Germany Table of Contents

Immigration has been a primary force shaping demographic developments in the two Germanys in the postwar period (see Historical Background, this ch.). After the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the immigration flow, first into West Germany and later into united Germany, consisted mainly of workers from southern Europe. In addition, the immigrants included several other groups: a small but steady stream of East German immigrants (Übersiedler ) during the 1980s that exploded in size in 1990 (389,000) but by 1993 had fallen by more than half (172,000) and was somewhat offset by movement from west to east (119,000); several million ethnic Germans (Aussiedler ) from East European countries, especially the former Soviet Union; and several million persons seeking asylum from political oppression, most of whom were from East European countries.

Foreign Residents

As of early 1994, approximately 6.8 million registered foreigners resided in Germany. Turks made up the largest group (1.9 million), followed by immigrants from the former Yugoslavia (930,000), Italians (565,000), Greeks (350,000), Poles (260,000), and Austrians (185,000). About 25 percent of these foreign residents, most of whom were born in Germany, are under the age of eighteen. Because of the higher birth rate of foreigners, one of every ten births in Germany is to a foreigner. However, because recruiting of Gastarbeiter stopped in 1973 at the onset of a worldwide recession, most foreign workers are middle-aged and have lived in Germany for several decades.

The foreign population is not distributed evenly. More than two-thirds live in the Länder of North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg, and Bavaria, where in 1990 they made up 9, 10, and 7 percent of the population, respectively. Foreigners live mainly in urban areas; in 1989 approximately 23 percent of foreign residents lived in Hamburg and Berlin. Foreigners often live in particular areas of large cities. (For example, Kreuzberg in Berlin and Kalk in Cologne both have large Turkish communities.) There are few foreigners in the new Länder . Of the roughly 190,000 foreigners living in the former GDR in 1989 because of work contracts, many have since been repatriated to Vietnam, Mozambique, Cuba, and other developing countries that were friendly to the GDR regime.

Foreigners began arriving in West Germany in large numbers in the 1960s after the construction of the Berlin Wall ended migration from East Germany. Recruited mainly from a number of countries in southern Europe, Gastarbeiter were not expected to stay beyond the terms of their work permits. However, many opted to remain in West Germany and subsequently brought their families there to live. As a result, and owing to higher birth rates, the foreign population in Germany has increased substantially. By offering financial incentives, West German authorities hoped to encourage some Gastarbeiter to return to their native countries, but relatively few took advantage of these provisions. A tightening of entry restrictions also caused many to remain in Germany rather than risk not being readmitted after spending time in their home country.

Although no longer recruited abroad, Germany's foreign residents remain vital to the economy, parts of which would shut down if they were to depart. They also contribute to the country's welfare and social insurance programs by paying twice as much in taxes and insurance premiums as they receive in benefits. In the long term, their presence may be seen as vital because they have a positive birth rate. The birth rate among native Germans is so low that some studies have estimated that Germany will require approximately 200,000 immigrants a year to maintain its population into the next century and support its array of social welfare benefits.

Most Germans do not see their country as a land of immigration like the United States or Canada, and no demographic or social issue has generated greater controversy than the presence of foreigners in the Federal Republic. In an opinion poll taken in 1982, two-thirds of West Germans said that there were too many foreigners in Germany, and one-half thought that foreigners should be sent back to their countries of origin. In 1992 another poll found that the "foreigner problem" ranked as the most serious issue for western Germans and was third in importance for eastern Germans.

According to the foreigners law that went into effect in mid-1993, foreigners living in Germany for fifteen years may become German citizens if they have no criminal record and renounce their original citizenship. Young foreigners who have resided eight years in Germany may become citizens if they have attended German schools for six years and apply for citizenship between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three. Usually, however, German citizenship depends not on where one is born (ius solis ) but on the nationality of the father or, since 1974, on the mother (ius sanguinis ). Thus, to many, German citizenship depends on being born German and cannot rightfully be acquired through a legal process. This notion makes it practically impossible for naturalized citizens or their children to be considered German. Some reformers advocate eliminating the concept of German blood in the 1913 law regulating citizenship, but the issue is an emotional one, and such a change has little popular support.

Ethnic Germans

Ethnic Germans have immigrated to Germany since the end of World War II. At first, these immigrants were Germans who had resided in areas that had formerly been German territory. Later, the offspring of German settlers who in previous centuries had settled in areas of Eastern Europe and Russia came to be regarded as ethnic Germans and as such had the right to German citizenship according to Article 116 of the Basic Law. Because they became citizens immediately upon arrival in Germany, ethnic Germans received much financial and social assistance to ease their integration into society. Housing, vocational training, and many other types of assistance, even language training--because many did not know the language of their forebears--were liberally provided.

With the gradual opening of the Soviet empire in the 1980s, the numbers of ethnic Germans coming to West Germany swelled. In the mid-1980s, about 40,000 came each year. In 1987 the number doubled and in 1988 doubled again. In 1990 nearly 400,000 ethnic Germans came to the Federal Republic. In the 1991-93 period, about 400,000 ethnic Germans settled in Germany. Since January 1993, immigration of ethnic Germans has been limited to 220,000 per year.

Because this influx could no longer be managed, especially because of the vast expense of unification, restrictions on the right of ethnic Germans to return to Germany became effective in January 1991. Under the new restrictions, once in Germany ethnic Germans are assigned to certain areas. If they leave these areas, they lose many of their benefits and are treated as if they were foreigners. The government has also established programs to encourage the estimated several million ethnic Germans who still live in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to remain there. Although ethnic Germans are entitled to German citizenship by virtue of their bloodlines, to many Germans they do not seem German, and their social integration has frequently been difficult.


To atone for the crimes of the Third Reich, Article 16/2 of West Germany's Basic Law offers liberal asylum rights to those suffering political persecution. Until the 1980s, relatively few refugees took advantage of this provision. But in the second half of the decade, a new class of "jet-age refugees" began to make its way to Europe and especially to West Germany, which accepted more than any other West European country. In the mid-1980s, many refugees came from Iran and Lebanon. By 1991 most refugees originated in regions of war-torn former Yugoslavia, Romania, or Turkey. From 1986 to 1989, about 380,000 refugees sought asylum inWest Germany. By comparison, in the 1990-92 period, nearly 900,000 people sought refuge in a united Germany.

Although only about 5 percent of requests for asylum are approved, slow processing and appeals mean that many refugees remain in Germany for years. Because financial aid is also provided for the refugees' living expenses, their presence has become a burden on federal and local government. The resulting social tensions made imperative an amendment to the constitutional provision regarding asylum. After heated debate, in 1993 the Bundestag passed legislation that amended the Basic Law and tightened restrictions on granting asylum. One important change is that asylum-seekers are no longer to be admitted into Germany if they have applied from a third country. In addition, more funds are to be allotted to processing applications, so that asylum-seekers remain in Germany for shorter periods.

More about the Population of Germany.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress