The day the ‘gentle angels’ spoke up: „We aren’t commodities. We go back when we want!“

While we are still experiencing the aftershocks of the recently introduced ‘immigration cap’ on non-European migrants as well as the changes to the student visa system (with many of the signs you would expect after an earthquake: confusion, the search for explanations, sizing up the damage done and further consequences, attempts to salvage what’s left in the ruins etc. – the major difference being that this disaster is human-made), the UK government has set its mind on causing another seismic shift: “breaking the link between temporary and permanent migration” by denying all but a small fraction of non-EU migrants who come here to work the option of making the UK their permanent home.

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Hyo Eun Shin supports Migrants’ Rights Scotland and the Migrants’ Rights Hub Project as the Regional Coordinator for Scotland.



What the UK government is proposing in its consultation paper “Employment-related settlement, Tier 5 and Overseas Domestic Workers”, has already been well analysed in previous posts (see e.g. by Don Flynn and Ruth Grove-White, also on migrant domestic workers). Certainly, the idea to fill in labour needs through cohorts of migrant workers who are each meant to stay only for a limited period of time is not new. It has been attempted elsewhere and at different times, with varied forms of implementation and limited success; the West German Guest Worker programmes of the 1960s and early 1970s often being discussed as the most prominent failure of such idea-turned-policy. Or as the Swiss novelist Max Frisch famously commented: “We called for a labour force but human beings arrived.”

This is roughly where my thoughts take me today, but more specifically to an aspect which seems largely unknown or has often been overlooked: migrant workers’ organised resistance to this kind of unjust policies.

The German press called them ‘gentle angels’:

the many young nurses and care assistants who left their homes in South Korea to provide frontline health services to thousands of patients in what was then West German hospitals (including West-Berlin). Having earned themselves a reputation as the diligent, competent, very caring and kind hospital staff from ‘exotic’ East-Asia, patients would often refer to these women as ‘gentle angels’, a reference the media picked up.


Most of these women were recruited into German hospitals after the South Korean and German government signed a bilateral “Agreement on the temporary employment of Korean graduate nurses and care assistants in German hospitals” in 1971, officially in order to end the ‘irregular’ recruitment of Korean nursing staff, which had already begun in the late 1950s on ‘private’ initiatives of German Christian congregations and missions in Korea and some individual doctors, and later discovered as a business opportunity by employment and travel agencies. The agreement provided for the recruitment of a minimum of 2200 graduate nurses and 9800 care assistants from South Korea between 1971 and 1974 to fill the urgent shortage in nursing staff that threatened the provision of health services in West Germany.

Similarly to the around 8300 South Korean men who were recruited as cheap, temporary labourers into the German underground-mining industry, the Korean nurses and care workers were expected to ‘go back home’ once there was no longer any demand for their labour. In practice, they were given three-year employment contracts on which their right to reside in Germany depended and which were in many cases extended due to a persisting skills shortage. For the ‘host country’ it was a true ‘bargain’: the Korean government covered all expenses for their deployment; flight costs, rents etc. were to be paid by the workers themselves; the workers had no recourse to public funds in Germany; not least to mention that Germany had won itself a skilled labour force without the usually necessary costs for their education and training. And from the perspective of the then German government, integration was not an issue worth considering.

From the 18000 Korean nurses who came to Germany between 1963 and 1977, leaving their homes in a country which had just emerged from Japanese colonialism, division into North and South, the Korean War, and was ruled by an authoritarian regime in the context of the Cold War, around half returned. However, in May 1977, in the wake of the oil crisis (which had already led to a ban on the recruitment of Guest Workers in 1973) the German government decided not to extend the three-year employment contracts of those South Korean nurses who had remained and wanted to send them back.

Who decides on settlement?

Many of these women had already been in Germany for over 5 years and wanted to stay. Despite the insecurities that had accompanied the temporary contracts and the difficulties that they often experienced at work and in their everyday lives (such as social devaluation, stereotyping (‘the subordinate, gentle, East-Asian female’), discrimination and racism), they had made friends, got married, given birth, raised their children, were engaged in their neighbourhoods and communities, some had taken up further studies etc. The women organised themselves against their imminent expulsion. Having come to Germany at a time when the provision of health services in South Korea was failing (the WHO issued a warning as early as in 1966 not to deploy further Korean nurses overseas), these women spoke of “reversed development aid” (pdf file in German). They declared: “We came when German hospitals needed staff and we helped Germany. We aren’t commodities. We go back when we want!”

Quickly setting up a public campaign, their demands to the German government included: they should be granted unconditional leave to remain (“Aufenthaltserlaubnis”) after 5 years of work and an indefinite and unconditional leave to remain (“Aufenthaltsberechtigung”) after 8 years. At the 1977 German Church Congress in Berlin alone, more than 11000 signatures were collected in support of their demands. On July 27 1977, Berlin’s Senator for Interior Affairs, Peter Ulrich, buckled down to the pressure. These migrant women had successfully fought for their rights to work and settle!

The ‘gentle angels who spoke up one day’ are the core of the around 30.000 Koreans living in Germany today. Many of these women are now retired but, throughout the years, have continued to fight many struggles, e.g. against the military dictatorship and for democracy in South Korea, for peace and human rights in East Asia, for migrants’ rights, inclusion and against racism and discrimination in Europe, and nowadays increasingly for their right to receive the care and support to live their final years in dignity. To me, who received much personal support and ‘life lessons’ from these ‘my aunties’ during my years in Germany, they continue to be a source of inspiration.

Can we all learn from this and many other histories of migrants’ resilience and resistance against unfair immigration policies? Will the UK government really listen to what people say in response to the current settlement consultation? Well, we have to make them.