East is West: the German experience of people flow

Europe should follow Germany's example - reduce admission bureaucracy and encourage authorised registration. [Reposted from openDemocracy, August 2003]

Barbara Dietz
30 September 2015
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Since the political and economic transformation in east-central Europe at the end of the 1980s, European Union (EU) countries have been confronted with an increasing migration pressure. This new development has to be understood in the light of the removal of emigration restrictions in the ‘sending’ states and large differences in income and living standards between the east and west of the continent.

In addition, growing unemployment and sporadic ethnic conflicts in the transformation countries contributed to new migration trends. In the light of the enlargement of the European Union, which sooner or later will allow a wholly free movement of people between east and west, EU governments are obviously interested in predicting and managing this movement.

Germany has been the western European country most affected by east-west migration since 1989. This explains the German effort to keep this migration under control, for example demanding restricted freedom of movement from east-central European countries for another seven years even after the next phase of EU enlargement in 2004.

However, migration as well as integration policies are of common interest for all EU countries. In asylum and refugee policy, as well as in integration practices, the search is on for innovative solutions. In the light of these common tasks, a review of east-west migration patterns to Germany and its policy response will give us a better understanding of a developing migration ‘space’ .

Germany: the price of admission


Immigration to Germany is strictly regulated for different types of immigrants – labour migrants, the family members who follow them, ethnic Germans (Aussiedler), asylum-seekers and refugees. These categories control their entrance, stay and labour market access. In earlier east-west migration, the majority of immigrants to Germany were Aussiedler, although asylum-seekers additionally contributed to that movement. A further group consisted of different types of labour migrants, including those allowed to work temporarily in Germany on the basis of bilateral contracts.

The various versions of these legal admission regulations have shaped the size and structure of east-west migration to Germany in the last decade. As I shall argue, severe migration restrictions dominated the economic and social determinants otherwise driving migration.

The right of return for ethnic Germans


The admission of ethnic Germans from eastern Europe and the Soviet Union into Germany and their acceptance as German citizens was guaranteed by the 1949 German constitution.

This special provision provided a homeland for those ethnic Germans from east-central Europe (mainly Romania and Poland) and the Soviet Union, who had experienced forced resettlement, ethnic discrimination and expulsion during and after the second world war. For the German government, ideological arguments also played a role in the admission of ‘co-ethnics’. In the cold war period, the emigration of ethnic Germans from socialist countries could be used as evidence of the superiority of the West German system.

When the immigration of ethnic Germans rose remarkably towards the end of the 1980s, the German government expected serious problems in integrating them into the labour market and society. It responded by controlling and restricting this movement using administrative and legal measures. In 1993 a law (Kriegsfolgenbereinigungsgesetz) was adopted which regulated the immigration of ethnic Germans by quota. Since 2000, the immigration quota is fixed at 100,000 persons.

The same law stated that those wishing to immigrate from countries other than the former Soviet Union must have individual proof of discrimination because of their German descent. As serious ethnic discrimination against Germans in Poland and Romania is virtually non-existent since the political transformation, their emigration has almost ceased with the enforcement of the new law in 1993.

Humanitarian rights and asylum regulations


Until its amendment in 1993, asylum law in Germany was characterised as one of the most generous worldwide. However, in the absence of a coherent immigration law, German political asylum had by then become an easy entrance point for those who would otherwise not have qualified to enter the country. Especially at the beginning of new east-west migration in the early 1990s, many migrants from east-central Europe arrived via the asylum regulation.

In Germany, the sharp increase of asylum-seekers after 1989 – many of them from Bosnia and other areas of a fragmenting Yugoslavia under pressure of war and ‘ethnic cleansing’ in that country – led to a heated debate on the expected consequences of these movements. Many native Germans opposed the right of asylum, expecting an escalating economic and social burden. The German government reacted to this debate by changes to the asylum law which came into effect on 1 July 1993.

The new law made it much more difficult for people seeking asylum to be recognised as such. In many cases, it excluded them from being admitted to the asylum procedure in Germany at all. The new law stipulates that citizens from ‘safe countries’ are no longer permitted to ask for asylum in Germany. ‘Safe countries’ are those in which the legal and political situation guarantees the absence of political persecution and inhuman treatment. At present all east-central European countries under consideration here (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and Poland) are classified as ‘safe countries’.

The right to work and labour migration agreements


When German politicians registered that the fall of the Iron Curtain had increased labour migration from east-central Europe, special regulations were introduced to control these movements. The rational behind this policy was to assist the economic progress of the region, to decrease migration pressure on Germany and to prevent permanent migration as well as illegal work. In addition, however, east-central European workers were expected to satisfy a particular seasonal or occupational labour demand in Germany.

Basically three different channels for the access of east European workers to the German labour market can be identified. All of them were opened up after 1989 and are based on bilateral agreements between Germany and the respective east-central European country:


  1. Seasonal workers, where a German employer can recruit east European workers for up to three months a year
  2. Project-tied employment, where foreign workers are legally sent by foreign subcontractors and are given a work permit for a maximum of two years
  3. Guest-worker (Gastarbeiter) contracts, where a limited number of workers from east European countries are allowed to migrate to Germany for a maximum of eighteen months to improve their language and occupational skills.

The dynamics of East-West migration


Economic considerations suggest that the big differences in welfare and wages between east-central European countries and Germany, along with growing unemployment in the east, were the driving forces of east-west migration. As has been shown, entrance regulations to Germany restricted migration movements, contributing to the formation of distinct migration patterns.

