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A Very Long Engagement – Why Migrants Have Not Yet Married Themselves to the German Political System

We timidly entered the corner grocery store, perusing through rows of Turkish goods while attempting to look as natural as possible.  We were on a mission, but not for delicious döner kebab or freshly fried falafel.  The prize we sought was a fifty-five year old man sitting at a table sipping a glass of tea and smoking a cigarette.  We approached him and asked if he would answer a few questions from our survey.  “What do you want to know?” he asked gruffly.  We explained that we were interested in the political participation of Turkish migrants, that we were wondering if he had ever been politically active in Germany.  He stared us in the eye for a moment and then motioned quickly to the storeowner.  “Three teas please.  I am a very political man and I will now tell you about it.”

For the next thirty minutes our newfound companion regaled us with stories ranging from Berlin local politics to the longstanding disputes among Jews, Christians and Muslims.  What we learned is that while the Turkish community in Germany may seem absent from politics, they are a politically concerned people who have thus far lacked the means to obtain a common political voice.  This lack of representation stems from a complex combination of socio-economic, educational, and identity issues.  Our research attempts to explain why political mobilization has proven to be so difficult for the migrant community in Germany as well as examine the different ways in which migrants are able to engage in the political process. 

When people of migrant backgrounds do become politically involved, it occurs in three primary capacities: engagement in the political and cultural concerns of their country of origin, engagement in issues concerning the local minority communities in Germany, and engagement in mainstream German politics concerning issues of immigration and integration.  Participation varies according to generation, as well as education and socio-economic status, all of which affect the extent to which people of migrant descent feel accepted within German society. 

Say what?... The Barrier of Terminology

One immediate barrier we encountered in our research was the terminology used to discuss issues of migration and integration.  The terminology reflects the complexities of the issues themselves and the reluctance of German politicians to recognize Germany as a country of immigration.  Despite the fact that 6.7 million, or 8.2% of the population is now non-native German, the political dialogue has refused until recently to acknowledge the permanence of Germany’s new populations since the first foreign workers entered the country, at the German government’s request, in 1955.  There is no clear term for “people of migrant descent” in the German vocabulary or grammar, and so they are called “immigrants,” “migrants,” “guest workers,” “asylum seekers,” or “foreigners,” depending on the context and the speaker.  For our purposes, “immigrants” are understood to be first generation people who have moved to Germany during their lifetime. The term “migrant” includes anyone with an immigrant background, regardless of how many generations a family has lived and worked in Germany. It is interesting to note that in the United States, the term migrant connotes someone who continually moves within and between societies, while immigrant implies someone who has settled in a society, the opposite of typical German term usage.  We will follow the German standard in this analysis.  

Further complicating the terminology is the fact that while some migrants are German citizens, they are still identified as members of the migrant community, rather than as members of German society.  The derogatory term “passport Germans,” which implies that despite their German citizenship people of migrant descent do not qualify as “real” Germans, is used again and again by the media as well as during “Stammtisch talks,” the typical weekly get-togethers in bars that are an important part of the routine for many Germans.  The creation and adoption of the 2000 Citizenship Law grants citizenship based on birth, in contrast to the previous system under which even second and third generation migrants retained the nationality of their parents’ country of origin.  The new law grants dual citizenship until the age of 18, when migrants have five years during which they must choose which citizenship they wish to retain.  With citizenship comes full voting rights; without it, migrants are not permitted to found political parties or legally acknowledged associations (“Vereine”), run for office, or vote, even on a local level.  According to EU law, European Union citizens temporarily residing in Germany have the right to vote at the local level (“kommunales Wahlrecht”), a privilege not granted to second and third generation migrants who do not have German citizenship. Cornelia Schmalz-Jacobsen, former Federal Commissioner for Foreigners’ Affairs, pointed out the inequality that is being created: How can you explain to someone of Turkish nationality born in Germany that his Greek neighbor who has been residing in the country for only six months is eligible to vote and he is not? 

