Population migrant workers
A lesson in immigration
Guest worker experiments transformed Europe
The Boston Globe, 2006
BERLIN -- Germany needed workers. Turks needed work.
So starting in 1961, the country invited Turkish ''guest workers" to come do the dirty
jobs that Germans didn't want. Only 7,000 ''gastarbeiter," as they were called,
arrived that first year, a curiosity in a country where non-European faces were rare.
Press flashbulbs popped. Politicians made speeches of welcome. Ordinary Germans
Nobody grasped that the country -- and the continent, because neighboring
nations soon undertook similar experiments -- was on the brink of a transformation
whose effects are still reverberating across Europe.
In Berlin, which today ranks as the largest ''Turkish" city outside Turkey,
falafel stands and kebab joints far outnumber eateries offering schnitzel. In the Dutch
city of Rotterdam, Islamic calls to prayer are as common as church chimes. In the
raw-knuckled housing projects ringing Paris, graffiti are more likely to be scrawled in
Arabic than in the language of Voltaire.
''The idea, originally, was that the foreign workers would stay for as long as
economically necessary, then go home," said Michael Bommes, director of the
Institute for Migration Research at Germany's Osnabrueck University. ''It didn't quite
go like that."
As the US Congress wrestles with comprehensive immigration reform, one
idea under discussion is a new program that would allow guest workers to enter the
country, but not necessarily to stay on and become citizens.
In Germany, guest workers -- mostly poorly educated young men who were
issued special visas allowing them entry for one or two years to take unskilled jobs --
helped the nation to become the third-richest in the world. The fabulous post-war
prosperity of France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and other West European
countries was also boosted by immigrant labor, mainly from Turkey and North Africa.
But more recently, as economic growth has slowed, swelling numbers of
Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa -- many of them arriving
without any visas, or overstaying their visas and melting into the ethnic suburbs -- are
being blamed for social stresses from urban blight to chaotic schools. In the words of
the late Swiss writer Max Frisch: ''We wanted workers, we got people."
Guest workers, unlike ordinary immigrants, were admitted under special jobs
programs, and at least under the original plans, had no prospects of becoming
citizens or permanent residents. Germany, like other European countries, at first
refused even to allow them to bring families, hoping to discourage them from trying to
put down roots. Later, Germany granted work stays of up to five years, and permitted
wives and children to come along.
For decades, there were no efforts to integrate the newcomers. They were
entitled to social benefits, but not citizenship. Their children could attend schools, but
little effort was made to give them language skills. Far from a melting pot, Europe in
the post-World War II era became the realm of ''parallel societies," in which native
and immigrant populations occupied the same countries but shared little common
Now, the presence of millions of largely unassimilated newcomers, coupled
with terrorist attacks in London and Madrid, has triggered furious debates in Europe
over national identity and the future of immigration.
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France, in an about-face, has decided it no longer wants to admit the poorest
of the poor, just skilled workers who speak fluent French and respect the ideals of
secular democracy. Germany and the Netherlands have passed new laws that seem
intended to thwart immigration from Islamic lands -- with potential newcomers
queried about attitudes toward women's rights, Jews, and gays.
The only unskilled guest workers still recruited in large numbers are the
migrant harvesters who perform the mostly seasonal stoop labor disdained even by
the jobless in more affluent countries, including Germany and Britain.
But, in a major shift, even migrant workers these days are mostly recruited
from within Europe -- tens of thousands of Poles, for instance, harvest Germany's
famous white asparagus; pickers from Lithuania and Latvia pluck strawberries and
other crops in Great Britain. Europe's guest worker programs were mostly scrapped
during the recessions of the 1970s, but in a pattern reflecting the Hispanic flow into
the United States, the movement of Muslims to Europe only accelerated. Those early
guest workers routinely overstayed their one- or two-year permits, or lived from
extension to extension, but faced scant risk of deportation unless they committed
Many of the first generation of workers bought houses or established small
businesses, although usually confining themselves to immigrant enclaves. Their
German-born children were registered as ''foreigners." They often spend years or
even decades resolving their legal status.
