‘Germany is waiting for you!’

‘Germany is waiting for you!’

In both German and Turkish, this slogan is written on the red pencil cases distributed to the participants of the “pre-integration courses” at the Goethe Institute in Istanbul. Immigrants who wish to settle in Germany for the purpose of ensuring family reunification are obliged to pass a language test in their home country as a mandatory requirement for obtaining a visa. These language tests require an active vocabulary of 300 German words and a passive vocabulary of 650. If the applicants fail the test, they are denied a visa. As a consequence, many families are separated from each other, sometimes for years. For a few months now, I have been visiting these classes in Istanbul as a participating observer, meeting people and conducting interviews for my documentary project “650 words away from home,” which investigates “pre-integration courses” exclusively through the perspective of those participating. How does the course affect their lives and their relationships? 

The obligation to pass this test places an enormous burden on the spouses applying for subsequent immigration. Many come from small towns or cities across Turkey and have to travel quite far to the nearest Goethe Institute. They are obliged to stay with relatives or in hotels – an expensive and logistically complicated procedure. Learning a language takes time, and the cost of this time often tightens the couple’s financial situation. Above all, this situation often strains many relationships for young couples. Halil, a 25-year-old from Mardin who wants to join his wife in Hannover, summarizes the thoughts of many: “If Germany was waiting for us, why would they put us through all this?”

The conditions in Germany over the past 40 years have become more and more restrictive, and marriage migration is thus under constant renegotiation. This applies not just to Germany but to the whole of Europe. In 2014, the European Court of Justice stated on behalf of the Doğan judgement, that Germany’s language requirement violated EU law. This should be reason enough to finally eliminate the test, but the German government has not even considered this verdict.  It does seem, however, that Germany has finally come under some pressure from the European Commission. The German left party “Die Linke” revealed in a parliamentary query that the Commission officially launched infringement proceedings against Germany on March 27, 2015.

Public debates in Germany have popularly associated marriage migration – especially from Turkey – with “forced marriage” and “uneducated migrants” who will inevitably present an “integration problem.” Marriage migration is thus considered unwanted. In response to these public debates, the German language requirement was imposed in 2007 and justified with the argument that it supports integration, while preventing “forced marriages.” Although there is no empirical evidence to date, German authorities have clung to this argument. In the meantime, the majority of immigrants (61.5 percent) to Germany come from Poland, Romania and Italy (according to the Migration Review 2015); citizens from the EU, Australia, Israel, Japan, Canada, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, the United States, Andorra, Honduras, Monaco and San Marino enjoy exemption from the German language requirement.

The German language requirement is often supported by the mainstream media and further reinforces the idea that these “undesirable” immigrants refuse to learn the German language. This approach misses the key issue completely and ignores most immigrants’ tremendous effort to learn the language, in spite of difficult circumstances. While it is generally recognized that preconditions for successful language learning are through participation and inclusion in society, participants in German classes in Turkey are not in touch with the German population and thus have no opportunity to actually make use of what they are learning. I For some people, the fear of being denied the visa paralyzes them completely and inhibits their ability to learn the language. 

The transnational space between Turkey and Germany has developed steadily over the past six decades. Every year, marriages and partnerships are formed across national borders. But where greater sensitivity is needed to overcome the prejudices, the real motivation becomes evident: selection and control of immigration from certain countries. And the strategy seems to be paying off. According to Wolf Siebert, the head of the language department at the Goethe Institute in Istanbul, enrollment in family reunification courses in Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara have fallen from 2,937 in 2010 to 1,177 in 2014. 

Living together as a family should be considered as a basic human right, and Germany should start to recognize this. 

* Martina Priessner is Mercator-IPC Fellow, at the Istanbul Policy Center of Sabancı University.