Even After Decades, Europe’s Turkish Diaspora Struggles for Recognition

For the Turkish diaspora in Europe, integration has been a difficult journey for many

Even After Decades, Europe’s Turkish Diaspora Struggles for Recognition
Turkish Flag waves in front of the Brandenburg Gate ahead of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Berlin on September 26, 2018 / Abdulhamid Hosbas / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

In the 1960s and 1970s, several western and northern European countries in dire need of workers signed labor recruitment agreements with Turkey. Pınar Akbaş’ father, who hails from a poor village in Turkey’s Yozgat province, was one of them. He came to the small Flemish town of Overpelt in Belgium in 1974 in search of work, finding a job in the coal mines along with many other migrants.

Despite the crucial role they played in rebuilding postwar Europe, in many cases the migrants were treated with suspicion and hostility.

One afternoon, 5-year-old Pınar came home from school with her 7-year-old brother to find “Dirty Turks” written on the ground in front of their house. “Our mom took our hands and said, ‘The rain will wash it away,’ and that’s still her mindset,” recounts Pınar, now a 41-year-old nurse.

Millions of mostly low-skilled laborers and their families came from Turkey to Europe. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the first recruitment agreement, signed between Turkey and Germany in 1961. Today Turkish diaspora communities encompassing roughly 5.5 million people are spread across Europe, forming one of the continent’s largest migrant groups and the largest Muslim-majority community. Approximately 3 million live in Germany alone, with other substantial communities in France, Austria, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Sweden. But 60 years and several generations later, many people from the Turkish diaspora still feel like second-class citizens in Europe.

Initially called “guest workers” rather than immigrants, both the laborers and host countries assumed they’d eventually move back to Turkey, so neither side made much of an effort at integration. Workers often lived in isolation in dormitories provided by their employers. But chronic economic problems and political instability in Turkey compelled many workers to stay in their host countries. When these workers brought their families, a sense of resentment soon bubbled up in the host societies. “They told us to go back to our countries now that the job was done. They still say that,” Pınar laments.

Ekin Deligöz, a long-standing member of Germany’s Bundestag for The Greens, came to Munich in 1979 when she was 8. Her early memories are of supermarkets filled with the fragrance of Christmas spices, more chocolate than she had ever seen before, and getting her first Barbie doll. Deligöz attended a school with Turkish teachers because integration of foreign workers and their families still wasn’t a goal of the German government. There was a beautiful section of the school that was colorful and happy, where German and other European children studied, and a Turkish section that was dull and gray, full of outdated supplies from Turkey.

“Between the two parts of the school there was a big door that was always shut so people wouldn’t mix. We always stood by this door and looked at the shiny part of the school,” Deligöz recalls. She later attended one of Germany’s advanced secondary schools, called gymnasiums, where she was the only Turkish student, but expectations were always low. “When you’re growing up as a migrant child, nobody believes in you. Everybody tells you what you can’t do,” she says.

Soon, Europe’s so-called guest workers were joined by a different kind of migrant from Turkey. Violence in the 1970s and a brutal military regime from 1980 to 1983 brought political exiles — leftists, Kurds, religious minorities and Islamists — fleeing jail and torture in droves. In the 1990s, others came to Europe to escape a civil war and political assassinations in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast. In the 2000s, wealthier Turks came as university students, and in recent years, thousands more have come to escape an ongoing economic crisis and widespread political persecution that worsened with the government crackdown following the 2016 coup attempt.

These successive waves of different migrants from Turkey birthed a rich diversity within diaspora communities that native Europeans often fail to appreciate. Many people, even if they don’t express negative attitudes toward the diaspora, often perceive Turks in a stereotypical way, as pious, ultraconservative, patriarchal, poorly educated, and fanatically supportive of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

While religiosity and support for Erdoğan may be higher within some segments of the diaspora, there is no one-size-fits-all description for Turkish communities in Europe. Indeed, there is as much diversity among Turks outside Turkey as there is within it, with religious conservatives, secularists, nationalists, leftists, white- and blue-collar workers, academics, Sunni Muslims, Alevis, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Kurds and people from other ethnic backgrounds visible in the diaspora.

A Dutchman was so shocked at seeing Turks drinking alcohol and gambling that he called his friends over to gawk at them.

“As a Turk in the Netherlands, people assume who you are and who you vote for,” says Ayşegül Dede Eren, an academic who moved to Eindhoven in 2017. She describes one night when she was out with her husband, also from Turkey, drinking beer and playing blackjack. A Dutchman was so shocked at seeing Turks drinking alcohol and gambling that he called his friends over to gawk at them. “At some point we felt like animals in a cage,” Eren says.

