GIGA Focus Middle East
Number 1 | 2022 | ISSN: 1862-3611
Since the outset of the 2000s, the “Turkish model” embracing Islamic liberalism was set as an example for the Muslim world in turmoil. Today, far from being a desired model country, even many of its own citizens feel despair about Turkey’s political and economic future and are looking for a new life abroad, while thousands of others flee repression, seeking asylum in Western, democratic countries.
Despite its wide recognition as a host or transit country in current migration flows, Turkey has traditionally been one of the top emigration countries, with over 6.7 million diasporans and another three million permanent returnees.
The ongoing outflow, widely ranging from asylum seekers to wealthy businesspeople, represents Turkey’s fifth emigration wave in its republican history.
Relations with Turkey and different asylum regimes specific to respective host countries largely shape what kind of migration is being received from Turkey.
While academics, journalists, and artists have developed a vigilant diaspora activism in opposition to Turkey’s current ruling party, most newcomer-emigrants remain in relative seclusion. This is because they lack trust in Turkish institutions and organisations abroad, as well as in other diaspora groups emerging from Turkey.
While Turkish emigration does not appear to be waning anytime soon, European authorities should enhance their solidary networks with threatened groups and diversify legal means of acquiring visas for the young, educated, and easy-to-integrate groups. The current wave has deepened intra-diaspora strife, which can be diminished if host countries increase communication with diaspora organisations and their representatives to eliminate discrimination and nurture social cohesion.
“I want to study medicine at the University of Cologne […]. Maybe after that I can become a German citizen.” This was the reply of a 15-year-old Turkish girl when asked about her future dream in a national live broadcast on 23 April 2019 marking Turkey’s National Sovereignty and Children’s Day (Ahval 2019). Her reply on such a special occasion full of national and republican spirit went viral on social media. Nevertheless, she was not alone in her wish. According to the Turkish Youth 2021 report of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, 72.9 per cent of Turkish youth aged 18–25 would prefer to live abroad, while 62.8 per cent fail to see any good future for Turkey (KAS 2021). The political persecution and the imposition of an ethno-religious and conservative lifestyle by the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), in addition to the post-2018 currency and debt crisis, have sparked a growing wave of emigration from today’s Turkey, under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The wave includes diverse groups, ranging from asylum seekers to wealthy businesspeople, all seeking to make a fresh start elsewhere.
Nativist and authoritarian populisms have largely been studied in terms of their approach towards immigrant groups, but once in power, their policies may also lead to emigration. Examining the populism–emigration nexus in the case of Turkey, we seek to elucidate who has left (or is leaving) the country under the AKP regime, why, and how. Our analysis is based on one-on-one interviews with 35 people of different ages, political views, and educational backgrounds who recently left Turkey to settle in Greece, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as survey data from 1,000 respondents who immigrated to the UK and Germany after 2011.
In global migration debates, Turkey comes to mind for its hosting of 3.7 million Syrians, the largest cross-border population of forcibly displaced people today. However, Turkey is also one of the top emigration countries, with over 6.7 million Turks living abroad and another three million having returned to Turkey permanently after being abroad (MFA 2021). These multiple emigration flows have added different layers to the amalgamation of the Turkey-originated diaspora; currently, we are witnessing the fifth wave.
In retrospect, the Turkish Republic was founded following the Lausanne Convention of 30 January 1923, which stipulated a population exchange between Turkey and Greece resulting in the forced displacement of approximately 1.2 million Orthodox Christians from the former and half a million Muslims from the latter. The 1960s saw another exodus following the bilateral labour agreements between Turkey and a number of Western European countries, most prominently Germany, to fill the demand for cheap labour in their blossoming post-war economies. According to the official figures, Turkey sent 790,289 “guest workers” to Europe between 1961 and 1973, while only an estimated half of those “guests” returned home (Akgündüz 1993: 174). Turkey’s 1980 coup d’état triggered the third emigration wave, consisting of political refugees – mostly leftists, but also Islamists, Kurds, and religious minorities. Between 1980 and 1989, a total of 242,515 people (59,869 in 1980 alone) applied for asylum in EU countries, Norway, and Switzerland, making Turkey the largest country of origin for Europe at that time (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2001: 150). In the 1990s, the Turkish army intensified its war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK) and systematically evacuated and destroyed some 3,000 Kurdish villages. Hence, the fourth wave mainly covered Kurdish asylum migration, making Turkey the third-largest origin country for Europe, with a total of 336,341 asylum applications in Europe between 1990 and 1999 (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2001: 162).
