25.4.2013 | Von:
Ludger Pries

Number and Structure of Migrant Organizations in Germany

Religious associations – and, most important in this case, mosque associations – are often described as typical migrant organizations in public debates. The research shows that more than two thirds of migrant organizations actually are secular in character.

Mitglieder des 1989 gegründeten "Türkisch-Islamischen Kulturzentrums München" (DITIM) sitzen am Freitag (11.12.2009) nach dem Gebet in ihrer Moschee in der Schanzenbachstraße in München (Oberbayern) und trinken Tee. Die Gebetsräume von DITIM befinden sich in einem ehemaligen Möbelhaus in einem Hinterhof im Stadtteil Sendling.Turkish cultural centre in Munich. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

Number of active MSOs in Germany

The exact number of MSOs in Germany is unknown, so the number of foreigners' and foreign associations is used to make estimates. According to the law on associations, an association whose members or leaders are mainly foreigners is considered to be a 'foreigners' association'; while an association based abroad whose organization or activity relates to Germany is considered to be a 'foreign association'. The establishment of a foreigners' association or a foreign association must be reported to the authorities within two weeks. This information is collected centrally in the Register of Foreign Associations (Ausländervereinsregister).[1] Based on the former Register of Foreign Associations, the number of such associations in 2001 was calculated to be approximately 16,000. After associations of EU foreigners had been exempted from the obligation to register—mainly because of legal considerations—the official number of registered foreign associations decreased significantly. There are also several lists of MSOs in addition to the Register of Foreign Associations which have been derived from scholarly studies. In the foreword to her study on migrant (umbrella) organizations in Germany which presents 32 such organizations in greater detail, the Commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration of the German Federal Government makes explicit reference to the studies by Hunger (2005) and MOZAIK (2009):

"Officially, there are about 16,000 migrant organizations in Germany, some of which have not only increased in size but also in importance, primarily in their roles as mediators in intercultural dialogue in public debate. The actual number of migrant organizations is estimated to be around 20,000. The official number of 16,000 represents only the number of organizations registered in the Register of Foreign Associations, which lists all associations of foreign third-country nationals in Germany. This figure does not include organizations of migrants from the member states of the European Union or organizations and initiatives which are not registered as foreign associations because their managing committee or membership do not consist mainly of foreign nationals" (Integration Commissioner 2011: 6, transl. by the author).

The estimates cited in the report of the Integration Commissioner are probably too high. In response to a query by the author, the Federal Office of Administration in Cologne replied in November 2012: “There are currently about 10,360 foreign associations registered with the Federal Office of Administration. However, this number is subject to individual fluctuations because we rely on information about deletions and new registrations being reported to us by the various authorities” (transl. by the author). It appears safe to assume that the figure cited in the report of the Integration Commissioner is that for 2001, when the Register still contained the organizations of migrants from the member states of the European Union.

But information on the number of MSOs in Germany has been provided not only as a result of the administration process, but also by several scholarly studies. In the late 1990s, a comprehensive survey of migrant organizations in North Rhine-Westphalia was conducted (MASSKS-NRW 1999a; 1999b). Of the 952 recorded MSOs, 302 participated in the study (MASSKS-NRW 1999a: 25). Given the ratio of the population of North Rhine-Westphalia to the national population of Germany, and given that there were only 952 MSOs in North Rhine-Westphalia at the time, the estimate for Germany of 16,000 is likely to be too high.

