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Has Angela Merkel made German integration issues worse by letting in a million refugees?

German lessons for migrants and refugees. Daniel Karmann/EPA

Sex attacks in Cologne and other German cities; an attempted suicide bombing in Ansbach; a train stabbing spree in Würzburg. These crimes have left a growing number of Germans thinking the previously unthinkable: that Chancellor Angela Merkel – one of the most reasoned, hard-headed, astute politicians of our times – had been unwise to let her head be ruled by her heart during the refugee crisis.

Germany truly is a “land of immigration”. It is the second most popular migration destination in the world after the United States, and the country in Europe with the highest number of foreign nationals. A new immigration law in 2005 was born out of a realisation that Germany was facing a demographic “time-bomb” from an ageing population and a declining birth rate. Migration was seen by much of the political class to be an economic necessity.

Between 2009-2014, annual net migration (from those immigrating to and emigrating from Germany) rose from 100,000 to 580,000. And the inflow of foreign nationals increased from 266,000 to 790,000. As of January 2015, 9.3% of residents in Germany were foreign nationals, with 12.6% born abroad. These figures have all risen exponentially following Merkel’s decision to allow roughly a million refugees and migrants into Germany.

Hardening attitudes

Germany, like other countries, has witnessed a hardening of what could be classified by some to be “anti-migrant” attitudes. Two comparative surveys conducted by the Mercator Foundation at the beginning of 2014 and the start of 2016 show conservative attitudes towards migration and integration are on the rise.

In the 2016 survey, the statement “we should not allow ourselves to be overrun by migrants” was supported by 41% of German respondents who did not have a migratory background. This was a 13-percentage point increase on the 2014 figure of 28%.

Whereas 33.5% of respondents demanded that Germany should exercise “stronger self-confidence” towards newly-arrived migrants at the start of 2014, by early 2016 44.5% held this attitude – some holding the view that strict limits should be imposed on “youth migration”.

In 2014, 36.2% of respondents held the view that the onus was on migrants alone when it came to adapting to life in Germany. Two years on, this figure had risen to 54.9%. The idea of integration being a “one-way street” where migrants should directly absorb themselves into the host country is gaining traction in broader German society.

Ethnic Turks’ struggle to integrate

Many of the concerns over integration are heavily linked with the current state of affairs regarding Germany’s ethnic Turkish Muslim population. Turks are now the largest ethnic minority group in Germany. Despite the fact that many ethnic Turks moved to Germany as early as the 1960s under guest worker schemes, there are real causes for worry over a conflict in values.

Hardening religious attitudes held by some within this group means that ethnic Turks are increasingly seen to be detached from mainstream German society – a group, according to German sociologist Claus Mueller, that is “separated by cultural and religious lifestyles”.

A 2016 German study on integration and religion produced by the University of Münster exposed the popularity of deeply controversial socio-political attitudes held among some ethnic Turks living in Germany.

Out of 1,201 ethnic Turks interviewed in the study, 47% agreed that following the core tenets of Islam was more important to them than abiding by the laws of Germany. This view was shared by 36% of second and third generation respondents. Referring to attitudes clearly out-of-kilter with modern Germany, nearly a third of ethnic Turkish respondents (32%) supported the statement that Muslims should strive to return to a societal order like that in the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

Perhaps the most worrying figures were related to support for religiously-inspired violence: 20% of the respondents agreed that “the threat which the West poses to Islam justifies violence”, while 7% agreed that violence was justified as a means to “spread Islam”.

There is evidently a clear conflict in perspective between some ethnic Turks and native Germans in how they view Islam: 57% of ethnic Turks associated Islam with human rights, while only 6% of native Germans – interviewed in the same study – do so. And while 56% of ethnic Turks linked Islam with tolerance, only 5% of native Germans followed suit.

Questions for the future

Another glaring percentage-point difference came when participants were asked to assess Islam’s relationship with peace. Of those who replied to the survey, 65% of ethnic Turks believed Islam and peace went hand-in-hand – a full 58 percentage points higher than the paltry native German figure of 7%.

With powerful evidence of questionable social and religious attitudes being widely held among ethnic Turkish Muslims in Germany, its clear that there have been problems with Turkish integration in Germany. Over time this has created a fundamental fault line between German mainstream society and the country’s largest ethnic minority group.

Merkel’s government will need to work hard to make sure that the refugees and migrants who have now made their way to Germany – many of them also Muslims from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – do not struggle to integrate.

These are areas of the world where predominating social and cultural norms are inherently incompatible with the way that a considerable number of Germans view the way their society should work. Germany’s integration challenge with much of its ethnic Turkish population was already significant before the refugee crisis gathered pace. The introduction of a million refugees means that challenge has intensified to an unprecedented degree.

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