Germany in a Changing Europe


The Diplomatic Observer magazine has carried out an exclusive interview with Mehmet Okyayuz. The wide-ranging interview covers the structural exclusion of migrants and minorities, migration in Germany, pro-immigrant social movements, German Federal Election and Brexit.


Middle East Technical University



Mehmet Okyayuz is a university teacher in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Middle East Technical University in Ankara/Turkey. He studied Political Science, Philosophy and Sociology at the universities of Paris, Berlin, Heidelberg and Marburg.

He completed his M.A. at the University of Heidelberg and his Ph.D. at the University of Marburg. Some of his areas of research and education are labor migration along with Political Theory/Thought, Social Policy and Ideology Research. At present, he is teaching “Immigration Policies in Europe” and “Public Participation of Turkish Labor Migrants in Western Europe”. In addition, he is conducting research projects on “Return Migration from Germany to Turkey” and “Media Behavior of Turkish Migrants in Germany”. He was chairman of the Executive Board of the NGO Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM). He published texts (among others) concerning the issues of European and Turkish asylum systems, return migration, global migration and immigration policies.


Throughout Europe, tensions around issues of race, religion and national identity have been growing. And the meaning of migrants casts in the ambivalent conditions of modernity, as Zygmunt Bauman points out. In this sense, migrants have one dimensional existence, a peculiar position, as being neither inside nor outside, neither friend nor enemy, neither included nor excluded, which make the existential situation of the migrants is radically different, an opaque, not a transparent existence. Since the migrants are assigned no status inside the cultural realm, they want to make their own. The migrants therefore depicted the ambiguities which are troublesome and creating conflicts. Is it possible to overcome the structural exclusion of migrants and minorities so often lamented in mainstream discourses?

Let me first say that the relation between the ‘foreigner’ and the state has its most determinant basis in the immigration laws of the different states. Immigration Law is what we would call an exceptional legal system not fitting (politically liberal) principles such as calculability, rationality and transparency. Thus, this relation is asymmetrical in the sense that the state or (more concrete) the political actors defining, formulating and executing migration-specific issues do have a nearly unlimited disposition over the foreigners, and this even more if we consider the fact that public and political participation of these foreigners is limited if not totally ‘forbidden’ The things mentioned so far focusses on the structural dimension of (im)migration law and policies, and this dimension which is more or less independent from the actors, makes it categorically difficult for the migrants or – as formulated in your questionnaire – ‘foreigners’ to establish an understanding of their own living and working perspectives including the self determination of their ‘identity’. Nevertheless, there are periods within the German labour migration history after 1945 in which attempts to question mainstream understandings of what integration, multiculturalism, or identity could be were tried to be undergone by the migrants themselves. E.g., during the 1970’s the migrants tried to organize their own interests by becoming – may be the first time -self-conscious actors articulating themselves and their needs as part of the society. Up to that time they were solely objects of so-called migration research, but from this time until now they are aiming at attempting to be subjects of their concerns. This development was eased by the fact that a lot of migrants (foreigners) do possess the German citizenship which provides them a legal umbrella of protection. Unfortunately, nowadays there is a big gap between this political-legal aspect which is indeed of existential importance for the migrants, and the present social reality of a time in which xenophobia has become widespread in nearly all the European countries, particularly in traditional migrant-receiving countries such as Germany, France or the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, the only hope for a multi-layered conceptualization of integration and multiculturalism, in sum: of the possibility of living together rather than of living side by side, lies in the hands of the migrants themselves who should insist in articulating their interests as part of the interests of the whole society, and further more in informing the public of their new home countries about the structural reasons of population movements. It seems that in a World in which population movements have become a non-preventable part of international relations, this is the only realistic solution.


Germany is a sui-generis country in terms of immigration policies. In retrospect, Germany has been using immigrants for many years to support the country’s labor force, although it is often voiced especially by the politicians that Germany is not a country of migration. In this context, Germany is home to the highest number by far of all third-country nationals in the EU. On the other hand, despite the large share of immigrants in its population, Germany has long been one of the most restrictive in the EU in terms of citizenship policies. Could you give us a short history of citizenship and migration in Germany?