While many European governments failed to seriously pursue integration,
many Muslim immigrants were equally unwilling to shed their own languages and
national identities. ''Neither side really thought hard about issues of citizenship,
nationality, or integration because neither side truly expected the immigrants to stay,"
said Eren Uensal, a Berlin sociologist whose parents emigrated from Turkey in 1972.
''My mother insisted we were going to stay in Germany just long enough to earn
money for a new sewing machine, to start a tailor shop back home," she said. ''Now
we're into the third generation, and my mother still hasn't bought her sewing
machine. Of course, that's because they made comfortable lives. No one really
wanted to go home."
Legal workers were followed by waves of family members and illegal
immigrants. In the 1960s, a few hundred thousand Muslims lived in Western Europe.
Today, best estimates peg the number at more than 20 million -- including 3 million in
Germany, mainly Turks; 5 million in France, mainly North African Arabs; 1.7 million in
Britain; and 900,000 in Holland.
If the immigration controversy in the United States is really about Latinos, in
Europe it's really about Muslims. And America's efforts to crack down on illegal
immigration is spreading alarm among Muslim immigrants. ''It's saddening and
frightening to see America, of all places, try to close its borders," said Cem
Oezdemir, a member of the European parliament and one of few mainstream
German politicians of Turkish heritage. ''How can Europe soothe its anxieties if the
country that most symbolizes the success of integration closes its door against
Indeed, the future of the continent may be written on these darker-skinned
faces thronging the streets. Birth rates in some European countries are plunging
dramatically. Immigrants earning wages and paying taxes appear to represent the
best chance the continent has of keeping its place in the world's economic front
Many of the original guest workers are now retired, enjoying the comfortable
pensions that are the pride of Europe. But their children and their grandchildren are
trapped between two worlds, too ''Europeanized" ever to return to the Middle East or
North Africa, but lacking the language skills and education to forge ahead in their
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The progeny of the early workers are filling schools -- and, critics say, jails --
as well as putting heavy demands on social services. The legal status of the offspring
is murky, with many entitled to social services and health care without holding
citizenship. The Berlin borough of Neukoelln, one of Germany's largest immigrant
enclaves, spends 60 percent of its budget on welfare payments. Meanwhile, 70
percent of the children in the district don't complete high school; only about half of
immigrant youngsters speak German. At the rough-and-tumble Ruetli vocational high
school in Neukoelln, where 80 percent of students are of immigrant stock, not a
single student from last year's graduating class went on to specialized training or an
apprenticeship, the normal routes to decent-paying, blue-collar jobs.
''The parents took jobs that Germans didn't want -- and most of that first
generation did all right," said Wolfgang Janzer, an artist who heads a project, Fusion,
that seeks to channel the frustration of immigrant youngsters into artistic expression,
such as sculpture, painting, and dance. ''But the young people don't even get the bad
jobs. That's making them hopeless. How do you climb the social ladder when you
can't even grab the bottom rung?"
Some do get a grip, of course. According to government figures, Germany
boasts 64,600 entrepreneurs of Turkish heritage, responsible for creating hundreds
of thousands of jobs. Yet people of immigrant stock are still regarded with a mixture
of curiosity, caution, and occasionally contempt by many Germans.
''I served in the German Army in Kosovo, and only considered it my duty to
my country," said Ali Yapici, 28, an insurance executive whose parents emigrated to
Berlin as guest workers in the 1960s. ''Yet among ordinary Germans, I'm treated as a
kind of outsider, almost a second-class citizen, even though I speak the same
language and share the same hopes of making a good life."
He said: ''Guest workers came to Germany when they were necessary. Both
sides benefited. It would be nice, now that times are difficult, if there was a sense of
us all being in the same boat. Different people together in one society. But that's the
American dream. Here, instead, they look at the immigrants: 'Why are you still
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