One consequence of the Turkish elections last May in which Recep Tayyip Erdoğan emerged triumphant is that it is likely to accelerate the exodus of young people and educated professionals. The trends already have been apparent in recent years, and they are spurred by more than just collapsing living standards, deteriorating public services (especially education), and the erosion of meritocracy. It is now increasingly driven by a loss of hope of having any say over the country’s future.
The late economist Albert Hirschman’s seminal work Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (1970) suggests three possible forms of political behavior. “Voice” is critical to the functioning of democratic countries, enabling citizens to express their dissatisfaction and call for change/reform via public engagement such as in free and fair elections, the media, and peaceful protests. “Loyalty” is the option for those who are dissatisfied with the performance of the government in power but continue to lend their electoral support out of ideological commitments or fear of losing what they have. Individuals choose to “exit” when they lose their hope for change and vote with their feet by leaving the country. If you cannot change your country for the better, you move to a better country.
What distinguishes the current exodus from previous waves of emigration out of Turkey is a deepening sense of “voicelessness” with respect to change and reform, after the failure of even a united opposition to defeat Erdoğan and return to government. The steady loss of youth and professionals risks reducing prospects for a return to a vibrant democracy, and paves the way to a Turkey even less competitive and more authoritarian. Ironically for Erdoğan, it also is likely to undermine his ambitions to “Make Turkey Great Again.”
A Country of Emigration
While these days Turkey is known as the country that hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, it has a very long history of emigration, especially to Europe. There were several waves driven by a variety of factors. As western Europe’s post-World War II economic recovery generated a growing demand for labor, exporting workers was promoted by the Turkish state as part of its national economic development strategy, both to alleviate unemployment and to ensure the flow of remittances as a source of foreign currency. Labor recruitment from Turkey to Europe ceased in the mid-1970s yet emigration continued in the form of family formation and reunification. This in due course culminated in a Turkish diaspora in Europe that today stands at about 5.5 million over which Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) enjoy considerable influence.
Asylum became another form of emigration from Turkey. The repression that followed the military interventions of 1971 and 1980 forced many leftists, Kurds, and Alevis (nontraditional Muslims who may be Turkish or Kurdish and who have long complained of official discrimination and a lack of government protection, even though they make up about 20 percent of the population) to flee the country. This trend continued into the late-1990s as a violent conflict raged between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK) and security forces, leading to gross violations of human rights. Turkey ranked among the countries with the largest number of asylum applications in European countries. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there were close to 600,000 asylum applications between 1980 and 1999. Throughout this period, there was also significant irregular migration from Turkey, either in the form of Turks overstaying their visas, introduced in the early 1980s, or entering European countries illegally.
The early 2000s saw this pattern reversed, as Turkey embarked on a path to EU membership that helped spur a decade of political reform and growing prosperity. At one point, the country was even touted as a “model.” From 2006 until about 2015, immigration from Germany to Turkey outpaced emigration from Turkey to Germany, traditionally the country that received the largest number of Turkish nationals. This was the decade when Turkey became a destination country for second- and third-generation Turks living in Europe as well as for Western academics, business people, investors, professionals, retirees, students, and migrants from neighboring countries seeking employment. It was a period when the number of asylum seekers from Turkey to Europe steadily fell (p. 20, Table 3), and Turkey itself increasingly became a country of asylum.
Drivers of the Current Exodus
This trend did not last. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact date, but the Gezi Park protests in the early summer of 2013 and subsequent developments in Turkey set off a flight of people that continues to this day. On the surface, the Gezi Park protests erupted against Erdoğan’s plans to convert one of the rare remaining green spots in downtown Istanbul into a shopping mall. However, it became very quickly evident that the protests were also a reaction to his growing authoritarianism, his intolerance of diversity, and his determination to impose a conservative religious lifestyle on the liberal and secular parts of the society. The protest was violently repressed, and many of its participants were prosecuted, the most prominent of them being Osman Kavala who, in Turkey’s defiance of European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) rulings for his release, was sentenced in 2022 to life in prison for allegedly attempting to overthrow the Turkish government by financing the 2013 Gezi protests.