It is also important to define what is meant by political participation, as well as who we are including in our analysis of migrants.  Political participation includes voting, running for office, participation in a political party or community organization, as well as public demonstrations and protests, on the street and in the media.  This paper will not deal with the latter two forms of activism but we think it is important to acknowledge their existence.  Our analysis also focuses primarily on economic migrants who, with their families, are the legacy of the Guest Worker program that invited laborers to Germany between 1955 and 1973.  We focus particularly on migrant communities from Turkey, the Middle East, and Africa who immigrated here for economic purposes, often with little intention of staying.  We are not discussing the political participation of ethnic German migrants, Russian Jews, or political refugees and asylum seekers, all of whom have unique political identities and engage in different ways with mainstream German society.    

Like Father Unlike Son - Political Participation Across Generations

It is crucial to examine both how people of migrant descent become politically active, as well as who chooses to engage politically and why.  We found that there are three primary ways in which people of migrant descent choose to become politically involved and each method attracts a different migrant prototype.  The first type of political participation is engagement in the politics and culture of the migrants’ country of origin.  Typically, first generation migrants, most of whom never intended to move permanently to Germany, engage in issues concerning their countries of origin, and pay little attention to German politics.  These migrants moved to Germany for economic purposes, and spend their time working, presuming political participation to be a luxury of the rich.  They are typically poor and under-educated, and frequently have an imperfect knowledge of German, preventing them from engaging in mainstream German politics and culture.  Furthermore, being born and raised outside Germany, they maintain strong cultural ties with their countries of origin.

We encountered a migrant at a Turkish travel agency in Berlin-Kreuzberg that fit this description well.  When asked if he had considered applying for German citizenship he looked back at us incredulously “I want to live as a Turk and die as a Turk.  Why would I be anything else?”  His responses to questions pertaining to citizenship mirrored those concerning his political participation.  His country of origin and its politics were of primary interest.  Despite the fact that he had been married to three German women at different times and has several children with German citizenship, he spoke as though Germany were a place of temporary residence.  Most likely, however, the combination of his familial ties and occupational interest in Germany will keep him from returning permanently to his country of origin.

The second type of participation is through community based organizations that deal with local issues concerning the minority communities in Germany.  People from all generations and education levels participate in these organizations, as they deal with a range of issues.  The wide range of issues these organizations address reflect the complex and heterogeneous nature of migrant communities.  

A typical organization founded and led by migrants of the second generation is the Turkish Union Berlin-Brandenburg (Türkischer Bund Berlin-Brandenburg, TBB). The TBB was founded in 1991 as an “umbrella organization for associations representing the interests of Berlin and Brandenburg citizens of Turkish origin”, according to a leaflet by TBB. They specifically focus on political issues dealing with Germany while excluding comments on Turkish politics. However, according to Mekonnen Mesghena from the department of migration and integration at the Heinrich Böll foundation, the latter a close associate of the Green party, many young people do not feel represented by the major mainstream migrant organizations. Even Safter Çinar, spokesman for the TBB, admitted that first and second generation migrants are much more involved than their third generation fellows. 

Community organizations, like the TBB, often start as “self-help groups” for internal community needs, as Koray Yilmaz-Günay, board member of the Migration Council and a representative of the lesbian and gay migrant community, told us. However, they quickly become political when their members realize the discrimination they face at the hands of the mainstream German community.  That discrimination comes in many forms, including the rules for organizing as well as social attitudes.  

Koray Yilmaz-Günay himself serves as good example of a politically active second generation migrant.  Although his first generation mother retains strong ties to Turkey, he is content to focus his political energy on the needs of his local community in Berlin.  He views Germany as his permanent country of residence, admitting that he knows very little about Turkey and is often flabbergasted by questions about Turkish culture and language.  However, he also feels very strongly that he is not a cultural “German,” and has no desire to be part of mainstream German society, which he feels is often guilty of actively and passively oppressing its migrant communities.  Despite the complexity of cultural identity issues, for second generation migrants like Koray Yilmaz-Günay, the political objective is to further minorities’ embedded-ness in German communities through advocacy and awareness-raising.   

