The Participatory Shaping of Immigration Society is a Job for Everyone

March 2023

Since the Russian attack on Ukraine, more than eight million Ukrainians have fled, many to countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and more than one million to Germany. Markus Lux, Senior Vice President, Global Issues and responsible for the topic immigration society, talks to us about the Foundation's strategy.

A conversation with Markus Lux

Einwanderungsgesellschaft Ukraine Berlin Geflüchtete
IMAGO / Christian Thiel

Henry Alt-Haaker: The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has had a significant impact on Europe and the whole world and resulted in high numbers of refugees, which presents major challenges to neighboring countries and also to Germany. How has the Foundation responded to this challenge?

Markus Lux: First of all, it was rather unusual for us because we focused on emergency aid. Because of our longstanding relationships in the region, but also as a result of the large numbers of refugees, we decided to engage in emergency aid. This included, among other things, supporting migrant organizations in Germany and Central and Eastern Europe that were receiving and integrating Ukrainians who had fled the war. At the same time, we saw new opportunities and demands.


In Germany, we often talk about the number of refugees in relation to our population and what significance this has for societal coexistence. You are not only active in Germany, but also in Eastern Europe. Where are the differences in those societies in dealing with Ukrainian refugees?

The debates between the individual countries are not so different today. Similar to the situation in Germany in 2015/16, we see in Central and Eastern Europe, especially in Poland, how strong civil society can be when the state is not prepared or cannot afford to take on the receiving, caring for and integrating of refugees. This happened all over Central and Northern Europe, but also in Western Europe. Of course, countries are impacted differently because the migration routes differ from those in 2015/16. Countries like Italy and Spain experience less migration from Ukraine, and Central Europe experiences more. Central Europe, which was very reluctant to adopt EU decisions such as the distribution key in 2015/16, have suddenly emerged as driving forces on these issues and embarked on new learning processes.


How are we as a foundation preparing for the years ahead? The war isn't over yet, and it doesn't look like it will end soon. There are many Ukrainians living outside their country. What do you expect in the coming months?

Predictions are risky and the military situation inside Ukraine is the decisive factor. My impression is that if it turns into a frozen conflict, we are more likely to see a return migration of refugees to Ukraine. But if there is a major offensive by Russia and there is no counteroffensive by Ukraine, then the situation changes dramatically. If there were a successful attack on Odessa, a city of over a million people, countries like Moldova and Romania would be at the limits of their capacity within hours.

But the question is also, what lessons have we learned? Especially at the municipal level, circular migration is a new factor. Recently, the term has mostly been used in the context of labor migration, for example, for caregivers or seasonal workers. But now we also have circular migration occurring among refugees.


Let's move on to the Foundation's activities in the field of immigration society, separately from the concrete reaction to the war in Ukraine. The Foundation is also working on projects with the very German term "immigration society," which has long been the subject of controversy in Germany. Are we an immigration society, do we want to be, and if so, what does that mean?

Germany is an immigration society, but we haven’t yet fully recognized this and oriented our policies accordingly. When we discussed the term in 2020, we were talking about threats to social cohesion. Essential challenges to our society are racializing and racist discrimination. We chose the term “Einwanderungsgesellschaft” (immigration society), knowing well that it is not self-explanatory and difficult to translate. This means that we immediately enter into dialogue with our partners about its content.


You've divided your work into two lines of action: municipal action and equal participation. What are we addressing here?

The two strands can only be effective together. In the case of "municipal action," it's about shaping integration at the municipal level, especially in transition regions such as rural areas. Here we support local state actors in implementing integration strategies, with a challenging but serious transsectoral approach. The second line of action addresses the strengthening of civil society. We support its stakeholders, especially representatives of migrant civil society, in their engagement for a good community life. The core goal is to shape a common understanding of an immigration society that includes all the people who live in it. For this we need state actors on the one hand, who undertake political activities, but also migrant interest groups, who can better engage on their own terms. It’s not only a matter of taking into account the needs of immigrants, but also of realizing their potential for our society.