Altogether, net migration included 1.13 million east-central Europeans between 1989 and 1999: of the 678,000 ethnic Germans, approximately 458,000 were foreign nationals from these countries. Whereas ethnic German immigration from Poland and Romania has been in decline since 1990, the net migration of foreign nationals from east-central Europe experienced a sharp drop between 1992 and 1993. Both developments were linked to the tightening of admission regulations.

Net migration of foreign nationals (excluding Aussiedler) from east-central Europe to Germany does not present a full picture of east-west movements. The number of east Europeans involved in migration movements was nearly five times as big as net migration. Altogether, a total number of 2.27 million east-central Europeans moved to Germany between 1989 and 1999, while in the same period 1.82 million left the country again. This points to high fluctuations in east-west migration, typical for short-term and back-and-forth people flow.

In the context of labour migration on the base of bilateral contracts, seasonal workers were the most important group in the recent decade, followed by project-tied and guest workers. In the case of seasonal workers, figures indicate that their employment more than doubled between 1991 and 2000. Nevertheless the total number of 258,000 seasonal workers (in 2000) does not make much impression on the German labour market as a whole.

In absolute terms, the number of project-tied workers is comparatively low. Here, employment declined noticeably between 1992 and 2000, which points to substantial restrictions for political reasons in this form of employment. Guest workers from east-central Europe are only of marginal importance. In the case of guest workers, the official quota of 10,200 work permits per year has never been exhausted.

In all special employment programmes, Poland is by far the most important sending country. Throughout the 1990s, migrant workers from Romania grew more important, whereas those from (former) Czechoslovakia (CSFR) declined.

These trends reflect the extent of business cooperation and migrant networks between Germany and the respective East European countries. For example, long-lasting migration relations exist between Poland and Germany, including labour, ethnic German and asylum migration. In addition, business cooperation – a precondition for the sending of project-tied workers – is more developed between Poland and Germany. In the case of Romania also, migration networks have been built up for decades in the context of ethnic German migration. As in many other transnational migrations, networks foster further movements.

How can migration be managed in an enlarged Europe?


East-west migration and its consequences have been important issues since the political and economic transformations of 1989 and its aftermath. However, after enlargement, the eastern borders of an expanded EU can be expected to mark out a new migration space. Labour, family, asylum and refugee migration from poorer and more insecure countries to the east will confront EU governments once again with the problem of efficiently managing migration movements. A common procedure to control and manage migration is therefore in the interest of all EU countries.

In the article which opened openDemocracy’s People Flow debate, Theo Veenkamp and his colleagues pointed to the fact that comprehensive immigration control in an enlarged EU is both increasingly difficult to achieve and yet ever more necessary in the light of security, economic and social concerns.

Theo Veenkamp suggests installing a Union-wide system of migration control that would facilitate the movement of voluntary migrants, create opportunities for displaced persons, and protect refugees; these measures could include locating ‘flow management facilities’ close to potential migrants and preventing counter-productive differences in the treatment of different immigrant groups.

With respect to the principles outlined above, recent German migration experience underlines the importance of promoting legal methods of entrance to the country, reducing admission bureaucracy and immigration barriers as far as possible, while encouraging authorised registration. This includes the need to establish clear EU-wide norms in the admission of displaced persons and refugees, although the fact that economic migrants and refugees cannot always be perfectly distinguished must be taken into account.

Sometimes, migrants may enter via refugee permits even if the main reason for their migration is economic hardship. But political or ethnic refugees may also use labour contracts to cross borders if other routes to immigration are blocked off. In such cases, either development support to the migrants’ countries of origin could be enhanced to improve economic conditions in the sending areas, or political pressure could be exerted to advance democracy and minority rights. Although these measures work in the right direction, they may not always be successful overnight.

The German experience shows that differences in the treatment of different immigrant groups are not productive in the longer run. For example, the privileged admission and absorption of ethnic Germans compared to other immigrant groups contributed to increasing tensions between immigrant communities, but also between natives and immigrants. The argument here mainly centre on the issue of citizenship, which ethnic Germans receive shortly after arrival, while other immigrants have to wait for years and fulfil demanding criteria to become German citizens. In an enlarged EU the question of immigration and citizenship should be discussed and solved together.

In his article (and accompanying pamphlet), Veenkamp additionally points to the importance of developing EU-wide strategies to integrate newcomers into EU countries. Among the highlighted principles the following are of special interest with respect to new EU immigrants:

  • The growing cultural plurality in all EU states has to be dealt with in work-related, school and neighbourhood policies to improve the coexistence of natives and foreigners. Additionally, teaching the receiving country’s language to foreigners should be provided to advance the base for inter-cultural understanding.

  • Because transnational networks and repeated short-term migrations increase in the EU context, connections between receiving and sending countries should be reinforced. This will ease all kinds of transnational contacts, ranging from border control to remittances
  • It seems worthwhile to consider reforming EU labour markets in a way that gives lower-skilled immigrants a chance in labour-intensive occupations, such as services. To a certain extent this might prevent the illegal occupation of immigrants
  • Welfare states are seriously concerned about immigrants undermining their social systems. Therefore it is necessary to discuss the implementation of welfare provisions beyond guaranteed entitlements. (The suggestion by Veenkamp that welfare might be offered in the form of a ‘citizenship credit’ is a valuable step in this direction. Only if the provision of welfare can be solved in a mutual beneficial way, will a peaceful coexistence of immigrants and natives be guaranteed.)

Careful immigration and integration strategies support EU governments in their attempts to develop legal rights for immigrants, sustain the labour market integration of newcomers, and encourage their participation in the social life of their new home. They also help in working out constructive responses towards a growing cultural diversity. These suggestions only offer a starting-point for the further discussion that is needed as Europe undergoes another political and economic transformation.

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