Speaking at an event marking the 60th anniversary of the German-Turkish recruitment agreement, Steinmeier praised the families of Turkish immigrants and called them an important part of Germany.
A Germany without guest workers, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren would be “simply unimaginable today,” Steinmeier said at the event.
Germany began recruiting workers from abroad to in industries such as agriculture, construction, steel, automotive and mining in the 1950s.
On October 30th, 1961 West Germany signed a recruitment deal with Turkey to supplement its workforce. The labourers were promised minimum wages and accommodation for the duration of their temporary contracts.
Some 710,000 people answered the call until the 1973 global oil crisis ended the recruitment drive. Thousands of workers returned to Turkey, but many instead decided to bring their families to Germany, triggering a massive increase in the country’s Turkish population.
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Estimates vary on the number of Turkish people and those with a Turkish background living in Germany, but it’s thought to be around 2.5 to 3 million.
Steinmeier said people from Turkey who travelled over to Germany – as well as immigrants from other countries – had contributed hugely to Germany being more open and diverse today, and helped the country become economically stronger and more prosperous.
He said the German concept of Heimat – translated roughly to homeland in English – exists in many forms.
“Being German today can mean just as much that your grandparents come from Cologne or Königsberg as from Istanbul or Diyarbakir,” he said.
Addressing immigrants and people with foreign heritage at the event in Bellevue Palace, Berlin, Steinmeier said, “You are not ‘people with a migration background’ – we are a country with a migration background.”
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The German president recalled how many immigrants had not had an easy start in Germany 60 years ago.
“There were no language courses, no support, no integration policies, for the simple reason that integration was not wanted,” he said.
“After two years, people were supposed to pack their bags again.”
Things remained the same for a long time because of these failures, said Steinmeier. “It was a long, painful road until our society was ready, far too late, to accept the inevitable and the overdue, the right thing to do; these so-called guest workers are neither just guests nor just workers.”
‘Xenophobia must never be tolerated in Germany’
Education and social opportunities still differ “by worlds” for people with a migrant background, Steinmeier said.
There will be “no brighter future as long as exclusion, prejudice and resentment permeate the everyday life of our society”, he added.
The President said he is shocked when people with a different skin colour, language or religion became targets of hatred. Xenophobia must “never be tolerated in Germany,” he said.
Muslims belong to Germany just as much as secular immigrants, the German president stressed. “If we say ‘you are at home here,’ then faith, in all its diversity, must also have a home here.”