Migrants now and then: Learnings from the past

Migrants now and then- Learnings from the past
Image: DDP

It is a short paper, but its content still shapes German society today: the German-Turkish recruitment agreement on October 30, 1961 marked the start of the migration of Turkish workers to Germany.

The agreement for the recruitment of Turkish “guest workers” was signed on October 30, 1961 by German and Turkish diplomats in Bad Godesberg near the then federal capital of Bonn. This two-page document regulated the posting of Turkish workers to Germany – because Germany urgently needed them as a result of the economic miracle. Corresponding agreements with Greece, Italy and Spain had already been concluded by this time. Turkish workers could now also officially apply for jobs.

A common thesis is that Germany was reacting to the lack of skilled workers. However, some economic researchers also say that Turkey has approached Germany because of the high unemployment in its own country. The agreement is therefore likely to have served the interests of both countries. In addition, Germany in turn promised that the agreement would, among other things, result in closer ties between Turkey and Europe and NATO.

After the agreement was signed, it didn’t take long for the first employment offices to open in Turkey. After just a few weeks, the first Turkish guest workers arrived in Germany – craftsmen, farmers, construction workers, but also unskilled workers. The agreement attracted around 870,000 Turks to Germany in the first few years. Initially, only unmarried Turkish men were allowed to enter the country for a maximum of two years.

Accordingly, the everyday life of the working “guests” was initially restricted: Accommodated mostly in collective housing, many did not even learn German at all, as they assumed that they will return home soon anyway. Contact with Germans and organizing leisure time were not among the most urgent goals either: the focus was on work and the money earned that could be sent home.

The German government soon lifted the initially strict regulations of the recruitment agreement – from then on about every fifth Turkish worker in Germany was a woman. In the early 1970s, Germany also made it easier for Turkish people willing to work to extend their stay. Many took advantage of the offer and brought their families to Germany. The “guest workers” were becoming more and more Almanci, as the German Turks were called in Turkey.

But the German labor market changed. The oil crisis plunged the economy into recession in the early 1970s. After years of full employment, jobs in Germany were scarce. As a result, the administration issued a recruitment ban in 1973. However, many Turks stayed and allowed other family members to follow.

While some people kept putting off the time to return home and lost sight of it over the decades, others quickly realized that they wanted to stay. Forever, so that the third generation of the former “guest workers” is now living in Germany.

Even though the range of migrants’ countries of origin has grown steadily in recent decades, people of Turkish origin are still the largest group from a single country of origin. According to the German Statistical Office, around 4.3 million of them lived in Germany in 2020, around 2.8 million of them with a German passport.

What can we learn from the experience of first, second and third generation Turkish guest workers for dealing with contemporary migrants? The question of origin is still the more simple one. Elif’s family came from Anatolia. This is the only fact, everything else is more complicated. She belongs to the so-called second generation, the children of guest workers recruited from Turkey in the 1960s.

Elif is one of thousands of “suitcase children”. At the age of six months she was left with her grandparents in Turkey. The parents went to Germany. They kept promising to pick her up, but they didn’t come. She preferred not to make friends, she could be gone at any time. She was 15 when she was finally allowed to go to Germany. The family that took her in had become strangers to her. Out of sorrow she ate and gained weight. Today, Elif has marital problems, and her anger, which she has contained for years, erupts in small doses.

The social worker we met knows many who spent their entire childhood waiting for their parents, working in Germany, to return. Their parents got into the loaded car in front of them, supposedly went shopping – and didn’t come back. Children who were repeatedly sent back and forth between Germany and Turkey. Who had to go to school in Turkey so that they would not become too alienated from Turkish culture because their parents believed that they would soon return from Germany anyway. “Anyone who grows up with such a life lie,” says our source, who wants to sty anonymous, “doesn’t take big steps.”

Specialists say that people with migration experience are twice as likely to have mental illnesses as the average European. They receive poorer medical care and receive more misdiagnoses, also due to the limitations of the language. The social worker, a German with Turkish roots himself, made observations from his many years of psychological counseling with Turks who came to Germany after the recruitment agreement of 1961 until its ban in 1973. They felt uprooted, worked hard physically and yet remained strangers, developed fears, panic disorders and compulsions. The second generation, like Elif, who were getting nowhere and who were overwhelmed trying to work their way up from impoverished backgrounds. And the third generation, struggling with their identity and their role in society. All of them suffered and still suffer from the uncertainty of that time. Sixty years, a painful record.

When many people come into the country at once, like back in the 1960s, everything has to be taken care of. Accommodation, supplies, jobs. It all depends on how long you want people to stay. Assuming they’ll be gone soon anyway, no one really cares about them. The 900,000 Ukrainians who have fled to Germany since February are now said to be returning soon. In fact, many have already left. But if you stay in a country for ten or twenty years instead of six months without feeling at home there, you have a problem, as does the society that surrounds you.

The health center for migrants in Duesseldorf, 30 km north of Cologne, exists now for 28 years. It is a unique institution financed by the health budget of the city council, where people of Turkish and Russian origin, but also Ukrainians and Georgians, can receive short-term therapy talks in their native language. The proportion of people with migration biographies in the city is 38 percent. In the so-called acute care, i.e. advice for acute health problems, the migrants are in the majority.

People are complaining about back pain and debts, about the behavior of their partner, and some also about domestic violence. The causes of their illnesses often lie in the trauma that has developed over several generations, in life between chairs. “When a Turk looks at me,” says our social worker, “I know what he’s trying to tell me. If he says: My liver is on fire, then I know that means he is depressed and listless. Or when he says: Paradise lies under the feet of mothers. Then I know he can’t express his anger at his mother, who may have abandoned him.”

In an attempt to spare children the limitations they have experienced themselves, parents raise them to be spoiled consumers and deny them the opportunity to take responsibility for themselves. The third generation also knows the feeling of not being recognized in society, but being disadvantaged. When looking for housing or training, they become aware of the discrepancy between what they were promised and what they can achieve. On the other hand, they protested. 57 percent of Turkish young people are assigned to a milieu “on the lowest fringe of society”, a subculture that has little to do with Turkish culture. “If you then go to the gym or lease a big car, you at least get something in return,” says Deli.

Every migration movement has its own burdens. But there are mistakes that are repeated and there are institutional opportunities. The social worker calls for the historical experience of guest workers in Germany to be systematically processed in order to do better in the future. And to name what corresponds to reality: that many of those admitted remain in the country for the time being. For the Ukrainian refugees, the European Union grants a protection status in the EU for up to three years. They receive work permits and health insurance, so they benefit from a more streamlined administrative process than did the immigrants in the large influx of refugees of previous years. At the same time, 350,000 Ukrainians are registered for the labour market. Most of them are women and their children, about half have completed university education. The recognition of certificates and degrees is far from regulated.

Our friendly social worker remembers how his father waited until his death to receive some kind of recognition for his years of shift work at an automaker from the country that had hired him as a laborer, a public word of respect, such as that of German President Steinmeier made up for it last fall on the sixtieth anniversary of the Recruitment Agreement when he said, “Take the seat in the middle and fill it.” A call for more pre-school language support, more teaching of German as a second language, and better preparation of schools are the demands of a multiethnic society. He says: “I want a future for my children where that is absolutely no longer an issue.” But in order to do that, the German society and politics must not repeat the mistakes of 60 years ago.

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