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IMMIGRATION

How Germany’s first African Book Festival is giving voice to questions of migration

Berlin will be the first German city to hold an African Literature Festival from April 26th-28th, highlighting many of the problems faced by African immigrants in Germany and abroad.

How Germany’s first African Book Festival is giving voice to questions of migration
Musa Okwonga's Band BBXO will be performing the closing concert for the festival. Photo: Musa Okwonga
Starting Thursday, Berlin is set to have it’s very first festival of African Literature, entitled “Writing in Migration”. The event will include 37 different writers and artists from diverse backgrounds, and includes more than 80 books, multiple panel discussions, concerts, West-African food experiences and more.
 
It comes at a time when migration is the hot-button issues in German society, and is intended to shed light on the perspective of African immigrants through stories from around the world.
 
For many of the festival’s featured artists, who are comprised of award winners like Chris Abani and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, the road to appreciation in Germany has been no easy task. 
 
Expat or Migrant?
 
Musa Okwonga, a British multi-talent who is known for his poetry, journalism, fiction writing and music, says he has faced personal stigmatisation as an artist with African heritage. 
 
Okwonga’s parents originally fled Uganda for England during a time of conflict in the country. Okwonga, who has lived in Berlin since 2014, was born and raised in London, where he went on to become a qualified lawyer before leaving his corporate job to pursue his dream of being a poet. Along the way, he has worked as a sports and political journalist, published a sci-fi novel, and is currently part of the band BBXO, who count Ed Sheeran among their fans. 
 
Despite his British roots and numerous accolades, Okwonga explained that his experience abroad is very different than that of many of his British compatriots.
 
“My white friends do not call themselves immigrants, they call themselves 'expats.' I am not an expat, though – I am a migrant. I know what that means,” Okwonga told The Local, explaining the stigmatisation that comes along with being a black man in Europe.
 
“Part of this festival is trying to define what it was to be an immigrant on our own terms, because its definition in this country has taken our voice in the matter from us. To be a migrant or a refugee is a status, not a title,” said Okwonga. “You could be a refugee for six months in Germany, and you will be considered a refugee for the rest of your life.”
 
Musa Okwonga is an artist living in Berlin and performing in Berlin's African Book Festival. Photo: Musa Okwonga
 
African voices absent from school curriculum
 
The idea for “Writing in Migration” was born out of what Stefanie Hirsbrunner, co-founder of InterKontinental – the literary agency that is putting on the festival – sees as a hole within the German system concerning African talent. 
 
“The German school system does not require students to read even one African author. It’s just not in the curriculum. For this reason, I am not surprised by the sheer amazement of German audiences when they see that this level of literature exists by African authors,” she says.
 
Hirsbrunner expressed her hope that “the festival is part of opening the stage and raising awareness that amazing work comes from the African continent.”
 
 
'Berlin is a city of extremes'
 
Berlin will play a very key role for the festival. It was chosen as the location not only for being Germany’s capital, but also for its reputation as an artistic hub. The city and Germany as a whole, however, have been criticised by many in the black community as not being accepting of African perspectives. 
 
Okwonga explains that he sees Berlin as a place with two sides for those in the African community.
 
“Berlin is a city of extremes. The bad extremes are terrible,” claimed Okwonga, and went on to tell the story of his experience as a black resident of Germany's capital. 
 
“There has been visible change… one of the worst experiences happened while I was leaving a football match. It was the first time a black man had started a game [as captain] for the German national team, so it was an amazing day for Germany….and then I head back home on the train in Westkreuz and a guy put up a Nazi salute (towards me) when he was getting off the train,” Okwonga said.
 
He attributes much of this increased racism to the rise of the political right, as well as events in recent German history. The New Year attacks in Cologne, where numerous women were sexually assaulted by predominantly immigrant men, Okwonga said, “had such a huge effect on German psyche, that the old trope of the black sexual predator has resurfaced. I am profiled openly as a predator because of my skin, so I have experienced this bias on a personal level.”
 
Berlin as a haven for outsiders
 
It is, however,  the good side of Berlin that makes Okwonga hopeful about it’s future for the African community. 
 