Many within the diaspora are tired of being defined exclusively by their ethnic background and the burden of having to prove their worth. “You have to overperform,” says Asena Soydaş, a 28-year-old project manager who was born in Germany and lives in Berlin. If you’re good at something, you’re an example of a well-integrated person, but as soon as something doesn’t work like it should, your Turkish culture becomes a bad thing.”

And then there’s the onslaught of awkward questions and comments for those who don’t fit the stereotype: “You don’t look Turkish.”; “How do you speak such good English?”; “Why don’t you wear a headscarf?”; “Wow, you drink alcohol and eat pork?”

“All these questions don’t seem discriminatory in [people’s] minds,” says Gülay Türkmen, a sociologist from Turkey at the WZB Social Science Center in Berlin who started studying the diaspora after being confronted with these prejudicial attitudes herself. “Maybe they’re well intentioned, but when it piles up, it becomes really tiring.”

Those in the diaspora community who were born in Europe can’t escape the discrimination either. Zeynep Balcı, 36, who was born in Belgium and works for the Brussels capital region, remembers a friend who was afraid of being seen playing with her as a child, as well as the mortification of being scolded for speaking Turkish in school and a teacher mocking her name in front of her whole class. “I was the only Turk. I felt so humiliated,” she says.

“It doesn’t matter how you look, how you speak, how you dress,” says Balcı, who often gets told that she’s “not like the other Turks.” “Is this a compliment? It feels more like an assault,” she says.

Younger, more integrated and well-educated generations of the diaspora often feel discrimination more than their parents because they’re more keenly aware of it, better able to describe it, and naturally have much higher expectations of being treated as an equal. “It’s the typical migration paradox. The more you integrate, or try to be included, the more you feel discriminated against,” Balcı explains.

More recent immigrants with a higher educational background can’t avoid the discrimination either. IT worker Deniz Kargılı, 36, moved to Berlin as a graduate student in 2017 and describes the strange contrast of living in a famously open and tolerant city as part of the country’s primary marginalized class. “Berlin pretty much welcomes everyone. You can be anyone you like,” Kargılı says, but he feels he’ll never be accepted as an equal member of German society. “When you’re part of the biggest immigrant community in the country, it comes with a certain amount of baggage.”

In addition to negative stereotypes, there is evidence of discrimination against anyone with a Turkish name when it comes to applying for jobs or housing. This racism has sometimes turned violent. In 1992 and 1993, neo-Nazis in Germany torched Turkish migrant families’ homes, burning to death three people in the first attack in Mölln and five in the second attack in Solingen. Soydaş thought these attacks were a thing of the past until Feb. 19, 2020, when a member of the far-right shot and killed nine people at two shisha bars in a racist attack in Hanau. All the victims had a migrant background, and several were Turkish or Kurdish. “Hanau was a fracture. It was a moment when I didn’t feel safe,” Soydaş says.

Reporters often ask members of the diaspora if they feel more Turkish or more like members of the country where they live, but this either-or categorization fails to capture the complexity and multifaceted nature of identity. “This is the nation-state mindset — you have to choose one side,” says Türkmen. “But I think that has to change. They need to have a much more flexible attitude towards national identity and belonging. They need to make more space for these types of multiple belongings and see it as something that can actually enrich and strengthen society rather than threaten it.”

In Belgium, Pınar sees no contradiction between her multiple identities. “I am Belgian, I am European, I am Turkish, I am Alevi.” Soydaş describes her multiple identities like a set of tools she can pick from, according to her mood. “I can choose every day who I want to be. Sometimes I’m more German, sometimes more Turkish, or both.”

İlke Toygür, a European affairs analyst in Madrid at the Elcano Royal Institute, believes the pan-European identity fostered by European Union programs such as Erasmus+ has the potential to be more inclusive than rigid national identities. “That identity, rather than being based on ethnicity, is more based on a common culture, common rights and obligations, and could also include people from diasporas.”

Several of the interviewees say that societies in Canada, the United States and the U.K. are more comfortable seeing themselves as immigrant nations and have more inclusive national identities. “Continental Europe has a more conservative approach to the question of citizenship compared to Anglo-Saxon countries,” says Sinem Adar, a specialist on the Turkish diaspora at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

Kargılı describes seeing a letter that a friend received after becoming a Canadian citizen. “It said, ‘Thank you for choosing Canada. Welcome home.’ This is never going to happen in Europe,” he says. “This whole idea that we can build a multicultural society, it’s going to take some time, because Europe has a history. Until then we’re going to be outsiders.”

There have been slow improvements in the acceptance of diaspora communities in Europe as the continent has become increasingly diverse. Many from a Turkish background have joined the ranks of the political and business elites. “On one level, there’s been an improvement, and I don’t think that improvement has been because German society has become nicer. It’s because diaspora communities have become too politically and economically powerful to screw around with anymore,” explains Alexander Clarkson, an expert on the Turkish diaspora at King’s College London. “The pathway to acceptance is the acquisition of power, and they have power now.”

