E.g., 12/02/2023
E.g., 12/02/2023
Turkey: A Transformation from Emigration to Immigration

Turkey: A Transformation from Emigration to Immigration

Traditionally, Turkey has been known as a country of emigration. Starting from the early 1960s and well into the 1970s, large numbers of Turkish nationals migrated to western European countries, particularly West Germany. This emigration continued into recent times through family reunification schemes and the asylum track. Recently, Turkey has also become known as a country of transit to the European Union for irregular migrants from Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan. Turkey, whose population approaches 70 million, has also become a destination for irregular migrants from former Soviet Bloc countries, and a magnet for illegal immigrants.

What is less well known is that Turkey has long been a country of immigration and asylum. From 1923 to 1997, more than 1.6 million people immigrated to Turkey, mostly from Balkan countries. During the Cold War, thousands of asylum seekers fled to Turkey from Communist states in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The overwhelming majority were recognized as refugees, and were resettled to third countries such as Canada and the United States by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In the late 1980s, this pattern began to change as increasing numbers of asylum seekers began to arrive from Iran and Iraq, as well as other developing nations. Turkey also experienced a mass influx of almost half a million mostly Kurdish refugees from Iraq in 1988 and 1991, as well as mass influxes of Albanians, Bosnian Muslims, Pomaks (Bulgarian-speaking Muslims), and Turks in 1989, 1992-1995, and 1999.

The changing patterns of immigration into Turkey and Turkey's efforts to become a member of the European Union are creating pressures for an overhaul of immigration and asylum policies. At the same time, there are also growing concerns in Europe that if Turkey were to become a member of the EU, there would be a massive wave of immigration from Turkey to the more prosperous members of the union.

Historical Background

The Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of the Turkish Republic, had a long history of emigration, immigration, and forced migration. Some of these population movements were small, as when groups of Ashkenazim Jews came to the Ottoman Empire from lands as far away as Bavaria during the 14th century. Larger movements included the arrival to the empire in 1492 of around 100,000 Sephardim Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. The Ottoman Empire also received refugees from the lands of the Habsburg Empire during nationalist upheavals in the latter part of the 19th century, particularly Hungarians, Poles, and Piedmontese nationalists. Moreover, the Russian defeat of the Circassians (Çerkezler) in the North Caucasus in 1864 led to an estimated one million Muslim refugees fleeing to the Ottoman Empire.

The gradual contraction of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of new states led to millions of Christians and Muslims being uprooted from their Ottoman homelands from the late 19th to early 20th century. Those displaced—many forcibly—included Armenians from eastern Anatolia and Greeks from central and western Anatolia, as well as Muslim Albanians, Bosnians, Pomaks, Tatars, and Turks from the Balkans.

The early years of the Turkish Republic continued to see large movements of people in both directions. Most significant of these was the forced exchange of population between Greece and Turkey in the mid-1920s, involving over a million Greeks from Turkey and almost half a million Muslims and Turks from Greece. The government also established an immigration program encouraging Muslims and Turks from the Balkans to settle in Turkey.

Turkey also became a country of asylum. Close to 100,000 Jews from German-occupied Europe made Turkey their country of first asylum. Jews from various parts of occupied Europe found temporary asylum in Turkey that ultimately resulted in their resettlement, mostly in Palestine and subsequently in Israel. During the course of World War II, many people from the Nazi-occupied Balkans also sought refuge in Turkey, including Muslims and ethnic Turks from Bulgaria, Greeks from the Aegean, and Italians from the Dodecanese Islands. Most of these people returned home after the war, although some Bulgarians stayed on because of the change of regime in their country. Similarly, the civil war in Greece led some Greeks to stay on for an additional period of time.


Large-scale Turkish labor emigration to Europe started with an agreement signed by the Turkish and West German governments in 1961. The pact coincided with a West German economic boom, and the migration of growing numbers of Turkish internal migrants from rural areas to major urban centers. The pact aimed to provide the German economy with temporary unskilled labor, "guest workers," while thinning the ranks of Turkey's unemployed. It was expected that these workers would return to Turkey with new skills and help reorient the Turkish economy from rural agriculture to industry. Turkey signed similar agreements with other European countries, including Austria, Belgium, Holland, France, and Sweden. Many of these guest workers confounded expectations, however, by settling down and even bringing their families to join them. Furthermore, it was often skilled laborers who emigrated.

The economic downturn in western Europe that arrived with the oil crisis of 1973 ended the recruitment of labor from Turkey. However, Europe's recession coincided with an economic boom in the Middle East, allowing Turkish workers to emigrate to countries such as Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. This emigration rarely involved entire families. The Turkish presence in Iraq (and to a lesser extent, other Arab countries) was reduced by the 1991 Gulf War. In the early 1990s, meanwhile, Turkish companies won construction and industrial contracts in the Russian Federation and other parts of the Commonwealth of Independent States, creating opportunities there for Turkish workers, engineers, and managers.

