50 years of Turks in Germany
German politics - Germany - The Local

50 years of Turks in Germany

Nalan Arkat, general secretary of the Turkish Community in Germany (TGD), tells The Local why the 50th anniversary of the labour agreement between Germany and Turkey is a time for reflection, not celebration.

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What’s the mood like ahead of this important anniversary?

We as the TGD are holding three big conferences, in Berlin, in Hamburg and Frankfurt, each with their own focus. The main aim is to take this anniversary as an occasion to critically – and self-critically – analyse the developments over the last 50 years. Not everything went so well. We want to think about what went wrong, why it went wrong, what could have been done better, and what we can do better in the future. It’s more a time for analysis. There’s no real mood of celebration.


We’re seeing a lot of young, third-generation Turkish people look for an anchor in religious, ethnic, and nationalistic feelings, because mainstream society in Germany is not offering them that anchor.

On top of that, a lot of people are emigrating back to Turkey. And what’s particularly bad is that qualified people are returning to Turkey, because they don’t see a future or any prospects for themselves in Germany. Because they don’t feel welcome, because they keep experiencing rejection in their everyday lives.

And they think, ‘I have a good profession, and I can get a good job in Turkey and start a family.’ But from a lot of them we hear that they’re not happy in Turkey, because they were born here, went to school here, and learnt professional life here. They’re not happy there and they’re not happy here. It’s almost a lost generation.

How did that generation come about?

It’s a long time, fifty years. And no-one saw back then that the people who came here as guest workers would stay and become the biggest immigrant community in the country. The people who came didn’t think that. They thought they’d work here for a few years, save a bit of money, maybe buy a house or a car back home, and that’s that. But that’s not how it turned out.

In 1973 there was a ban on new applications, and the Turks started to panic, and brought their children and their families over, because they thought if they don’t do it now, they never would. They perhaps wouldn’t have done that if the applications had not been stopped.

And then their children started to go to school here and the families grew roots. And now they are old people who have always wanted to move back to Turkey, or maybe already do live there some of the time. But they are always drawn back here because an important part of their family is still here.

Why do you say the Turkish community also has to be ‘self-critical’?

Both sides made mistakes. The situation is not satisfactory. The first guest workers were highly valued – they were qualified, they were welcome, they weren’t seen as a burden. But that changed over the years. Why? We have to ask ourselves many questions. Why is unemployment so high among Turkish people? Why do so many fail to finish school or get vocational qualifications? If we can find out the blocks we have a better chance of removing them.

Germany has finally accepted that it is a country of immigration. That’s a chance. If we go at the problems constructively then there’s a chance we can contribute to making a better society.

How has the recent debate about integration affected the Turkish community?

It’s understandable that the majority of society wants immigrants to integrate, but we don’t like the word ‘integration’ very much. We prefer ‘participation.’ The social contract needs to be there.

People search for definitions. At first, we were ‘guest workers,’ then we were ‘foreigners,’ at one point we were ‘foreign fellow citizens.’ Now the current phrase is ‘fellow citizens of immigrant background,’ or whatever. They’re always searching. There is no single, definable ‘Turk,’ just as there is no single, definable ‘German.’ What is ‘German culture’ or ‘Turkish culture?’

Immigration is an enrichment, and integration is not a one-way street. There is always a give and take between cultures, religions and traditions. If there had been no immigration this society would have been quite different. But just to push unpleasant things onto the immigrants just says, ‘We can’t solve the problem but we have a scapegoat.’ That’s cheap and simplistic.

We want to participate in this society, we want to help form it. We are part of society and society has to accept that.

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