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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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For members


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’