Stories of migration

The 50th Anniversary of the Agreement on the Recruitment of Turkish Migrant Workers

Deutsch-türkische Freundschaftsflagge; © rare – Fotolia.comGerman-turkish freindshipflag; © rare – Fotolia.comThey are by far the largest group of immigrants in Germany. Although, half a century after the signing of the bilateral agreement on the recruitment of Turkish "Gastarbeiter" (migrant workers) with Ankara, most of their children are well integrated in German society, the first generation of immigrants still reside in urban districts where the flair of "the old country" is in the air. Many of the children and children's children of Germans of Turkish origin, half of whom have acquired German citizenship, are now however making their way back to the booming land of their fathers in search of their fortune.

There are a good three million people from a Turkish immigrant background living in Germany, yet over the last three years the number of those leaving the country has exceeded the number of new arrivals. In an interview with the Berlin Institute for Population and Development Suat Bakir from the Turkish-German Chamber of Commerce & Industry in Cologne does not put this down alone to the economic upswing in Turkey, but also to a climate of growing resentment that has been stirred up by a minority of people. He furthermore laments the unattractive framework conditions for Turkish entrepreneurs and investors - conditions that from a demographic point of view are not really tenable.

It is in particular highly qualified Germans of Turkish origin, quite often university graduates, who decide to go back to the country of their parents. Among the Turks living in the diaspora the word has spread that people like them – “Alamancilar” (Germanoturks) – stand very good chances of striking it rich under the "gold rush" conditions prevailing in a country that even in times of crisis has managed to register double-digit growth rates. Many of them also take the step, because in Germany they do not feel a hundred per cent welcome and that their parents never really made it in Germany, either.

Needed to do the “dirty work”

© eyetronic - FotoliaPeople like Ali Can, who in 1966 did not need much persuading when he was offered a job abroad as a lathe operator. "They told such fantastic stories that we thought the streets were paved with gold, that we would not have to go to work at all," he recalled in an interview for the Immigration Audio Archives, talking about his first encounters with Turks who were on holiday in their Turkish homeland from “Almanya”. Then came the big shock when he landed in the mines of Germany's Ruhr area – due to the German economic miracle and full employment most of the local people considered themselves above doing this "dirty work". As soon as he realised that the 450 deutschmarks he was left with after deductions would not be enough to enable him to move back to Turkey as a self-made man after two years, he decided to change his job.

For 14 years he eked out a living as a driver and tried to establish a livelihood by setting up a kiosk with his wife, who he had married while he was back home on holiday in Turkey. The marriage failed because of too many extra part-time jobs. When at the end of his working life in 2006 it turned out that his pension would not be enough to live off, he returned to his home on the Aegean at the age of 63. His German-born daughter remained in Germany. This is just one of the many fates predestined by the Agreement on the Recruitment of Turkish “Gastarbeiter” from 31st October 1961. It was the third of its kind that the Federal German Government had signed between 1955 to 1965 with like-minded countries in southern Europe and in North Africa with the aim of fulfilling Germany's labour market needs.

Extensive selection procedures

© Lorenz ViereckeWhen in November 1973 recruitment was stopped due to the economic decline resulting from the oil crisis, official figures registered a total of 2,659,512 applicants from Turkey. The pressure to emigrate, above all in the Anatolian hinterland, was so great that in fact only about a quarter of the applicants could be placed. However, instead of the development aid envisaged by the government in Ankara, things backfired – it was above all the illegal exodus of skilled workers – so difficult to quantify – that led to the opposite. Especially since, in view of the repressive immigration policy, the Turkish “Gastarbeiter” decided to stay in Germany and bring their families to Germany and started to send less and less money to their home country.

As the number of applicants by far exceeded the number of jobs available, employers and the “German Liaison” office of the German labour exchange that was working in Istanbul in cooperation with the Is ve Isci Bulma Kurumu (the foreign service department of the Turkish labour exchange) could afford to be selective. Applicants had to go through 15 stages before they found out whether they had got the job or not. From 1970 onwards in the case of skilled workers the authorities were no longer satisfied with a mere oral selection procedure, but demanded documented proof of competence from a model workplace. The most humiliating procedures however were the three medical examinations that the applicants had to endure - a precautionary measure to protect the German health insurance companies from too great a burden. The health-related rejections doubled in the course of the first decade to 20 per cent. On the other hand the work permit that was originally restricted to two years was done away with due to pressure from employers.

Their hopes were bigger than their suitcases

"The 1,500 passengers on the train were seen off by more than 3,000 people. The jolts of the train as it was setting off sounded like a wailing groan that could be heard above Sirkeci like a final outcry before separation," this is how an eyewitness remembers the heartrending scenes that took place again and again at the station in Istanbul in the 1960s.

One of them, who worked as an interpreter in his student days, still has a clear memory of the extremely long steam trains that shunted into platform 11 twice a week at Munich's main station in the early hours of morning after a strenuous journey of over 50 hours. Back then Munich station was the railway hub where trains could be caught to anywhere in the federal republic. “The workers got off the train with their suitcases, bags and their employment contracts. Their hopes were bigger than their suitcases. Their beards were a few days old and there they stood fearful, tired and full of expectations.”

Roland Detsch
works a free-lance editor, journalist and author in Landshut and Munich.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
September 2011

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