People migrate for many reasons: to seek work, to escape persecution, for marriage, for education, to find better conditions for retirement and just in search of other lifestyles. In each case, the migrants have varying, complex and often mixed motivations. Here I will only discuss one issue: temporary migration for employment.

In the late 1970s, the German Federal Government commissioned a survey of ‘guestworkers’. Seventy per cent of those interviewed had originally intended to stay in Germany for less than five years. Yet about three-quarters of the respondents had in fact already stayed over five years. Only 17 per cent had not changed their original plans. The survey went on to ask about future plans. The majority said they intended to leave within four years (Forschungsverbund, 1979 cited in Castles et al., 1984). By the 1980s, it was clear that many of those who planned to return home had not done so: former ‘guestworkers’ were settling in for the long haul and bringing along their families. Germany had acquired new ethnic minorities, despite the creation of a whole legal and administrative system designed to keep labour migration temporary and to prevent family reunification.

What does this tell us about the migration goals of the workers concerned? First, that just as governments and employers planned, migrant workers did originally intend to come only temporarily to Germany. They wanted to work hard and live frugally, to be able to quickly save enough to improve the livelihoods of the family back home, for example by developing their farms, by starting a small business, or just by improving their housing, education, health care and nutrition. Second, that it can be very hard for migrants to face up to the idea of permanent settlement, even when they realise that they are going to have to stay much longer than originally expected. Third, that there are many factors that lead migrants to change their original objectives, and that it is very hard for governments – especially in countries with democratic principles and strong legal systems – to prevent this.

To avoid misunderstandings, it is important to emphasise that millions of migrant workers who went to Germany and other western European countries during the boom years of the 1960s and early 1970s did return to their homelands. This applied particularly to those from countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece that joined the (then) European Community, which was committed to evening out economic conditions and implementing democratic freedoms. But many did stay on after the 1973-74 recruitment stop; those most likely to remain were Turks in Germany and the Netherlands, and North Africans in France and the Netherlands.

What are the factors that lead them to change their goals? In the case of Turkey, the 1980 military coup and the repression of labour organizations caused many to stay away. Growing unemployment and the failure of many farms and small businesses meant that many migrants found their savings insufficient to offer security upon return. Return had to be postponed again and again.

A more general factor relates to life-course: most of the early migrants were young men and – increasingly – young women, who hoped to be away for only a few years. They had been attracted by the good wages in western Europe, but had not been informed about high living costs and tax and social insurance contributions. Saving was much slower than expected. It might be acceptable to live frugally in a migrant workers’ hostel for a few years, but as time went on, people wanted to live with their spouses and children. Family reunification and formation – and life itself – got under way. Once migrants’ children went to school and began to speak German (or French or Dutch) better than their parents’ languages, parents realised that if they went home, their children might not come with them. Since giving a better future to their children was a powerful motivation for migration, the idea of seeing the family dissolve was anathema: many parents began to realise that their future lay in the new country.

Today there is a world-wide trend towards temporary labour migration. In the early 20th century, Germany, Spain and other European countries began introducing temporary migration schemes, such as seasonal recruitment for agriculture and tourism, and fixed-term work permits for construction. Traditional immigrant settlement countries, notably the USA, Canada and Australia now have large temporary worker programs. The Gulf Cooperation Council states and Asia’s emerging industrial economies also recruit temporary workers. The European Commission uses the euphemism ‘circular migration’ in its advocacy of such schemes, describing it as a ‘triple win’: destination countries get a steady supply of workers for both skilled and less skilled occupations, without any long-term integration costs; countries of origin benefit from remittances and return of skills; while the migrants benefit from an increase in safe, legal mobility opportunities.

All this sounds too good to be true – and it is. Highly-skilled personnel may move around repeatedly within international employment markets and enjoy cosmopolitan expatriate lifestyles – and they may also decide to shift to permanent settlement, a decision often encouraged by destination states. But governments do all they can to prevent the settlement of lower skilled workers, even though the labour demand for construction workers, hospital personnel and care-workers, for example, is anything but temporary. The lessons from the failure of the guestworker system of the 1960s and 1970s remain relevant: whatever the original intentions of the migrants, a certain proportion of them will change their goals in the course of the migratory process. Some will stay permanently, often leading to a growth in ethnic diversity in the destination country. You cannot have workers without people.


Forschungsverbund (1979) ‘Probleme der Ausländerbeschäftigung’, Integrierter Endbericht, Bundesminister für Forschung und Technologie, Bonn.

Castles, S., Booth, H. and Wallace, T. (1984) Here for Good: Western Europe’s New Ethnic Minorities, London: Pluto Press.

Download PDF