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The terms “migrant”, “asylum seeker” and “refugee” are often used interchangeably in public debate. Yet, making a distinction between these groups is crucial, as a person’s legal status has important repercussions regarding their access to services and to the labour market.

Migrant is a generic term for all persons who move to another country and intend to stay in the country for an extended period of time, regardless of their reason for migration. Migrants thus include labour migrants, family migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, international students and persons moving within free-mobility zones, such as the European Union, as well as undocumented migrants without valid residence permits.

Asylum seekers are people who have formally applied for refugee status and are waiting for the outcome of their application.

The term “humanitarian migrant” refers to people who have successfully applied for asylum and have been granted some sort of protection whether refugee or another status. People who receive full refugee status in Germany obtain a renewable residence permit of three years. There are different forms of protection that include refugee status according to the Geneva Convention or the German Basic Law, subsidiary protection, and non-refoulement. While the latter status usually provides a one-year, renewable residence permit and is granted relatively rarely in Germany (see Table 1.1), the share of people receiving subsidiary protection increased strongly in 2016 and 2017. Subsidiary protection status is granted for a year and can be renewed twice (for two years each). For this group, family reunification is severely restricted. For the sake of simplicity, the terms refugee and humanitarian migrant are used interchangeably in this publication.

Migrants can receive a toleration status when they cannot be returned to their country of origin, for instance because of health problems or administrative obstacles, e.g. difficulties in obtaining travel documents. This toleration status, however, does not constitute a legal residence permit, and only establishes a temporary suspension of deportation. As of December 2017, it was estimated that around 170 000 persons in Germany had this status designation and that approximately 90 000 of these were rejected asylum seekers. Toleration status can be prolonged and close to one in three have been in Germany for more than three years. Approximately one-third is between 16 and 29 years old (Deutsche Bundesregierung, 2018[1]; Deutsche Bundesregierung, 2017[2]).

In this publication, the phrase “young people with a migration background” is used to designate both people who were born abroad as well as those who were born in Germany and have at least one immigrant parent.

In addition, the report will sometimes refer to statistics on “foreign nationals”, i.e. people who hold non-German citizenship only, as for school-based statistics this is often the only way to identify migrants.


[1] Deutsche Bundesregierung (2018), Antwort der Bundesregierung auf die Kleine Anfrage der Abgeordneten Ulla Jelpke, Dr. André Hahn, Gökay Akbulut, weiterer Abgeordneter und der Fraktion DIE LINKE. – Drucksache 19/478 – Zahlen in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland lebender Flüchtlinge zum Stand 31. Dezember 2017, Drucksache 19/633, Deutscher Bundestag, 19. Wahlperiode.

[2] Deutsche Bundesregierung (2017), Antwort der Bundesregierung auf die Kleine Anfrage der Abgeordneten Dr. Rosemarie Hein, Nicole Gohlke, Sigrid Hupach, weiterer Abgeordneter und der Fraktion DIE LINKE. – Drucksache 18/12270 – Erfahrungen mit dem Förderinstrument der Assistierten Ausbildung, Drucksache 18/12483, Deutscher Bundestag, 18. Wahlperiode,

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