1.4.2009 | Von:
Oliver Razum
Jacob Spallek

Definition of Migration and of Migrants

The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees defines migration in the following way: "Migration occurs when a person changes the location of their usual place of residence. International migration occurs when this movement crosses national boundaries.". [1] In this policy brief, the term "migration" refers exclusively to international migration; migration within a country ("internal migration") is not considered here.

Migranten sind häufig in sozioökonomischer Hinsicht benachteiligt. Sie wohnen und arbeiten beispielsweise oft unter schlechteren Bedingungen als die nicht migrierte Mehrheitsbevölkerung.Migranten sind häufig in sozioökonomischer Hinsicht benachteiligt. Sie wohnen und arbeiten beispielsweise oft unter schlechteren Bedingungen als die nicht migrierte Mehrheitsbevölkerung. (© AP)

Based on the above definition of migration, it might at first appear simple to hone in on a definition of "migrants" as a group. A workable definition of "migrants" is a basic requirement if we wish to assess their state of health and measure any changes, such as those brought about by targeted health-related intervention. [2]

In many data sets, official ones in particular, the term is refined through reference to a person's citizenship. This type of definition is unsatisfactory and imprecise in several regards. [3] A few examples serve to illustrate this:
  • Ethnic Germans immigrants from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union (Aussiedler and Spätaussiedler) arrive in Germany by crossing a national boundary and as such have migrated. As a rule, however, they possess German citizenship. Any definition dependent on citizenship would not include them as migrants.
  • Ever more foreign citizens living in Germany are adopting German citizenship: from 1970 to 2005 more than 1.5 million foreigners were naturalised. Thus, not all migrants are foreign citizens. The percentage of people with a migration background and German citizenship is growing continuously with the passage of time.
  • Foreign citizenship does not necessarily indicate that the person has migrated to Germany across a national border. Foreign citizens may be the children or grandchildren of former migrants who have been born in Germany and have retained their parents´ or grandparents´ foreign citizenship. These children have not migrated across any national border and cannot, therefore, be migrants. They are often referred to as "second or third generation migrants" and are included in debates about migration and health in order to be able to show any health risks based on cultural or genetic influences as well as any change in health risks that may occur over time from one generation to another.

Between 1913 and 2000, limited jus sanguinis (Latin for "right of blood") applied in Germany to the granting of citizenship. According to this right to citizenship based on parentage, only those who could prove German forebears were German citizens. Only under special circumstances could immigrants who had lived a certain time in Germany adopt German citizenship. In 2000 this old citizenship law was extended to include elements of jus soli (Latin for "right of the soil"). This automatically gives German citizenship to children born in Germany if one parent has been living legally in Germany for at least eight years. This amendment has made it even more difficult to identify migrants by means of their citizenship.

In recent years the term "people with a migration background" has been commonly used as a collective term for the heterogeneous group of immigrants and their descendants. Even the Federal Statistical Office has used this definition since the 2005 microcensus. [4] There are about 15 million people with a migration background living in Germany today, almost one fifth of the population. Given the heterogeneous nature of this group, a clear differentiation needs to be made between their social and health prospects and problems.


See BAMF (2006).
See Schenk et al. (2006).
See Robert Koch Institut (2008).
See Duschek et al. (2006).



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