A Transatlantic Conference Tackles Migration's Challenges

By Nora Boustany
Friday, May 26, 2006

Many countries are grappling with the complex legal and social issues concerning migration. While Americans debate bilingualism, loyalty and homogeneity, some politicians in Germany fear that a failure to integrate immigrants into society through adequate language training may lead to social problems.

About 1 million illegal immigrants reside in Germany, yet nobody sees them, according to Lale Akguen , a German lawmaker of Turkish descent. Many enter the country on tourist visas and remain. Some Germans argue that if those in the country are given legal status, another million would want in, she said.

To qualify for citizenship, a person must have lived in the country for eight years as a legal alien, but Akguen, who moved to Germany with her parents in 1962, said few choose to become naturalized citizens because they are reluctant to give up citizenship of origin.

Undocumented foreigners seized by the police are usually thrown out of the country, she said.

Akguen, an expert on migration and integration, said in a recent interview that "the education gap between native German children and immigrant children is widening." The opposite trend is true in other countries, according to a 2003 survey conducted in 17 countries with large immigrant communities by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In Germany, more than 25 percent of 15-year-olds who were not born in the country do not have basic math skills, Akguen said. Among second-generation 15-year-olds, born in Germany, the figure is higher than 40 percent.

"The most interesting issue is that the gap is getting bigger, not smaller," Akguen said after a May 15 symposium in Washington organized in part by the Austrian ambassador, Eva Nowotny . Austria currently holds the presidency of the European Union.

Akguen estimated that there are about 10 million foreign immigrants in the country of more than 80 million. She said the children of Turkish immigrants lag three years behind their German classmates in reading, writing and mathematics. The gap is similar for the country's 2 million Russian immigrants.

"To make it out of elementary school to middle and high school, something has to happen for some students, such as crash language-training courses," she said. "We have to change our school system, otherwise there will be social problems down the road."

In Australia, Canada and New Zealand, however, students with a foreign background and natives perform comparably, Akguen said. The gap narrows in the countries where well-established language-training programs are available to the children of immigrants, she said.

Another speaker at the symposium, Beate Winkler , the Vienna-based director of the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia, said that her agency has offices in each of the 25 E.U. member countries that collect data on racism and related issues.

"We need this data to develop effective policies and make concrete recommendations," Winkler said in an interview last week, "but that is not sufficient.

"People are often misinformed, and we have to think in terms of facts and feelings. We have initiated a media prize for public television channels that feature programs on diversity. If you only address problems, you will miss the opportunity," Winkler said.

"Trauma can be a threat but also a great opportunity," she said, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and the bombings last summer in London. The aftermath of the tragedies gave people opportunities to reach common ground.

The center, which was created within the European Union but remains independent of the member governments, has issued a report on anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiments. It also monitors and tracks incidents of ethnic violence, with help from local nongovernmental organizations.

"How do certain communities feel in Europe? Do they feel respected? Do they have a feeling of belonging?" she asked.

"Our head is round, so we can change the direction of our thinking," she said, characterizing herself as an eternal optimist. Winkler settled in West Germany as a refugee from the then-East German city of Dresden.

Winkler said that before the quarter-finals of the World Cup soccer games, which begin next month, the team captains will stand up before the crowd and make comments against racism. Players will hold up banners with the same message. FIFA, the international soccer federation that governs the sport, has agreed to incorporate the campaign into its games, which will be viewed by more than 1 billion people, she said.

"America and Europe have common concerns and common ambitions in this difficult area, and I expect common solutions at the end of the road. But we are not all traveling by the same route to get there," she said at the close of the conference, which was organized by the European Commission delegation, the Center for Transatlantic Relations, the American Consortium on E.U. Studies and the Woodrow Wilson International Center.

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