A lesson in immigration

Guest worker experiments transformed Europe

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 watched, bemused.

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.”

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