For a long time, people with a migration background were considered a silent group – one that did not participate much in society. But this is now changing, and it is a win for democracy and for living together in heterogeneous societies. Nevertheless, hurdles remain that make social and political participation more difficult for migrants and their descendants. An opinion piece/commentary by Ferdinand Mirbach, Senior Expert on Immigration Society at the Robert Bosch Stiftung.
First, the good news: social participation is actually not that hard! In principle, anyone can get involved in civic and political processes. Civic participation happens, for example, when citizens take part in associations or voluntary, unpaid work. Political participation starts with signing petitions, taking part in demonstrations or joining a political party (informal participation) and extends to elections as a voter or candidate (formal participation). So much for the theory.
The practice – and this is the not-so-good news – is considerably more complex and has more preconditions. This is particularly the case for people with a migration background, who, like children and adolescents or people with physical and intellectual disabilities, for example, are considered a "silent group" by those who study social participation. This means people who are barely heard or are underrepresented in participatory processes. The reasons they don’t participate are diverse but can generally be reduced to the following: You must be allowed, willing and able to participate!
In Germany, formal political participation is tied to German citizenship. Anyone who is not a citizen cannot participate in the most fundamental practice of democracy – voting and running for office. In 2022, this was true of around 11.6 million people in Germany. EU citizens, who make up about one-third of all foreigners living in Germany, at least have the right to vote in local elections. But the nearly eight million so-called third-country nationals do not benefit from this rule and therefore remain excluded from formal political participation in their communities.
It is therefore not surprising that municipal voting rights for third-country nationals are repeatedly raised as a (partial) solution to boost their participation, as is the case in Belgium, Finland, Estonia, Ireland, Slovakia and Portugal, for example. Another option to support equal political rights is to make German citizenship easier to obtain for all those who, for a variety of reasons, could not or did not want to become German citizens. The German government has already taken concrete steps with its draft reform of the citizenship law.
"The once silent group of people with a migration history is opening up more and more spaces for participation. This is good news for democracy."
In addition to these formal hurdles for participation, i.e. "being allowed," there is also the question of "being able." This refers to individual resources and preconditions. First of all, people must be able to afford to participate – for example, volunteering costs time and possibly also money. Political involvement – if allowed – requires knowledge of political processes as well as democratic competencies. For people with a migration background, at least those who have only been residents for a short time, there is also the question of language abilities. The lack of language skills is an enormous barrier to any form of social participation. All these resources and skills, if not yet available, must be acquired at great expense. The state can and must play a supporting role in this, whether through integration offers, democracy training or by supporting volunteer work.
Last but not least is the will to participate. There are enough people in Germany with a migration background who can participate politically and also have the resources – but still don't. Why? Perhaps they aren’t interested because they feel politics in Germany has left them behind. They may not be convinced of their own self-efficacy – that they can make a difference with their voice or their commitment. They may lack role models in their own communities who show them the importance of representation and using their voice. Perhaps their will is not strong enough because over and over again they have experienced that will alone is not enough.
It would be hard to blame them – people who, when looking for a job or apartment, frequently experience how the “wrong” appearance or a name that doesn’t sound German can quickly destroy any desire to participate.
"Anti-discrimination measures, positive narratives and strengthening the sense of community throughout society are essential to create fertile grounds for willingness and the desire to participate."
Here’s another piece of good news: Even if there is still much to be done for equal participation in Germany, committed people with a migration background are already getting involved and participating! Many of them have demonstrated an outstanding commitment to civil society, as seen in their support for refugees after 2015 or in welcoming those who fled Ukraine after the Russian invasion, but also in other areas. They participate in local councils dealing with foreigners and integration – although mostly in an advisory and not in a (co-)decision-making capacity – and thus help bring local communities together. The up to 14,000 organizations across Germany for people with a migration background are now much more than just “ethnic social clubs." They are increasingly political actors and interest groups that identify problems, articulate political demands and propose solutions. The number of political representatives with a migration background in German legislatures from the local level to the Bundestag is steadily increasing, and with it their representation and visibility.
The once-silent group of people with a migration background is thus opening up more and more space for participation, in civil society and politics, both analog and digital. This is good news for democracy and social cohesion. Of course, it is initially challenging and not always conflict-free to enable and live with a diversity of voices. Nor is it easy to bring other groups to the proverbial table and share power in the spirit of solidarity. In the long run, however, the diversity of perspectives will help us to better master the challenges of our time.