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'Turks in Germany lack a sense of belonging'

October 30, 2016

It's been 55 years since Germany's recruitment agreement with Turkey. But many Turks still don't feel well integrated, says Gökay Sofuoglu, chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany (TGD).

Deutschland türkische Gastarbeiter 1960/70
Image: picture-alliance/CPA Media Co. Ltd

Deutsche Welle: Turkey and what was then West Germany concluded a recruitment agreement for guest workers ("Gastarbeiter") 55 years ago. How was it for the Turks who came here?

Gökay Sofuoglu: They were of course happy at first to have found work abroad. But they weren't properly prepared. They were only thinking about earning money and returning to Turkey. Staying wasn't a consideration, as it was later much differently portrayed.

But many did stay. Now there are about 2.9 million people in Germany with Turkish roots, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). What has changed in the last 55 years with regards to the Turks?

Much has changed - for the Turks in Germany, but also of course for Turks in Turkey. There were many families with members who lived abroad, earned a lot of money and invested in Turkey. For the Turks, the time here began with work and looking toward the future. They only began to worry once people had decided to stay - worry that they were leaving their homeland forever, that they wouldn't find an apartment in Germany, that they didn't learn the language, which at first as guest workers wasn't particularly important either for the German government or the Turks who came here.

Deutschland Berlin Gökay Sofuoglu Türkische Gemeinde Deutschland
Gökay Sofuoglu chairs the Turkish Community in Germany (TGD)Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Fischer

You must hear often from German politicians that the Turks aren't integrated. What are the reasons behind a lack of integration after all this time?

I think the cause lies in that in the beginning people weren't viewed as having needs, but only viewed as labor. Therefore, measures weren't undertaken - there was little interest - that those coming here also learnt German. They were here to work: Germany needed extra hands. The so-called guest workers from Turkey were welcomed to that end. It was an oversight that they didn't also learn the language. This denied them contact to society and everyday contact with people.

Has German politics since learned from its mistakes?

German politicians always say they've learned from their mistakes. But when I look at the regulations over the last years or decades - I've been here for 36 years - they aren't very heartening for people in Germany. They more resemble sanctions that don't convey a sense of belonging. Nevertheless, there have been German courses at language schools for several years. I think we're moving in the right direction, albeit 50 years too late.

What are the Turkish immigrants' biggest shortcomings?

The Turkish immigrants and the Turkish organizations have big shortcomings, too, of course. They are still heavily influenced by politics in Turkey, and are more focused on Turkey's domestic politics than German interests. It's once again the case that Turkish politicians are strongly interested in Turks in Germany, seeing how much the parties go after supporters in Europe. This was the situation 20 years ago: What's happening in Turkey is more present for Turks here than what's happening in Germany. That's no good for life here in Germany.

Deutschland Muslime
There are about 3 million people of Turkish heritage in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Schlesinger

What about Turkish life here in Germany today?

Turks have a dual life. On one hand, they want to feel they belong in Germany. On the other, they have a lot of hurdles to surmount: equal opportunity in the workplace and when finding a place to live, opportunity for promotion in companies and civil service. Turks are not represented enough in civil service. This has to do with a lack of confidence, though the German state also hasn't fully accepted that third-generation Turks belong to this country and therefore can work in the interests of this country.

After all these years, many Turks in Germany still don't feel accepted. What is the cause of this?

It's because of this lack of sense of belonging. To think that after 55 years here, some still don't have certain voting rights, that there are still latent forms of everyday racism, that people with Turkish-sounding names have difficulty finding a job or a place to live. In school, too, there are problems if you are from Turkey.

Education is also an important indicator of integration. How has the education level improved over the past 55 years?

Compared with 20 years ago, the education situation is better. There are more high school graduates, more university students - despite how socially disadvantaged Turks as a group are. The Turks who came here weren't academics. They were workers, often unskilled, who couldn't further support their children academically. This made for a low education level also in the second generation. Now in the third generation, we see more jurists, medical professionals and businesspeople. They are more successful than the previous generation.

Gökay Sofuoglu is the national chairperson of the Turkish Community of Germany. The interview was conducted by Jülide Danisman.

Germany: Guest workers who came and stayed