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

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Friday praised immigrants for their contribution to society, and for helping Germany become more open and diverse.

'Germany is a country with a migrant background,' says President Steinmeier
German President Frank Walter-Steinmeier at the event celebrating Turkish heritage in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

Speaking at an event marking the 60th anniversary of the German-Turkish recruitment agreement, Steinmeier praised the families of Turkish immigrants and called them an important part of Germany.

A Germany without guest workers, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren would be “simply unimaginable today,” Steinmeier said at the event.

Germany began recruiting workers from abroad to in industries such as agriculture, construction, steel, automotive and mining in the 1950s.

On October 30th, 1961 West Germany signed a recruitment deal with Turkey to supplement its workforce. The labourers were promised minimum wages and accommodation for the duration of their temporary contracts.

Some 710,000 people answered the call until the 1973 global oil crisis ended the recruitment drive. Thousands of workers returned to Turkey, but many instead decided to bring their families to Germany, triggering a massive increase in the country’s Turkish population.

READ ALSO: Germany looks back at 50 years of Turkish immigration

Estimates vary on the number of Turkish people and those with a Turkish background living in Germany, but it’s thought to be around 2.5 to 3 million. 

Steinmeier said people from Turkey who travelled over to Germany – as well as immigrants from other countries – had contributed hugely to Germany being more open and diverse today, and helped the country become economically stronger and more prosperous.

He said the German concept of Heimat – translated roughly to homeland in English – exists in many forms. 

“Being German today can mean just as much that your grandparents come from Cologne or Königsberg as from Istanbul or Diyarbakir,” he said. 

Turkish ‘guest workers’ arriving at Düsseldorf airport on November 27th, 1961. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Wolfgang Hub

Addressing immigrants and people with foreign heritage at the event in Bellevue Palace, Berlin, Steinmeier said, “You are not ‘people with a migration background’ – we are a country with a migration background.”


The German president recalled how many immigrants had not had an easy start in Germany 60 years ago.

“There were no language courses, no support, no integration policies, for the simple reason that integration was not wanted,” he said.

“After two years, people were supposed to pack their bags again.”

Things remained the same for a long time because of these failures, said Steinmeier. “It was a long, painful road until our society was ready, far too late, to accept the inevitable and the overdue, the right thing to do; these so-called guest workers are neither just guests nor just workers.”

‘Xenophobia must never be tolerated in Germany’

Education and social opportunities still differ “by worlds” for people with a migrant background, Steinmeier said.

There will be “no brighter future as long as exclusion, prejudice and resentment permeate the everyday life of our society”, he added. 

READ ALSO: When will Germany deal with its casual racism problem?

The President said he is shocked when people with a different skin colour, language or religion became targets of hatred. Xenophobia must “never be tolerated in Germany,” he said.

Muslims belong to Germany just as much as secular immigrants, the German president stressed. “If we say ‘you are at home here,’ then faith, in all its diversity, must also have a home here.”

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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’