In 2015, the collapse of the peace process with the PKK culminated in the eruption of urban violence in southeastern Turkey. This precipitated a wave of repression against politically engaged Kurds, including the removal of elected local government officials from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and their replacement by government-appointed trustees. Many academics who were critical of the government, known as “Academics for Peace,” found themselves criminally charged and sacked from their jobs.
The mounting repressive climate in the country took a massive turn for the worse following a July 2016 coup attempt, which has been broadly attributed to military personnel associated with the Gülenists, a movement led by a cleric in exile in the United States and former close political ally of Erdoğan, Fethullah Gülen. The coup attempt led to the introduction of emergency rule. Mass detentions, dismissals and prosecutions of alleged perpetrators, including academics, judges, prosecutors, and public servants followed, often with scant regard for legal due process.
Furthermore, the state of emergency also created the circumstances that enabled Erdoğan to push through a controversial constitutional referendum in 2017 that transformed Turkey’s parliamentary system into a heavily centralized presidential one, with no effective checks and balances on his power. This has enabled him to consolidate his authoritarian rule and follow through on his determination to impose his vision of a “new Turkey,” characterized by religious conservatism and little regard for accountability, criticism, diversity, and transparency.
He also began to disregard the independence of regulatory bodies that were so critical to Turkey’s economic success in the previous decade. As a result, the performance of the Turkish economy has steadily deteriorated since at least August 2018, when the national currency lost 44 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar compared with the start of that year. By the end of 2020, economic mismanagement had brought Turkey’s GDP per capita down to $8,561 from its peak of $12,507 in 2013. The Turkish Lira took another massive dip in December 2021, when Erdoğan set out to implement his longstanding unorthodox monetary policy, sometimes called Erdoganomics, of lowering interest rates to combat growing inflation. This policy combined with a massive spending spree during the runup to the elections fueled rampant inflation that is eroding living standards and exacerbating poverty in Turkey.
Forms of Migration
It is not surprising that the combination of these developments provided a fresh impetus for Turks of all walks of life to emigrate. One manifestation of this new trend is the marked increase in the number of asylum applications by Turkish nationals, ranging from Gezi protesters to Gülenists, to journalists, to Kurds and more recently especially LGBTQ individuals. In particular, applications in a grouping known as the EU + (including Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland) increased from about 5,000 annually in 2013 and 2014 to almost 24,000 in 2019, before slightly falling due to the COVID pandemic, and then picking up again in 2021 and 2022. The European Union Asylum Agency (p. 414) (EUAA) reports almost 58,000 applications from Turkey in 2022, putting Turkish nationals in third place after Syrians and Afghans.
There is also irregular migration, which is naturally much more difficult to track. The German police reported an increase of more than 250 percent in the number of Turkish nationals apprehended trying to enter the country irregularly from 2021 to 2022. It even included individuals using government-service passports, allowing them visa-free travel to the EU, obtained from AKP-run municipalities.
Beyond Europe, there are growing reports that the southern border of the United States is fast becoming an important entry point for Turkish nationals in search of employment. Some pay $15,000 to criminal organizations for the trip, while others self-organize with the help of family connections and friends. Those who are apprehended lodge asylum applications and are eventually admitted to the United States while awaiting their hearings. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, the number of these entries from Mexico increased from less than 2,000 in 2020 to almost 5,000 in 2021, and then to more than 24,000 in 2022. This is an unprecedented trend, as post-WWII Turkish immigration to the United States was composed mostly of graduate students staying on after completing their studies or academics and professionals.
