Building migrant civil engagement in east Germany

October 29, 2009 — Interview

Written by Liz Fekete

An interview with Dr Esra Erdem, coordinator of the Empowerment and Participation of Immigrants* in east Germany project (EmPa) based at the Brandenburg Regional Centres for Education, Integration and Democracy.

Liz Fekete: This has been a very busy Summer for EmPa, which was set up to promote immigrant participation in the social and political life of the East. In fact, immigrant organisations have organised a whole host of workshops on a myriad of themes in all five of the east German states. Just how did you go about choosing the themes for so many workshops?

Dr Esra Erdem: The themes were actually chosen by participants of the EmPa project themselves, with one-day conferences, organised as workshops, scheduled to coincide with the ‘intercultural weeks’ held annually in each Bundesland (federal state). The workshops addressed a variety of policy issues relevant to immigrant communities in the East, such as discrimination, the lack of recognition of immigrants’ professional credentials, as well as problems related to immigrants’ difficulties in accessing health and welfare services. All in all, the workshops provided a good opportunity for immigrant organisations in the East to participate in public debate and to showcase their work to a broad audience including policy-makers, community activists, local politicians and the media.

There was also much preparatory work done prior to these conferences. EmPa participants attended a series of leadership development workshops aimed at supporting the professionalisation process within immigrant NGOs.

I noticed that immigrant organisations from Saxony-Anhalt decided to organise a workshop in Dessau around the National Action Plan Against Racism, Xenophobia, Anti-Semitism and Intolerance. What were your impressions of the day?

Dr Esra Erdem: Several of the invited speakers talked about the nature of racism in the city of Dessau and in Saxony-Anhalt at large. That was alarming. But at the same time I found the large audience at the event very encouraging and a clear sign of a vibrant civil society that includes many local immigrant community organisations. Obviously, policy initiatives such as the National Action Plan Against Racism, Xenophobia, Anti-Semitism and Intolerance have a real potential to boost civic engagement in embattled areas such as Dessau – both politically and in terms of funding. But Thorsten Jäger from the Intercultural Council explained that the Plan (which was adapted as a consequence of the 2001 World Conference on Racism in Durban) does not appear to be terribly high on the government’s policy agenda. In its current version, it simply reiterates many of the legal and social measures that are already in place, whilst failing to address the urgent need for new measures. Crucial issues such as the campaign for immigrant voting rights in local elections or the impact of the draconian Asylum Law were also absent. Consequently, there remains much scope for NGOs to lobby for an improved and accountable action plan.

How do groups in the East react to the national policy and media debate on issues of integration?

Dr Esra Erdem: One part of the national debate on highly-skilled labour migration is actually highly pertinent to immigrants in the East, many of whom face deskilling and unemployment. The EmPa workshop in Leipzig, Saxony, specifically addressed the pressing concerns of immigrants with professional qualifications, around the recognition of degrees and work experience attained abroad. It transpired that recognition procedures vary significantly by Länder, occupation, immigration status, country and ranking of the institution where the degree was attained. The workshop was a good venue for immigrant NGOs based in Saxony to work together with local policy-makers to develop a set of procedures that could serve as a model for the integration of highly-skilled immigrants into the labour market.

It has to be said, though, these are not the kind of issues that get into the German media. Generally speaking, the media prefers to focus on issues such as the oppression of women in Muslim communities or White flight from inner-city neighbourhoods, issues that do not necessarily capture the life circumstances of most immigrants in east Germany. In contrast, everyday racism continues to be underreported.

Here in the UK, we know very little about the history of immigration to the East, and how particular communities came to settle in particular areas, and why? Do the immigrant organisations you work with in the East represent migrants from all national backgrounds?

Dr Esra Erdem: The history of migration to the East is quite different from that to the West, both in terms of scope and the countries of origin. In west Germany, labour migration from the 1950s onwards paved the way for today’s large communities from the former-Yugoslavia and the Mediterranean countries. By the mid-1970s, when authorities in the West were already introducing measures to curb further immigration, the GDR (as the East was then) had launched its own labour migration programme, drawing on the workforce of fellow real-socialist countries such as Vietnam, Cuba, Mozambique and Algeria. A year before the unification of the two Germanys there were around 200,000 migrants living in the East, compared to roughly 4.6 million non-German citizens in the West.

Of course, the last twenty years have seen an enormous shift in migration trends, particularly in the East. Alongside the Vietnamese communities, there are significant numbers of refugees and immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the latter two groups having partly been required by government programmes to settle in east Germany.

Historically has it been difficult for immigrant organisations to establish themselves in the East?

Dr Esra Erdem: As the GDR collapsed, immigrants in the East found themselves confronted with existential questions on several fronts. The federal government was reluctant to recognise the immigration status of the migrant workers in the GDR. At the same time, racist violence erupted in Rostock and elsewhere, signalling, in no uncertain terms, that there was no place for immigrants in the imagined German nation. Finally, as eastern economic structures and industries were dismantled by western experts, immigrants (alongside everyone else) lost their jobs. The founding of many immigrant organisations was related directly to the need to organise to secure a livelihood and fight for their rights and protection against racist attacks. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union – including the ethnic Germans arriving from Russia, Kazakhstan etc. – similarly founded self-help networks to cope with the unique challenges of settlement in a new country. In the process, we also witnessed the reinvigoration of Jewish life in several east German cities. Finally, asylum seekers developed crucial networks to survive racism, confinement to remote areas, restrictions to the right to mobility and the denial of work authorisation.

So where does RAA Brandenburg, where the EmPa project is based, fit in with all of this?

