Analysis Faruk Sen

Turkish Diaspora in Germany

Even though a large Turkish minority has been living in Germany for decades, multicultural interaction remains uneasy. Neither the migrants nor the German public expected "guest workers" to stay for good. Faruk Sen analyzes the situation

Even though a large Turkish minority has been living in the Federal Republic for decades, multicultural interaction remains uneasy. Neither the migrants themselves nor the German public expected "guest workers" to stay for good. Faruk Sen analyzes the situation

photo: AP
Turkish Döner Kebab Restaurant

​​Today, there are 2.6 million people living in Germany who have family roots in Turkey. Relations with Germans have been beset with problems. Hostile attacks on the large minority have been particularly worrisome. The same is true for the emergence of a parallel Turkish society. Both phenomena are inter-related.

Most of the Turkish workers in Germany originally came from Southern and Eastern Turkey. In the 1950s, the apparently hopeless economic situation in these regions with their semi-feudal social structures drove numerous people to the more desirable areas of the country.

Slums sprang up in the larger cities, and most people’s hopes of a better life did not materialise. In 1961, the new constitution allowed Turkish citizens to travel abroad for the first time.

At the same time, a new recruitment agreement with the Federal Republic made the prospect of looking for work in Germany appealing. Typically the plan was to return home again after a limited period of time, and to use savings and newly acquired skills to start a new livelihood.

For years, migrants and authorities presumed that Turkish workers would only stay in Germany temporarily. Various studies based on representative polls confirmed the original intentions of returning home, even though labour migrants were, for various economic and social reasons, continually postponing the date for doing so.

Repatriation assistance

In November 1973, there were 910,500 Turks living in Germany. At this point, the Federal Government ordered that recruitment of foreigners from outside the European Community would have to stop. The long-term goal was to reduce the number of migrants in Germany.

In fact, the total number of foreigners living in the country was reduced over the next couple of years. However, the Turkish population kept on growing.

Now, workers who left could no longer return to Germany. Many of them, therefore, chose to bring their families here instead of visiting them at home.

In 1983, the Kohl Government passed the so-called Voluntary Repatriation Encouragement Act. This law offered migrants financial incentives to return home.

Legislators based this approach on economic considerations as well as on the belief that the Turkish population would never be able to integrate into a Western European country of Christian tradition. Neither the government nor society in general had accepted that the Federal Republic had already, de facto, become an immigration country.

By mid-1984, approximately 250,000 foreigners – most of them Turks – had left the Federal Republic. The act allowed repatriation grants of up to 10,500 Marks per adult and 1,500 Marks per child. Although these payments were anything but generous, the fact that they were paid at all stirred up feelings of envy among the German work force.

But families who had worked in Germany were only reimbursed what they had paid into the statutory retirement scheme over the years. Employers’ contributions were not paid out and those returning home had to forsake all further claims.

Moving back to Turkey was therefore a momentous decision. This was all the more so as many reintegration models developed up to that point had failed for various reasons. High levels of unemployment at home meant there was little chance of finding new jobs.

In the 1960s, many home comers had tried to start farms and small companies or had invested in real estate. Only few were successful. One reason was that high inflation rates swallowed up their savings. On top of that, firmly established companies were prone to force new competition out of the market again.

The failure of workers’ holdings

There were also attempts to share repatriation strategies. Migrants joined together to form workers’ company holdings. Such firms were set up with the intention of creating jobs, contributing to the industrialisation of Turkey and reintegrating former migrants.

These were the declared goals of more than 2,200 shareholders who founded Türksan, the first workers’ collective in Cologne in 1966. Türksan was meant to become involved in building, paper production, tourism and other industries.

Many other workers’ holdings followed this example. By 1983, there were 322 such enterprises with 345,000 shareholders, almost half of whom were living in Germany. Despite a total investment volume of more than two billion Marks, these initiatives failed for several reasons.

Many firms invested in those geographical regions their members originally came from. Such areas, however, typically had weak infrastructure as well as only limited transportation and sales opportunities.

At best, the new companies acted as a stimulus to economic growth in regions which were already seeing the beginnings of industrialisation. Too often, however, the wrong projects were funded and too much time elapsed between planning and execution. There were also lacks of credit facilities and skilled personnel.

By and large, the capital saved by Turkish migrants in the Federal Republic was used unsuitably, both from an individual and an economics point of view.

When assets were transferred to Turkey, for example, a central venture capital company should have been set up to monitor the business prospects of individual projects and to allocate funds appropriately.

Such an institution would have been even more vital since there was no other professional control at all. If, for example, investment had depended on bank credit, financial professionals would have rejected loans for projects deemed unprofitable. After all, bankers try to avoid great losses. But, from the very beginning, there was no such control.

Families followed

As immigrants’ hope for economic independence at home often proved futile, immigration habits began to change. But even before, indeed soon after foreign recruitment had started, it had become evident that the "rotation model" originally devised for labour migration did not make sense.

