Early Developments in Migration Control: Migration Policy Categorisations in the ‎Aftermath of the Recruitment Ban in West Germany

Bringing to an end the ‘guest work’ era, the Federal Republic’s migration policy was in need of new target groups. ‘Asylum seekers’ and ‘refugees’ advanced to the centre of the migration debate. Two Bundestag quotes from the late 1970s paradigmatically demonstrate the policy change: Further labour migration was fought, respective migrants were subjected to a strict asylum law; for ‘Refugees’, on the contrary, a new humanitarian law was created, disburdening them from the obligation to apply for asylum. Thus, humanitarian need became the major criteria for migration to be deemed legitimate.

By Tim Zumloh

Tim Zumloh graduated with a Bachelor degree in History and Political Sciences and a Master degree in Migration Studies in Osnabrück.


Sustaining a historical continuity of (forced) labour migration towards German territory, 14 million ‘guest workers’ reached the Federal Republic until the recruitment ban in 1973, 11 million of them returned to their country of origin. ‘Guest work‘ was considered by political elites as temporary and demand-oriented worker mobility, and a relatively liberal implementation of the recruitment agreements essential for West Germany’s ‘economic miracle’. Within this context, even the belated legalisation of residence was possible and not unusual, as long as a living was earned. A migration debate hardly took place. Such a migration debate originated in the early 1970s from what research later called the “discovery of immigration”: (Im-)Migrants tended to extend their duration of stay and to reunify their families. Furthermore, they enforced their claims to improved work conditions, access to educational opportunities and better, self-determined housing.

Respective support measures for ‘guest workers’ planning to immigrate were indeed discussed. Not standing by the migrants, who contributed with hard work to the economic boom, was considered unfair. Nonetheless, the major political hope was to hinder further migration and encourage present migrants to return. As a consequence, former ‘guest workers’ and their families were to receive integration support as well as their assumed willingness to return was to be preserved. To achieve the latter, schoolchildren were taught in their mother’s tongue, naturalisation rates remained significantly low and financial incentives to return were planned. These contradictory migration policy goals between integration and return support were considered equally important. Framed by this contradiction and loaded with the new obligation to keep borders closed for non-family migration after 1973, the migration debate never went back to a comparable, depoliticised consensus as seen during the times of recruitment. Migration became the controversial political issue it is today.

Two major positions developed within the 1970s migration debate: First, a restrictive approach aimed at ending more favourable migration conditions; second, a humanitarian position committed itself to basic human rights. These positions in the immediate aftermath of the recruitment ban did not rival. They coexisted due to their constructions of different target groups. While the latter development sparked a movement standing up for universal human rights of people in need (in particular when understood as ‘refugees’), the acknowledgement of (partly self-organised) labour (im-)migration, as seen during the ‘guest work’ era, got lost. Respective migrants were directed towards a strict asylum law, where a huge majority of their applications got rejected.

Thus, the widely spread animosity of political elites towards ‘asylum seekers’ was not understood as a contradiction to a current want to act more humanitarian and to give way to a rising basic human rights movement within West German society, which most prominently pled for the admittance of Vietnamese ‘boat people’.

The End of Labour Migration – Beginning of the Asylum Debate

“You always talk only of those who sit around and need to be taken care of”, Secretary of the Interior Baum (FDP) complained during a heated Bundestag debate in March 1980. “The majority” – he referred to asylum seekers – “looks for a job and finds one”. “Did you realise,” Baum asked the parliamentary CDU/CSU opposition, “that the majority is integrated into our economic system?”

“Completely missing the point!” CSU politician Carl-Dieter Spranger interjected from the audience. The Bundestag’s stenographers did not manage to fully record the deputy’s remarks, but his eventual verdict made it into the protocol: “You do support the abuse!”

Spranger addressed what within the asylum debate was interpreted as an ‘abuse’ of the asylum system. According to criticism not only by right-wing hardliners like Spranger, it was such an ‘abuse’, that occurred when migrants invoked the basic law guaranteed right to asylum in order to access the Federal Republic’s labour market and social benefits.

Proponents of restrictiveness regarded ongoing migration after the recruitment ban attempted fraud. Due to humanitarian and fairness reasons, they found themselves unable to restrict family reunification of (former) ‘guest workers’. As a consequence, the numerical extent of family reunification outweighed the ‘guest workers’ return migration in the course of the 1970s. Other than family migration, however, was (rhetorically) criminalised. Numbers seemed to affirm the ‘abuse’ verdict: From 1973 to 1978, asylum applications increased from 5.500 to 33.000; in 1980, for the first time in the history of the Federal Republic more than 100.000 applications reached the authorities. Asylum seekers arrived from Jordan, Lebanon, several African states as well as from Pakistan, India and Turkey. The figure of Turkish nationals applying for asylum increased to 58.000 in 1980. Less than 5% of these migrants were deemed entitled to asylum protection by German authorities. However, by making use of the legal recourse within asylum law, an application could remain pending for up to eight years. In the meantime, applicants were granted residence.

