Great opportunities

Associations of migrants are ex­pected to play a role in public life in Germany and contribute to the development of their countries of origin. Expectations are high, but much needs to be done to make them come true.

By Laura Hinze

German society today expects migrants to form organisations of their own and wants such organisations to have a bearing on political discourse. According to Dietrich Thränhardt of Münster University, the irony of the matter is that migrants are told to organise in Germany, but when they do so, they are often blamed for living in some kind of a parallel society. In Thränhardt’s view, plu­ralism and open-mindedness are essential for integration.

The Deutsche Paritätische Wohlfahrtsverband (DPWV) is an umbrella organisation for charitable organisations. Many migrants associations join it. Ercüment Toker works for the DPWV and says that most of the associations concerned aspire to professionalism, want to make a positive contribution in integration affairs and are prepared to assume responsibility. The wish to participate in public life is strong, he adds.

Karin Weiss, who works for the state government of Brandenburg in East Germany, warns however that many migrant organisations are overburdened fast: “They are supposed to take care of everything, from child care to fighting ter­rorism.” That kind of agenda is too demanding, she argued at a conference that was hosted by the Catholic Akademie Franz Hitze Haus and the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation in Münster in late August.

About 10 % of the migrants in Germany do voluntary work, according to data from the Federal Office for Migrants and Refugees. Most are said to be active in faith-based and cultural organisations. The Office states that young people and women are statistically under-represented.

Impact on countries of origin

Migrants’ activities in rich nations can have an impact on the countries of origin. Alevi organisations are an example. Their faith developed from Shia Islam and is quite common in Turkey. However, the Turkish state and the Sunni majority in Turkey do not acknowledge Alevism. Handan Aksünger, who lectures at Hamburg University, says that many Alevis became more assertive after leaving Turkey as being able to express their religious beliefs in public boosted their self-confidence. Some have become interested in inter-faith exchange with people from other religions. Today Alevis in Turkey are becoming more assertive thanks to the experience made by relatives and friends abroad, Aksünger argues.

Experts hope that migrants will contribute to more tolerance, the acceptance of democratic principles and development in general in their countries of origin (please note essay by Rahim Hajji and Soraya Moket on the Moroccan diaspora on p. 388 f.). Such hopes have indeed materialised in Iraq, says Menderes Candan, a PhD student at Münster University. After the war started in 2003, the number of Iraqi organisations in Germany increased fast, he reports. Earlier, Iraqis in Germany had preferred to keep a low profile because they feared Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.

Candan points out that diaspora organisations are helping to rebuild Iraq today. Their contributions include remittances, knowledge transfer and direct investments. Migrants who return to their country of origin promote democratic ideas, Candan says, and they play a role in state building. He regrets that the German government does not make use of such opportunities in the context of its international development policy. He advises the government to systematically promote migrants’ organisations.

Experience, however, shows that migration does not always lead to more open-mindedness. Another likely result is a stronger emphasis on identity politics. Bekim Agai, who lectures at Bonn University, says that migrants from predominantly Muslim countries often are only “made Muslims in the social sense” once they are abroad. Their self-perception changes, and they become more prone to defining themselves by their faith. One reason why parallel societies emerge, Agai reasons, is that mainstream society does not easily allow migrants to join it.

Laura Hinze

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