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Images - Challenges of Immigration

The influx of foreign laborers into West Germany was largely a product of the building of the Wall, which cut off the flow of workers from the GDR. In order to supply its booming industry with more manpower, the FRG updated existing regulations and concluded a series of new “guest-worker treaties” with Italy, Turkey, and other less developed southern European states, thereby relieving them of their own underemployed. Recruited foreign laborers were called “guest workers,” since they were supposed to work in Germany only temporarily and then return home, with newcomers taking their place. This rotation principle worked as long as the economy was expanding, but when it slowed and the steep rise in oil prices in 1973 triggered massive unemployment, the federal government resorted to a “recruitment stop.” While some foreign workers took advantage of return incentives, the majority nonetheless decided to stay – thereby turning their short-term presence into long-term immigration. Nonetheless, the FRG refused to consider itself an “immigration country,” since Germans thought of themselves primarily as emigrants due to a long and established history of going abroad.

With the arrival of hundreds of thousands of foreign laborers, a subculture of residents from Mediterranean countries gradually formed in ghetto-like communities in large cities and industrial towns. The “recruitment stop” actually brought about the opposite effect, since many “guest workers,” fearing the refusal of reentry if they were to leave the country, brought their families in and set up permanent residence. Unprepared for the influx of non-German speaking children, schools failed to work out an integration strategy because authorities insisted on preparing foreign children for an eventual return to their home countries. As a result, frustrated youths stranded between two cultures often turned violent. Turkish women felt especially shut out, because they learned less German than the men in the workplace and had to live according to traditional Islamic customs in a country where native women were growing more emancipated. Only a minority of youths succeeded in school and began to form new kinds of hybrid Turkish-German identities.

Seeking to exploit the fears of welfare competition among the German unemployed, rightist politicians fanned the flames of xenophobia, suggesting that the country was being overrun by criminals from abroad. Egged on by a considerable number of xenophobic adults, a militant minority of neo-Nazi youths increasingly resorted to violent attacks against foreigners. The social-liberal cabinet therefore warned against racial arrogance and created a special ombudsman for foreign-born residents, a public figure who could speak out in favor of their concerns. But conservative professors reinforced popular fears of the negative consequences of continued immigration. Although there were only a tiny number of foreign laborers in the GDR, notably from Vietnam, there was a similar undercurrent of xenophobia due to the competition for scarce consumer goods. In the Federal Republic, the political class proved unable to reach a compromise on immigration and integration before 1989 because the left generally favored international openness and multiculturalism, whereas the right insisted on ethnic remigration while limiting the influx of foreigners. Undeterred by economic fluctuations and political indecision, a sizable foreign community had formed in the Federal Republic and was there to stay.

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