Türkmen points out that younger generations are more likely to speak the local language fluently or marry someone from a different background. “If you look at subcultures like hip-hop, or the arts industry and talk shows, you see a lot of second-, third-, fourth-generation migrants from Turkey who are well known,” she says, referring to Germany in particular. “There you can see the difference. These people are changing or influencing society in a way their parents or grandparents couldn’t imagine.”

Earlier this year, 115 candidates with Turkish roots ran in the German elections, mostly for left-leaning parties that advocate for migrant rights, and a record 18 became parliamentarians. These politicians from the diaspora have played a major role in expanding rights for migrants and faced major obstacles. “Some people told me, ‘It’s a really big risk having you in politics because people won’t vote for somebody with a strange name,’” says Ekin Deligöz, who’s been a member of the Bundestag since 1998.

Clarkson says the history of left-leaning individuals with a Turkish background breaking into center-left European politics is a success story that’s often overshadowed by stories about the lack of integration and support for Erdoğan within the diaspora. “There’s a parallel story of Turkish left-liberal traditions being absorbed by the Greens and by social democratic and socialist parties,” he says. “The integration process is two-way. These people have also brought with them a Turkish left sensibility and subculture, and that’s become absorbed by the wider European center-left.”

Perhaps predictably, the increased acceptance of the diaspora has led to a backlash. “A lot of what’s driving the center-right and the [German nativist political party] AfD right now is populist fear of an environment in which all of these groups of people actually have power and can determine the future of the country as much as any other major group,” says Clarkson.

Pınar notices that her patients feel increasingly free to make discriminatory comments compared to the past, and it’s even worse online. “There’s no filter anymore.”

Divisions within the diaspora have grown considerably alongside increased polarization in Turkey, which Erdoğan has fomented. “When this radicalization started within the Turkish diaspora, [between] who supports Erdoğan and who doesn’t, the dynamics changed a lot,” says Soydaş. “In our family, before we go to another Turkish family’s home, we [promise] to not talk about politics or religion. We try to have really superficial conversations.”

Kargılı, who moved to Berlin to escape increasing authoritarianism in Turkey, was put off by the level of conservatism and support for Erdoğan within the diaspora there. “We basically fled the country only to find ourselves in a minority community that made us flee in the first place.”

One of the biggest obstacles to integration for the first generations of the Turkish diaspora in Europe is that many still only have Turkish citizenship. When they first came, getting citizenship in their host countries was difficult or impossible. In the 1980s and 1990s, after it became clear that the remaining workers were there to stay, various countries made reforms to allow for naturalization after a certain period of residence, as well as citizenship for children of noncitizens born in the country.

In Germany, for instance, a law in 1991 allowed naturalization after having resided in the country for between eight and 15 years, depending on age, but it required dropping any foreign citizenship they held, a major deterrent. Because of this rule, naturalization of first-generation Turkish migrants is quite rare. Most EU countries now allow dual citizenship, with the notable exception of Austria, while others, such as the Netherlands, discourage it.

In 2000, a groundbreaking law was passed in Germany, allowing children of noncitizens to gain citizenship if one of their parents has lived there for at least eight years, and the residency requirement for naturalization was reduced to eight years for everyone. In 2014, dual citizenship was finally allowed for those born in Germany. But because this didn’t apply to migrants born outside of the country, over half of the diaspora population, many of whom have lived in Germany for decades, still don’t have German citizenship, and hence can’t vote or work in certain jobs. As of 2011, just over 1.3 million members of the diaspora had German citizenship and 1.5 million did not.

Earlier this year, in a major development praised by migration experts, Germany’s new coalition government pledged to introduce new legislation allowing multiple citizenships for everyone and reducing the residency requirement for naturalization to between 3 and 5 years.

Adar says more European governments should follow Germany’s example and make citizenship easier to acquire. “The whole point is to signal to these communities that they’re fully accepted as equal parts of the societies where they live, and I think citizenship and voting rights are one strong indicator to give that signal.”

Balcı, meanwhile, says she sometimes gets frustrated with the constant talk of integration and prefers the word inclusivity. “What is integration? Is it respecting the rule of law? Is it speaking the language? Is it drinking beer?” Balcı asks, as she ponders how many Belgians go to diaspora neighborhoods and learn about different cultures. She sees integration as a two-way street and is tired of being the only side doing the work.

“I can only integrate as much as the host society accepts me. I’ve done everything I can. I got my education [despite] all the difficulties I had. I had to fight stereotypes in the Belgian community and in my Turkish community. Luckily Brussels is a very cosmopolitan city where you can easily feel at home, but I still don’t feel totally accepted sometimes, especially in less diverse environments.”

Balcı says the most important thing governments can do is focus on equal access to education and address discrimination in the labor and housing markets. “These are the most important things that people need to flourish and to bloom.”

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