Dr Esra Erdem: The RAA Brandenburg was founded in 1992 in an effort to mobilise civil and institutional networks for a democratic and diverse society and to fight right-wing violence. Today the RAA continues its engagement in this field through six regional offices and also by working in close cooperation with schools to implement anti-bias principles in education. Furthermore, the RAA works closely with the Integration Commissioner of Brandenburg, Professor Dr Karin Weiss, who has been a key figure in raising public awareness about the importance of immigrant participation.

‘Empowerment’ and ‘participation’, these are the key words in the description of your project, and are clearly important to you. Perhaps you could tell us a little bit more about the philosophy that guides the EmPa project?

Dr Esra Erdem: Germany has a long history of paternalism towards immigrant communities and immigrant organisations have often been charged with promoting cultural separatism. Also, full citizenship rights are widely considered a ‘reward’, to be accorded on an individual basis at the end of a successful ‘integration’ process. Not surprisingly, immigrants are rarely represented in decision-making processes. My colleague Manuela Bojadjizev has a very telling example. Earlier this year, there was a referendum in Berlin on whether high school students should be offered the choice of attending classes on religion alongside the formerly mandatory ethics courses. Although in some inner-city schools kids of Muslim immigrants make up 90 per cent of students, no one even thought of asking their non-citizen parents what they would prefer their children to be taught!

EmPa seeks to redress the balance by encouraging immigrant community activists to participate in local affairs, and provides them with the professional training to further develop these skills. The philosophy that guides EmPa is precisely this recognition of immigrants’ right to articulate and represent their specific interests as part of German society. Obviously, immigrants do not constitute a homogeneous category. Hence, we strive to put together a programme with participant groups that, as far as we can, reflects the diversity within the communities. That is also why EmPa focuses on a different set of actors each year, namely NGOs, faith-based communities and youth networks.

It would also be interesting to know a little bit about the everyday running of EmPa. How, for instance, do you ensure that immigrant organisations in the East are effectively involved in the everyday management of the project?

Dr Esra Erdem: The participant organisations shape the project in many different ways. First, the themes of the leadership development workshops are set in close consultation with the participants. These praxis-oriented workshops allow group members to bring their respective competences to the programme. Moreover, participants are asked to evaluate each workshop individually as well as in group discussions. In this way, we hope to constantly improve the project. Second, as mentioned earlier, the NGOs are responsible for the concept development and implementation of the one-day conferences in their regions. And, finally, EmPa has helped foster networks between immigrant NGOs serving different constituencies in the East. It will be interesting to see what kind of internal dynamics these networks develop in the coming years.

At the moment, neo-Nazi activity seems to be once again on the rise in the East – with the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) re-elected to the state parliament in Saxony, and narrowly missing representation in Thuringia. How does the menace of the NPD and the alarming levels of racism impact on EmPa’s work? And do you see any hope for the future?

Dr Esra Erdem: The participants in the EmPa programme are all confronted with and struggle against racism in their regional context. Some of its participants, such as Zeca Schall, a Black Christian Democratic politician, are active in political parties and hold mandates. When Mr Schall was attacked by the NPD,[1] there was an immediate wave of solidarity within EmPa. A common statement of support was posted on our website in no time, and individual participants then used this for intervention in their local media.

But the state could certainly act more decisively and support local civic networks that courageously speak up against the extreme Right, raise public awareness through rallies and educational programmes, prevent the NPD from holding events or acquiring real estate in their towns. In Brandenburg, for example, a fruitful collaboration has been established between local policymakers and researchers at the Moses Mendelssohn Center in Potsdam, with both sides taking the fight against right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism in the region very seriously.

Finally could you relate the work of EmPA to the Alternative Voices on Integration project, the aim of which is to draw attention to innovative new projects that challenge racism, break down stereotypes and effect change.

Dr Esra Erdem: In the German context, EmPa is definitely an innovative project in that it fully recognises the legitimacy of immigrants as social and political actors. I think that the European Integration Fund sends a powerful signal by funding EmPa, making a clear commitment to immigrant empowerment. This could certainly be used as leverage for implementing similar programmes in other European countries.

But I also think EmPa could help us broaden our understanding of immigrant empowerment to include, not just secular, but also faith-based civic engagement. This will be the theme of EmPa in 2010. As you know, there is a strong tradition of faith-based community activism in the United States, for example through African-American churches. In continental Europe however, this type of engagement is sometimes eyed with suspicion – particularly when it comes to Muslim communities. If successful, EmPa could provide an important case study for developing a timely European approach to empowerment through faith-based community activism.

Related links

Empowerment and Participation of Immigrants in east Germany project (EmPa)

* While terms like 'immigrant' and 'migrant' may seem old-fashioned in the UK context, in Germany, where very few communities are officially recognised as 'ethnic minorities', such terms are widely used in public discourse, even to describe the children and grandchildren of the original post-war migrants and guest workers. Whereas migrant support groups are critical of official descriptors, they point out that they are an improvement on the past, when anyone who was recognisable as coming from the global South, even those who were German citizens or born in Germany, was officially described as ausländer (foreigners).[1] In the run-up to the September federal and regional elections, the NPD sent hate mail to thirty candidates with foreign-sounding names, purporting to come from the commissioner for repatriation of foreigners and demanding that they go back to their country of origin within three months. Zeca Schall, who had appeared on Christian Democrat regional election campaign posters, was placed under police protection after receiving hate mail from the NPD which had also publicly described him as a 'token nigger' and urged its members in the eastern state to deliver its message to him personally.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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