Moving the goalposts of citizenship? German business sector engagement and refugee integration

This project investigates the potential of business sector engagement in transforming engagement with refugees in Germany and through this engagement, alter citizenship practices.

Specifically, the study focuses on businesses in the ‘Wir Zusammen’ (we together) network founded in 2016 with the double aim of labour market integration and societal change through concrete solidaristic engagement. Conceptually, the project builds on the 'acts of citizenship' literature, with a focus on analyzing citizenship as a practice created in everyday encounters. Methodologically, the project is based on interview and observation data with members of the business sector, trade unions and refugees in three distinct geographical settings and encompassing different types of businesses. The project thus interrogates the potential for the creation of new horizontal solidarities created through this business sector engagement. Through this, the specific case study contributes to wider debates on the potential role of business in advancing global rights and humanitarian causes.

This project is being carried out by Prof Tanja R. Müller

Key Findings

Business sector engagement with post-2015 refugees in Germany, while partly focused on and driven by labour market needs, had a strong underlying component of civic responsibility that shaped experiences and perceptions of refugees in a complex but predominately positive way.

At the same time, business sector support, and more generally company lobbying in favour of granting rights to refugees who are skilled and/or have employment, if out of utilitarian or civic motives or a combination of both, has not fundamentally changed the political equation. While individual and collective business integration initiatives are important, as long as uncertainty remains over refugees’ future right to stay, this has a negative impact on refugees who have only subsidiary status. In that sense, neither labour market integration nor wider civic concerns by the business sector have fundamentally altered exclusionary politics of the German nation-state, or only at the margins.

Business sector engagement thus in important ways mirrors bottom-up engagement by activist networks or the voluntary sector as analyzed in the wider literature: Such engagement has the potential to transform the lives of individual refugees or refugee-groups, and to foster political voice and dignity. But ultimately it finds itself subject to the wider constraints of a system of governance that relates to refugees as populations to control for the benefit of nation-states, not as bearers of universal rights.

Taken together, it remains to be seen if and how the arrival of 1.2 million refugees between 2013 and 2018 has altered Germany, as debates are ongoing about a proper immigration system that recognises citizenship aspirations of refugees and migrants more broadly and provides a legal framework for those. The business sector has been at the forefront of advocating in favour of such a system. Business sector engagement has the real potential to address refugees’ own priorities and their future aspirations, as expectations are related to work requirements that are the same for all, refugees and German apprentices alike, and as such a space where horizontal solidarities and conviviality can emerge.

More generally, integration activities provided by the business sector, in this project based on the empirical example of Germany, have the potential to advance or fulfil refugees’ future aspirations but are often hindered by official refugee and migration policy that fails to adequately take into account contemporary forms of mobility, belonging, and transnational lived citizenship.

Key publications