Skip to main content
ABC News
Germany’s Plan For Migrants Will Reshape Its Future

As migrants and asylum-seekers have streamed into Europe, Germany has accepted vastly more asylum-seekers than any other country in the European Union. But unlike the United States, Germany doesn’t let those seeking asylum live anywhere they want: They are distributed to the country’s 16 states according to a strict formula.

That formula, known as the Königsteiner Key, is supposed to be an equitable way of preventing any state from being overburdened, based on population and tax revenues. But the large number of migrants now on their way may have a bigger demographic impact on some states than others, increasing ethnic and religious diversity in states with histories of being homogenous.

Germany estimates that it will receive about 800,000 asylum-seekers from Syria and other countries in the Middle East and Africa this year, equal to about 1 percent of its current population of about 81 million. Under the Königsteiner Key system, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia — Germany’s most populous — will receive a fifth of these new immigrants, as planned, but one-fifth of 800,000 is a very different proposition than one-fifth of 300,000, the number of asylum-seekers Germany expected at the beginning of the year.

If Germany’s projections are correct, the Königsteiner Key quotas will spread out the asylum-seekers evenly; each state will receive a share of migrants equal to about 1 percent of its population. For some states, that influx of migrants might represent a big demographic shift.

During Germany’s 2011 census, the government counted the number of people in each state with a migrant background, which includes all immigrants, naturalized Germans who immigrated after 1955, and Germans with at least one parent who immigrated after 1955. The census includes more detailed tables on people with connections to recent migration (from 2000 through 2011).

Baden-Württemberg 3.2% 31%
Bavaria 3.1 32
Berlin 4.4 28
Brandenburg 1.2 86
Bremen 4.1 28
Hamburg 4.4 27
Hesse 3.7 26
Lower Saxony 2.4 40
Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania 1.3 80
North Rhine-Westphalia 3.1 32
Rhineland-Palatinate 2.9 33
Saarland 2.7 36
Saxony 1.3 79
Saxony-Anhalt 1.1 88
Schleswig-Holstein 2.1 47
Thuringia 1.1 95

For states that previously had a small share of recent migrants, such as Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg, the 2015 distribution of asylum-seekers will nearly double the number of people with ties to recent migrations.

States could also see larger shifts in the religious demographics of their residents. According to the 2011 census, the two largest religious groups in Germany are Catholics (31 percent) and Protestant Evangelical Churches (Evangelische Kirche) (31 percent), but Germans unaffiliated with any church are a larger share of the population (33 percent) than either denomination. The Pew Research Center estimates that 5 percent of Germans were Muslims in 2010, but Germany’s 2011 census suggests that the number may be lower. The census did not ask about Islam specifically, including it in “other,” but the rates of “other” were below 5 percent in every German state, setting an upper bound on the practice of Islam.

It’s hard to estimate exactly how the Königsteiner Key distribution will change religious demographics, because it is not possible to figure out what share of “other” Islam and other religions represent. It is also hard to estimate the religious demographics of asylum-seekers in transit. Many are fleeing majority-Muslim countries, but Christians and other religious minorities in those regions may feel particular pressure to leave. Nonetheless, German officials say Syrians are the largest group of migrants seeking asylum there, and 93 percent of Syria’s population is Muslim.

We modeled the incoming migrants as though they all belonged to “other” religions, to get a sense of the largest shift German states might see. Comparing the number of asylum-seekers that each state is expected to receive with its shares of people practicing “other” religions gives a rough estimate of how much of a change the incoming migrants may bring to the region.

Baden-Württemberg 3.3% 30%
Bavaria 2.3 42
Berlin 3.5 35
Brandenburg 0.8 120
Bremen 3.1 37
Hamburg 3.6 33
Hesse 3.3 29
Lower Saxony 2.2 44
Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania 0.5 193
North Rhine-Westphalia 3.7 26
Rhineland-Palatinate 2.3 42
Saarland 2.3 42
Saxony 1.0 105
Saxony-Anhalt 0.7 145
Schleswig-Holstein 1.8 53
Thuringia 0.6 157

For regions like Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt, Brandenburg and Saxony, the 2015 allocation of asylum-seekers could bring in more religious minorities in one year than previously lived in their state.

Germany is well suited to benefit from migration economically. The European Union projects that its population will shrink from 81.3 million in 2013 to 70.8 million in 2060, partly because of declines in birth rates. Young foreign workers will help cover that worker gap, and many are likely to find employment in the country’s booming economy. German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said this week that Germany could accept 500,000 asylum-seekers a year for several years, though he urged other EU countries to share the burden.

But as asylum-seekers scatter across the country, and wait out their three-month prohibition on seeking work, Germany’s states will need to find a way to adjust to their quickly changing demographics.

Leah Libresco is a former news writer for FiveThirtyEight.