The decline of Turkey’s democracy has become a well-worn theme, and for good reason. The country has now jailed more journalists on charges related to their work than any other in the world, and many academics who’ve criticised the government’s policies towards the “Kurdish question” are now on trial. But recently, media observers have seemingly identified another alarming trend: a “Turkish exodus”.
With the failed coup attempt of 2016, the ensuing crackdown, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s moves to consolidate his power, it seems many Turks are moving abroad to make new lives elsewhere. Some are suggesting that this amounts to a “new wave” of refugees fleeing the country.
The truth is rather more complicated. It’s too early to call this an “exodus”; many migration concepts, such as refugee, are regularly misused, with “flows” of people often exaggerated and romanticised. But nonetheless, the testimonies of those who’ve left and who’ve stayed, as well as the statistics recorded so far, show alarming signs. It’s clear that years of intensifying polarisation have left a certain segment of Turkish society tired of living in their country.
Many people in the opposition think the rule of law is being eroded, that elections are not fair, that secularism is being replaced by a creeping Islamism (especially in the education sector), and that their lifestyles are in danger. As long as this disaffection persists, more emigration from Turkey to the West seems inevitable. And if the result is a steady outflow of privileged, educated citizens, it might cause a significant brain drain, with severe long-term consequences for Turkey’s society and economy.
Each of Turkey’s various military coups has triggered a surge of conflict-induced emigration, and the events of 2016 fit that pattern. But at the same time, much of this migration was underway before the coup attempt.
While it’s very hard to put a definitive number on how many Turkish citizens have left for political reasons – whether before 2016 or after – a heavy outflow is well underway. Some media outlets claim that more than 1,000 Turkish citizens are seeking asylum in Greece. In Germany, some 600 senior-ranked Turkish officials have sought asylum.
Some news sources also reported the overall migration flows from Turkey to Europe during the last five years: 17,000 to the UK, 7,000 to Germany, and 5,000 to France. Numerous academic and non-academic experts are underlining that many who haven’t left yet are still considering it.
But who are these people who’ve already left? Is Turkey really facing a “brain drain”?
Why are they leaving?
Despite the country’s deep polarisation, the 2016 putsch met resistance from all sections of society. It was the first coup attempt in modern Turkish history to be thwarted by masses of citizens pouring into the streets, while secular army officers stayed loyal to the government. And yet, life in Turkey was never going to return to normal afterwards.
The coup attempt left behind a degree of trauma that’s hard to understand from abroad, and which is one of the main reasons for the so-called exodus. The government used the coup attempt as a pretext to impose a never-ending state of emergency, whose provisions it has used not only to fight against putschists, but also to suppress the democratic opposition.
A recent report has shown the damage that emergency decrees are causing to Turkish democracy and discussed its long-term consequences. The impotence of parliament, the lack of judicial control, and the controversial 2017 referendum to greatly enhance the president’s power, which Erdoğan won by a tiny margin – all these have left a great many Turks hopeless enough to leave.
The emigrants who usually make the headlines are putschists seeking asylum in countries such as Greece. Their applications have caused serious tensions between the Greek and Turkish governments. Some might claim that there is a need to draw a demarcation line between those and the others who are leaving: among the ones who left are very probably people who were members of the Gülen Movement, which is blamed for the coup attempt, whereas other citizens leaving now have nothing to do with this movement but are obliged to bear the consequences of its activities.
In fact, the Gülen movement’s elite began to leave the country long before the coup, when their relationship with the AKP government began to deteriorate. Some of the ones who stayed are now trying to leave, sometimes resorting desperate measures; at the end of 2017, one family drowned in the Mediterranean.
Other specific groups are under pressure too. After the government and judiciary cracked down on more than a thousand academics who signed a petition to call the government to end its security operations in south-east Turkey, many of the signatories applied for scholarships or found jobs abroad, and they left the country. It is claimed that 698 of them applied for scholarships from the international network Scholars at Risk in order to find a temporary academic position elsewhere. Some of those academics are also applying for asylum abroad as their passports have been annulled.
There is also an increasing tendency for secular, white collar university graduates to look for job opportunities abroad. Some wealthy citizens purchase property in Spain, Portugal or Greece to obtain European resident permits. It’s now common on Turkish TV to see commercials from estate agents offering so-called golden visas (a visa through wealth or investment in real estate). Golden visas provide a safe way for the privileged to escape.
Some of the emigrants are finding jobs abroad before they leave; others are testing the waters by immigrating temporarily to try their luck at making a life elsewhere. As the Turkish diaspora grows, it increasingly reflects the contours of the various conflicts at home.
This is not without its complications. Naturally, some who left don’t want to engage with politics at all, preferring to make a fresh start. But for the Gülenists, things aren’t so simple. They are marginalised by the diaspora more generally, as many opposition groups remember how the Gülenists persecuted them when they still had good relations with the government.
It’s crucial not to neglect the dissenting who remain in Turkey, whether or not they have the means to leave. They are resisting the state of emergency while trying to push the government to lift it and restore democratic principles. Their stories matter – and not least since they have more leverage in pushing their country towards a more democratic future.