After all, German firms did not want to replace skilled workers with new, unskilled personnel. Moreover, many migrants realised that they would not achieve their savings goals within the time planned. They decided to stay in the Federal Republic for longer periods. Many were joined by their families.

At first, Turkish migration was almost exclusively based on men working and living in the Federal Republic. However, only a quarter of Turkish people residing in Germany now originally arrived as "guest workers".

53 percent immigrated in the course of family reunification and 17 percent of the adult Turkish population was born here. Today, there are almost as many Turkish women as men in Germany.

Family reunification presented German society with an entirely new phenomenon. Neither schools nor day care institutions nor the authorities in general were prepared for this new group of people.

Today, more than half the adults of Turkish origin have been living in Germany for more than twenty years. Two thirds of the Turkish diaspora have even grown up in Germany.

This development has had strong effects on urban life in Germany. The need for larger apartments drove migrant families away from the (typically company owned) accommodations that the initial "guest workers" had moved into.

Most of the migrants preferred the more affordable neighbourhoods because they wanted to save hard, still believing in the option of returning home one day. Some urban quarters in West Germany became home to a high proportion of foreign residents.

Indeed, foreigners could often only rent apartments in areas which had been all but abandoned by Germans because of the poor quality of housing. This complicated the situation even further as some neighbourhoods increasingly were considered as "ghettos".

Nonetheless, a growing Turkish middle class has emerged in the 1990s. Many migrants, eventually, did overcome initial difficulties of assimilating. Over time, their sense of identity changed.

The new middle class has higher expectations in terms of education, employment, living conditions and quality of life. They also demand a political voice. The homogeneity which characterised the first generation of "guest workers" no longer applies to the Turkish Community today.

Generational conflict

Many Turkish families have subsequently experienced tensions due to a tremendous shift in attitudes. In Turkey, for instance, it is normal for parents to act as experienced advisers to younger family members.

This role enjoys great social esteem. In Germany, however, the same attitude is likely to prove tension prone. On the one hand, focussing on family affairs is essential for many migrants but, on the other hand, members of the young generation have come to accept norms prevailing in German society.

The ideal of the extended family, with several generations living together under one roof, is often not practicable in Germany. Young Turkish men and women no longer want to uphold this tradition with its emphasis on duties but would rather enjoy more independent, individual lifestyles.

Meanwhile, the situation of older Turks in the Federal Republic is also difficult. These people have worked hard in Germany for most of their lives and have achieved relatively little.

For many, their life’s purpose of returning to prosperity and respect in Turkey has come to nothing. Although they have perhaps managed to attain a modest level of affluence in their new home, they remain restricted in many ways nonetheless.

Many of them experience problems of health, of finance and of family relationships. The retired generation of Turkish immigrants came to the Federal Republic with high hopes, yet finds itself empty-handed now.

Upon retirement, at the latest, most immigrants lose their last social contacts with Germans. Typically, their final years are characterized by generational conflict, financial worries and poor health.

Although the older generation of Turkish immigrants continues to reiterate intentions of returning home shortly, this is often more a dream than a real perspective. Most of the people concerned cannot say for certain when they will go home.

They have already been living in Germany for a very long time. They have repeatedly put off their plans to return to Turkey, usually vaguely stipulating sometime "after retirement".

Now, they must take stock and admit that there is little chance of this actually happening. In addition, Turkish people face greater hurdles than Spaniards or Italians who want to move back home.

As citizens of EU member states, the latter do not have to deal with difficult residential requirements preventing them from commuting between places of retirement in their home countries and younger family members who, of course, now live in Germany.

Today it can no longer be assumed that Turkish immigrants in Germany ultimately wish to return home. The future of the second and third generation will definitely take place in Germany.

The second generation is normally better integrated than the first. The first generation, now approaching retirement age, has, in spite of all efforts, mostly been unable to overcome integration difficulties. This is essentially due to their poor command of German and their strong bonds to their homeland.

Integration and diversity

For a long time, Turks and Germans proved unable to come to grips with the challenges of living together in harmony. Even today, there is no consensus on what successful integration would consist of.

Only one thing seems certain: there can be no integration without equal rights in terms of resources and procedures in the host society. Nor can there be integration as long as migrants perceive a lack of respect for cultural diversity.

Parallel societies are not an option and, according to widespread political and academic opinion, total assimilation is neither desirable nor realistic.

Cultural and religious tolerance is necessary if integrative potential is to grow. But it will not suffice. What matters is setting up a basic framework of conditions, which allow for equal opportunities as well as cultural independence.

The debate on integration and cultural identity has occasionally been extremely controversial, arousing passionate responses from the German general public. What is needed, however, is a concept of how a future German immigrant society should be.

This analysis should definitely include various questions which are representative for how society sees itself. Among such issues are language acquisition (support for the host language alone, or state support for bilingualism?) and religious practice.

Faruk Sen

© Magazine for Development and Cooperation 10/2004

Prof. Dr. Faruk Sen heads the Center for Turkish Studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

Related Topics
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.