The taboo of publicly linking violent crime with immigrant youth is quickly vanishing. Fuelled by violent headlines and studies showing clear links between young men with immigrant backgrounds and violent crime, words that have dominated kitchen table discussions for years are turning into strong public statements and political action.
Chancellor Angela Merkel told Die Zeit, "It is significant that nationwide half of the violent crimes in Germany are committed by people under 21, a disproportionate amount of who are young people with migrant backgrounds." She explained that these figures point to an urgent need for stronger integration efforts. She added however that the statistics "have nothing to do with the condemnation of an entire group of people."
A recent report showed that 80 percent of severe youth crimes in Berlin were committed by delinquents with immigrant backgrounds. The epicentres of this trend are the Berlin neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg, Moabit and Wedding. These neighbourhoods are home to homogenous immigrant communities, where young men grow up torn between tradition and liberty.
The family situations of these young men are often characterised by subjugated mothers, and fathers who use physical means to maintain their position of head of the household. An editor for the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet has estimated that 50 percent of Muslim women in Germany have been victims of domestic violence.
Time has not eased integration, as families actively seek to keep strong ties with the home countries through imported brides and close knit communities. Many of the youths committing violent crimes are the children and grandchildren of 'guest workers,' migrant labourers brought into postwar Germany, specifically in the 1950s and 60s, in order to plug a labour shortage. Most of these young men came from southern Europe and the Middle East, particularly Turkey.
One or two generations on, this population, which Germans assumed to be transient, makes up a large part of German cities and is still living on the periphery of society. Daily and widespread racism on the part of the Germans has also been cited by many critics as a major obstacle to integration. Such racism has been blamed for isolating children of immigrants by limiting access to education and employment opportunities.
A telling story is a Munich pensioner who was beaten to death by two young people with immigrant backgrounds on the Munich U-Bahn. The attack was provoked when the man scolded the young people for violating the smoking ban. As unprovoked and violent as that attack was, some argue that condenscending corrections by Germans of foreigners' behaviour has been a barrier to integration.
More than 40 years after guest workers first came to Germany, many Turks and Arabs live in neighbourhoods where they are largely isolated from German society.
"In Berlin (many Turkish and Arab) immigrants live in ghettos and they remain there together," explained a Canadian of Arab background in his late 20's who works in a professional job and lives in Berlin on a semi-permanent basis. "Those areas are like ghettos. You feel like you left Berlin," he said, explaining his impressions of Neukölln.
As for having an Arab background and living in Berlin, the young Canadian said that he has not personally been affected by negative attitudes towards Arabs, but says he surrounds himself with internationals. He explained, "I don't think I've been through this personally, but I can see difficultly for people who have to deal with local people." He pointed out that negative stereotypes of young Turks and Arabs are wide-spread in German society.
Youth crime has become a hot topic in Germany. Last week, Roland Koch, the state premier of Hesse and member of the centre-right Christian Democrats party, said that there are "too many criminal foreigners" in Germany. This week, he unveiled a six-point plan that included longer and harder jail sentences. Chancellor Angela Merkel has also suggested American style boot camps as a way to tame delinquent youth.
In response to a series of attacks by young people with immigrant backgrounds on the Munich U-Bahn system, Guenther Beckstein, premier of Bavaria state said in a newspaper interview, "We have to apply tougher punishments to the younger ones, and use every opportunity for deportation…If integration does not succeed, that is often the only thing left to do."
Softer initiatives, such as mandatory integration classes for immigrants who qualify and women-only German classes, have been introduced in order to ease the language and cultural barriers to integration. In addition, law makers wanted to empower imported brides with basic knowledge of the German language and German society.
Such initiatives aimed at combating integration problems among the descendants of former guest workers are often seen by 'expats,' migrants from first-world countries who are often highly educated, as an annoyance.
"Lots of Americans see this as a chore," said an American living in Germany, who said that some of his friends had comfortably relied on their English, but now have to take German classes in order to stay in the country. Even though his acquaintances saw this requirement as an inconvenience, he conceded that they avoided German "out of laziness."
"Regardless of where you are from, if you want to stay in the country, you have to learn the language," said the Canadian of Arab background living in Berlin. "It is a way to protect the culture of Germany, and that is not a bad thing."
The rise in violence among young people with immigrant backgrounds has created a backlash in the attitudes of many Germans. Foreign citizens feel increasingly discriminated against, according to The 2006 Shell Study on Youth. In 2006 63 percent of foreign citizens said they had been discriminated against 'from time to time.' In 2002, that figure was 58 percent.
The rise in youth violence has affected many young Germans' views on immigration. The 2006 Shell-Youth Study showed that 58 percent of young people in 2006 believe that Germany should accept fewer immigrants, in comparison to 46 percent in 2002.
"The young members of the local population have many fewer prejudices against immigrants than the older members – but they do have some.
"For example, in comparison to the last Shell Study in 2002 the proportion of those who said they were against further immigration into Germany has increased considerably," said Klaus Hurrelmann, Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Bielefeld, one of the best-known researchers on the topic of youth in Germany, in an interview with the Goethe Institute.