We Can Do It! (Or Can We?) Angela Merkel’s Immigration Politics

Germany faces the political and social challenges of migration.

Image of "Wir schaffen das" written on a cracked German flag

In 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced she would open borders to refugees, especially to those fleeing the war in Syria. This act immediately created a new reputation for Germany as being Europe’s most welcoming country. But sometimes well-meaning policies collide with realities on the ground. WCFIA Visiting Scholar Gökce Yurdakul and coauthor Hartmut Koenitz examine the political pressures that have challenged—and even warped—Merkel’s progressive goals toward migrants. 

By Gökce Yurdakul and Hartmut Koenitz

The immigration politics of Angela Merkel is a sensitive issue in our household. I told my partner Hartmut that we should write about Angela Merkel’s immigration and gender politics in time for her commencement speech at Harvard, and his reply was a curt “have fun.”

I, Gökce, came to Germany as a Turkish immigrant a decade ago, and for immigrants like me, Merkel has been a symbol of encouragement. Her famous words “Wir schaffen das!” or “We can do it!” (similar to Obama’s “Yes, we can!”) illustrated the legacy of Merkel’s political office in one message: “Welcome to Germany; we will accommodate you.” Her statements felt like a green light for many of us immigrants, and showed more acceptance than migrants to Germany had seen in the last fifty-five years, ever since Germany’s guest worker agreements with Turkey and other southern European and North African countries1 sparked a wave of migration to Germany after World War II.

My partner, Hartmut, on the other hand, takes an entirely different view. Whenever Angela Merkel’s politics is the topic of discussion in our home, he explains how for many Germans of his generation—people who were born in the 1970s in Germany—Merkel mostly represents a standstill, an extension of her mentor Helmut Kohl’s quest to keeping the status quo. In German media and politics, Merkel has been notoriously criticized in the past for her politics of Aussitzen (meaning “sitting out,” or stoically waiting for challenges to pass) as opposed to making fundamental changes, such as in the reform years of the Social Democratic and Green Party coalition (1998–2005) before her term. 

But I don’t see stagnation in Merkel’s migration policy; I believe she has steered Germany in a more progressive direction. How do we explain our vastly different interpretations of Merkel’s politics? 

We All Belong to Germany

Ferda Ataman is a well-known journalist and author with an op-ed column in Der Spiegel, a weekly political web-based media outlet. Ataman received the Julie and August Bebel Prize for her accomplishments writing about racism in Germany. She recently wrote a book, which gives voice to many immigrants’ feelings, titled Ich bin von hier. Hört auf zu fragen! (“I Am from Here. Stop Asking!”) 

Ataman’s book is a cri de cœur for many of us who have to justify our dark hair, our imperfect German accents, and our “weird” names. I routinely get asked where I'm from when I'm out in public. I tell people, "Berlin, where 30 percent of the population are immigrants."2 Most of us have had the situation in which the question “where are you from?” is followed up with another: “But where are you originally from?” Yet, in my mind, I am German and I am from Berlin.

The problem in having to constantly reaffirm belonging is even more visible in light of a discourse created by Horst Seehofer, Merkel’s current Minister of Internal Affairs, Building and Homeland (Bundesminister des Innern, für Bau und Heimat). Seehofer made public statements such as “Germany must remain Germany” and “Islam does not belong to Germany,” while openly challenging Angela Merkel’s pro-immigrant politics. To attract supporters from a right-wing populist base, Seehofer emphasized Heimat (commonly translated as “homeland”) and related vocabulary like “Christian culture” in his media appearances. In fact, it was Seehofer himself who added the word Heimat to his ministry’s official name, which is a problematic term given Germany’s painful relationship to nationalism. 

Ferda Ataman was one of the first public figures to point out similarities between Seehofers’s discourse and the Nazi’s historical emphasis on “blood and territory,“ and called on Seehofer to stop his rhetoric. Upon the publication of her statement in the media in June 2018,3 Seehofer threatened to boycott the Integrationsgipfel, an annual high-caliber summit about migration issues, if Ataman would not apologize for calling him a Nazi—even though she never used that term.4 I remember feeling scared that Ataman would become a target of an attack by German right-wing media. 

At that point, Angela Merkel entered the debate like a protective superhero figure. I remember her sitting with Ferda Ataman in the federal press conference room, one of the most prestigious public places in Germany, to give a press conference. They were looking at each other with supportive gazes. Neither of these women would give in to Seehofer and the Heimat ideology and their message was clear: we all belong to Germany. 

