Reem Alabali-Radovan is calling for more citizenship, more immigration of skilled workers, and lived diversity. The Minister of State for Integration and Anti-Racism Commissioner spoke to us about Germany as a country of immigration, her own past and the moment that ultimately politicised her.

We live in turbulent times. Before we get onto the topic of integration policy, let’s take a look at the recent developments in Ukraine. The war is forcing lots of people to flee – and Germany is among the destinations. What can and should Germany do to help, in very concrete terms?

Germany will take in everyone who flees here from Ukraine seeking safety, regardless of their background or nationality. The government and federal states have made this clear. Right now, the focus is on providing accommodation and initial care and support. Many of those who arrive here have been travelling for days and experienced some really traumatic events. Germany is here for them straight away – there are no bureaucratic hoops to jump through. We have lots of full-time members of staff working alongside some really fantastic volunteers, and I’m truly grateful for that. For the first time, the government has activated Section 24 of the German Residence Act (Aufenthaltsgesetz), which will ensure that all war refugees from Ukraine receive a long-term residence permit and healthcare. We also provide paths towards integration if people are unable to return to their homes in Ukraine: They can take up employment and receive social benefits. They will also be able to access integration courses to learn German.

Your area of responsibility is integration policy. This is something you’ve dealt with a lot in previous roles, so you already know a lot about the subject. In your opinion, what would constitute progress in integration policy and what would it look like?

The new government has clearly committed to Germany being a country of immigration. As a modern country of immigration, I would then like us to also lead the way when it comes to integration. Life stories like mine, involving immigration and arrival, have long been the norm in Germany. Our society is extremely diverse, and we must value and reflect this diversity in all areas. Specifically, it is about granting more citizenship and making the process quicker and easier to navigate, it is about increasing the immigration of skilled workers, and it is about increasing diversity – including in the civil service. But it is also about consistent anti-racism work. That is what I am focusing on, and how I am hoping to use my role to support progress in our country.

In his first policy statement, the Chancellor emphasised Germany’s role as a country of immigration. Why was that important?

It was really important because this clear commitment has often been lacking in recent years. Germany has been a country of immigration for a long time – lots of people see it that way, and the figures support this. However, this issue has not really been addressed at a political level. I actually had goosebumps when Olaf Scholz spoke about Germany as a country of immigration in his policy statement. He is saying what many people already feel, and he made a lot of people feel seen and valued. Our new government represents real change, particularly when it comes to integration. We have made a lot of commitments in the coalition agreement, including in areas such as the Residence Act, citizenship and the participation of people with a family history of immigration. I’m excited to be part of this change and will do everything I can to make sure that we achieve this progress together.

After Hanau, I decided to stand for election.

What do you bring to the table in terms of a particular perspective, in the background or foreground, that was previously lacking?

Besides my own life experience and the perspective of a young, East German woman with a history of immigration, I also bring my professional experience. I have worked in an initial reception centre for refugees. I then went on to become the integration commissioner in Mecklenburg- Western Pomerania and have been involved in initiatives that promote greater participation and integration. Thanks to this experience, I understand precisely what the laws and the commitments that we have made in the coalition agreement mean for people on the ground, I know where we need to do better. This perspective that I bring from real life experience, from everyday life in towns and communities, is important because otherwise integration can quickly become an abstract concept.

Where do you see the greatest need for change in integration policy?

The anti-racism work is really important. In February, the Federal Cabinet made me the government’s first-ever anti-racism commissioner. I’m delighted to have been given this role, as there’s a lot we need to do in this area. Immigrant organisations and many civil society actors have been fighting for a very long time for recognition of the fact that there are structural barriers and even structural racism in some areas. One particular area that I will be focussing on is therefore the fight against right-wing extremism and racism. We want to change the perspective and put those affected at the centre of our work – to speak with them instead of about them. That is important for the cohesion of our society.

There is a lot of talk about divisions within society. What do we need to do for our society to be progressive, inclusive and free from racism?