Finally, there is also regular emigration from Turkey. The Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK) reports almost 140,000 emigrants in 2022, the highest publicly accessible figure since 2016. Each year, the figure has increased, except during the pandemic, bringing the grand total to more than 725,000 in seven years. And these statistics likely don’t capture the full-scale of the exodus. University students and educated youth are among the leading groups. According to a survey conducted in Turkey in 2021, more than 72 percent of people ages 18 to 25 said they would prefer to live abroad if an opportunity presented itself, while almost 63 percent said they do not see a good future for Turkey. The emigration of academics, doctors, and other medical personnel is attracting particularly widespread attention. A platform representing academics recently noted that 12,000 professors and others in academia were compelled to leave the country because of poor economic conditions and poor prospects of having a career based on merit rather than loyalty to the regime.
These departures add to the many academics who left Turkey after being dismissed from their jobs or after having been prosecuted for running afoul of the government. The British medical journal The Lancet reported in August 2022 that the number of physicians leaving the country increased 50-fold compared with 10 years ago, based on figures from the Turkish Medical Association for doctors seeking certificates that allow them to practice abroad. Deteriorating work conditions, pay, increasing violence towards health professionals as well as “the devaluation of the profession” by the government were cited by the chairwoman of the Turkish Medical Association as factors driving these figures. The list of professionals leaving the country can be extended to many other professions, too, such as IT specialists, tens of thousands of whom have left in recent years and whose numbers are increasing, as well as artists, business people, engineers, sales experts, among other groups.
The Cost of Voicelessness for Turkey
Clearly, what is happening is a classic example of brain drain, but in this case driven not just by economic opportunities and efforts by European countries to attract talent to compensate for shortages of skilled labor. Under Erdoğan’s one-man rule and following the dismal performance of the opposition in the recent elections, there is a sense that politics has come to an end. All channels to express dissatisfaction with Erdoğan’s rule and seek change — civil society, elections, the judiciary, the media, parliament, and peaceful protest, for example — are blocked.
Those who dare to demand reform of public policies — issues range from national education to women’s rights, loyalty-based employment, corruption, environmental protection, and the government’s refusal to accommodate Turkey’s ethnic, social, and cultural diversity — are stigmatized, facing a constant rhetorical bombardment and dehumanization by Erdoğan and his supporters. In but one recent example, villagers and protesters seeking to prevent the destruction of an ancient forest in western Turkey to make way for coal mines were denounced by the president as “marginals.” Yet, it was only a few years earlier that he complained about unscrupulous individuals (referring to capitalists) who cut trees and put up buildings for commercial gain, even as he praised his government’s record of planting billions of trees.
Erdoğan’s rhetoric and actions constantly increase pressure on any kind of criticism, liberal values, or social diversity, fueling a culture war in the country and engendering “a sense of being strangers in your own country” among modern and secular individuals and families. The accompanying despair that this narrative generates about the future is confirmed by interviews held with more than 70 recent emigrants in a six-episode program aired by one of the few independent media outlets of Turkey. What is apparent from this program is that youth and young families are leaving the country for good, with the declared intention of becoming true immigrants in their destination countries and not just expatriates who long for an eventual return.
This constitutes a loss for Turkey in the cultural, economic, and political sense of the word. A veteran observer of Turkish politics speculated that Erdoğan and his elite are quite comfortable with this exodus, as their conception of the new Turkey would be more governable without the educated and the secular-minded. This was reflected, for example, when he responded to doctors’ complaints about violence and pay conditions, “Let them leave.”
This narrow mindedness and cynicism have created a dilemma for Erdoğan. For him to deliver on his frequent promises to have Turkey join the world’s top 10 economies and make the 21st century the “Century of Türkiye” as a global power, he will need to adopt a politics that will reverse the exodus of Turkey’s most talented and educated. Anything short of this will leave him with a mediocre Turkey as more and more voiceless Turks exit, and even his loyal base shrinks along with the economy. In a recent interview, a conservative woman in one breath celebrated Erdoğan’s and his coalition’s victory, yet announced her desire to move to Germany “for her children’s future.” Turkey has clearly reached a dead end when even Erdoğan’s most committed supporters hope to leave the country. For the sake of Turkey’s future, one can only hope that Erdoğan himself also recognizes this.
(The author would like to thank Sophie Roehse, Senior Research Assistant at the Brookings Institution for her assistance with this article.)