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Turks and Kurds in Germany

  • Profile 

    German official statistics do not usually differentiate between Turks and Kurds, even though hostilities in the Kurdish regions of Türkiye are reflected in relations between the two communities in Germany. There are some 2.77 million with a ‘migrant background’ connected to Türkiyeaccording to official 2018 microcensus dataTurks and Kurds who fled as political refugees have often maintained their opposition party allegiances, which include Islamic and Kurdish separatist parties. Turkish and Kurdish workers are represented in German trade unions and on works councils. There is an increasing number of Turkish businesses. Naturalized second-generation Turks have been voted in as members of the federal and state parliaments. 

    The Turkish and Kurdish communities in Germany are not officially recognized national minorities. Therefore, their status significantly differs from that of the four national minorities. 

    Historical context

    Turkish gastarbeiter were recruited in the 1960s through a bilateral agreement between the German and Turkish governments. The workers had short-term permits and were expected to return home and be replaced by others. This did not happen to the extent planned, mainly because German employers wanted to keep the workers they had trained. In 1973 recruitment ended, and most immigration since then has been for family reunification and asylum. By the 1990s some 70 per cent of the community was born in Germany, the children of immigrants who arrived between 1961 and 1973. 

    Approximately one-third of the original gastarbeiterswere qualified workers, mainly men from urban areas of Türkiye with high levels of education and professional skills. They worked in iron and steel processing, plastics, rubber, asbestos processing and other manufacturing sectors. The majority of Turk and Kurd women came as dependents, although most found work illegally as unskilled labourers, particularly in the textile, electronics and food industries. 

    Many early Turkish and Kurdish immigrants of the 1960s were political activists and continued their activism in Germany, setting up political organizations in exile while maintaining their adversity towards each other and the Turkish government. For the most part this was tolerated. But in September 1993, when the Turkish and German governments agreed cooperation on the social integration of Turkish people, the German government promised to investigate the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK estimated it had 400,000 supporters in Germany, the majority of the Kurdish community there. One month later the German state banned the PKK and closed down Kurdish cultural organizations and the Kurdish press agency. 

    Racism and right-wing extremism have increased in tandem with rising unemployment and the prospect of new immigrants following the accession of Central and East European countries to the European Union in 2004. The events of 11 September 2001 and the Madrid and London bombings in 2004 and 2005 increased negative attitudes towards Muslims. 

    Current issues

    Turks and Kurds are disadvantaged in education, employment and housing. There have been acts of extreme violence, including murder, and discrimination against the communities for many years.  

    Since the onset of the migration crisis in 2015, the Turkish community has been affected indirectly by rising anti-migrant sentiment in Germany. While targeted primarily against individuals from the Middle East and North Africa, the Turkish community has also been affected – despite many members having lived for decades in Germany. In February 2020, a far-right extremist carried out a mass shooting at two shisha bars in Hanau, killing nine people. The choice of targets appeared to be very deliberate, as shisha bars are popular gathering places for members of migrant and refugee communities. At least five of the victims were Turkish nationals.   

    The politics of Türkiye and its current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is another sensitive issue for the Turkish community in Germany. In 2018, photos of Mesut Özil and Ilkay Gündoğan, two German top-level football players of Turkish descent, with Erdoğan were interpreted as a sign of support for his politics and insufficient loyalty to Germany. It generated a heated debate on national identity, integration policies and citizenship issues, with some commentators arguing that the controversy highlighted persistent problems of racism towards the Turkish community.  

    All parents must pay to send their children to kindergarten and many Turkish and Kurdish families, like other low-income families, often cannot or do not afford this expense. As Turkish is spoken at home rather than German, many Turkish children start primary school with insufficient German. They are taught in their own language initially, but this sets them apart and sets them back in education, from which many never recover. Few Turkish children go to gymnasiums, the secondary schools that prepare students for university entrance. The German three-tier secondary school system, which directs children towards certain types of work from an early age, reinforces disadvantage on account of its inflexibility, and also fosters prejudice.  

    Turkish and Kurdish workers have been regarded as unskilled or semi-skilled production workers, but the need for such workers is decreasing and disadvantages in education for the Turkish and Kurdish communities mean that the next generation is not obtaining the skills Germany now needs. However, the number of entrepreneurs is increasing.  

    Religious education, including Islam, is offered in state schools in a number of states, and religious instruction is offered in non-state schools in some others. The Turkish and other Islamic governments have provided some funding. The teachers are often trained in Türkiye and the courses are delivered in Turkish. 

    There are naturalized German-Turkish members of parliament at the federal and state levels. Turkish actors and actresses, comedians, musicians, authors and artists raise the profile of Turkish culture within the mainstream.

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