Statelessness in Germany

Statelessness in Germany stems mostly from their citizenship law, which the German Foreign Office admits on their website is “relatively complicated.” Until 2000, citizenship could only be passed by blood – you needed at least one German parent to be a German citizen, even if you were born in Germany (though you could naturalize later in life). In 2000, the German parliament amended their citizenship law so that if you were born in Germany to a parent who had lived there for at least 8 years, you could be a citizen. However, additional factors complicate citizenship: for example, you are not allowed to hold dual nationality.

After WWII, West Germany underwent the “economic miracle,” a rapid recovery and reconstruction that created a seemingly endless need for labor. In 1961, the construction of the Berlin wall stopped the flow of cheap labor from East to West, so West Germany signed a labor agreement with Turkey. The agreement recruited thousands of Gastarbeiters (guest workers), usually from rural towns in eastern Turkey, to come to manufacturing towns in Germany and work the poorly-paid, menial positions that West German workers avoided. Eventually the government lifted the two-year limit on these guest workers’ stays. Deterred by a series of coups at home, most Gastarbeiters did not returned to Turkey, and a family reunification plan in the 1980s instead brought many Turkish women and children to the country. The Turkish population swelled.

German reunification complicated Turkish people’s status in the country. Economic depression and a rise in xenophobic sentiment, particularly from poorer Eastern Germany, created open hostility against Turkish communities. The reverberations are still felt today. According to the Berlin Institute, Turkish-German communities are the least integrated into German society and have the highest rates of unemployment and lowest rates of education among all immigrant communities. This is disturbing, since Turks are the largest ethnic minority in the country, and Turkish is the second most widely spoken language after German. Exact numbers are impossible to come by, since the German census does not allow people to identify their ethnicity, but estimates place the Turkish-German population between 4 and 6 million.


A sign for a dentist’s office in Turkish, German and Arabic

Parallel Turkish communities exist in neighborhoods in many old manufacturing cities, including Berlin, where I am based. Neukölln and southeast Kreuzberg are known as “Little Istanbul,” and the enormous open-air Turkish market indeed made me feel like I was back on the streets of Kadıköy. The ethnic makeup of Neukölln was almost entirely different from anywhere else I went in Berlin – there wasn’t a blonde head in sight. Across the whole city, though, Turkish-Germans are everywhere. I don’t speak German, but I do speak Turkish, so if I ever needed assistance or directions, I just approached the ubiquitous döner stall for help. On the metro and the street, I heard Turkish all the time, and young people often chatted in a sort of Turkish-German mashup called Türkendeutsch.

Kebap stalls are everywhere, and döner has become a wildly popular street food here (especially as a drunk food!)

The Turkish market

In reality, few Turks in Germany are stateless today. Many who could not obtain German citizenship were able to hold Turkish citizenship instead. Just as the German state held the Turkish community at arms’ length for decades, assuming they’d eventually “go home,” so too did many Turks hold Germany at arms’ length, avoiding obtaining a German passport. The largest group of stateless people in Germany is now the Roma. I did not want to include Roma in my research, as most Roma communities resist intervention and the idea of being “studied” by outsiders (completely reasonable, considering their harrowing history in the country and on the European continent in general).


Berlin’s largest mosque is Turkish, along with ~2,000 of Germany’s 3,000 mosques


The vibrant neighborhood of Neukölln 

In some ways, conducting research here was easy. I was able to talk to many Turkish community organizations and even more Turkish families about their history in the country and the challenges facing Turkish-Germans. However, I leave Germany slightly confused about how they rank 17th on the list of countries with the highest stateless population in the world and aware that I was unable to interview anyone who is actually stateless while I was here. I still think my research in Berlin illuminated several important points for the scope of my work and the work that is yet to come for this country. For me, it was important to see the immense improvements that stemmed from a simple amendment to a citizenship law that had plagued thousands of Turkish-Germans for decades. This success matters, especially when considering the potential impact of legislative action in other countries. For Germany, as thousands of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East try to make the country their new home, considering the past failures in integrating their Turkish community is critical if they want to avoid repeating the same mistakes.


Even Berlin’s famous Pergamon Museum displays numerous Turkish artifacts, among them the magnificent Market Gate of Miletus


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