The third, and least common type of political participation is engagement in mainstream German politics.  Virtually all of those who choose to engage with mainstream German politics are second generation, highly educated, middle class, and have German citizenship.  These migrants see Germany as their permanent home and seek to maximize the benefits from life here, with the hopes of steady income and high educational achievement for their families.  

Typically, those who choose to engage in German politics hope to deal with non-migrant related issues, but it is virtually impossible for them to do so.  All politicians of migrant descent, and there are very few at any given level of German government, are pushed into dealing with migrant issues, even if they attempt to specialize elsewhere.  Germany’s most well-known politician of migrant origin, Cem Özdemir of the Green Party, a former member of the Bundestag and now a member of the European parliament, initially became interested in politics out of a deep concern for ecological issues.  However, soon after his entrance into the Bundestag, he was given the unofficial position of representing the Turkish minority in Germany.  It became extremely difficult for him to extend any political influence to other aspects of German policy.  Interestingly enough, this state of affairs was criticized by his assistant Veysel Özcan, a second generation migrant who works for him as an advisor for migration and integration.  

These pre-designated gates to politics prove extremely frustrating for many potential minority politicians, and are a major reason why those who could participate at this level often choose not to do so (Interview with Ulrich Raiser, Berlin Office for Integration and Migration).  In addition, politicians of migrant descent face other barriers within the party system.  The major parties do not seek or promote diversity and place overt or hidden barriers in front of their migrant members, creating a glass ceiling on their ascension within the system that is virtually impossible to break (Interview with Koray Yilmaz-Günay).  Emine Demirbüken-Wegner, a female member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) board who is of migrant descent, chose to enter the CDU as opposed to the Green Party due to tacit discrimination she had observed in all political parties.  By joining the conservative CDU, Emine Demirbüken-Wegner felt she could more easily distinguish the barriers that, according to Koray Yilmaz-Günay, exist in every party and that prohibit minority politicians from climbing to the highest echelons of German politics.

The generational divide in political participation among the migrant community reflects the educational, socio-economic, and identity issues facing each generation of migrants.  Since many first generation migrants immigrated for economic reasons, they spend the majority of their time working, and don’t have the time, interest, or language skills to participate in politics.  Thus, when they become involved at all, it is with issues pertaining to their countries of origin.  Many second generation migrants are more willing to view Germany as their permanent home and see opportunities here for higher levels of education and income.  However, they are frequently unable to stabilize economic and educational prospects for their families.  As a result, third generation migrants are often frustrated by their poor, uneducated status and revert to the identity politics discarded by their parents, as they find themselves increasingly disenfranchised in mainstream German society (Interview with Ulrich Raiser).  

Talking to a third generation pharmacy assistant at her work-place in Berlin-Kreuzberg, we learned that she strongly identifies with Turkish culture and does not desire getting German citizenship. Even if she had the option to get double citizenship, she would only want to maintain her Turkish nationality. This lack of identification with her country of residence is reflected in the lack of interest in German politics.

Educational and Economic Barriers to Participation – A Vicious Cycle

There are a number of major barriers to participation facing migrants in Germany. Poor education is a major concern.  Migrant communities are disproportionately poor and under-educated, two factors which have a major influence on political participation in mainstream German society.  According to Siddik Bakir, a German Humanity in Action fellow and a second generation Kurdish migrant, “people who are uneducated don’t participate whether they’re native Germans or migrants.”  

