BERLIN — Just as Germany’s political parties have begun gearing up for the national election campaign, the debate over immigration has found its new buzzword: “poverty migration.” The term gained popularity with the release of a position paper by the German Association of Cities. The ten-page paper described the financial challenges for urban areas caused by welfare support for impoverished immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria, particularly those belonging to the Roma minority. The report cited Federal Statistical Office figures, noting a 24 percent increase in Romanian and Bulgarian migrants in the first half of 2012 over the 147,091 previously registered in the country (not counting unknown cases). That number was immediately picked up. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich promised to reinforce efforts to combat poverty-related immigration and introduce a re-entry ban for expelled migrants — EU citizens or not — who have been convicted of welfare fraud.
However the report suffers from some serious flaws. The most obvious problem is that “poverty migration” is not a neutral, quantifiable term. Rather, it conjures up latent fears of mass immigration and the potential abuse of the German social welfare system. Nor is it accurate to consider all migrants from Bulgaria and Romania poor and welfare-dependent. The fact is that 80 percent of migrants from Bulgaria and Romania who have come to Germany since those countries’ 2007 EU accession are gainfully employed. Twenty-two percent are highly skilled and 46 percent are skilled, pursuing exactly those professions that Germany so urgently needs. These migrants often fill jobs that Germans don’t want to do, such as seasonal work. On top of that, the number used in the study also includes students. In the 2011-2012 winter semester, 7,000 students from Bulgaria alone were registered at German universities.
Labeling all immigration from Bulgarian and Romania as “poverty migration” is not only incorrect, it is economically harmful. Social scientists and economists are up in arms. Thomas Bauer of the Rhenish-Westphalian Institute for Economic Research declared the quoted figure the “un-statistics of the month.” At a time when demographic pressures are increasing and Germany’s future economic success strongly depends on foreign labor, the country’s leaders are sending out contradictory messages. Against the backdrop of this public debate, the Internet information portal “Make it in Germany,” designed to present the country as a welcoming place for immigrants, seems disingenuous.
To make it worse, sweeping generalizations are adding unnecessary emotion to the debate. Already, like in the 1990s when immigration to Germany was at a record high, the nautical metaphors are back, of major surges and tides of migrants flooding Germany. Unfortunately, we can expect the German immigration debate to become more emotional, polarized, and radicalized in the run-up to the election.
What is needed now is sober judgment and the acceptance of certain realities. First, it should be clarified that not all immigration from Bulgaria and Romania is poverty-related and the Roma minority is only one sub-group. The public needs to be better informed about that fact. Second, the concerns of receiving societies — in this case, in Germany — need to be taken seriously. Cities have social and financial reasons to be worried and a certain amount of discomfort with migration is understandable. So it is important to address the issue squarely and approach receiving society mistrust with active measures to promote acceptance and social cohesion. Third, the Roma are still by far the most disadvantaged social group in the European Union. They face considerable obstacles in accessing the labor market and are at high risk of multiple discrimination.
Tackling this huge challenge is a question of European solidarity and requires a concerted effort. Germany needs to develop a tailored integration strategy at the local level, and the Bulgarian and Romanian governments need to fulfill their promise to step up integration efforts for minorities. The EU has provided €75 billion over seven years via the European Social Fund for that purpose, among other things. But both Romani Rose, the head of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, and László Andor, the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, and Inclusion, have been critical of Bulgaria and Romania’s response. Ultimately, the fate of the Roma in the European Union will be the yardstick by which European integration, solidarity, and social justice will be tested.
Tanja Wunderlich is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow for Immigration & Integration in the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin Office.