This can’t be easy. On the one hand, there is an infrastructure of local political decision-makers who are not necessarily open to good advice from a foundation. On the other hand, there is a community of organizations and marginalized people who are probably somewhat skeptical of a well-heeled foundation from Berlin and Stuttgart. At the same time, your approaches only work if both sides have ownership of the process. How do you reconcile these tensions?

The Foundation has been involved in municipal action for a long time and cultivates transsectoral cooperation with organizations such as universities and research institutions. Ultimately, it’s about interests at the municipal level. Although decisions about funding for municipal integration are made at the federal level, the practical work happens in the municipalities. That's where the knowledge is and where the needs are. This is where we as a foundation can provide support, including with communicating to higher political levels. When it comes to equal participation and migrant self-organizations, our many years of civil society work have given us both credibility and accountability in Germany and Europe. This is something we can build on, of course.

But the fundamental question for us is how we deal with the asymmetrical power relationship between funder and recipient. When we talk about empowerment and power sharing, we have to ask ourselves about the way we support. We need to put more of the doing, as well as the program design, in the hands of the target groups. But all of these are just steps on the way to power sharing. To what extent are we in a position to share the assets we have - resources, financial and human resources, but also our good name, networks and other assets - with our partners? How far can we go as a corporate foundation and where do we have to leave the decision-making power with ourselves and communicate this transparently to our partners? The first experiences with support, workshops and discussion groups show great openness on the part of our partners.


You mentioned that you are not only active in Germany but other countries. How does international learning, the transfer of experience from one context to another context, and the exchange between stakeholders work?

The first approach is: you see something abroad and think it could be useful at home. You try to adopt it by taking it on yourself or by bringing together the relevant players from both countries. A second approach is the other way around. Maybe there is something we have developed in Germany that would be interesting to scale up at elsewhere. Here, too, we bring organizations and actors together. We have a convener role with our experience and networks. For example, there are many parallels in integration measures between Germany and the Czech Republic, which surprised us. Germany, France, and Poland, on the other hand, are very different. The third approach is co-creation. We, or respectively our partners, identify fields of joint action and actors in countries or communities. The classic NGO sector is more likely to be internationally networked than community actors.


As a foundation, we are still on a learning journey when it comes to participatory grantmaking, and the same applies to the work in our topics. The work on an inclusive and participatory immigration society is probably not going to be finished tomorrow. Looking ahead the next five years, where should we be even more involved?

Geographically, Central and Eastern Europe are relevant for us because there – also caused by Russia's war in Ukraine and the large number of refugees – new discourses about immigration are taking place. These countries were more characterized by emigration and now immigration, which they also had before, and this is more in the public discourse. Often there is a need for new integration concepts in the countries and there we can enter into exchanges about our experiences and learn together. One example is Latvia, a classic country of emigration, which in terms of percentage has an even greater need for labor migration and skilled workers than Germany. The topic of labor migration is therefore one that offers great potential, especially when it comes to societal participation and empowerment.

Intersectionality is another topic we need to think about more broadly, for example gender and queerness. Refugee, queer people are not just marginalized and discriminated against in their refugee community, but sometimes also even in the host LGBTQ+ community.

And we’ll remain focused on the municipal level, where the problems are the housing market, education systems already overburdened even without Ukrainian children, and the healthcare system. These challenges are closely related to immigration issues. The last major field that will occupy us further is the question of taking action power sharing.

Thank you for the exciting insights into your work.

Henry Alt-Haaker rund grau 30p


Henry Alt-Haaker is Senior Vice President of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and heads the Strategic Partnerships and Robert Bosch Academy department.

Markus Lux rund grau


Markus Lux  is Senior Vice President,Global Issues and responsible for the topics “Democracy” and “immigration society”.

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