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Merkel was backing us, we who are interrogated for our “Germanness.” In Ataman’s words, Merkel is the first politician to recognize the dignity of immigrants and guestworkers.5 

Even before the 2018 Ataman-Seehofer exchange, Merkel was attempting to reach out to immigrants. In 2014, Merkel invited immigrants from all backgrounds—people of color, Roma community members, women with headscarves—to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party headquarters. Talking about her own life in East Germany, she shared her experience of arriving to West Germany, and being called Zonenwachtel (literally “a quail from the Soviet occupied zone” with a meaning similar to “hillbilly”).6 This perspective mirrors the experience of immigrants, as former East German citizens are subjected to similar forms of discrimination.7 This is the main point that connects immigrants and former East Germans in Merkel’s eyes. The sad reality, however, is that the shared experience of discrimination and stigmatization has not translated to actual solidarity, and studies, as well as crime statistics, point to a higher number of hate crimes against Turkish and other immigrants in the East German regions.8

Restrictive Legislation, Populist Campaign, Chaos, and Gender Politics

When Merkel opened the borders to refugees in 2015 and famously pronounced, “Wir schaffen das!” it was a day of celebration for many immigrants and this remark highlights the positive side of Merkel’s immigration politics. However, as Hartmut points out, she has given in to conservative criticism and demands within her party ever since, resulting in a string of ever more restrictive laws initiated by her administration regulating migration and especially the asylum process in Germany (including the newest law, Geordnete-Rückkehr-Gesetz, or the “orderly return act,” which passed Merkel's cabinet in April and is on its way to the parliament).9 

In addition, there are at least three critical issues that show how Merkel’s reputed support for progressive immigration politics is not without contradictions and incongruities: 

First, a liberalized citizenship law, intended to enable easier access to German citizenship and allow dual citizenship (proposed by the Social Democratic/Green Party administration in 1999 before Merkel was chancellor) was stopped with a highly visible public campaign against dual citizenship by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)/Christian Socialist Union (CSU). Merkel was the general secretary of the CDU at that time and as such was at least partially politically responsible for what has been described as a crude and populist campaign.10

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Second, “Wir schaffen das!” was not only a sentence of acceptance of refugees and new immigrants, but also an opening to chaos. The refugee settlement system in Germany was not ready to process so many applications in such a short time. Many people who came to Germany had to sleep in the parks and in front of refugee registration centers—a situation that lasted for months. Hundreds of asylum applicants had to sleep in sports halls, divided by plastic walls and linen, having no privacy for many months and enduring terrible sanitary conditions while a mountain of donated clothing sat unsorted.11 It was mostly local and state authorities as well as volunteers who shouldered the consequences of Merkel’s decision, and by February 2016 (six months after Merkel’s decision), an opinion poll showed that 81 percent of the German population felt that Merkel’s government had lost control of the situation.12 

The third issue is with Merkel’s limited success in improving the state of gender representation in German politics—and specifically so among immigrants. Currently, the German parliament (Bundestag) has the lowest number of women parliament members since 1988, with only 30.7 percent women. And Merkel’s own CDU fraction is dominated by men (only 26 percent in the Bundestag are women). 

Of course, Merkel has had some success in improving gender parity. When she announced that she would retire from her position as party leader, she nominated a woman, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbacher, as the candidate for her succession. That her candidate ultimately prevailed can be taken as both a sign of the continued strength of Merkel’s influence in the CDU and the changing culture of the largest conservative party in Germany. My colleague Riem Spielhaus, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Göttingen, points to the enormous effort that Merkel spent to bring women to the forefront: “Merkel elevated many women to the second row and prepared them for the first.”  

However, it is also obvious that immigrant women, especially Muslim immigrant women, are only a tiny group amongst the members of the CDU. Cemile Giousouf, the first ever Muslim member in the Bundestag from the CDU fraction until 2017, has been an active voice in debates on immigration and against anti-Muslim racism. But Giousouf is an exception to the rule. There are other Muslims in the CDU, but not in such key positions. The CDU can only change its current white-old-men profile if such politicians open the door to new members who are from diverse backgrounds and who are knowledgeable about immigration issues from their own life experiences. 

Attitudes vs. Policies

In her in-depth account of Merkel’s life, Joyce Marie Mushaben, professor of comparative politics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis,13 says that Merkel’s leadership skills are hard-earned and are the result of difficult experiences and her background as an East German woman. No one can forget the heart-melting moment when the normally tough-looking Merkel met fourteen-year-old Reem Sahwil in a school in Rostock, Germany. The Palestinian student cried in front of Merkel, asking the chancellor if she could extend her family’s residence status, making it impossible for Merkel to say no. Mushaben believes Merkel’s era will be remembered for creating “migration policies with a human face.” However, a counterpoint to this “human face” perspective is in the legacy of the current restrictive legislation, especially regarding asylum in Germany, put into effect by her government. This is the dilemma of Merkel and her government’s migration politics.

As in many households throughout Germany, from Mecklenburg-Vorpommern to Bavaria, many couples, like Hartmut and I, sit at the kitchen table and argue about Merkel’s migration politics. We cannot agree on the short and long-term effects of her migration policies, whether they will turn out to be beneficial for Germany or not. When it comes to the present, a current study14 shows a conflicting image—while overall xenophobia has decreased almost threefold since 2010, negative sentiments towards asylum seekers are now shared by more than half of the population. Therefore, we will have to see whether her policies have helped or hurt the project of a more inclusive and immigrant-friendly society in the long run. Yet, there is no doubt that Merkel is the politician who introduced a new era of immigration politics in Germany, one that forces us to confront a global crisis that nobody can just “sit out.”

