People across Germany have become more accepting of refugees and migrants since the pivotal year 2015. But the latest study by the Bertelsmann Foundation shows that reservations remain.
Christian Osterhaus knows only too well what the term Willkommenskultur ("welcome culture") means: When hundreds of thousands of people seeking protection arrived in Germany in 2015, he was one of the first to co-found a local refugee aid organization.
"We didn't want to repeat the mistakes of the past," he tells DW. By welcoming the refugees, he and his team wanted to show "that we don't exclude people again." With around 30 fellow campaigners, Osterhaus got involved in Bonn in the fall of 2015. The group cared for 40 to 50 refugees, most of whom came from Syria.
Osterhaus was one of hundreds of thousands of people in Germany who set out to help those fleeing civil war in Syria and other countries, and to help integrate them into German society. "We wanted to give these people a new home," Osterhaus says looking back.
The special effort at integration became known as Germany's welcome culture. But in 2015 and 2016, many people also had little understanding for this attitude. They did not want to take in refugees and migrants. The xenophobic protest movement gave rise to the far-right populist Alternative for Germany party (AfD).
More people see benefits of migration
In its representative study "Willkommenskultur zwischen Stabilität und Aufbruch," (Welcome Culture Between Stability and Departure) the nonprofit Bertelsmann Foundation has now taken a closer look at changes in Germans' attitudes and identified a trend: Germans are more optimistic about migration and immigration than they were a few years ago.
"In essence, our survey shows that skepticism toward immigration is still widespread in Germany, but it has continually declined in recent years," says Ulrike Wieland, co-author of the study: "More people now see the potential benefits of migration; especially for the economy. When it comes to perceptions of integration, we find that more respondents than in previous years see inequality of opportunity and discrimination as significant obstacles hampering integration of individuals."
The Bertelsmann Foundation has been conducting representative surveys since 2012. In the beginning, the researchers set out to determine how Germans felt about the immigration of skilled workers. But in response to the influx of large numbers of refugees in 2015-2016, researchers wanted to gauge attitudes towards these people.
As to long-term effects of immigration, positive and negative assessments roughly balance each other out. But the debate on refugees has somewhat tipped the scales.
Today, many see immigration as a way to help solve Germany's demographic and economic problems. For example, two out of three respondents see immigration as helping to balance out an aging society, more than half of those polled said it could also compensate for the ongoing shortage of skilled workers, and half of all respondents expect immigrants to generate additional revenue for Germany's pension fund.
But many respondents remain skeptical: 67% say that immigrants place an additional burden on the welfare state, 66% say they worry about conflicts erupting between people born and raised in Germany and immigrants, and many respondents fear that schools are facing major problems integrating immigrant students.
But there is an important differentiation to make: skilled immigrants seeking employment or academic opportunities are more accepted (71%) than refugees who are primarily seeking protection (59 %).
More than a third don't want more refugees
The Bertelsmann Foundation study also clearly shows that there is still a lot of skepticism in Germany when it comes to refugees.
Christian Osterhaus notes that many helpers have turned away because of the decrease in acceptance for their work for refugees. "In the beginning we were part of a social movement and felt supported, but for several years we have been working against the social mainstream," is how Osterhaus describes it to DW.
Germans have overall become more accepting of refugees. But over one-third of respondents (36%) believe that Germany cannot take in any more of them. In 2017, that number stood at 54%. Currently, 20% consider the refugees to be "temporary guests" who do not need to be integrated into society.
"We see that one-fifth of the population is skeptical of refugees or outright rejects them. These people seem to have a worldview that supports the idea of a (far-reaching) social closure against migration," explains co-author Ulrike Wieland.
People with an immigrant background are underrepresented in politics, corporate management and the media in Germany. Respondents see German language skills as a pivotal prerequisite to integration. But many of them also believe that legislation needs to be changed to combat existing inequality when it comes to finding housing, dealing with authorities or schools.
The new coalition government of center-left Social Democrats (SPD), environmentalist Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) has already made clear it wants to focus more on integration. For example, they are planning to ensure that even rejected asylum seekers are given the opportunity to stay in Germany permanently if they have learned German and have found work to earn a sufficient income. Family reunification is to be extended to all refugees and it is to become easier to obtain German nationality.
That is basically the right way to go, says researcher Ulrike Wieland: "But it is also important for Germany to develop a positive self-image as an immigration society. To achieve this, politicians and civil society must work together. They must actively shape a diverse society."
Aid worker Christian Osterhaus looks back at when he started working with refugees: "At the time, I really had the impression that German society had opened up and changed and had actually learned a lot." He believes that interpersonal connections and friendships are the foundation for the path to building a real welcome culture in Germany.
Authors: Volker Witting, Lisa Hänel
First published: February 16, 2022
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This article was originally written in German.