Interview with Rita Süssmuth

"Integration Is Not a One-Way Street"

The UN Commission on International Migration recently released a report entitled "Migration in an interconnected world". Roman Garthoff spoke to member of the commission, Rita Süssmuth, about the challenges in shaping a modern migration policy

Rita Süssmuth, a former president of the German Federal Parliament and a former federal minister for family affairs, Women, Youth and Health is a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. She's a respected expert on migration and serves on a variety of global organizations dealing with migration, including the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The UN Global Commission on International Migration introduced a new report this week in Berlin. It says that migration is an international phenomenon that can only be met with global solutions. What do you think are the biggest challenges that the world community faces?

Rita Süssmuth: Among the estimated 200 million migrants worldwide, the majority make up what is called "forced migration." That means these people haven't left their countries voluntarily, but because of extreme poverty, war or political violence. Simply on the basis of human rights, we must get away from this forced migration to more voluntary, legal migration in order to help people live a dignified and safe life.

A second big problem includes the different expectations both on the part of the refugee as well as of the host country. Most migrants want to have a better and safer life. They leave their homelands in order to survive. Among the host countries, there are some who have a huge need for migrants as workers. And then are other countries such as Germany, with a high unemployment rate, which have hugely choked immigration in the past 10 years. That's why illegal migration is on the rise.

The third challenge lies in the fact that there's overpopulation in certain regions of the world whereas in others – particularly Europe – the population is shrinking and ageing. Most nations nowadays have a demographic problem. The solutions have to result in a win-win situation for both the countries that export migrants as well as those that take them in.

In the report you've suggested ways to better shape and steer international migration. And you urgently advise that the positive effects of migration should be encouraged. What exactly are those?

Süssmuth: The most important positive effects lie in human potential which means in the people themselves. In Germany we talk too little about how migration has contributed to economic wealth and also in a social and cultural sense. Let's talk about the economic aspect -- Germany may have made mistakes when it recruited millions of guest workers between 1956 and 1973 because we largely took in untrained workers with low education levels. But we shouldn't forget to what extent the migrants made up for the acute lack of workers.

Or let's look at the current situation: the asparagus- or strawberry pickers or the most important field of providing for the old and the sick. Can you imagine what would happen in some households or in hospitals if we didn't have migrants? And we're not even talking about the economy and sciences as yet. After all, immigrants also work at the highest levels in our country.

The commission tried to find complex solutions for the complex problem of global migration. How does that work? Can migration be steered?

Süssmuth: Yes, through bilateral agreements among other things – for instance between Albania and Italy. The migrants are then told that they get a visa for three visits, that they have a limited residency permit and that their country will then take them back. For instance many African countries lure back their migrants who go to foreign countries. They offer the migrants dual citizenship or offer them bank loans so they can be self-employed. For instance there are also agreements through which doctors in developing countries in Africa are trained in developed countries and then can go back to their homelands.

Above all, it's about drawing up common regulations worldwide for taking in refugees such as already exists in the European Union. That's to prevent what's happening currently in Spain -- that one country has to bear the entire burden of illegal immigration. Africa for instance is already following the European model. We're saying that we need more cooperation and coordination on an international, national and regional level. There has to be more of an exchange of experiences so that governments think about new rules and laws and also implement them.

Do a lot of host countries first have to learn how to deal with migrants in the first place?

Süssmuth: Yes, I think so. Take Germany, for instance, which has for decades said the migrants will only work for a limited time and then all of them will go back home. But many have stayed. Of course we have limited residence permits in all countries. But if we're going to stay together permanently then we have to get acquainted with the culture of the newcomer and also the other way around: the migrant has to get familiar with the culture of the adopted country too.

We have to learn to live together peacefully with people not just from 30 or 40 nations, but more than 100. And it's also about mutually learning from each other. It can't be just a one-way street where you just make demands on the immigrants.

At first glance, the multicultural daily life in the streets of our cities appears very colorful. But when it really comes to living next to each other, door to door, that's when real challenges to integration arise.

So the migrants also have responsibilities?

Süssmuth: The main duties and responsibilities lie with the migrants. If you follow the debates in the countries then you always hear the host country saying to the immigrants: you must learn the language, you should integrate yourselves with our way of life, you should get to know our constitution and history and you have to make sure that you find work and don't live off social handouts.

Immigrants know very well what demands are made on them. It isn't a blind love affair. Those who go to another country know the risks and the stress involved and the efforts required. I have to always be better as a migrant, better than the locals, so that I pass the test.

Interview conducted by Roman Garthoff

© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE 2006

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