BERLIN – Turkish or German? For millions of immigrants’ sons and daughters who grew up speaking German, immersed in German culture, yet feeling the emotional pull to ancestral roots, it’s been a tough choice.
Germany as a rule doesn’t allow immigrants who receive German citizenship to keep their old passports, except for EU and Swiss nationals or citizens of countries like Iran that don’t allow people to surrender their nationality.
The rule has been most onerous to the more than 3 million-strong Turkish community — which sprang up in the postwar boom years when Germany was hungry for labour — because of many immigrants’ reluctance to weaken ties with their parents’ homeland.
Now, Germany’s incoming government is promising to end the requirement for German-born children of immigrant parents to choose just one nationality between their 18th and 23rd birthdays.
“My roots are in Turkey, that’s clear,” said 18-year-old Okan Ertas, the son of Turkish immigrants and aspiring airline pilot. “But I was born here and you’re at home where you were born. This is my home.”
Germany’s centre-left Social Democrats extracted the citizenship change from the conservative Merkel as part of their price for joining a new government, expected to take office this month. After that, the coalition must draft legislation on the change and win parliamentary approval.
The current law results from a 1999 compromise, under which children born in Germany to at least one longtime legal resident parent were granted automatic citizenship. Foreigners are allowed to seek German citizenship after living eight years legally in the country — but are forced to relinquish their old nationality.
But conservatives blocked calls for allowing dual nationality for all foreign passport-holders — something most major European countries now accept — arguing it would hinder integration.
The Turkish community — overwhelmingly Muslim and with roots in conservative rural areas of Turkey — presents special challenges for a country like Germany that lacks a tradition of welcoming immigrants but needs them now to compensate for declining birth rates.
The belief that newcomers must speak German and conform to German social norms runs deep. Three years ago, Merkel herself declared that multiculturalism “has failed” in Germany.
A 2010 book by former central bank board member Thilo Sarrazin portrayed Muslim immigrants as welfare cases weakening German society. Although condemned by Merkel and other politicians, the book became a bestseller.
Revelations in 2011 that a neo-Nazi group went undetected for years as it allegedly killed eight ethnic Turks and two other people further unsettled the Turkish community, which believed police didn’t take the case seriously because the victims were considered outsiders.
With a rapidly aging population, however, Merkel and other officials have spoken increasingly of the need for a “culture of welcome” as Germany seeks to attract highly qualified workers.
“This wasn’t easy for us,” Merkel said of the compromise, insisting there are “good reasons” for making dual citizenship the exception rather than the rule. She said, however, that “this is a clear signal that we want these young people, they are part of our society.”
“In reality, we have broken a taboo,” said Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democrats’ leader. “I am sure … that further steps will follow.”
For now, Merkel’s conservatives still refuse to allow dual citizenship for all. People who were forced to choose one passport before the new law comes into effect won’t be able to apply now to get a second one.
That leaves Ertas’ 41-year-old parents, both of them in Germany for more than 20 years, each stuck with a single passport. Father Ahmet is a German citizen who gave up his Turkish passport. Mother Keziban holds only a Turkish passport, having never applied for a German one.
Ahmet Ertas, who studied in Berlin and now runs a burger restaurant, welcomes the move to allow younger people to hold both nationalities. “I think it will bring advantages in their career,” he says.
For those born in Turkey, giving up Turkish citizenship is an emotional issue, even if most of their lives are spent in Germany.
Ahmet Ertas says that when he visits the land of his birth, “I am not treated as a former Turk or a Turkish citizen, but as a foreigner who has entered Turkey.”
For those born in Germany, the choice appears to come easier. The Interior Ministry says that as of the end of 2012, all but 486 of the 3,410 immigrant children between age 18 and 23 had made their decisions. Nearly 99 per cent opted to keep German citizenship.
Okan Ertas, who under the current law still has nearly five years to make up his mind, said he would choose German nationality if he had to.
“I would like to live here a long time, if I can until the end of my life,” he says. But he wants to keep his Turkish citizenship, saying that much of his family is in Turkey and citizenship would allow him to live there easily if he chooses.
For many, the fact that older immigrants won’t be offered dual citizenship reinforces fears of being treated as second-class residents.
“Of course parents are asking themselves … they want our children, not us?” says Kenan Kolat, the head of the Turkish Community in Germany group. “Whether that’s right is another question, but that’s how it comes over. We are all people, and people have feelings.”
Kolat points to the contribution made by earlier generations who were recruited as “guest workers” starting the economic boom of the 1960s and were allowed to stay if their employers needed them.
“The first and second generations have been left out … not just Turks but many immigrants who made a great contribution to prosperity,” he says. “It would have been possible to say ‘thank you’ to them in one go by accepting dual citizenship.”
“I think these are the last battles of the old guard that is against a culturally diverse society. At some point we will win.”