The twenty-first century has witnessed Turkey’s increasing integration with the world. The rising hopes about Turkey’s democracy, recovering economy, and accession to the EU attracted foreign capital and reversed the brain drain, along with making the idea of return an appealing alternative for diasporans. According to Germany’s multiple annual migration reports, there were more people leaving for Turkey than arriving in Germany from Turkey every year until 2014 (BAMF 2016). However, the Turkish authoritarian spiral that became more pronounced after the Gezi protests in 2013 and the failed coup attempt in 2016, in addition to the ensuing economic downturn, stimulated a new and still ongoing outflow, mainly back to Europe.
While Turkey has been sending migrants to many countries in different waves for different reasons, the current wave, which began in earnest in the 2010s, has been unique in its combination of elements from all previous waves. While each previous wave largely consisted of a specific targeted group – be it non-Muslims, labour migrants, political exiles, or Kurds – the fifth wave encompasses them all, bringing diverse, if not inimical, groups together in their contempt for the new regime and search for a new life abroad. Erdoğan dethroned the secular-Kemalist establishment in Turkey and overhauled the political system to establish the “New Turkey” in his own image via increasingly authoritarian measures. Despite being a young party, founded in 2001 with relatively limited human capital, his AKP initially managed to survive Turkey’s hostile political environment by forming temporary de facto alliances with political forces as diverse as the liberals, the Gülenists, and the Kurds. In its overzealous power grab, however, those who helped cement the rise of the AKP power were eliminated one by one. The liberals were the first target. On 2 April 2013 Aziz Babuşçu, the head of the AKP’s Istanbul organisation, declared,
Those who have become stakeholders during our 10-year rule will not be allowed to remain so during our next decade. During the past 10 years there were stakeholders for the ‘liquidation’ and ‘redefinition’ process on the basis of the discourse we carried out on freedom, law and justice. For instance, liberal groups have been such stakeholders in one way or another […]. But the future will be a reconstruction period. Reconstruction will not be as they desire it to be (Hürriyet Daily News 2013).
The 2013 anti-government Gezi protests boldly marked this reconstruction and the AKP’s anti-Western authoritarian turn. Following the forcible suppression of the protests, many educated liberals, leftists, and social democrats, including some public figures such as the actor Memet Ali Alabora, left the country.
The 2015 end of the Kurdish Resolution – mostly related to the prior lack of Kurdish support for the transition to the presidential system – emboldened the regime to take an ever more authoritarian tone. The 2015–2016 urban warfare in Eastern Anatolian cities to suppress the Kurdish insurgency displaced approximately 350,000 Kurds. With the criminalisation of the Kurds and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP), several deputies such as Hasip Kaplan and Faysal Sarıyıdız, both prominent figures in the Kurdish movement, as well as the broader masses affiliated with this movement, fled the country by using their existing connections to the Kurdish diaspora, mainly in Europe. In this securitised environment, a group of academics, now known as the Academics for Peace (Barış Akademisyenleri), were directly targeted by the government for signing a petition in January 2016 that called for political normalisation and the peaceful resolution of the “Kurdish Question.” The unceasing political and legal pressure forced many of these academics, as well as other public figures, to go abroad.
