More than five years later, meaningful integration remains a problem here. 11.4 million of Germany’s total population of 83.1 million are foreigners, of which almost 5 million are citizens of the European Union and have the right to vote in the EU and some local elections.
The country’s economic might was built, in part, by immigrants who met the demand for cheap labor during the country’s post-war boom while remaining excluded from society and democracy. German. In the 1960s and 1970s, the so-called “guest worker” program attracted millions of workers from Turkey and less developed countries while offering no language training, little protection against discrimination, and few easy routes to learning. citizenship.
Under Merkel, immigration policies have been relaxed and access to integration courses made available to all newcomers, but activists argue more needs to be done. Estimates vary, but today there are still millions of long-term residents paying taxes who, without citizenship, remain disenfranchised.
Members of this large but silenced minority say they suffer from systemic discrimination and a lack of representation in the corridors of power.
CNN met with three activists and politicians determined to change the system and open the door to voting for immigrants and other non-German citizens.
“I wanted to be the voice I lacked in politics”
Syrian activist Tareq Alaows fled Damascus in 2015, and after a dangerous trip to Europe, he became one of more than a million refugees hosted by Merkel.
But just because the door was open didn’t make Alaows feel at home.
“Everyone was talking about the refugees, but no one was talking to us,” says Alaows, 32, recalling his arrival in the western town of Bochum. “Our future was being determined, but we were not part of the conversation.”
Five months into his stay, feeling deeply frustrated and excluded, Alaows resorted to activism, staging a 17-day sit-in at Bochum town hall to demand a meeting with the mayor. It worked; as a result, he became an unofficial advocate for other refugees.
In February this year, he tried to go further by launching a campaign for a seat in the Bundestag, aiming to become the first Syrian refugee elected to the German federal parliament.
“When I looked at the composition of Parliament, there was no one representing me or my fight,” he says. “I wanted to be the voice I lacked in politics.” he said.
Many have praised the campaign, but Alaows says he has been targeted by an angry minority who inundated him with daily messages of hate and constant death threats.
He endured bullying for weeks, until he was verbally assaulted on a night train. The attack was the last straw, he said. Frightened by “massive experiences of racism”, he reluctantly ended his election campaign.
Alaows remains politically active as a member of the Green Party and spends most of his days defending the rights of migrants.
He says his application for German citizenship was expedited due to his political work; he arrived earlier this year, making him one of the very few Syrian refugees able to vote in the legislative elections in September – a moment he describes as bittersweet.
“For me, as an immigrant in this society where there is structural racism, I have to be politically active,” he says. “I can’t give up hope. It’s not an option.”
“Because I am a woman of color, I receive death threats”
In the aftermath of Germany’s most important election in a generation, local official Sawsan Chebli juggles meetings from her office at Berlin City Hall.
Chebli’s party, the Social Democrats (SPD), narrowly beat Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in September’s parliamentary elections, giving her a mandate to form the country’s next ruling coalition.
Chebli, State Secretary for Federal Affairs in the Berlin Senate, hopes the change of power will result in greater political representation of minorities.
“You have to have role models in politics so that young people aspire to the same career,” she said.
Born and raised in Germany to Palestinian parents, Chebli’s family were stateless for most of their childhood, leaving them unable to work, attend college or participate in politics. “We were just invisible,” she recalls.
“Because I am a woman of color, I receive death threats,” she explains. “Because I’m here, and I’m loud, and I fight against the right-wing politicians.”
“It is discriminatory and it needs to be changed,” she said.
“Germany is going to change,” she said firmly. “Because reality will change it, because data, facts and figures will change it.”
“Every decision goes over our heads”
On the outskirts of Germany’s financial capital, Frankfurt, lies one of the country’s most diverse cities.
Offenbach has an immigrant population of 63.9%, according to its city council. But local politician Hibba-tun-noor Kauser said the city government that runs Offenbach is nothing like the multi-ethnic town she calls home.
Before spring 2020, immigrants with German nationality made up less than 10% of Offenbach city council, according to Kauser. The 22-year-old student says it pushed her to run for office.
“It’s a huge problem,” she told CNN. “The government is supposed to reflect the people, but it is not.”
Kauser thinks this poses a big problem. “Every decision goes over our heads, over the heads of the people who cannot vote, over the heads of marginalized groups,” she said.
In March, Kauser was elected to Offenbach’s 72-person council in an election that saw the proportion of German-born immigrants serving as councilors at nearly 20 percent.
She says it was a huge upheaval for the city’s predominantly white, male career politicians – and gave new representation to a marginalized majority.
“It was very overwhelming,” she says. “But my community is still counting on me. It is a very big responsibility and I take it very seriously.”
Kauser’s parents, who have lived and worked in Germany for more than two decades since leaving Pakistan, are among those deprived of the right to vote due to their lack of German citizenship. Their story is banal; many in similar positions feel a deep sense of exclusion.
But beyond the red tape and legal hurdles, being able to participate in the democratic process of their new home seems like an impossible dream for many immigrants.
“A lot of people don’t even know they can participate, so I tell them how they can and why they should,” says Kauser. “I want to motivate them and empower them.”