The ban on recruitment did not only bring bilateral agreements on worker mobility to an end, but strengthened restrictive approaches on the whole. Employment offices were told not to issue further work permits to non-European Economic Community (EEC, predecessor of today’s European Union) nationals. Employers were threatened with prison sentences of up to five years in case of illegal employment. Visa obligations were decreed for people on the move from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Iran, Turkey, Bangladesh and India. In 1977, border and foreigners authorities were enabled to exercise in advance examinations on whether asylum applications were justified. Applications of ‘bogus asylum seekers’ were not forwarded to the Federal Office for the Recognition of Foreign Refugees (the predecessor of today’s BAMF). This practice did not comply with prevailing asylum law, as the authorities in question were not adequately qualified. In 1981, the Federal Constitutional Court deemed this course of action unconstitutional. One year later, a bill passed the Bundestag forbidding transport companies – under penalty of a up to 20.000 Deutsche Mark fine – to bring in non-EEC nationals without visa or residence permit. To fight the alleged ‘abuse’ of the right to asylum, the SPD-FDP coalition further agreed on acts to accelerate the asylum procedure in 1978, 1980 and 1982. Further regulations ordered asylum seekers to be gathered in camp accommodations and recommended the issuance of social benefits in the form of allowances in kind. Besides, a one year (later two years) prohibition to work was decreed in 1980 – Secretary of the Interior Baum, who above asked for some understanding of ‘asylum seekers’ taking up employment, was part of the responsible cabinet.

In the 1970s, the Federal Republic regarded itself a stable member of the Western civilisation. Therefore, demonstrating its democratisation and distance from its dictatorial past through a particular liberal asylum law was not seen that important anymore. On the contrary, the 1949 constitution’s asylum article appeared to be hindering the now highly disputed control of entry. Within this context, policymakers and even court decisions followed an understanding, which required a proof of an ‘objective’, state-run political persecution. Subjective fear of persecution, as considered explicitly in the Geneva Convention, was ruled out. An understanding prevailed, accepting primarily migrants from eastern European, ‘communist’ states as in need of protection. In contrast, for non-‘communist’ states such persecution was not assumed. Rather, Turks and Asian or African states nationals were suspected of bypassing the ban on recruitment.

The early asylum debate was shaped by a rejection of further labour migration. Basic rights considerations played an underpart. Migrants were directed towards the asylum system, where they were obliged to submit hopeless applications for asylum. The advancement of the ‘asylum seeker’ category towards the centre of the migration debate, therefore, illustrates an immediate intention to restrict migration.

Refugee Reception – West German Humanitarianism

For a long time, the Federal Republic’s asylum policy was an anti-‘communist’ one. In an era understood as ‘Cold War’, the admission of migrants from the ‘Eastern Bloc’ was largely uncontroversial. However, appeals for protection for and by people from Arabic and Asian states and the establishment of right-wing military dictatorships in Greece, Chile and Argentina challenged such a priority. As a result, the above-described restrictive approach gained strength. On the other hand, admissions considered necessary and welcome for foreign policy or humanitarian reasons were justified by a basic human rights related notion.

The admission of so-called ‘boat people’ from Vietnam to the Federal Republic was the major resettlement program of that time. 45.000 ‘boat people’ reached West Germany until 1990. Their admission linked characteristics of both the anti-‘communist’ and the humanitarian notion. Predominant, however, was a de-politicised humanitarian interpretation. A relief operation with broad public support was carried out. In the context of the asylum debate the Bundestag parties in the end unanimously developed a harsh view on migration. In contrast, in regard of the ‘humanitarian crisis’ in Vietnam, the provision of resettlement capacities was demanded and implemented. “Citizens of our country”, deputy Werner (CDU) claimed in the Bundestag in September 1979 “are full of helpfulness. But when they see, that authorities are not even able to bring in the refugees, then, it is to fear, this helpfulness will be reverted to passivity and resignation.” The Federal Government was, according to the CDU/CSU opposition, in charge of providing immediate rescue. It acted respectively. Even a civil society’s organisation rescue vessel, the “Cap Anamur”, was sent to the South China Sea – and the government agreed on admitting all refugees rescued by it. To deal with these dynamics of empathy, in 1980 an “Act on Measures for Refugees Admitted in the Context of Humanitarian Relief Programmes” was designed. Refugees admitted underneath this law were not supposed to go through an asylum procedure. The reason was, that they were not able to meet the asylum procedure’s requirements; to submit an application within German jurisdiction and to establish proof of persecution.

Such newly created refugee law was explicitly designed to carry out extraordinary humanitarian relief for now ‘refugees’ called migrants. It is important to understand that even in regard to these ‘refugees’, possible asylum applications would have been rejected following the contemporary asylum law interpretation. Decisive was the political determination to bypass asylum law through introducing a new humanitarian regulation for ‘refugees’. That way, these humanitarian ‘refugee’ admittances were legally distinguished from self-organised (‘asylum seeker’) migration by a political categorisation process – and not by an asylum law based examination of individual applications. This political categorisation based upon a humanitarian notion, which on the one hand displayed indeed political progress; the Federal Republic contributed to a substantial extent to a solution of a humanitarian crisis it was not directly responsible for. On the other hand, however, such humanitarian refugee law shifted the notion of legitimate reasons for migration towards humanitarian protection.

Migration Control in the 1970s: Coexistence of Restrictiveness and Humanitarianism

Restrictive and humanitarian approaches coexisted in the West German migration debate in the aftermath of the recruitment ban instead of rivalling. Both of them were capable of securing majorities for their concerns. The reason for this lies in the construction of different migration policy target groups. The ‘asylum seekers’ complex was associated with fraud-criminality, which was fought by a law and order policy. At the same time, the Federal Republic demonstrated its humanitarianism towards ‘refugees’. The post guest work migration policy rearranged around these categorisation processes. Migration of the non-privileged from now on was first and foremost considered justified when it was for humanitarian reasons. That was the way, the categorisations interacted: Introducing the humanitarian requirement, the rejection of ‘asylum seekers’ seemed justified. Thus, the 1970s West German humanitarianism to a certain degree formed part of a restrictive transformation of migration conditions. Establishing (im-)migration through making a living, as a minority of ‘guest workers’ did, was not deemed legitimate anymore.

It took until the 1980s for migration activists to substantially challenge this bi-polar rearrangement of migration control.

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