In most general terms we can divide German labour migration history after 1945 in four periods. The first period took place from the mid-fifties until the beginning of the 1970’s, more concretely spoken until the so-called recruitment stop of 1972/1973. In this first period foreign labour force was recruited from countries such as Italy, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Greece, (former) Yugoslavia to be employed in the traditional industrial sectors of Germany which’s main characteristics were uncomfortable working conditions in combination with relatively low wages. In the beginning the working contracts were based on the so-called rotational model according to which the recruited worker should work for one, or maximum, two years, and then return to his home country to contribute to the economy of the sending country. Behind this model we can state a conceptualization of each and every single worker as ‘human capital’ providing ‘innovative effects’. At least this was presented to the sending countries in the fore-evening of the bilateral agreements. In fact, this never happened in reality. According to the wishes of the German entrepreneurs, who were satisfied with the productivity of the labour migrants, the working (and resident) permits became extended. Even if migration has social dynamics immanent nearly impossible to control, and even if it became more and more evident during the sixties that most of the labour migrants would not return to their home countries, the fifties and sixties can be characterized as time period in which the social dimension of labour migration was in general neglected. In order to define this I use the formula: Immigration Policies as Labour Market policies. Thus, from the late sixties onwards it was more and more clear, that not only the majority of the recruited migrants would stay in their new homes, furthermore it was clear that they would bring their wives and husbands to Germany. By the way, it should be mentioned that nearly one third of the recruited labour force were women. To summarize one can say that until the recruitment stop Germany had in fact become somehow an immigration country. But until now this reality is more or less still not officially accepted. Until now this issue remains one of the taboos of German immigration policies, in addition with the refusal of providing labour migrants from Turkey with double citizenship. Even if after the establishment of the coalition between Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) new-born children are granted to possess double citizenship under certain conditions, for the vast majority of foreigners this still remains unreachable.

In the seventies we can state some positive developments. Some of them were mentioned within the framework of the answer of the first question. The foreigners more and more attempted to self-organize. Additionally we can state the debates of new issues, such as public and political participation of foreigners. Furthermore, at the end of the seventies, the first time official ‘voices’ began to discuss possibilities and necessities of double citizenship. The social dimension of migration was debated in public. Something completely new within the history of the relation between the foreigner and the state.

Starting with the 1980’s this partially positive development came somehow to stop as a result of beginning economic crisis symptoms of the Western European receiving countries, which provided the basis for an anti-migrant propaganda which is ongoing until now. The migration issue began to be formulated as a problem, integration was evaluated as having failed, the ‘foreigner’ itself was defined from ‘above’. Identity politics, this time, were not conceptualized by the foreigner it was directly executed from above by the state authorities. More and more the multi-dimensional and multi-directional approach to integration was replaced by a technical and formal one-sided approach, e.g. evaluating language courses as the solely mechanism of integration. The discourse of Migration Management shaped the mainstream content of immigration policies. Together with an increasing atmosphere of intolerance, xenophobia, and even open racism it is clear that the living and working conditions of the migrants get worse. Within the limited context of this interview it is not possible to list and analyze all the reasons for his negative process. I have therefore only mentioned the general cornerstones.


According to a report by Süddeutsche Zeitung based on data from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), about 55,000 migrants who were not eligible for asylum or were refused it left Germany voluntarily between January and November 2016. Why would thousands of people voluntarily leave Germany? Is it possible to talk about a serious threat against immigrants, especially by the government?

I am aware that part of my answer will include a certain level of ‘speculation’ due to the fact that no one really will know about the real reasons why people would ‘voluntarily’ leave a country where they have at least existential protection from dangers they would face in their home countries. But let me again speak of structural patterns shaping the attitude against asylum-seekers and refugees having come to a negative climax since 2-3 years when the so-called Syrian crisis did reach the borders of EU countries. Since 2 months refugee policies have become step by step more restrictive. Since then, the securitization of the state is openly dominant compared with human rights issues. Thus, in the first week of December 2016 in the party congress of the CDU principal suggestions were made in certain areas of immigration policies, such as an extension of the right of the state to deport refugees more easily. Furthermore it was suggested to deport so-called ‘tolerated’ people. These are persons whose refugee status determination process had ended in disfavour of them, but nevertheless – due to existential threats in their home countries – were granted to stay in Germany. Radical populist spokesmen of – not only – right-wing parties are aiming at deporting these people. It is possible to list more such steps to establish restrictive policies on asylum-seekers. The planned changes I mentioned above may be a sign that not – or not only – free will, but also indeed pressure, was the motor of the decisions to leave Germany.


In September 2017, Germany will elect a new parliament and Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been in power since 2005, announced her plans to run again for office. Yet, Angela Merkel has been facing criticism over her controversial open migration policy and her popularity is much weaker than it was months and years ago. So, is it possible that such voices in German public opinion can affect her campaign negatively and, thus, impact the election results? Additionally, a string of attacks and security alerts involving refugees and migrants this year has boosted support for the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, which could damage Merkel’s re-election hopes. Far-right party the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has made gains in the wake of the migrant crisis and Brexit victory in the UK. How will the AfD perform in the election?

