German-Turkish Return Migration

Scholars estimate that at least 4 million people in Turkey have a German migration background (Pusch and Splitt 2013, p. 132). Turks initially traveled to Germany as Gastarbeiter (guest workers) after World War II, during a period when the German government signed work recruitment treaties with foreign governments in order to rebuild the country's economy[1]. Today, there are nearly 3 million Turks in Germany[2], which includes the original guest workers who travelled to the country before 1973, migrants who travelled through familial networks or due to political oppression in Turkey during the 1980s and 1990s, and more recent transnational migrants seeking educational and business opportunities in Germany.

However, despite having established a stable community in Germany, migrants have been returning to Turkey for several decades[3]. The largest wave of return migrants to date came in the mid-1980s, when over 200,000 Turks returned following the introduction of German legislation encouraging return migration. In response to the large volume of returnees, the Turkish government implemented “re-adaptation” courses in Turkish high schools, which stressed the importance of learning about Turkish ethnic and religious heritage (Miller 2013). After the initial wave of returning migrants, the number of returnees from Germany has remained lower than the number of migrants to Germany. However, since 2006 there has been a greater number of migrants returning from Germany than traveling to Germany (Pusch and Splitt 2013, p. 135). In 2012, there were approximately 4000 more migrants to Turkey from Germany than migrants from Turkey to Germany (BAMF 2014, p. 23). Returnees include first generation migrants who retire in Turkey permanently and those who divide their time equally between Turkey and Germany, as well as second and third generations who return to pursue employment opportunities. Three quarters of returnees are between 25 and 50 years of age, and one quarter are over 50 years of age (Baykara-Krumme and Nauck 2011).

Scholars do not agree about the terminology one should use when referring to this group of migrants. In this article, I use the term “German-Turk” to refer to a person of Turkish heritage who is connected to Turkish guest worker migration either because they were themselves a guest worker or because they were the spouse or child of a guest worker. I prefer “German-Turk” to “Turkish-German,” even though some feel it emphasizes German identity, because it is currently the term most commonly used by analysts (Mandel 2008, p. 181). But, despite its use in English, “Alman-Türk” (the Turkish word for “German-Turk”) is not a wellknown term in Turkish. Turkish words for German-Turks, such as “Almanyalı,” “Alamancı,” or “Almancı” (German-like, German-ish), are considered derogatory by many people in Turkey (Mandel 2008, p. 57). Therefore, while conducting fieldwork, I usually told people that I was studying “Turks who returned to Turkey from Germany” ( Almanya'dan Türkiye'ye dönen Türkler). I refer to both first and second generation migrants as “return migrants,” even though second generations may be discovering Turkey for the first time rather than “returning” per se, and migrants may not have permanently returned. The term “return migrant” emphasizes the importance of people's experiences in Turkey for the purposes of my research. This article draws from a larger anthropological research project exploring return migrants' experiences in three sites in Northwestern Turkey: İlçe[4], a town of about 15,000; Tekirdağ, a small city with a population of about 100,000; and Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey, estimated to have a population of between 15 and 20 million. My research involved living with four families for several months, formally interviewing 57 migrants and informally interviewing over 100 of the return migrants' community members, relatives and neighbors. Interviews were conducted in Turkish or German, depending on the returnee's preference.

I also analyzed relevant media, film and television programs about GermanTurks and news stories concerning German-Turks, return migrants, and Turkey's relationships with Germany and Europe. Since I wanted to explore inter-generational and community relationships, I focused on both first and second-generation returnees and on almost equal numbers of men and women. The overall aim of my research was to explore how migration from Germany to Turkey influences ethical relationships, and how German-Turks negotiate belonging in families, neighborhoods, religious groups, and migrant communities in Turkey. Educational experiences were not my primary research focus, but returnees of all ages and in all locations repeatedly mentioned education in interviews and in daily conversations.

The fact that education was such a pervasive topic demonstrates its importance for returning German-Turks and is a key reason for trying to understand how returnees view education in this article.

  • [1] For comprehensive accounts of German Turkish migration see: Akgünduz (2008), Mandel (2008) and Pusch and Splitt (2013)
  • [2] The exact figure is 2,998,000 (BAMF 2014, p. 189).
  • [3] There are many studies on German Turkish return migration. For example, (see: Çağlar 1995, 2002, 2006; Dişbudak 2004; Gerdes et al. 2012; Güven 1994; Hesapçıoğlu 1991; Pusch 2013; Razum et al. 2005; Rottmann 2013; Wolbert 1991, 1995, 1996)
  • [4] İlçe” (a Turkish word that literally means “township” or “district”) is a pseudonym that I have chosen to use in order to maintain the confidentiality of the people with whom I conducted research
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