Serap Güler, State Secretary for Integration in North Rhine-Westphalia Credit: M. MacGregor
Serap Güler, State Secretary for Integration in North Rhine-Westphalia Credit: M. MacGregor

Serap Güler, State Secretary for Integration in North Rhine-Westphalia, speaks to InfoMigrants about the challenges of integration against the backdrop of the recent spike in xenophobia in some parts of Germany

In Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), just over a quarter of the population – about 4.9 million people – come from immigrant backgrounds. Serap Güler is one of them. Her parents migrated from to Germany from Turkey as guest workers in the 1960s.

Her background alone doesn't qualify Güler for the job of managing integration in the state – a post she has held since the Christian Democratic party (CDU) was elected to government in NRW in 2017. But her migrant background certainly gives her an understanding of the challenges on both sides of the integration debate.

Being in charge of a contentious issue like integration is no job for the faint-hearted; the general optimism that followed German Chancellor Angela Merkel's "We can do it" pledge in 2015 quickly vanished. Today, there is racist violence seen on the streets of the German cities of Chemnitz and Köthen. This recent spike in xenophobia has sharpened the debate about whether integration has worked at all in Germany.

InfoMigrants reporter Marion MacGregor spoke to Serap Güler about the challenges that still lie ahead.

MacGregor: We hear so much about the goal of integration. Who needs integration to succeed more: native Germans or migrants themselves?

We believe that the majority culture, "native Germans" if you like, will benefit from more migration, if we succeed in integrating these (immigrants). And of course, the migrants themselves will benefit as well. If you think about how much is achieved through integration in the labor market – people are able to support themselves, to stand on their own two feet and make a contribution to society –  I think that's the best indication that it can be a win-win situation for both sides.

What are Germany's biggest achievements in integration?

In that very area, actually: integration in the labor market, and not just in relation to today's refugees. If you think about the guest workers, that was a case of pure labor market integration. But we neglected lots of other things, like teaching them the language, and giving them the opportunity to integrate socially. I believe we've learned from that, and from the mistakes of the past, and the whole country as well as a lot of individual states have moved on from where we were forty years ago. These days we think it's really important that people who come here learn the language quickly, because that helps in other areas of integration. And when I meet people today who came from Syria two years ago and they speak better German than my father, who's lived in Germany for 50 years, it's clear to me how much we have learned from those mistakes.

Participants of an integration course

What is the biggest challenge we face now in terms of integration?

The greatest challenge is in the area of social integration. It's relatively easy to get someone a job or to teach them German. But we are dealing with people who may have spent the majority of their lives in a country that's culturally very different, including in terms of democratic values, and simply has a different mindset. We have to be able to expect that this person abide by local laws and respect our constitution and values that we consider non-negotiable such as gender equality or Israel's right to exist. But getting them to accept these things doesn't happen overnight, or even after 100 hours in an integration course.

Would you say that what happened in Chemnitz was a sign of a failure of integration?

No, definitely not. Chemnitz, and now Köthen, are quite specific cases. I don't accept the argument that these events are linked to refugees or have anything to do with migration policy. Sure, the tragic murders in both cities were committed by refugees, and I understand that people are outraged by that. I understand that completely. But the fact that these deaths are being used as a justification for right-wing extremist rage on the streets – I have no sympathy for that.

In North Rhine-Westphalia there are a lot of other cities that have taken in many more refugees than Chemnitz and Köthen. They've also had problems – not murders, I'm not saying we can compare them. But people haven't expressed hatred in this way. I believe we shouldn't see this as an attack on refugee policy but as racism, and we should name it as such.

Has this exposed a division in Germany and an increase in xenophobia?

Xenophobia is not a new phenomenon in Germany. No country in the world can claim to be free of it. But I actually think that the extremists have simply become louder. We still have large numbers of people who are critical of what's happening and who are working day in day out to help immigrants to integrate.


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