“Berlin is the only place I’ve been where everything cool in the art scene is run by queer women of colour. Anyone can come here and be a part of it. Because everyone in Berlin is a kind of outsider, everyone feels welcome,” he says.
 
He went on to say that, “the reason I am still here is because the good Germans are the most loyal, most friendly, empathetic people that I have met anywhere. The support I have from the regular people – that is why I am still here, because the good people are worth it.” 
 
Concerning the prospect of a German audience, Okwonga added, “It is one of the reasons I am very excited for the festival to be in Berlin.”
 
36 of the acclaimed authors and speakers who will be featured in this year's Writing in Migration festival. Photo: InterKontinental. 
 
Giving a stage for the African voice
 
The “Writing in Migration” festival will address many of the political themes facing migrants abroad, including panels about issues of feminism and how to correctly portray history from the African perspective. 
 
Hirsbrunner said that she sees this festival as an important step for letting African people lead their own discourse concerning politics within German society.
 
“What is important is the space that white Germans allow for black or African voices…most of the time, German news tends to have German experts. If something happens in Turkey, for example, we will call on a German in Turkey to tell us what is happening. We don’t ask the Turkish. It’s a question of who we let speak,” she argues.
 
As for her role in the festival, Hirsbrunner said that as a white, German woman, she wants use her position to open the door for other people to speak. 
 
“The idea is that, when you have this white privilege and you went through the process of realizing your own position, then you learn where it is that you can be of help. And that very well may not be on the stage – why don’t you just open the door for other people?”
 
For Okwonga, the existence of the festival itself may be of equal importance to the content held within.
 
“This festival is so important, not just to remind people that we are great writers, but that we are actually human,” said Okwonga. “I am really glad to have this platform to restate my humanity.”
 
Festival highlights
 
The festival will be held at Babylon Theatre in Mitte, a historic location worthy of such a landmark festival. 
 
Hirsbrunner stresses that this will be a festival in every sense of the word: visitors can expect dancing, food, music, t-shirt sales, book signings and even the coveted wristbands.
 
The two-day, three-night festival includes many not-to-be-missed events, said both Okwonga and Hirsbrunner, including a panel entitled “Between Myth and Trauma – How to write about the unspeakable” and the play “You Think You Know Me”
 
Ending the festival on the night of the 28th will be a headline concert by Okwonga’s band BBXO, which will combine the theme of African migration with poetry and dance.
 
As to what they want visitors to take away, Okwonga was quite clear: “I want it to completely blow them away and give their friends 'FOMO' that they didn't make it. And I want them to come next year.”
 

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IMMIGRATION

What Germany’s plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

To tackle its ever-widening skills gap, Germany wants to encourage talent from aboard to move to the country by introducing a points-based immigration system. Here's what foreigners need to know about the changes.

What Germany's plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

What’s a points-based system?

A points-based system is an immigration model where foreigners have to score above a certain threshold of points in order to obtain a residence or work permit in a country. The exact scoring system is set by the government, but can include factors like language skills, family connections to the country, specific qualifications or work-related skills, or the amount of money in your bank account. 

Points-based systems can also be known as “merit-based systems”, because there tends to be a pretty big emphasis on what you can offer a country in terms of education or skills. 

The model was first introduced in Canada way back in 1967 as the country tried to move past a system based on race and nationality to one that favoured language fluency, youth and educational or vocational background. A similar step was taken in Australia just a few years later in 1972 and, since Brexit, the UK has also introduced its own points-based model. 

How does this relate to Germany?

When the new ‘traffic-light’ coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) took office last December, the parties pledged to reform Germany’s immigration system and bring a fresh cohort of workers into the country.

“In addition to the existing immigration law, we will establish a second pillar with the introduction of an opportunity card based on a points system to enable workers to gain controlled access to the German labour market in order to find a job,” the coalition agreement read.

