In Germany, around 20 million people (almost a quarter of the population) have an immigrant background, which means that they or at least one of their parents does not have German nationality by birth. However, around half of these people now have a German passport and can therefore vote in local, regional and federal elections.
The Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration (SVR) recently conducted a study on the extent to which people with an immigrant background in Germany engage in politics. The SVR, which is an independent body, regularly compiles statistics on migration, but this study marks the first time that it has conducted a survey of political self-efficacy.
The aim of the study, in essence, was to measure the level of political engagement among people with an immigrant background living in Germany. Do they understand the political system? Do they think politicians represent their interests? Do they feel able to get involved in politics? As a general rule, when it comes to these problems, people with an immigrant background often see themselves as worse off than those without an immigrant background.
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SVR Research Department Head Jan Schneider told DW about the study.
DW: What ideas surprised you?
Schneider says education level often defines how people engage in politics
Jan Schneider: We were surprised to see how evident the differences in perceptions of political self-efficacy were between people with an immigrant background and those without. We asked people how well they understood the political discourse in Germany and how confident they felt to participate. The study showed some interesting differences; for example, among people of Turkish origin, political self-efficacy was lower than that of other migrants.
Why do you think it is?
A determining factor is the level of education: people who have completed high school and perhaps pursued higher education tend to be much more confident in themselves to assert themselves politically compared to those who have not. only a partial high school diploma or none at all. This, for example, explains the differences between people of Turkish descent.
Is it because among the Turkish population in Germany there are still a lot of guest workers?
Exactly, and the results were only among the second generation [of Turkish migrants] participation in the [German] school system was inferior. Looking at these statistics alone, education level almost completely explains the differences.
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A group where political self-efficacy is particularly low – whatever the origin – is women. Why?
There are so-called gender barriers in politics. These may be due to different cultural practices or to stereotypical conceptions of gender that designate politics, so to speak, as ‘a man’s business’. It may also simply be a problem of discrimination. Women have always been systematically disadvantaged in terms of political participation. And this is also the case in the countries from which most migrant groups originate.
Your study also investigated whether people think politicians in Germany listen to the concerns of ordinary people. Migrants – especially those who have moved here recently – tend to have a more positive outlook politicians than native Germans. Why is that?
This can be explained by the fact that among the migrants of the last 10 years, many come from countries where democracy and participatory politics are generally not very good. And so they think it’s better here. You could say that there is a sort of “honeymoon effect” or some kind of confidence bonus in the political system and its figureheads. But given that, it’s just as important that we tell politicians: we must not let skepticism grow as people stay in the country longer. It might be important to focus on those who have fled here in recent years and take advantage of this honeymoon time.
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Your study shows that people with an immigrant background feel less apt to get involved in politics. What can people who work in German politics do?
One of our main recommendations is not only to impart political knowledge through media and events, but also to make politics tangible, and also perhaps to show how we can influence it … [particularly] at local level.
Do you mean that it should take the form of direct citizen participation?
Yes, it offers the opportunity to show young people and students that they can make changes by getting involved in politics. And it’s an opportunity to show that participation and political engagement pay off, but also fun.
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What about people who do not participate in education or integration programs?
There are various adult education programs offered by the government, although they have apparently not been successful enough. If institutions such as schools are not accessible, there should be other offers of political participation and engagement. Moreover, beyond schools, if people can feel that they can participate and that they can effect change, then interest and confidence in a representative democracy can be revived.