For many migrants, the educational system has not provided the opportunities native Germans have.  “Schools in Germany operate under the assumption that all students come from a uniquely German and Christian background” says TBB spokesman Safter Çinar.  Thus, students of migrant descent face disproportionately high cultural and linguistic barriers to educational success, a problem which is compounded by the fact that selection for “Gymnasium,” the advanced high school system designed for university-bound students, occurs at a very young age, approximately around the age of 10, at the end of fourth grade.  

The problem is evidenced by low “Gymnasium” attendance rates of migrants and high rates of admittance to the “Hauptschule,” a type of technical preparatory school and the lowest level of secondary education students can obtain in Germany.  In the diverse community of Kreuzberg, for example, one can find a neighbourhood “Hauptschule” that is attended entirely by minority students, approximately three-hundred pupils, without a single native German.  For migrant students who enter school with poor German skills, the prospects for admittance to “Gymnasium,” and thus to university-level education and the higher-paying jobs that follow, are greatly reduced.       

Low levels of education correlate closely with poor economic status, another barrier preventing migrants from participating politically.  Just as uneducated Germans and migrants alike don’t participate politically, neither do poor Germans or migrants have the time or energy to engage in politics (Interview with Rainer Ohliger and Antje Scheidler).  In this respect, migrant communities differ little from their socio-economic counterparts in mainstream German society, a fact which is largely ignored in the growing public discourse condemning migrants for their conscious un-involvement in German society.  Thus, although migrants are singled out by the mainstream community for their lack of participation, in fact, their participation level is quite typical, given their education and income levels. “Germany tends to define problems in ethnic terms rather than in socio-economic terms”, according to Safter Çinar as he sums up the problem. 

What is ‘German’ ? - Challenges of Integration and Acceptance

This singling out of the minority community for its failure to integrate itself into mainstream German society is a major source of tension within the majority and minority communities, and has a significant effect on political participation.  The migrant community feels unaccepted by the majority community and thus feels little desire to engage in German society or politics.  According to Doris Nahawandi, many migrants believe that the mainstream discourse regarding immigration and integration is consistently negative, and accuses migrants of not engaging with German society, while refusing to modify German society to accommodate its growing diversity.  Mahir, our friendly interviewee who invited us for a round of Turkish tea, complained that he did not feel entirely accepted by the German mainstream society: “To me it’s important that people must accept other nationalities and people” – and added ”a hundred percent.”  Doris Nahawandi, born and raised in Germany by a German mother and Iranian father and the Commissioner for Integration in Berlin–Kreuzberg also complained of exclusion from mainstream society, recounting stories of being asked why she spoke such good German, a question which implies that she can never be accepted by the ‘Germans’ as belonging to German society despite her birth here.  She believes that in order for German society to promote inclusion, the political discourse must not only accept Germany as a diverse society, but create equal opportunities for all its members.  

Only in 2005 did Germany begin to discuss publicly its potential status as a country of immigration, despite having a significant migrant population of mostly non Western-European origin for over 50 years.  Before 2005, public discourse regarding immigration did not exist because the expectation was that migrants should and would return home.  Despite the improvement of increased public discourse, Doris Nahawandi believes that the public discourse is dominated by negativity and complaints about the migrant community, without acknowledging the unique challenges migrants face in German society.   

Many migrants find it very difficult to feel engaged in a society dominated by what they perceive to be active and passive hostility, and so many are not even citizens, much less politically engaged.  The strong feeling of separation from German society does have a major effect on political participation, although education and socio-economic status have a significant impact on this as well.  Because mainstream society looks down upon poor, under-educated migrants, and migrants blame their depressed status on exclusion from German society, there is little dialogue between the two communities, especially in the political sphere.

Unresponsive Political Parties and Fragmented Migrant Agendas 

Another obstacle preventing migrants from entering the political arena is the poor responsiveness of political parties to their interests.  While the legal barrier of citizenship keeps large parts of the migrant community from voting, those who are eligible to vote often find it as difficult to choose a political party as to decide on the issues they would like to see prioritized for the migrant community.  