—Gökce Yurdakul, Visiting Scholar, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, and Hartmut Koenitz, Professor for Interactive Narrative Design, HKU University of the Arts Utrecht

Gökce Yurdakul is a Visiting Scholar in the Weatherhead Scholars Program at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She is also professor of sociology, head of the Department of Diversity and Social Conflict at the Institute of Social Sciences and in the Berlin Institute of Migration and Integration Research at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Her research interests include the sociology of migration; sociology of gender; body politics; gendered violence; citizenship; belonging; Muslims; and Germany.

Hartmut Koenitz is a professor for Interactive Narrative Design at HKU University of the Arts Utrecht. His research is on novel forms of narration using digital technology. A particular area of interest is the representation of complex topics, including migration and global warming.


  1. German flag with Chancellor Angela Merkel's words Wir schaffen das. Photo credit: CHROMORANGE / Ralph Peters / Alamy Stock Photo (GRD1W0)
  2. BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 13: German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C), German Minister of State for Migration, Refugees and Integration, Annette Widmann-Mauz (L) and Spokeswoman of the New German Organizations, Ferda Ataman (R) give a joint press conference following a meeting with representatives of immigrant organizations at annual integration summit in Germany, on June 13, 2018 in Berlin. Photo credit: Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
  3. BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 08: People attend a jobs fair announced specifically for refugees at the Occupation Information Center (Berufsinformationszentrum) Berlin-Mitte, part of Germany's Federal Agency for Work (Bundesagentur fuer Arbeit), on June 8, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. Hundreds of people, many from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Eritrea, attended the fair that included job offers for cooks, bakers, shop assistants, facilities cleaners, electricians, IT specialists, drivers and other professions. Germany took in over one million refugees and migrants in 2015-2016. Many have received asylum status and are seeking employment. Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images


  1.  The full statement is: “Deutschland ist ein starkes Land (...) Wir haben so vieles geschafft – wir schaffen das.” (“Germany is a strong country (...) we have accomplished so much, we can do it.“ Bundespressekonferenz, 31 August 2015. 

  2. Guest worker agreements were with Italy (22 November 1955), Spain (29 March 1960), Greece (30 March 1960), Turkey (30 October 1961), Morocco (21 June 1963), Portugal (17 March 1964), Tunisia (18 October 1965), and Yugoslavia (12 October 1968). 

  3. 2018. "Fast jeder dritter Berliner hat einen Migrationshintergrund" (Almost every third Berlin resident has migration background), RBB. Accessed on 14 April 2019.

  4. Ataman, Ferda. 2018. “Das ist auch unsere Heimat, Herr Heimatminister!” Spiegel Online. Accessed on 14 May 2019.

  5. Connolly, Kate. “German interior minister pulls out of Merkel's integration summit,” The Guardian. Accessed on 14 May 2019.

  6. Ataman, Ferda. 2018 “Anjela Märköl,” Spiegel Online. Accessed on 14 May 2019.

  7. Reimann, Anna. “Merkel umgarnt Deutschlands Migranten,” Spiegel Online. Accessed on 14 May 2019.

  8. Foroutan, Naika and Daniel Kubiak. 2018. Ausschluss und Abwertung: Was Muslime und Ostdeutsche verbindet (Exclusion and Devaluation: What connects Muslims and East Germans), Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik. 7: 93-102. Accessed on 25 April 2019.

  9. Connor, Richard. 2019. “Germany's east 10 times more unsafe for asylum seekers," Deutsche Welle. Accessed on 8 April 2019. 

  10. 2019. The German pro refugee NGO ProAsyl talks about a total of twenty laws restricting the asylum process since 2015. "Von Integrationsverbot bis Kriminalisierung der Beratung: Gesetzgebungshektik auf Höchststand" (From integration ban to criminalization of consultation: Legislative upheaval), ProAsyl. Accessed May 24, 2019. 

  11. Klärner, Andreas. Aufstand der Ressentiments. Einwanderungsdiskurs, völkischer Nationalismus und die Kampagne der CDU/CSU gegen die doppelte Staatsbürgerschaft. PapyRossa, Köln 2000, ISBN 3-89438-211-2.

  12. Yurdakul, Gökce, Regina Römhild, Anja Schwanhäußer and Birgit zur Nieden, editors. 2017. Witnessing the Transition: Moments in the Long Summer of Migration, Berlin Institute of Migration and Integration ResearchE-book.

  13. ARD-DeutschlandTREND Februar 2016 - Eine Studie im Auftrag der tagesthemen. Infratest dimap.

  14. Mushaben, Joyce Marie. 2017. Becoming Madam Chancellor: Angela Merkel and the Berlin Republic. Cambridge University Press.