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TENSIONS HIGH IN GERMAN SCHOOLS OVER IMMIGRANT CHILDREN

by Jess Smee

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(IPS) BERLIN -- Headlines and television pictures of frightened teachers, Turkish- and Arabic-speaking teenagers and police frisking students at the school gates at a Berlin secondary school have shocked Germans and fanned the country's already heated immigration debate.

Teachers at the Ruetli school, where more than 80 percent of the children are of foreign origin, wrote a letter to local authorities saying they were frightened to go into the classrooms. Widely published in the German press, the letter said the school should be overhauled or closed down.


"We are desperate," the teachers wrote. "The mood in the classroom is one of aggression, complete lack of respect, and ignorance. ... Many of us will only enter a lesson with a mobile phone in order to call for help if necessary."

They complained they have received no support from parents. "In most families our students are the only ones who get up in the morning. How are we supposed to explain to them that it's nevertheless important to come to school and graduate?"

Amid the political fallout, Germany's long-standing discussion about immigration has intensified.

Conservative politicians have called for an "immigration summit." Volker Kauder, parliamentary leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats complained that years of "purring" over multiculturalism under the center-left government of Gerhard Schroeder had not moved integration forward "one millimeter."

In Bavaria -- a conservative stronghold -- a new law has been pushed forward compelling children of immigrants to learn German at kindergarten age, and fining parents who fail to send their children to the classes.

The focus is on two German states which have controversially proposed detailed questionnaires on culture and general knowledge for those wishing to obtain citizenship. The tests have prompted media sarcasm that most Germans would hypothetically not be granted citizenship because they would fail the tests. But many politicians are calling for similar tests to be made law on a national level.

Such plans chime with immigration politics around Europe. Last month, leading European Union countries said they would work on drawing up an "integration contract" in which new immigrants would agree to respect Western values.

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was among the politicians stressing that immigration is a two-way street. He told a news conference the idea was to make clear that "successful integration is always something that presupposes mutual rights and obligations."

Integration of immigrants emerged as top priority following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and the street riots in Paris last year. Across Europe politicians fear the consequences of rising social and economic marginalization.

While German politicians argue about the direction reforms should take, critics say action is long overdue. "The Ruetli teachers' letter started an intensive political debate, but politicians are not offering pragmatic solutions but rather speeches and party politics," Berlin's adviser on immigrants Guenter Piening told IPS.

He added that the budget for integration projects such as German language lessons for foreigners had actually been cut by a third this year.

Moreover, with unemployment of foreigners in Berlin running at 45 percent compared with the 17 percent national average, minorities suffered the brunt of West Berlin's industrial downturn after the fall of the wall.

"There is a general lack of perspective. In the Ruetli school, for instance, no one in the last group of school leavers has found a work placement. That does nothing for the confidence of the other pupils," Piening said.

Many believe the eruption of violence is a symptom of long-standing flaws in immigration policy.

"Germany now has to deal with years of neglect regarding immigration," Piening said. "It only started to consider itself a land of immigration in the 1990s and so now has to make up for lost time."

Immigration in Germany mostly dates back to the "guest worker" (Gastarbeiter) policy of the 1950s and '60s which encouraged foreign labor during the post-war economic boom. It was initially expected that the workers would return to their countries of origin, but many settled in Germany along with their families.

This dramatically altered the structure of German society. According to national statistics, the proportion of foreigners climbed from just 1.1 percent in 1950 to nearly 10 percent half a century later, with Turkish immigrants making up the biggest group.

German immigration policy was slow to keep up with this social change. Until a new law was passed in 2000, children of Turkish immigrants were still legally foreign even if their parents had also lived in Germany for years or were born in Germany.

This idea of nationality as based on the parents' nationality contrasted with other European nations that gave citizenship to children born in the country. Under the new law, the children of immigrants who have been living in Germany for more than eight years automatically get German citizenship. However, as dual nationality is not allowed, they must decide by age 23 which passport they want to keep.

Immigration in Germany is not just a social reality but an economic necessity, given the country's exceptionally low national birthrate. The German Institute for Economic Research says 140,000 people need to move to Germany every year to counter its decrease in potential workers and safeguard the future of its retirement and health-care systems.

But politicians and commentators agree that much more needs to be done to assimilate immigrants. "Second and third generation immigrants are increasingly unwilling to integrate into society, a growing number of Turkish and Arabic youths are even gaining self-confidence by rebelling against the demands of German society," the left-leaning Sźddeutsche Zeitung wrote. "Germany is clearly developing new ghettos."

At the forefront of talk of ghettos-forming are neighborhoods like Neukoelln, the central Berlin district with the city's highest unemployment rate and its largest immigrant population. It is also home to the now notorious Ruetli secondary school and other less publicized schools facing similar social problems.



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Albion Monitor   April 20, 2006   (http://www.albionmonitor.com)

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