All 83 million people in our country must have the equal right to participate and must have equal opportunities. We are aware that we have not yet achieved this parity in the area of integration in particular, and have a number of plans in place to change this: We are improving early childhood education and language development in day-care centres for all children. We want to make integration courses available to all immigrants, irrespective of their residence status. And the granting of citizenship is also important, as only then do people – who have often been living, working and paying their taxes here for ten years or more – have all rights. They can only vote and be elected if they are German citizens. We must not allow the electorate and the population to diverge. Essentially, it is about making sure that our diversity is reflected at every level of society. The only way to fight division is with cohesion, and we want to strengthen this. But our cohesion has suffered – not just due to the coronavirus pandemic but also as a result of various right-wing extremist and racist attacks and crimes.

The only way to fight division is with cohesion, and we want to strengthen this.

Why is the link between integration and anti-racism work so important?

It is important to link the two offices because, as the integration commissioner, I already have a statutory mandate under the Residence Act to improve communal life in Germany and fight any “Fremdenfeindlichkeit” (xenophobia). “Fremdenfeindlichkeit” is a very outdated German term for racism – one that I would like to see removed from the law – but it is a clear mandate. The new position sits directly in the Federal Chancellery, which shows that this work has been given the highest priority. From the Federal Chancellery, I can coordinate the government’s anti-racism measures centrally and give those affected a voice and a listening ear.

What motivated you to stand for election to the Bundestag, and why did you choose social democracy?

The defining moment that made me to decide to go into politics was the racist attack in Hanau in February 2020. What happened there really affected me. It was a turning point in my life, and I thought to myself: I have to actively participate in politics, get involved, make my voice heard and help shape change. After Hanau, I decided to stand for election. I have always identified with the values and ideas of social democracy, so there was never any question: If I were to go into politics, it would be with the SPD. And I’m extremely grateful that the people of Schwerin and West Mecklenburg have put their faith in me and given me their vote.

When did you start getting involved in politics?

I started getting involved in this area in 2015 when I worked at the initial reception centre for Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania; the political element then came from my work in the federal state government. I believe that it is extremely important to show young people that they can get involved in politics and actually make a difference – be that in party politics or in movements like “Fridays for Future” or “Black Lives Matter”. It’s similar in anti-racism and integration: There is a lot of political activity in immigrant organisations and neighbourhood associations. That’s important for our democracy.

Based on your experience in Germany, is integration policy more of a federal issue or is it beneficial to address this issue in the Chancellery, where you have a certain amount of power?

It is important to ensure that we as a government are creating equal opportunities and prospects in every single municipality and every single federal state. For example, integration courses and immigration advice must be as accessible in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania as they are in Bavaria. We coordinate and fund this at national level. However, I do also understand – especially because I come from Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania – that integration has to work differently in rural areas to how it does in Berlin or Hamburg. Some things work really well in cities but are difficult to implement elsewhere because of the infrastructure required. I am therefore in regular contact with the integration officers in the federal states and municipalities to ensure that we create the optimum conditions for participation and integration throughout Germany.

You like to box in your free time. Do you plan to be a good sparring partner for Olaf Scholz on issues relating to integration and anti-racism?

(Laughs) Good that you say that. Sparring partner? I’ve never thought of it that way, as I only really box as a hobby – I don’t compete in the ring. But what boxing has taught me is that you need patience, discipline and perseverance. And if you apply those principles to integration policy, it is about having the same rules for everyone and having respect for my opponent, whatever their background.

The interview was conducted by Tobias Jerzewski and Cornelius Winter.

Reem Alabali-Radovan is the Minister of State for Integration and Anti-Racism Commissioner in the German Government. Before that, she was the integration commissioner in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Alabali-Radovan only joined the SPD at the start of 2021. She stood for election to the German Bundestag – and won – that same year. Her parents are from Iraq and came to Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania with her in 1996. Alabali- Radovan is an amateur boxer and married to a professional boxer.