ISTANBUL -- Hasibe Koyun has her first German class in Istanbul on a crisp January morning. She's so nervous that her hand, where she wears her large diamond engagement ring, quivers. When she introduces herself to the class, she twirls the ring around her finger and glances at the whiteboard, where the teacher has written the German words for "I'm called," Ich heisse. Koyun's cheeks turn red. "Ich hei-zze Hasibe," she stammers with a thick beginner's accent. For 23-year-old Koyun, these first words of German, spoken at the Goethe Institute in Istanbul, mark the beginning of an odyssey that will, she hopes, take her from her hometown of Oren--a tranquil village of 1,500 in Turkey's western Anatolia--to Germany, where she plans to join her new husband, Ilhan, in the Rhineland city of Dusseldorf.
Koyun has a lot to be nervous about. She has just moved from her village to Istanbul for the three-month language course. Moreover, people in the metropolis--like the two young women in class who sit near the windows with long, dyed hair, skintight jeans, and knee-high leather boots--often dress differently than people in Oren. Koyun is the only girl in class to wear a headscarf. It conceals her hair and matches the long gray skirt that stretches down to her shoes. But matters of wardrobe are not Koyun's primary concern this morning. All she has in mind is doing well on the German test. The exam is still a few months away, but if she does not pass, she can't get a German visa. If she does not get the visa, she can't join her husband. A marriage celebration has already been planned. It's to take place in the center of Oren that summer, with the villagers and her family dancing to the beat of the Davul, a deep-throated, goat-skin drum, and the nasal drone of the woodwind Zurna. If Koyun doesn't pass, it would be a disaster.
The entire class of 12 students has the same worry this morning. Almost all are engaged or recently married to someone of Turkish origin living in Germany. They plan to join their spouses there, on the condition, of course, they pass the exam.
In 2007, the Bundestag passed a law requiring foreign spouses from most nations outside the European Union to possess basic German-language skills before entering the country to join their husbands or wives. Spouses with university degrees or those deemed highly skilled workers are exempt from the requirement, as are those from several developed countries--including the United States, Japan, Australia, and Israel. The measure also requires immigrating spouses be at least 18. The German Interior Ministry says the rules are intended to prevent forced or fake marriages and promote integration, or to ensure that the spouses "will be able to communicate in everyday situations using basic German and thus be able to take part in the society from the time that they arrive."
Pre-entry language requirements for foreign spouses are increasingly common in an immigration-weary Europe. France, Holland, Austria, and Denmark have each enacted such rules, and near the end of 2010, shortly after David Cameron took office, so did the United Kingdom. While not all the language requirements are identical--France's, for example, is generally more flexible and accommodating towards spouses than the others--in their current form, the efficacy of pre-entry language requirements in promoting language learning or the integration of immigrants is questionable. There real purpose of the rules appears to be to reduce the number of uneducated or low-skilled immigrants coming to European countries. By pursuing more restrictive immigration policies in the name of integration, European political leaders are not only being disingenuous in their aims, but risk the opposite outcome--estranging the very immigrant communities they say they wish to see better integrated.
"The tests are less about promoting integration than restricting immigration," says Thomas Huddleston, an analyst for the Migration Policy Group, a Brusselsbased think tank that has studied the effectiveness of the language requirements. According to the group's research, preentry tests may have resulted in a reduction of immigration but have not proven effective in promoting language learning. Those who pass the tests, says Huddleston, often forget what they've learned by the time they immigrate, and there is no evidence to suggest that passing a preentry test helps spouses learn the language once they arrive.
Like their European counterparts, British government officials have said the measure will encourage integration and "assist in removing cultural barriers." But government officials have also said that the regulation is part of a larger effort to control immigration. "It is a privilege to come to the UK and that is why I am committed to raising the bar for migrants and ensuring that those who benefit from being in Britain contribute to our society," British Home Secretary Theresa May said before the language requirement was implemented. "This is only the first step. We are currently reviewing English language requirements across the visa system with a view to tightening the rules further in the future."
Though first conceived by the previous Labor government, the enactment of the language requirement, according to the Economist, is part of the Tories' effort to fulfill an election promise to reduce net migration. Much of the foreign spouses in question come from poor, rural communities on the Indian subcontinent, and as the magazine points out, "That might not be the sort of immigrant that governments prefer to attract, but it is the kind that a number of British citizens want to marry."
The pre-entry language requirements in Britain, as elsewhere, have proven controversial. Immigrant advocacy groups claim that requiring foreign spouses to learn basic English before they can immigrate violates a couple's right to a family life, guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants in Britain has said the pre-entry requirement "is not about integration, social cohesion or any other laudable claim of the Home Office," but about "getting numbers of migrants down, pure and simple."
A PUBLIC FACE
Recently, Rashida Chapti, a British citizen in her mid 50s, became the public face of the debate in Britain about whether the rule is justified. As one of a few spouses who recently challenged the rule in court, Chapti, pictured in British newspapers in a striped hijab, petitioned to have her husband of four decades, with whom she had several children, join her in Britain from India. He is too old to learn English, she contended, and finding a school for him to learn in rural Gujarat where he lives, would be difficult. In December, a British High Court judge upheld the language requirement, ruling that the government was acting within its right to promote integration and safeguard social services. Reacting to the ruling, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said in a statement, "No one...