Another defining moment of the fifth emigration wave was the 2016 abortive coup, for which the AKP blamed the para-political and religious movement led by preacher-in-exile Fethullah Gülen, known as the Gülen movement (GM). The interest-based power struggle between these two actors and the suppression of the latter indeed predated the coup plot. That is why many of the GM’s elite actors left the country much earlier. After the abortive coup, the state dramatically expanded the crackdown on the entire movement. Several Gülenists fled the country at any cost to seek refuge in Western countries (Öztürk and Taş 2020). Due to repressive policies, the number of people applying for asylum from Turkey to European countries – mostly Gülenists and Kurds – increased sixfold, from 4,650 in 2015 to 26,275 in 2019, culminating in a total of 91,480 first-time asylum applicants from Turkey in Europe between 2016 and 2020 (see Figure 2). It was only the COVID-19 pandemic that slowed this rising asylum migration.
Erdoğan used the 2016 abortive coup as a pretext to suppress all opposition groups and to move Turkey into a presidential system with no checks and balances, a measure approved by a constitutional referendum in 2017. Nevertheless, the fifth emigration wave was not limited to politically persecuted groups. Among the non-Muslim minorities, which have reached the brink of extinction, many Sephardic Jews, for instance, sought a second passport in Portugal, Spain, or Israel, whereas the Protestant minority face growing fears of deportation after the 2016 arrest of American pastor Andrew Brunson (Erdemir and Maenza 2021). More broadly, the urban secular groups have increasingly felt surrounded and threatened by conservative policies and the arbitrariness of the rule of law (Öztürk and Baser 2021). The current economic crisis and deteriorating quality of life has only accelarated the outflow of young, secular, urban people, who see no future for themselves in their homeland. According to the OECD Better Life Index, today Turkey ranks 37th among 40 OECD countries (OECD 2021). Hence, those who have the means look to make new lives elsewhere (Figure 3).
Both Germany and the UK have sizeable Turkey-originated diasporas and have received considerable shares of the current wave of emigration from Turkey. To grasp the variation in the scope and purpose of the current outflows to each of the two countries requires a systematic comparative analysis of their divergent approaches towards the AKP administration and their different migration policies. Alongside the in-depth interviews we conducted with 35 newcomers reached via snowballing, a survey was conducted by Data 4U in the second half of 2021 with 1,000 Turkey-originated diasporans in Germany and the UK (500 for each country case) with systematic random sampling from large population data regarding Turkey-originated migrants, most of whom left their homeland after 2013. In this context, face-to-face and telephone interviews were conducted in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leicester, and Brighton for the UK and in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, and Stuttgart for Germany. After the basic demographic questions such as age, sex, and education, the survey sought to determine the main motivation of the respondents for leaving Turkey. The pre-listed options were the repressive environment (political, religious, and/or ethnic pressures and discrimination), economic difficulties (based on the shrinking financial conditions of Turkey or fear of a poor economic future of the country), education (pursuing educational opportunities in host countries), legal persecution (any arrest warrant or other kinds of legal complications faced by the respondent), or other reasons (to be specified by the respondent). The reasons for leaving Turkey vary in degree across the two cases (see Figures 4 and 5). For Germany, the Turkish repressive environment appears to be the primary cause of immigration. According to our survey, more than half of those who immigrated to Germany have at least a bachelor’s degree. Of that group, 39 per cent with a master’s or PhD and 34 per cent with a bachelor’s degree left Turkey because of political, religious, and/or ethnic pressures and discrimination at home. In the UK, however, over 81.2 per cent of the newcomers have a master’s or PhD degree; 42 per cent of those with at least a bachelor’s degree left the country for educational purposes. Indeed, it is obvious that for the UK case educational opportunities seem to be the crucial factor for migration, while Germany appears to be more attractive to those looking for a safe haven from the repressive environment in Turkey. One might also infer that the differences between the visa, immigration, and asylum regimes of Germany and the UK are crucial here, but in both cases the overall dissatisfaction with Turkey’s economic and cultural orientation, alongside security issues, political pressure, and an apprehension regarding the future, dominate the thinking of individuals despite their different education levels.
An interviewee from a middle-upper-class family with double MA degrees explained that he decided to leave the country and move to the UK due to his future educational ambitions in combination with the political uncertainty and socio-political pressure in Turkey:
I had a maybe slightly above-average economic situation and education, but my future was not secure, or things were not getting better. So I sold my car, which was the only material thing that I have, and went abroad to start from scratch and study again for a worldwide-recognised bachelor’s degree in the UK.
