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Germany's Migration Policies | Germany |

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Germany's Migration Policies

Vera Hanewinkel Jochen Oltmer

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Despite its long history of migration, politics and society long resisted a definition of Germany as an immigration country. Only the admission of this reality paved the way for migration policy reforms that affect immigration as well as citizenship laws.

An information sign for a naturalization ceremony for refugees in the “New city-hall” in Hannover. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

Even though Germany counts among the countries with the highest share of immigrants in its population, the migration policy debate has for a long time nevertheless been dominated by the question of whether Germany is an immigration country or not. This process blocked a reform of German immigration policies. Overall, the 'Ausländerpolitik' (policy on foreign nationals) of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s concentrated primarily on the prevention of further immigration. Since the turn of the millennium, a change of paradigm can be observed in immigration policies that is accompanied by a gradual liberalization for qualified immigrants. In this context, migration was no longer perceived only as a problem but instead also seen as an opportunity. The Green Card Initiative, which facilitated the temporary immigration of IT specialists from 2000 to 2004, was followed by the implementation of the "Immigration Law" in 2004. This law provided a fundamental adjustment of existing laws on foreign nationals and asylum. The support of the integration of immigrants and their descendants was established as a governmental task for the first time (see "Integration policies"). The goals of the law include the management of immigration with consideration of economic and labor-market interests. It contains certain facilitations for the influx of (highly) qualified foreign labor. Further immigration obstacles were reduced with the Law on the Regulation of Labor Migration which came into effect in 2009 and significantly reduced the minimum income to be proven by highly qualified immigrants to be able to be granted a permanent residence permit immediately.

Impetus from the EU also contributed to a further liberalization of laws on labor migration. Since August 1, 2012, highly qualified members of third countries can apply for the Blue Card. The requirements are a German or comparable university degree or a recognized foreign university degree as well as a labor contract with a gross annual income of €50,800 (€4,234 per month) (as of 2017). If applicants work in designated shortage professions (natural scientists, mathematics, engineers, IT experts, medical professionals, etc.), proof of a gross annual income amount of €39,624 (€3,302 per month) suffices. The law for the implementation of the highly qualified labor directive of the European Union achieved further relief for foreign university graduates and foreigners with a German education degree who would like to look for work in Germany. Other EU directives for regulating labor migration were transferred to national legislature through a law which came into effect on August 1, 2017. It included extensive new provisions for internal European mobility and regarding the residence laws, for example for intra-corporate transferees (ICTs), students and researchers from third countries.

In Germany, the demand for human resources is not restricted to academically trained specialists. Therefore, the government amended the employment regulations and opened the labor market for certain specialists from third countries. The Federal Employment Agency is responsible for determining the professions in need of specialists who may be recruited from abroad (positive list). In 2015, the Employment Directive was supplemented by options for economic immigration to Germany in order to open up an alternative to the generally hopeless asylum process for people from the Western Balkan states of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia who are looking to immigrate to Germany. Citizens of those countries may be granted a residence permit if they can prove valid and current employment, have passed a priority review and were not awarded any asylum seeker benefits over the two previous years.

The hurdles for labor market access were also gradually reduced for asylum seekers ‘with good perspectives to remain in Germany’ over the past years. This step was taken to facilitate social integration. During the first three months of their stay in Germany, asylum seekers are not permitted to work. After that, they may start employment with the consent of the Federal Employment Agency, in most regions of the country even without a priority review. The Federal Employment Agency only assesses the comparability of the working conditions, meaning whether working hours and wages are comparable with those of German employees. The priority review no longer applies after a 15-month stay in Germany. After a period of four years, the assessment of comparable working conditions is suspended as well. Asylum seekers and those granted leave to remain from ‘safe countries of origin’ who applied for asylum in Germany after August 31, 2015 have been facing restrictions since the inception of ‘Asylum Package I’ (‘Asylum Procedure Acceleration Law’). These people may not work.

The provisions of the immigration regulations basically only apply to people from third countries. EU citizens are covered by the Freedom of Movement Act/EU. They do not require any special employment or residence permits and are largely treated equally to German citizens. However, in 2013 and 2014, growing immigration numbers from Romania and Bulgaria led to a discussion about the alleged abuse of the freedom of movement by "poverty migrants". In response, the German Bundestag adopted a law for modifying the Freedom of Movement Act in the EU in November of 2014. It stipulates that immigrated EU citizens who were found guilty of abuse of right or fraud can be sanctioned with temporary re-entry restrictions. Furthermore, the right of residence for employment seeking is restricted and child benefits are only paid out if the applicant has provided their tax ID. A law adopted in December of 2016 stipulates that EU citizens who have never worked in Germany will only qualify for basic provision and social benefits after five years of residence.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the migration policy reforms have contributed to the fact that Germany has transformed into one of the most liberal countries among the 35 member states of the organization in terms of labor migration policies. However, selective liberalization for qualified immigration must accept the criticism that immigrants are basically evaluated on the basis of their economic (and demographic) usability and are treated as "goods".


In 1999, the German Citizenship Law was reformed. It enabled people to acquire German citizenship not solely through ancestry (jus sanguinis) but also through birth on German soil (jus soli). This step represented a significant break with the previously applicable ethno-national notion that one can be German but never become German. Unlike in the United States, where all children born on US soil automatically qualify for US citizenship, the acquisition of German citizenship remains conditional. As a first step, the "option obligation" was introduced. It stipulated that children born in Germany to foreign parents are automatically awarded German citizenship if one of the parents has been residing in Germany for at least eight years and was in possession of an indefinite right of residence. If such children also acquired the foreign citizenship of their parents, they were forced to opt for one of the two citizenships between their 18th and 23rd birthday (option obligation). Children of EU citizens were exempt from the option obligation.

Since the option obligation was modified in December of 2014, children of foreign parents born and raised in Germany are no longer required to opt for one of the citizenships under certain circumstances. They may keep the German citizenship as well as the citizenship of their parents if they lived in Germany for at least eight years before their 22nd birthday, attended school in Germany for at least six years or attained a school or apprenticeship degree in Germany. The condition of one of the parents having resided in Germany for at least eight years and having been in possession of an indefinite right of residence at the time of birth remains in effect.

German citizenship can also be acquired through naturalization. This is a possibility after eight years of residence in Germany and fulfillment of further conditions, including the assurance of earning a living for oneself and family members entitled to maintenance, impunity as well as sufficient German skills. In addition, knowledge of the legal and social structure, and the living conditions in Germany must be verified through a citizenship test since January 1, 2008.

When it comes to naturalization, the principle of preventing multiple citizenships is in effect. People who wish to be naturalized must give up their former citizenship. EU citizens as well as citizens of states who cannot renounce their citizenship or who come from countries that regularly deny their citizens the renouncement of their citizenship are exempt from this provision. In practice, continuation of the former citizenship is accepted in more than half of all naturalization cases. In 2016, 110,400 foreign nationals became naturalized in Germany, 57.8 percent of them also retained their former citizenship.

This text is part of the Interner Link: Migration Profile of Germany.

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is Research Assistant at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies (IMIS) of the University of Osnabrück.
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Dr. phil. habil., born in 1965, is Associate Professor of Modern History and Member of the Board of the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies (IMIS) of the University of Osnabrück.
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