Migration Background as Vicarious Variable

For infographics regarding the results of the 2011 census, compiled by the Federal Agency for Civic Education, plese see here.

Census and Microcensus

A census is the legally prescribed counting of population, buildings and housing (see census act of 2011). It documents the amount of people that live in a certain area and shows how they live and work.

In contrast, a microcensus is an annual survey of one percent of German households, also regulated by law. A microcensus aims to document selected structural, economic, and social characteristics of the population.

Initially, both the census and microcensus documented the participant’s nationality, differentiating between ‘German’ and ‘foreigner’. Since a lot of immigrants and their descendants have taken on German citizenship, and since late repatriates with German citizenship often have similar situations as other immigrants, a mere documentation of nationality was considered sufficient. For that reason, the microcensus of 2005 started to indirectly determine the category ‘migration backgrounds’.

In the the 2004 Microcensus Law, it was determined that starting in 2005 1 % of the population is to be questioned annually on their citizenship, and the probable duration of their stay. In addition, every four years the “nationality of their parents [is to be recorded], provided that they have or have had permanent residence in Germany since 1960.” Furthermore, the “year of arrival and, if naturalised, [the] former nationality” is to be collected.

The Federal Statistical Office of Germany, which is responsible for the execution of the microcensus, refers to a person as someonewith migrantion background, if

  1. the person was not born in the territory of the present Federal Republic of Germany, or immigrated in 1950 or later.
  2. the person does not hold German citizenship, or has not been naturalised.
  3. a parent of the person fulfils at least one of the conditions under (1.) or (2.).

The 2009 Census Act established the obligation for the European wide census to declare if people, “themselves or their parents have moved to Germany after the 1 December 1955”. For this purpose the interviewee shall state his or her former country of residence, as well as the year of his/her or his/her parents’ arrival in Germany. (see here). 1955 was established as a “demarcation year” because this was when Germany signed its first recruitment agreement for guest workers (from Italy).

Limitations of the ‘Migrant Background’ Category

According to the above definition, repatriates, children of migrant workers, ‘immigrants for other reasons’, as well as adopted children and children born to white German parents abroad are regarded as having a migrant background. Therefore, whether a person is white and German born but raised in Mallorca and then moved to Germany, the grandson of a Turkish guest worker,a woman born in Bangladesh and raised by a white German family, or the son of a black Swede and a white Dane born and raised in Germany they all,irrespective of the (non-German) nationality, fall within the category of ‘migrant background’.  

The ‘migrant background’ category – as defined in micro-census and census law, and therefore reproduced in other surveys – does not take account of family language, skin colour, ethnic origin, history of discrimination, group affiliation, or identity. Therefore, it is not nuanced enough to provide a sufficient understanding of a person’s prior experience with exclusion and discrimination. Possible specifications of the respective categories will be discussed below.

The survey in question provides important information regarding a person’s migrant background. However, in many respects the survey ignores such factors indispensable for the identification of a person’s experience with discrimination. For example, an Afro-German man has, due to his German father, by birth, the right to a German passport. However, he is no less affected by identity checks through the police than a black South African. Thus, the category of ‘migration background’ compresses and oversimplifies existing diversity.

© Büro zur Umsetzung von Gleichbehandlung e.V. 2018