As Germany wrestles with the political and economic fallout of surging immigration, one thing has become clear. The foreigners are giving the country something it needs: more babies.
In 2015, Germany’s birthrate rose to 1.5 per woman, the highest in 33 years. The state statistics service attributed the increase mainly to foreign-born mothers, who accounted for a record-high 1 in 5 births. German-born moms have an average of 1.4 kids; for foreign-born women, the figure is higher than 1.9. “It’s much easier to be a family and have kids here,” says Basima Shhadat, who gave birth to a daughter in Munich in 2015, a year after arriving from Syria with her husband and five sons. Four other sons died in Syria, she says. “My kids can live here. There are no bombs.”
The birth surge is encouraging news for Germany, which has the world’s lowest birthrate. As in many developed countries, “there’s a dearth of millennials” having babies to replenish the ranks of workers who help finance pensions and health care for retirees, says Stijn Hoorens, a Rand Corp. demographer in Brussels. Immigrants are generally in their childbearing years, and once established in their host countries they tend to have bigger families than native-born counterparts, Hoorens says.
In the U.S. a recent study by the Pew Research Center found that foreign-born women now account for 23 percent of births, though immigrants represent only 14 percent of the population. “Were it not for the increase in births to immigrant women, the annual number of U.S. births would have declined since 1970,” the study said.
Germany has Europe’s largest immigrant population, including 3 million with Turkish roots. The country is still short of the 2.1 babies for every woman of childbearing age that demographers say is needed to prevent population decline. The recent influx of refugees could help with that, as most come from countries such as Afghanistan and Syria, where average family sizes exceed those in Europe, Hoorens says.
Births had started to inch upward even before the arrival of almost 2 million refugees over the past three years. Thomas Bernar, head of the maternity clinic at the Helios Kliniken hospital in Pforzheim, a heavily immigrant city, says his clinic had logged almost 1,600 deliveries in 2016 as of Dec. 9, more than the total 1,479 for all of 2015. The hospital is expanding its maternity ward from 17 to 24 beds and hiring more midwives and doctors.
The boom may not last: Second-generation immigrants tend to adopt the childbearing habits of their host countries. The birthrate among Mexican-born women in the U.S., for example, has fallen more than 26 percent over the past decade, according to Pew. That decline has been offset by more-recent immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East who tend to have more children. This raises the question of what impact President-elect Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant position will have on the birthrate.
Reiner Klingholz, head of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, contends that Germany shouldn’t rely on immigration alone to prevent population decline. More important, he says, are family policies such as more generous parental leave and financial help with schooling—measures the German government has started to implement.
—With Naomi Kresge and Oliver Sachgau
The bottom line: Immigrants to Germany could fill the gap that marks the difference between shrinking and stabilizing the population.