Germany has a large immigrant population, with around 10 million foreign-born residents as of 2020. Immigrants come from diverse backgrounds and all regions of the world, but some countries are more heavily represented than others. In this article, we will look at the top origin countries for foreigners living in Germany and discuss the historic, economic and social factors driving these immigration flows.
Top Origin Countries
According to data from the Federal Statistical Office of Germany, below are the top 5 origin countries for foreign nationals residing in Germany as of 2020:
|Foreign Nationals in Germany
Turkey clearly tops the list with over 1.5 million Turkish nationals residing in Germany. Poland, Syria, Italy and Romania round out the top 5 origin countries. However, this only covers foreign nationals and does not account for immigrants who have attained German citizenship. When including German residents with a “migration background”, the top origin countries shift slightly, with Poland moving to number one and Serbia entering the top 5.
Turkish migration to Germany began in the 1960s as part of guest worker programs to fill post-war labor shortages. Many Turkish immigrants came from rural areas to work in German industry and construction. Although initially intended as temporary workers, many Turks ended up settling permanently in Germany. The Turkish population grew rapidly through family reunification and formation of immigrant communities. High unemployment and instability in Turkey also spurred continued migration flows. Today, Turkish-origin residents are Germany’s largest immigrant group. They face issues around integration, education, unemployment and discrimination.
Poland has a long history of migration to Germany going back to the 19th century. Polish immigration increased significantly after Poland joined the EU in 2004, which enabled Poles to live and work in Germany without restrictions. Economic factors are the main driver of Polish immigration, with Poles seeking higher wages and more opportunities in Germany. Geographical proximity also facilitates cross-border mobility. Polish communities have formed in cities across Germany.
The Syrian community in Germany has grown exponentially since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011. Germany has accepted hundreds of thousands of Syrian asylum seekers and refugees since 2015. Persecution, armed conflict and lack of security are the main reasons Syrians have fled to Germany. Language barriers, trauma and lack of qualifications pose challenges for integration of Syrian refugees.
Italians have migrated to Germany since the 19th century, but larger numbers came as guest workers after 1945. Northern Italy suffered from high unemployment, so southern Italians took up jobs in German factories. Italian immigration to Germany declined from the 1970s but picked up again after the 2008 financial crisis. Around two-thirds of Italians in Germany have lived there for over 10 years.
Migration from Romania to Germany has traditionally been low, but grew substantially after 2002 when Romania began EU accession talks. Germany immediately opened its labor market to Romanian workers. By 2006, over 100,000 Romanians were working in Germany. Romania’s EU accession in 2007 led to another surge in migration. Poor economic conditions and high unemployment have pushed many Romanians to pursue jobs abroad in Germany.
Germany’s demand for immigrant labor began after World War II. The massive destruction and loss of workforce due to the war meant Germany had to recruit guest workers from Mediterranean countries like Italy, Greece, Spain and later Turkey and Morocco. The German economy needed laborers for coal mining, steel production, manufacturing, public infrastructure and construction. This initiated the first major wave of postwar immigration.
Germany’s strong economy continued to attract immigrants from diverse locations in subsequent decades. But immigrant flows were also shaped by push factors like conflict, instability and lack of opportunity in origin countries. For example, the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s drove many Bosnians, Serbians and Kosovars to Germany. More recently, the European refugee crisis resulted in over 1 million predominantly Syrian asylum applicants in 2015-2016 alone.
Germany’s aging population and declining birth rates mean immigration is important to fill labor force gaps. Demand is high for workers in engineering, IT, healthcare and service professions. Germany has also introduced policies to attract highly skilled immigrants in recent years. The country’s relatively liberal immigration and asylum policies make it an attractive destination compared to other European nations.
Germany has the largest national economy in Europe and one of the highest GDP per capita rates in the world. The country’s strong manufacturing sector, world-class infrastructure, skilled workforce, and economic and political stability provide a wealth of job opportunities that attract immigrants.
For EU residents, freedom of movement agreements make it easy to migrate to Germany for work. Non-EU immigrants may be driven by higher wages, low unemployment rates and demand for foreign labor in Germany compared to their home countries. Germany also has a relatively welcoming environment for entrepreneurship, encouraging innovative and skilled immigrants to start businesses.
Polish and Romanian migrants moving to work in construction, agriculture, domestic services and manufacturing are drawn by the significantly higher wages they can earn in Germany. EU migrants also have access to Germany’s education system and public services.
For asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflict zones, Germany’s refugee protection and welfare benefits are a major incentive. Persecuted groups receive asylum status, enabling them to build new lives in safety.
Language and Cultural Ties
Shared language, colonial ties or cultural similarities also influence immigrants’ choice to move to Germany. Italy, Spain, Portugal and Romania have linguistic and cultural connections to Germany through shared Roman roots. Turks and Russians have large immigrant communities in Germany which attracts family/friends wishing to unite. Historical ties with Poland facilitate immigration across the border. And Germany’s education system attracts international students from China, India, Russia, Africa and the Middle East.
Once immigrant communities become established in Germany, social networks and family ties lead to further migration through chain or network migration. For example, existing Turkish communities attracted family members wishing to reunite. Established communities provide support to find housing, jobs and navigate a new country. They create ethnic businesses, places of worship, media and events.
Germany also has a relatively inclusive society and extensive anti-discrimination laws. While prejudice exists, immigrants are not barred from healthcare, education, housing or employment opportunities. Germany has encouraged multiculturalism through policy initiatives on integration, political representation, dual citizenship and more inclusive nationality laws.
The historically liberal political environment in Germany has also been conducive to immigration. Even in recent years amidst the rise of anti-immigrant sentiments, the volume of asylum applications processed indicates Germany’s continuing openness relative to other European states.
Germany’s large immigrant population reflects its demand for foreign labor, economic opportunities, liberal immigration policies, and asylum protections it offers. Historic factors like guest worker agreements and recent conflicts underlie flows from Turkey, Syria, Italy and other leading origin countries. Germany’s strong economy, wages and need for workers will likely continue to attract diverse immigrant groups. At the same time, Germany faces integration challenges posed by language barriers, cultural differences, discrimination and uneven outcomes for immigrants. Managing immigration and fostering an inclusive society will be an ongoing process. But foreigners remain eager to build new lives in Germany, contributing to its economy and culture.