This would apply to third-country nationals who don’t otherwise have the right to live and work in the country. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What Germany’s new government means for citizenship and naturalisation

German language course poster

A sign advertising German courses. Language skills can count towards points in a points-based system. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Bernd Wüstneck

FDP migration specialist Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch, who is working on these reforms, says the policy is driven by Germany’s desperate need for workers. 

“The Liberal Party (FDP) is convinced that we need more labour migration,” she told The Local. “We do have a lot of options for coming into Germany as a labour migrant – but it’s a bit complicated – and if you want to come to Germany to search for a job and you don’t come from an EU country, it’s much more difficult.”

That’s why the coalition is aiming to offer a second route for people who don’t have job lined up in Germany, but who otherwise have the skills or talent to find one. 

What will this look like?

The plans for the points-based system are still at an early stage, so the exact criteria haven’t been worked out yet.

What’s clear at this stage, however, is that the points-based option would run parallel to the current model, which generally permits people with a concrete job offer in a skilled profession to come and work in the country. 

“It’s about (people having) a good opportunity to come to Germany when they have either a job offer in sight or a direct job offer,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) said in response to parliamentary question in January. 

“Next to that, we want to achieve a further possibility for talent – for qualified men and women whose skills we need in Germany, who still don’t have a work contract but, if given access, could use that opportunity. That’s what we’re talking about with this Canadian points-based system. It shouldn’t replace our current system, but rather improve it.”

In short, that means that people with a job lined up won’t be disadvantaged – but there will be alternative routes for those without them. It also won’t affect the EU blue card scheme

READ ALSO: ‘I finally feel at home’: How Germany’s planned changes to citizenship laws affect foreigners

Will people need formal qualifications? 

Probably not – though it will obviously depend on the sector someone works in and their level of experience in their chosen field.

“I personally am convinced that you shouldn’t place too much emphasis on formal qualifications, because it’s very complicated getting your formal qualifications recognised in Germany,” said Jurisch.

“A medical doctor, for example, is one where you can’t say, ‘Okay, you’ve got some experience so we don’t need to see your papers.’ But there are a lot of other jobs which do not have this restriction and they are not formalised but rather based on practical experience.”

Carpenter wood

A carpenter sands down a block of wood in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

The issue of recognising qualifications is also a problem that the traffic-light coalition has set their sights on solving during their time in office.

At the moment, the process of getting qualifications officially recognised in Germany is done on a state-by-state basis, so somebody who gets their degree recognised in Brandenburg may have to redo the entire process again in Bavaria, for instance.

According to Jurisch, there have already been conversations between the Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education on the issue, and Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) has also promised to take steps to solve it.

But, she said, it’s complicated: “I’ve started to dive into this issue, and the more I dive into it, the more complicated it becomes – so there are no silver bullets.” 

How many workers are needed – and where? 

In order to plug its labour shortages, Germany needs around 400,000 new workers every year, according to the Federal Employment Agency. In 2020, Germany’s net migration was just 200,000 and 150,000 people of working age entered retirement – which means the country is currently falling well short of its targets. 

“We have shortages everywhere,” Jurisch said. “We need 400,000 new workers every year, and these people won’t be born in Germany – or if they are, they won’t grow up for another 20 years.

“We haven’t managed to get more women into the labour market, or they work part time, so I don’t think this will make a big difference, and I don’t think we will close the gap by training people.”

In this sense, it seems that immigration is the only option for filling major staff shortages in almost every profession. 

“Whoever I talk to, be it nurses, nannies, IT workers, industrial workers, teachers, lawyers – everywhere we have a shortage,” Jurisch said.

staff shortages Germany

A sign outside a restaurant informs customers of a closure due to staff shortages. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

When will the points-based system be introduced?

Unlike with the plans to reform citizenship, which the SDP-led Interior Ministry wants to achieve by the end of the year, there’s no firm timeline in place for the points-based system.

However, the FDP is fighting for the policy to be given higher priority and would like to introduce the new visa system before the next federal election in 2025. 

“I hope it will be done in this legislative period,” said Jurisch. “I’m pushing to get it a little bit higher up on the agenda.” 

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: ‘Changing German citizenship laws is a priority’

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