The voices mentioned in the question have already affected the political statements of Angela Merkel, even more if one has predictions in mind that the right-wing/populist AFD will continue to be successful in the next federal elections. Some journalists even claim that the AFD will get a least 10% of the votes Germany-wide. Within this context have in your mind that the CDU as a classical conservative party always has the trend to adopt right-wing slogans as part of their own politics in order to prevent these extreme parties from becoming too strong. Unfortunately, the prize paid for this is a drift from the center-right to more extreme positions. Let me give an example for such a development: In the mid-sixties the NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany), a legal extreme right party, had success in some regional parliaments. In these years the first time anti-migrant issues became politicized, and – like nowadays – paved the way for political ‘career’ of populist right-wing spokesmen. The CDU adopted a lot of political contents during these years. It might be concluded that Merkel will ‘repeat’ such an attitude by formulating restrictive politics even if this would somehow contradict with her ‘open-border-politics’ mentioned. On the other hand we have to see that the structuralization of immigration policies is shaped not only by the attitudes of parties such as the AFD, but also by the attitudes of ‘big’ economic actors’ such as the representants of big enterprises. For them migration means the possibility to more or less unlimitedly access foreign labour markets. Angela Merkel will have to position herself between these two main actors. But without doubt, even if labour market issues and the need to recruit foreign labour force will continue to be important, Europe will strengthen efforts to build up ‘Fortress Europe’, where Turkey is planned to play the role of a guard preventing people from going to Europe (e.g. see the readmission agreement between the EU and Turkey from last year, and the recently planned similar agreement between Switzerland and Turkey). Bi- and multi-lateral agreements, and furthermore ‘national’ restrictive policies as executed for example in Hungary, or latest planned to be executed in Malta, will undoubtedly affect Merkel’s policies to the disadvantage of foreigners.


Donald Trump officially became the 45th President of the United States on January 20. Trump campaigned for president on promises of imposing more severe restrictions on migration. In a joint interview with the Times of London and the German newspaper Bild, US President Donald Trump has said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had made a “catastrophic mistake” with a policy that let a wave of more than one million migrants into her country at the height of the migrant crisis. Trump also said that if they (the EU countries) hadn’t been forced to take in all of the refugees, EU wouldn’t have a Brexit. What does Brexit means for migration policy of Germany, in particular?

Concerning Brexit, I would not say that this has directly something to do with migration issues. By the way, it is propaganda that Europe ever opened the doors for people fleeing from war etc. to a broad extent. On the contrary, Europe including Germany, never had a real ‘welcome’ culture extending the level of political self-presentation. Trump’s words have to be understood within the context of his own anti-migrant populist discourse, and thus cannot be taken seriously. What can be seriously taken indeed, are actual numbers of asylum-seekers residing in EU countries which are ridiculously low compared to countries like our own, or countries such as Lebanon.


On the other hand, we can talk about some pro-immigrant social movements. So what are the dynamics of such social movements with a special emphasis on the “Refugees Welcome Germany”?

It is true, on the other hand, that a lot of individuals and organizations in countries such as Germany are trying to organize solidarity with foreigners and to inform the public about the structural patterns of migration enabling people to approach objectively to the issue and to overwhelm prejudices and fear. But in my opinion, more than the discourse of human rights concrete political steps should be done in favour of the foreigners enabling them to prepare for their new lives. A whole new approach to migration seems to be necessary.


Having regarded as the bedrock of the Nazi ideology, Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” was one of the best-selling books of nonfiction in Germany last year. According to the report published by the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, the new version of the book “Hitler, Mein Kampf, A Critical Edition” spent 35 weeks on Der Spiegel’s best-seller list and sold about 85,000 copies. Do you think the book would fuel nationalist sentiments and anti-immigrant propaganda?

Let me start to say that the publication of Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ is still prohibited in Germany. The recent publication is edited by the Institute of Contemporary History (Institut für Zeitgeschichte) and is thought to be a critical scientific edition, and as such is including texts concerning the theoretical-historical framework of this book. Concerning this issue the Central Council of Jews in Germany (Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland) declared that “Mein Kampf must remain prohibited”, but that they would not object to a critical edition “contrasting Hitler’s racial theories with scientific findings, to be at the disposal of research and teaching”. More than this book actual texts from authors such as Thilo Sarrazin trying to ‘scientify’ racism will fuel nationalist sentiments and anti-migrant propaganda.


Thank you very much for joining us; we really appreciate it.


Note: This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of Diplomatic Observer magazine.