Integration Requires Democratic Participation

Integration not only involves offering emergency relief, access to work, or language classes. Refugees and migrants also want to participate politically and socially in their new home country of Germany. In mid-October, integration experts, policymakers, and immigrants discussed how this could be done at a conference organized by Stiftung Mitarbeit (Foundation for Participation) at the Berlin Representative Office of the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

Robert Bosch Stiftung | October 2018

What immigrants say

Hanns-Joerg Sippel, chairman of Stiftung Mitarbeit, made it very clear that “democracy only works together.” And Yousif Toma, a refugee assistance and integration activist, took it another step further: “Integration is an essential factor in the continuation of society.”

Nevertheless, the political participation of refugees and migrants in Germany paints a different picture: Though they would appreciate this form of integration, they rarely appear as contacts. A study commissioned by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) and published in April 2018 came to a similar conclusion: Only people who have a voice feel they are an active part of society. According to the study, immigrants primarily have access to civil society networks and projects, and low-threshold, dialog-based forms of democratic participation. These options are equally important, the experts at the conference confirmed. However, more is needed, as Hanns-Jörg Sippel stressed at the event: “In 2015, our focus was still on emergency relief. Now, it is a matter of facilitating political participation.”

Roland Roth, a professor at Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences, called for general participation of and for migrants: “If you cannot participate, you are merely a client.” Participation requires a suitable social framework: “Societies become better with participatory solutions,” according to Mr. Roth. The key element in this context is the sense of being able to play an active part instead of being stuck in the role of the passive victim. Sweden can be regarded as a role model for participation: The Scandinavian country allows any resident to vote in local elections after three years.

What we need: Orientation in the red tape of democracy

Małgorzata Gedlek of DaMigra, the umbrella association of organizations for migrant women, and Shahla Payam of ISI e.V., an initiative of self-employed female immigrants, know from experience how difficult it is for migrant women “not to get lost in the red tape of democracy.” Both called for reliable, long-term funding by the German federal government as well as a simplification, for instance through flat fees. “Even simple, two-page application forms are difficult,” a conference participant agreed.

Another hindrance to active political and social participation lies in the personal histories of migrants. Many repress memories of traumatic experiences, often struggling with debilitating, long-term depression as a consequence. In a first step, low-threshold activities offered by self-help organizations can often be valuable tools. “We host activities such as joint cooking sessions, women’s breakfasts, or zoo visits and try to reach out to everyone without immediately touching upon the big issues,” explained Shahla Payam, who is an advocate for traumatized refugees. In everyday life, she too sees a lot of motivation but also major hurdles for active participation.

Possibilities: Political representation of interests

Wolfgang Hellwig of MiSO, a migrant self-organization network, sees it as the duty of the interest groups to think about their options in the bigger picture. He himself, for example, registered his Hanover-based not-for-profit as an approved apprenticeship employer. MiSO is currently training three young migrants as office managers. Due to the network’s status, the city of Hanover covers the costs, and the young trainees are guaranteed two years of employment with the city administration upon completion of their apprenticeships. “This is how you get migrants into public administration,” Mr. Hellweg stated proudly. And migrants in public positions are invaluable—not only because of their unique language skills but also their understanding of migration issues and the role model function they assume.

Looking ahead, Dr. Peymann Javahar-Haghighi of NEMO, the federal association of networks of migrant organizations, stated that we would also need a vision of society in general and opportunities for political and social participation. This includes ideas, stamina, and the scope for genuine participation to which people with a migrant background in Germany commit in a variety of ways day after day.


Political Participation of Refugees: Bridging the Gaps

A report of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, supported by the Robert Bosch...