According to Veysel Özcan, assistant to Cem Özdemir, many migrants from traditional backgrounds could feel alienated by leftist parties that supposedly represent their interests.  For example, the Green Party is the only one openly to promote issues of immigration and integration, but some of its other values and goals run counter to those of more traditionally-minded migrants.  At the same time, there are Conservative migrants who tend to align their views more easily with the values of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) than they do with the Greens or the Social Democratic Party (SPD).  However, Veysel Özcan reminded of a CDU depute who said in 2003 that a devout Turkish Muslim would rather “lose his hand than vote for the Christian Democratic Union.”  Similarly, according to Veysel Özcan, it seems like the CDU would rather lose elections than cater to the migrant vote, as its platform and voting base is consistently anti-immigration.  Therefore, with Muslims voters wishing to keep their right hands where they belong and the CDU unwilling to reach out to the migrant community, a difficult political dilemma exists for conservative migrant voters.  

The heterogeneous nature of the migrant communities in Germany and the competing interests of the many migrant organizations prevent the formation of a unified minority political agenda.  According to Veysel Özcan, a number of Turkish organizations are currently in existence in Germany.  Berlin alone is filled with Turkish religious centers, parental associations, and cultural organizations, many of which have their own political agendas. A survey conducted by the “Politbarometer” among naturalized German migrants, 28 percent said they had either a “strong” or “very strong” interest in politics, while 45 percent said they had “some” interest in politics (Wüst, 2003).  We expect the figures among non-naturalized Turkish migrants to be similar.  

Despite this interest, thus far strong political organization has been stalled in part by divisions within the Turkish and migrant communities.  For example, for many conservative migrants, the mere thought of allying themselves with more liberal migrant organizations, such as GLADT, representing gays and lesbians of Turkish origin in Berlin, is an outright impossibility.  Thus, the problem is not a lack of political will but of political unity within the migrant communities, which has made lobbying for common political objectives unattainable.    

Recently, a platform has emerged in Berlin that tries to overcome both the divides within the migrant community and the legal barriers to political participation.  The Migration Council (Migrationsrat Berlin-Brandenburg) responds to the desire of younger generations of migrants to organize not in the traditional folkloric or ethnic organizations but by actually reaching out to mainstream society and politics through active participation and speaking out with one voice.  This council, incorporating a new approach to political integration, advises the Berlin government and is an umbrella organization for 59 very different migrant community organizations, comprising Kurds and Turks, Palestinians and Jews, men and women, gays, lesbians, and heterosexuals.  The basis of their cooperation is to focus only on issues concerning life in Germany, primarily legal issues, politics, and the fight against racism rather than becoming mired in debates about conflict within and between their countries of origin.

The long road to political integration – a period of transition 

The prospect of a migrant voting bloc, similar to the Hispanic voting bloc in the United States (Özdemir, 2004) would require both the internal cooperation of the migrant community as well as mainstream acknowledgement of their importance to German society, two criteria which are difficult, but not impossible to achieve in the future. Germany is currently facing a period of transition for the political participation of migrants as well as for German society’s attitude towards this issue. 

The passage of the 2000 citizenship law and the 2005 immigration law, marks a turning point in German political acknowledgment of the growing numbers and needs of migrants in this society.  The next generation of migrants will be born as German citizens, a fact which will affect the attitudes and identities of both the migrant community as well as mainstream German society in significant and unpredictable ways. 

Is integration and the level of political participation hence a question of generations? Our research has led us to the conclusion that yes, time does play a very important role. Currently, the migrant community also faces a period of internal transition, with the second and third generations eagerly trying to take the helm of leadership in their communities away from the more traditional first generation leaders.  Unlike our companion from the Turkish travel agency, who cared only for the politics of his country of origin, a new fourth generation of migrant youth is emerging that is increasingly attuned to the contemporary German political zeitgeist.  Perhaps this fourth generation, unlike the third, will succeed at finding its niche in the German representative system.  With an increased understanding of and participation in the political system, the needs of the migrant community will stand a far greater chance of being heard in legislative bodies.  