In the case of Germany, an interviewee who was a well-known journalist underlined,
I could go to another country which could offer me better conditions, but I choose Germany because I believe that politically I can express myself to the local authorities more effectively, since they know the real situation in Turkey.
This shows that the difference in the host state’s perceived foreign policy attitude towards Turkey also plays a role in the migration preferences of individuals.
Finally, the fifth emigration wave also comprises the upper classes. A report shared by the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP), in 2021 reveals that in the last three years, 23,000 businesspeople, including 10,000 millionaires, left Turkey. Thus, Turkey has lost the third-most millionaires in the world, after China and India.
Although there are hundreds of thousands of individual exit stories regarding how people have left Turkey during the current, fifth wave of emigration, they largely fall into three main categories according to both survey results and interviews. The first category consists of those leaving Turkey with an education or work visa such as Germany’s job-seeking visa or the one provided by the Ankara Agreement, which allows citizens of Turkey to establish or run businesses in the UK. As these people apply for a visa mostly in Turkey, it is safe to argue that they have no legal situation that would preclude their departure abroad. Many leave the country for undergraduate and graduate studies, or for language education; however, people from diverse professions such as medicine have recently begun to take this path, too. According to data from the Turkish Medical Association, there has been a great increase in the number of medical practitioners attempting to move abroad, especially in the last three years. While in 2012, only 59 physicians applied to move abroad, this number reached 1,361 in the first 11 months of 2021 (Inanc 2021). Likewise, according to the Eurostat, the number of Turks granted a Blue Card, a work and residence permit within the EU countries for non-EU/EEA nationals, rose from 447 in 2014 to 1,917 in 2019. In this context, the number of vocational language courses in German and English has increased rapidly in big cities such as Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara. White-collar workers such as medical doctors, nurses, engineers, and software developers form Telegram groups in which they help each other and share information on where to apply for jobs abroad or how to obtain the equivalence certificates that would allow them to work outside Turkey. The prime motivation behind this haste is their common concern about the worsening of the economy, life conditions, and personal freedom.
A second category of Turkish emigrants includes people who are well-off and do not have direct political problems in Turkey but seek a brand-new life in another country – even when they do not leave Turkey completely – for a change in their own social environment and for the future of their children. Furthermore, as a new source of motivation within the fifth wave, they have been looking for a certain level of rule of law to keep their financial savings safe. They mostly lead a dual life, at least for a while; however, their progeny may continue pursuing their lives abroad. Many prefer countries that issue a “golden visa,” such as Greece, Malta, and Portugal, which offer residency in exchange for purchasing property. Others choose global financial capitals, such as London or New York.
On the flipside of these two legal and safe migration paths, individuals directly affected by the authoritarian policies in Turkey often use illegal and relatively dangerous means to flee the country. This is the third pathway of emigration during this fifth wave. Many of them are either members of the GM and/or people who were dismissed from their jobs after the coup attempt in 2016 by emergency decree, which also led to their passports being revoked. Those who still possess valid passports choose as a first stop countries such as North Macedonia and Albania, which have visa liberalisation with Turkey, and then move to Western European countries in order to apply for asylum there. While none in our respondent group arrived in the UK via “illegal” migration, the asylum statistics indicate that those obliged to use illegal paths tended to seek refuge in continental European countries. For instance, as a Gülenist interviewee highlighted,
I went to North Macedonia before my passport was cancelled, and with a very small budget I was able to get a residence permit by establishing a non-functional business here. Then, with this residence card, I somehow got to the German border and applied for asylum.
For the rest, however, the Evros River on the Turkish–Greek border remains the main route to enter Europe. This path, largely used by Kurds and Syrian refugees via human smugglers, has become quite prevalent among Turks, too, in the aftermath of the 2016 abortive coup.