In 2009, a survey of MSOs in Germany identified 3,480 organizations in 75 major administratively independent cities which met the definition criteria of having a “migration-specific topical and task focus with at least half of the members and organization activists having a migration background” (TRAMO 2010; Pries and Sezgin 2012: 16). Of these MSOs, 28 percent (or 963) had a country-of-origin reference to Turkey, whereas, for example, only 3 percent (or 119) had a country-of-origin reference to Poland. Generally, the willingness of people with a migration background to organize varies strongly according to the country of origin, and people of Turkish origin organize themselves relatively often into associations.[2]

Key areas of focus of MSOs

With regard to the key areas of focus of MSOs and the major countries of origin, an analysis of the Register of Foreign Associations provided by Hunger (2005: 226ff.) found that of the roughly 16,000 associations registered in 2001, about 11,000 could be regarded as associations dominated by people of Turkish origin. A relatively high percentage of MSOs (approx. 83 percent) were homogeneous in origin, in the sense that the majority of their members originated from the same country; 11 percent were classified as German–foreign and 6 percent as multi-country-based. Hunger (2005: 231) provides a general ranking of objectives on the basis of the frequency with which the purpose of the MSOs is mentioned in their statutes: 1. culture, 2. meeting, 3. religion, 4. sports, 5. counseling, 6. guidance, 7. politics, 8. education, 9. humanitarian aid, and 10. leisure. In a special report prepared for the Advisory Council on Immigration and Integration of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Hunger has also presented his own typology of activities of MSOs which is based on data from the Register of Foreign Associations (see table).

Table: Foreign associations in Germany

according to type of association, 2001
Type of association Percentage of all associations
Cultural associations 22,3
Meeting centers 16,5
Social and humanitarian associations 14,9
Sports and leisure associations 14,8
Religious associations 11,6
Political associations 5,3
Family and parents' associations 5,2
Economic associations 4,7
Associations for individual groups 4,6
No classification possible 0,1
Source: Hunger 2004, S.12

Of the 3,480 MSOs ascertained throughout Germany in the context of the TRAMO study, 35 percent of all MSOs classified as having Turkey as the country of origin reference and 40 percent of all MSOs having Poland as the country of origin reference could be classified as religious organizations. Cultural organizations were the second most common type of MSOs, with 25 percent of MSOs promoting Polish identity and 8 percent promoting Turkish identity. Some 14 percent of MSOs identifying as Turkish and 12 percent of MSOs identifying as Polish were found to have different characteristics and to be involved in various areas, such as religious, cultural, and political activities (see also Amelina and Faist 2008; Diehl 2002; Özcan 1989).

In public debates, religious associations — and, most important in this case, mosque associations — are often described as typical MSOs. The Table shows that more than two thirds of MSOs actually are secular in character. These include cultural associations, meeting centers, social and humanitarian associations, and sports and leisure associations. However, it should be emphasized that it is difficult to assign individual MSOs to particular areas of activity, not least because in many cases their areas of focus and activity are varied and overlapping, so that, say, a sports club which also provides social counseling for its members may be classified as ‘multifunctional’. Also, the focus and membership of MSOs may change over time. For example, since the 1990s, an increasing number of self-employed individuals and academics with a migration background have joined MSOs as a way to better pool their resources and advance their common interests. The generational change within many long-standing MSOs has also led to a shift in focus from the country of origin to the country of arrival and, thus, to a stronger emphasis on the integration perspective (Gaitanides 2003: 25ff.). This discussion of the MSOs’ focus of activities leads us directly to the question of their role in social participation.

This text is part of the policy brief on "Migrant Organizations: Size, Structures, and Significance".


The basis for these provisions is not the promotion of integration but rather "protective (security) measures." See http://www.bva.bund.de/nn_2142812/DE/Aufgaben/Abt__III/OeffentlicheSicherheitAuslaender/Auslaendervereinsregister/avr-node.html?__nnn=true; on the legal foundations see http://www.behoerdenwegweiser.bayern.de/dokumente/aufgabenbeschreibung/16220942276 (accessed 4-11-2013).
According to Halm and Sauer (2005), about one third of individuals of Turkish origin in Germany are organized in associations. However, this statistic should be viewed with caution because people of Muslim faith, for example, regard even a loose affiliation to mosque communities as membership in an MSO. On the problem of classification, see MASSKS-NRW (1999a); Waldrauch and Sohler (2004).
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