Our time spent interviewing migrants demonstrated to us that minority communities are in fact politically concerned.  From the travel agent and his three German wives to Koray and the Turkish gay community, migrants have an agenda that they would like to elevate to the level of national dialogue.  The parallel period of transition  facing both migrants and Germans offers a unique opportunity to unite divergent discourses.  

There are many necessary steps along the road to minority-majority political consensus, including improved educational and economic opportunities for migrants, as well as increased cross-cultural dialogue and cooperation, but with the dedication of both the German mainstream and the migrant communities, the current period of transition can bear fruitful improvements.

The “Migration Council” serves as one successful example of migrant unification and political participation but there also many small steps on the way to political integration.  Let us finish by introducing Solmaz, a cell phone saleswoman. She came to Berlin in the 1980s and is very aware of the value of engaging politically in her new home country and understands the importance of education as a tool to do so. In her leisure-time, she organizes tutoring for migrant schoolchildren and is an active member of the “Fönis” association, which promotes liberal education for children of Turkish origin in order to allow them become responsible and self-reliant adults in the future.  If these adults can become active, aware and acknowledged members of the German political system, the long engagement of migrants with the German political system might finally turn into a happy marriage.


Interviews with Experts and Officials

Mekonnen Mesghena

Heinrich Böll foundation

Department of Migration/Intercultural Management/Diversity

June 24, 2005

Ulrich Raiser

Office for Integration and Migration

Berlin government

June 24, 2005

Antje Scheidler ; Rainer Ohliger

Humanity in Action Germany; Humboldt University Berlin

June 24, 2005

Siddik Bakir

Fellow of Humanity in Action 2005

Student of Oriental and Political Science

Ruhr University, Bochum

June26, 2005

Doris Nahawandi

Commissioner for Integration

Bezirksamt Friedrichshain – Kreuzberg

June 27, 2005

Koray Yilmaz-Günay

Migration council (Migrationsrat Berlin-Brandenburg)

June 27, 2005

Veysel Özcan

Advisor for Migration and Integration Issues

Office of Member of the European Parliament Cem Özdemir

June 28, 2005

Safter Çinar


Turkish Union Berlin-Brandenburg (TBB)

June 29, 2005

Özcan Mutlu

Turkish Union Berlin-Brandenburg (TBB)

June 27, 2005

(interviewed by email)

Street Interviews

Head of Turkish Airlines Travel Agency

Skalitzer Strasse, Kreuzberg

male, about 60 yrs.

June 27, 2005

Pharmacy Assistant

Oranienstrasse, Kreuzberg

female, about 30 yrs.

June 27, 2005

Mahir O.

retired engineer; hanging out in a grocery shop

Oranienstrasse, Kreuzberg

male, about 65 yrs.

June 27, 2005

Kebab Shop shopkeeper

Heinrichplatz, Kreuzberg

male, about 45 yrs.

June 28, 2005

Photo Shop shopkeeper

Oranienstrasse, Kreuzberg

female, about 35 yrs.

June 28, 2005

Cell Phone Shop shopkeeper

Kottbusser Tor, Kreuzberg

female, about 30-35 yrs.

June 28, 2005

Internet sources









Özcan, Veysel (2005): Country Profile Germany, in: focus Migration No. 01.

Özdemir, Cem (2004): Europe’s Awkward Embrace. European conservatives should initiate U.S. politicians and learn to love immigrants, in: Foreign Policy B 52/2003.

Ohliger, Rainer; Raiser, Ulrich (2005): Integration und Migration in Berlin. Zahlen – Daten – Fakten, Berlin.

Wüst, Andreas M. (2003): Das Wahlverhalten eingebürgerter Personen in Deutschland, in: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte B52, pp. 29-38.

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