People originating from Turkey comprise one of the largest diaspora communities across Europe. The current emigration flow under the economic crisis and political repression in Turkey adds to the already multilayered and complex structure of those groups that are part of this diaspora. Despite the heterogeneity of the recent wave, however, the newcomers’ relations with the host states and societies, as well as with the existing Turkey-originated diaspora groups, follow certain patterns: in general, while the politicisation of bilateral relations between Turkey and Western countries creates baggage for the perception of the recent migrants in Europe, the intra-diaspora lack of trust (or hostile relations among multiple Turkey-originated communities) pushes each identity group deeper into their cocoons.
First, the newcomers’ experience is largely affected by the host country’s relations with Turkey and the prevalent perception of Turks and Turkey there. For instance, our survey for both Germany and the UK indicates that approximately 27 per cent of recent emigrants think that Turkey’s relations with their host country is a main indicator of how the host countries’ residents approach them. Furthermore, the same survey shows that 39 per cent of recent emigrants think that Erdoğan’s anti-Western discourse affects their social relations in their new host country. Indeed, every single country has a different experience based on different normative and practical indicators. For instance, the semi-structured interviews suggest that experiences in the UK and Germany make for quite different stories. In general, while Turks are more welcomed in Anglo-Saxon countries as just another group of immigrants, they have to deal with some long-held stereotypes in continental Europe. Likewise, according to the semi-structured interviews we have learned that new migrants in every single country have better experiences in big and cosmopolitan cities rather than rural regions. Even the urban, secular newcomers cannot avoid the categorical perception of the Turks as conservative, patriarchal, religious, poorly educated, and supportive of Erdoğan (Ashdown 2021).
Second, the recent wave has further politicised the Turkey-originated diaspora in Europe and embroiled them more in the hot political agenda of their home country, not only increasing the divide among disparate diasporic groups, but also pushing the newcomers away from the local Turkish diasporas that have been a strong support base for the AKP. The young, educated emigrants usually have little contact with, or do not enjoy direct support from, the existing local diaspora organisations that could facilitate their quick adaptation to the host country. For instance, our survey shows that more than 75 per cent of the new migrants with bachelor’s degrees do not want any direct or indirect support from established diaspora organisations in Germany and the UK. That is primarily because they mostly want to stay away from Turkey’s transnational influences. In contrast, the community-based migration flows, such as those of the Kurds, Gülenists, or Alevis, build on pre-existing networks and solidarity structures. While this helps them to live in diaspora as they used to live in Turkey, it also imports the social dynamics and political baggage into the new context. For instance, almost every person we interviewed categorically refuses to meet with Gülenists because they consider them partners in crime with the AKP, which they see as causing Turkey’s current political, social, and economic demise. Although not exactly in the same vein, the polarised and politicised alignments of Turkish society are largely reinvigorated in the diaspora context.
In addition to the identity-based compartmentalisation of the Turkey-originated diaspora, Erdoğan appears as the main faultline, and his regime’s increasing and ever more politicised engagement with the diaspora is pushing people further to live in seclusion. The newcomers also maintain their isolationist stance vis-à-vis both formal and informal Turkish institutions, since they have little faith in Turkey and the Turkish state apparatus. For instance, according to our survey results, almost 60 per cent of interviewees do not have any confidence in Turkey’s parliament, president, judiciary, police, military, or media. The level of confidence in the diplomats is slightly lower than in the other institutions, at approximately 45 per cent, and many emigrants avoid getting in touch with the diplomatic posts or national diaspora organisations unless absolutely necessary, as they consider such institutions tools of Erdoğan’s personalistic regime. The distrust towards other sub-diaspora communities and Turkish institutions causes many newcomers to isolate themselves inside a safe cocoon they seek to build in the host country.
