Is Germany Experiencing Reverse Migration of Its German Population?

A significant portion of Germany’s university students and graduates are open to the prospect of pursuing careers abroad.

A significant portion of Germany’s university students and graduates are open to the prospect of pursuing careers abroad.

Nuha Yousef | a month ago




Across the globe, the flow of people crossing borders for work, study, or to join loved ones is a common sight. Germany, in particular, has seen a steady uptick in migration, becoming a nation characterized more by those arriving than those leaving.

The Federal Statistical Office's data from 2022 underscores this trend, with approximately 1.46 million more individuals settling in Germany than departing.

This influx, which has been ongoing since 2009, has tipped the scales of the country's migration balance favorably. Amidst a nationwide skilled labor deficit, efforts are underway to retain homegrown talent and attract foreign professionals.

In 2022, Germany welcomed close to 2.67 million immigrants, of which around 2.48 million were non-German citizens. Ukraine emerged as the predominant source of new arrivals.

By year's end, the German population included over 13 million non-citizen residents.

Data from the Central Register of Foreigners reveals that Turkish, Ukrainian, and Syrian nationals constitute the largest foreign groups in the country.

While Turkish residents have a longstanding presence in Germany, recent conflicts have driven many from Ukraine and Syria to seek refuge.

As of August 2023, approximately 1.1 million Ukrainian war refugees resided in Germany, with Syrians forming the majority of asylum applications that year.

The migrant and asylum seeker count has been on an upward trajectory, pushing the foreign resident ratio to 14.6 percent. Notably, around 22 million individuals in Germany have a migration background.

Conversely, the emigration figures for 2022 stood at about 1.2 million, predominantly involving foreign nationals. Many relocated to Romania and Ukraine, likely returning to their homelands.

Of the German citizens who emigrated, roughly 268,000 in total, the lion's share hailed from North Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria, and Baden-Wurttemberg.

For these German emigrants, Switzerland, Austria, and the United States ranked as the top destinations.

Mass Exodus

From the mid-19th century to the onset of World War II, a staggering exodus saw nearly 5 million Germans depart from Hamburg's port.

The majority were not the affluent or the elite; they were the backbone of the workforce — farmers, maids, and laborers.

Propelled by aspirations for a brighter future, perhaps not for themselves but for their progeny, they embarked on a monumental risk fueled by hope.

Fast-forward to the present, and the landscape of emigration has been transformed.

For Germans, relocating to Helsinki, Dublin, or Seville is a mere formality, devoid of the bureaucratic entanglements of work permits. It resembles a domestic relocation more than the traditional concept of emigration.

In today's hyper-connected world, any global metropolis is just a day's travel away.

Communication barriers have crumbled, with international calls being a trivial expense and the internet further reducing costs.

The familial tapestry has evolved, with each generation charting its own course, leading to a novel class of emigrants.

Spiegel International mentioned the case of Rufus Pichler, a 35-year-old media lawyer thriving in San Francisco.

Pichler, who is affiliated with one of the globe's most prominent law firms, Morrison & Foerster, and has lectured at the prestigious Stanford University, asserts that such a dual career trajectory would be unattainable in Germany.

According to him, once you're integrated into a German law firm, academic pursuits become a distant memory.

Pichler's journey began in academia at the University of Münster. Eventually, he grew disillusioned with the rigid structures and set out for Stanford with the intent of broadening his academic horizons, specializing in the burgeoning field of Internet law.

Fate had it that Stanford was his destined launchpad. Pichler's reputation soared, and it wasn't long before he was presented with an irresistible offer from a San Francisco law firm.

This narrative resonates with a growing number of Germans who venture abroad for education.

Since 1990, their ranks have swelled to over 62,000. Initially, their sojourns are meant to be temporary, but as they acclimate to cities like Boston or Barcelona, these stays often extend into indefinite residencies.

University Students

In a trend reflective of a broader global mobility, a significant portion of Germany's university students are open to the prospect of pursuing careers abroad.

This sentiment is particularly pronounced among elite researchers drawn to the expansive freedoms offered by foreign shores.

Wolfgang Schoenfeld, a Berliner and biotech innovator, chose Vienna over German cities for his startup, Eucodis, citing bureaucratic hurdles elsewhere.

Schönfeld's pioneering work in gene splicing to create novel proteins was overshadowed by a pervasive sense of stagnation he felt in Germany.

Despite some improvements, he remains content with his decision to relocate to Austria, where he's joined by a growing cluster of biotech ventures attracted to Vienna's vibrant scientific community.

The allure of a new beginning abroad isn't limited to the highly skilled. A swath of Germans, grappling with economic hardship, have embraced opportunities across borders with a pragmatic resolve. From hotel service in Austria's Southern Tyrol to culinary roles in Italy, these individuals are redefining resilience, preferring the dignity of labor over the despair of unemployment back home.

German expatriates, including seasoned craftsmen like carpenters, plumbers, and culinary artisans, are earning accolades for their work ethic and expertise in foreign lands. Their reputation for diligence and reliability precedes them.

The narrative of Frank Pigorsch, a seasoned construction worker from Harsefeld, epitomizes this journey. After his employer's bankruptcy, Pigorsch faced a bleak job market. His fortunes turned at a job fair where he secured a position with a Canadian firm in resource-rich Alberta. Now settled in Calgary with his family, Pigorsch reflects on the move as a pivotal, if not final, opportunity to rebuild at midlife.

Restrictive Policies

Over the last twelve months, Germany has seen a mere 900 skilled professionals successfully navigate its stringent immigration system to secure residency permits.

The high bar set for qualification excludes all but those earning upwards of €84,000 annually or those distinguished in scientific academia.

Entrepreneurs face their own hurdles, being required to invest a hefty one million euros and generate ten new jobs.

This effectively bars even well-qualified individuals, such as a young American doctor aspiring to practice in Germany, from entry.

The case of Albert Einstein, Germany's most illustrious expatriate, underscores the nation's complex relationship with emigration.

Klaus Bade, a historian and authority on migration hailing from Osnabrück, has voiced his concern over Germany's restrictive policies.

He warns that the country's insular approach is unsustainable and will ultimately erode its capacity for innovation.

Germany's demographic challenges, characterized by an aging and diminishing populace, necessitate an influx of skilled immigrants to sustain its current population numbers.

To this end, it would require between 200,000 and 300,000 immigrants annually. However, the previous year saw only 80,000 new arrivals.

Contrasting with Germany's experience, nations like Canada, Australia, and the United States, which have more proactive immigration controls, enjoy robust economic growth, outpacing Germany's, and maintain lower unemployment rates.

This suggests that the common apprehension that immigrants displace local workers is without merit.

Meanwhile, a new initiative by the Central Council of Jews in Germany, introducing a points-based system for Jewish immigration, prioritizes younger applicants with university qualifications and proficiency in German.

Despite this, German officials at the interior ministry remain steadfast, rejecting any suggestion of a significant overhaul to the nation's immigration stance.