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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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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.