Third, this relates to the intensified and multifaceted diaspora governance of the Turkish state under AKP rule (Öztürk and Baser 2021). In the first decade of the 2000s, the state revived existing bodies such as the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and established new institutions such as the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (Yurtdışı Türkler ve Akraba Topluluklar Başkanlığı, YTB) in order to pursue long-distance nationalism. While politicising the Turkish diaspora and cultivating pro-AKP groups and associations, the state also conducted transnational repression to obstruct the political engagement of its dissidents abroad. Compared to the Global South, Western Europe is relatively safer, but here, too, Turkish intelligence is reported to be running 800 operatives and 6,000 informants, and the Turkish state’s repressive measures range from surveillance and profiling to targeted violence and the intimidation of relatives at home (Öztürk and Taş 2020). The AKP’s fears are understandable, as the recent wave of diaspora has increasingly become a hotspot of the opposition. Hundreds of academics who fled supression at home, including the Academics for Peace, have been quite vocal about condemning Turkey’s authoritarian practices, setting the political discourse, and lobbying European bodies to be more active on this subject. Likewise, the exiled journalists run some of the most outspoken Turkish media platforms, such as Artı TV and Ahval, circumventing the local restrictions and censorship. Moreover, Berlin now hosts an ever-growing number of critical artists, including several prominent names such as director Mustafa Altıoklar and rapper Ezhel, representing part of the vigilant diaspora activism.
Whether the current wave of emigration, together with the massive influx of Syrians, is paving the way for a demographic change within Turkey remains a significant question. Nevertheless, compared to the previous waves, the fifth encompasses people of a much higher socio-economic status. Turkey is losing not only its hope, but also its capital and talent. While the brightest flee the country in this brain drain, the annual outflow of Turkish capital rose from 4 billion USD in 2012 to almost 44 billion USD in 2020. The overwhelming despair about the country’s political and economic future signals the continuation of this emigration.
Over the last several years, the priority in EU–Turkey relations has been the irregular migration in the wake of the Syrian civil war. However, the European bodies need to recognise Turkey’s role not only as a host or transit country, but also as a home country with its own emigration wave following the political and economic turmoil. The fifth emigration wave, first, means a supply of capital and talent benefitting European countries. In fact, many European countries are going through a demographic transition, with their populations increasingly ageing and shrinking, and can now take advantage of the current outflow from Turkey. To meet its own need, Germany, for instance, has facilitated the immigration of qualified foreign workers in several sectors, such as medicine, and lower-skilled workers in home care and domestic services. Second, while harbouring the Turkish and Kurdish dissidents has added another tension to the EU countries’ relations with Turkey, the ongoing emigration has contributed to the transnationalisation and importation of Turkey’s domestic conflicts, along with the exacerbation of intra-diaspora controversies. The intense engagement with, and polarisation around, the home country’s domestic problems is leading to a reshuffle of the political priorities of the Turkey-originated diasporas – and it is making their integration into their respective host countries increasingly more difficult.
While eliminating the root causes of forced displacement and emigration remains a long-term target of European Union policies, the crisis-driven context of the current emigration wave requires the formulation of a strategic and comprehensive approach. Germany, for instance, has fostered several programmes, such as the Philipp Schwartz Initiative for scholars at risk, the Martin Roth Initiative for threatened artists, and the Elisabeth Selbert Initiative for human rights defenders. Yet, considering the scope of repression by Turkish state institutions, the admissions slots in all available categories need to be expanded. Second, the EU and national authorities should take more measures against the long arm of the Turkish state to ensure the safety and basic rights of the newcomers. These may include the use of targeted sanctions against specific rights violators (e.g. revoking visas in case of foreign citizenship), the training of law enforcement to recognise and combat transnational repression, and for the standardised outreach procedures for targeted groups to be tailored to their specific needs. Third, in addressing the young and educated potential emigrants, European countries can facilitate and diversify the legal means for immigrating and registering formally in the host country – Germany’s job-seeker visa being an example of best practice. Finally, in order to prevent the worsening of intra-diaspora strife, host states should increase their communication with diaspora organisations and representatives. The reinforcement of such channels can contribute to preventing incidences of intolerance and discrimination and foster social cohesion with other diaspora groups and integration into host societies.
Ahmet Erdi Öztürk’s work on this GIGA Focus has been supported by a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship at Coventry University (CTPSR), London Metropolitan University, and the GIGA.
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