Leaving for greener pastures

Better opportunities are luring Turkish ‘guest workers’ back home

Leaving for greener pastures

Ralph Orlowski/ Getty Images

Germany used to be the most popular destination for Turkish immigrants. The Deutsch-Türken (German Turks) first came to Germany as gastarbeiter (guest workers) in the 1960s, when the construction of the Berlin Wall effectively cut off the flow of immigrants from East Germany. Since then, the Turkish population has grown to 3.5 million. But now, more ethnic Turks are moving out of Germany than in. According to the latest data from 2008, from the Futureorg Institute, a private research institute, 4,609 Turks left compared to just 2,569 who moved in. “The new phenomenom here is that people who are comparatively well educated, who weren’t born in Turkey, not raised in Turkey, they’re going back,” says David Bosold, head of the International Forum on Strategic Thinking in Berlin. Bosold says that many of his ethnically Turkish friends who were born in Germany have moved ‘‘back” to Turkey to work for German businesses like Mercedes or Deutsche Bank. He says it’s a question of opportunity: “They simply can have a better life.”

Despite calls for reform, Germany remains inhospitable toward its Turks. Last February, researchers at the University of Konstanz published a study that found highly skilled job candidates with Turkish names like “Fatih” and “Serkan” received 14 per cent less positive responses than those with the same qualifications but with German names. In smaller businesses, it was 24 per cent more likely that a person with a German name would be called back. Says Büro Memet Kilic, an ethnic Turk and MP for the Green party in Germany: “Young immigrants of the second and third generations who have degrees from German universities are condemned to earn their living as cab drivers. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that people emigrate from Germany.”

Why has it taken so long for Turks to begin leaving? For Rauf Ceylan, a German Turk and religious scholar at the University of Osnabrück, willingness to move has to do with reforms that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an has made since he was elected in 2003. “Turkish people here began to follow the developments in Turkey for the first time,” says Ceylan. “Lots of Turkish immigrants discovered their roots.”

In the 1990s, moving to Turkey was unthinkable, given Turkey’s instability: PKK terrorism, a resurgent political Islam, and a shaky economy. But since 2003, under Erdog˘an’s AKP, Turkey has become much less crisis-prone—and one of the strongest economies in the Mediterranean. One sign of those changes is the massive decrease in the number of Turks who are seeking asylum in Germany. Last February, Kamuran Sezer of the Futureorg Institute reported that, in 2008, there were 1,400 asylum applicants, compared to 10,000 in 1999 and 20,000 in the early nineties.

For some of the German Turks who move to Turkey, Ceylan says that their identification with their ethnic homeland is largely symbolic, and that they have problems integrating. “After six months or so they want to go back,” says Ceylan. “It is a very hard experience for them.” For others, the increasing fundamentalism within elements of the Turkish diaspora can be a problem. In Turkey, German Turks are sometimes referred to as the almancilar, a term composed from Alman (German) and yabanci (foreigner), which refers to migrants who are seen as backward fundamentalists—because in Germany they had actually become more fervently religious than native Turks.

Meanwhile, the many Turks who remain in Germany continue to exist quite separately from native Germans, living in insular communities and frequenting Turkish shops, doctors and lawyers. German attitudes toward the gastarbeiter have not encouraged integration; neither does increasing Islamic fundamentalism. Ankara has also been playing a role: during an official state visit in 2008, Erdog˘an made an impassioned speech in Cologne in front of a crowd of about 16,000 expatriate Turks, saying that “assimilation is a crime against humanity.”

But there are some signs in Germany that the attitude toward Turks is changing. This March, after Erdog˘an pressured Merkel for Turkish schools in Germany, she gave her endorsement. And this April saw the first Turkish-German, Aygül Özkan, appointed as a government minister at the state level. “I do not think there is one German culture,” says MP Kilic. “No one has to eat sauerkraut and eisbein.”

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