the strictest immigration regimes in Europe.

It was left to the Green Party (polling 4 percent) and the Centre Party (6 percent) to challenge the SD on immigration. They pointed out that the violent minority is tiny, and that tens of thousands of recent immigrants hold down jobs, obey the law and contribute to Swedish society.

Centre Party leader Annie Lööf listed some of the SD’s more extreme proposals, including demolition of high-immigration neighbourhoods, dawn raids on refugees, and collective punishment for crimes committed by a single family member. This was “pure racism”, Lööf said – where were the “red lines”, beyond which the centre-right would turn against the SD?

All the parties agree that segregation along ethnic lines has gone too far in Sweden, that integration efforts have failed and that something must be done. But there is a paucity of bold ideas that could really make a difference.

Immigration will once more be a battleground at the elections in September, with key politicians competing to be the toughest in dealing with unruly “foreigners”. Meanwhile, the underlying problems that have fuelled disaffection among people with immigrant backgrounds are unlikely to be addressed.

A few weeks ago, Swedish journalist Janne Josefsson spoke to Ahmed, one of the stone-throwing youngsters who shocked the country at Easter.

“We are second class citizens. You let us in, but then Sweden doesn’t care about us,” Ahmed told him. “We are trapped here. I have studied, but will never get a good job. At least once a week we are stopped by the police. In the end, you feel hunted, like a quarry. Do you understand?”

It seems that Swedish politicians don’t really want to.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.


Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

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