As a result of this emigration, remittances sent by Turkish immigrants and workers abroad have been a major foreign currency input for the economy since the early 1960s. Remittances steadily increased as a percentage of Turkey's annual trade deficit, reaching a peak in 1994 of 62.3 percent, and dropped to their lowest level in 2000 with 20.4 percent.

Remittances have been a major source of foreign currency input for the economy since the early 1960s

After the end of labor recruitment from Turkey, Turkish emigration to Europe continued through family reunification in the 1980s and most of the 1990s.

Since the mid-1980s, asylum seekers have been heading for Western Europe. They have been seeking protection from the consequences of the Turkish military's intervention in civilian politics in 1980 and the increase in the violence surrounding efforts to suppress a separatist movement by Turkey's large Kurdish minority, which by most accounts makes up roughly 20 percent of the total population. The two sides have fought over a range of issues, including the right to use the Kurdish language and demands for a separate Kurdish state. According to government statistics, the violence surrounding the Kurdish problem in Turkey, especially during the first half of the 1990s, led to the displacement of approximately 330,000 people from their regular places of residence. However, the Turkish Human Rights Association puts the number of people internally displaced at more than 2.5 million. The majority of these displaced people have been Kurds. According to UNHCR statistics, during the course of the 1990s almost 340,000 Turkish citizens applied for asylum in various European countries. Refugee recognition rates varied from country to country, and according to UNHCR, have dropped in the recent years for reasons connected to fraudulent use of the asylum channel.

The worst of the conflict between the armed forces and separatist rebels wound down in the second half of the 1990s, and following the gradual introduction of political reforms, asylum applications have fallen. However, an unidentified number of Turkish nationals, again often of Kurdish origin, continue to attempt to enter EU countries illegally in search of jobs. Some of the ships carrying large numbers of irregular migrants that have recently landed on Italian and French beaches have included Turkish nationals.

In a final aspect of emigration, the last few years have witnessed an increase in the number of highly qualified professionals and university graduates moving to Europe or the CIS countries. Today, it is estimated that there are approximately 3.6 million Turkish nationals living abroad, of whom about 3.2 million are in European countries, a substantial increase from 600,000 in 1972.

There are approximately 3.6 million Turkish nationals living abroad

With the EU due to decide whether to start accession negotiations with Turkey by December 2004, the question of Turkish immigrants in European countries and prospects of further emigration from Turkey have become major issues. Many in Europe believe that large numbers of Turkish immigrants have failed to integrate into their host communities. This is seen as exacerbating anti-immigrant feelings in a number of EU member countries and is fueling concerns about further immigration.

In contrast, other analysts maintain that many Turkish nationals have actually integrated well and even joined the ranks of elected politicians at the level of local and national government, as well as the European Parliament. Turkish immigrants are also seen as contributing to job creation, because many run their own businesses.

Others suggest that as the Turkish economy expands with EU membership, the pressure to emigrate will diminish. As another deterrent, the EU usually sets long transition periods after membership is acquired, during which the right to free movement for Turkish nationals within the EU would be curtailed. Others argue that just as was the case with Greece, Portugal, and Spain, there could even be a reverse migration trend as some Turkish immigrants might choose to return to Turkey.


The founding fathers of the Turkish Republic were very concerned about boosting the population of the country, which in the 1920s stood at around 13 million. The population stock had been depleted by massive deaths caused by a series of external and internal conflicts, such as the Balkan wars of 1912-1913, World War I and the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. This was aggravated by massive forced migrations and deaths of Armenians, Greeks, and Muslims.

The founders of the modern Turkish state were also concerned about creating a homogenous sense of national identity in an otherwise ethnically and culturally diverse country. Exclusive priority was given to encouraging and accepting immigrants who were either Muslim Turkish speakers to start with, or who were officially considered to belong to ethnic groups that would easily melt into a Turkish identity such as Albanians, Bosnians, Circassians, Pomaks, and Tatars from the Balkans. From the establishment of Turkey in 1923 to 1997, more than 1.6 million immigrants came and settled in Turkey, more than half of them by the early 1950s. The immigrants were successfully assimilated into the "Turkish" national identity.

In this period, only a small number of immigrants came from outside this geographic area and these ethnic and religious groups. The Gagauz Turks, for example, were not encouraged to immigrate to Turkey, largely due to them being Christian. The major piece of legislation that governed this policy, the Law on Settlement of 1934, actually restricted immigration to Turkey to persons of "Turkish descent and culture."

The period of government-supported major immigration into Turkey lasted until about the early 1970s, after which immigration began to be discouraged on the grounds that Turkey's population had grown enough and that land to distribute to immigrants had become scarce. In fact, the last major wave of immigration occurred, unexpectedly, when more than 300,000 Turks and Pomaks were expelled from Bulgaria in 1989 after refusing to assimilate into a Bulgarian Slav identity as part of a campaign launched by the Communist regime. A third of these refugees returned soon after the regime change in Bulgaria in 1990 as the Cold War came to an end and communist regimes in Eastern Europe began to collapse. The rest acquired Turkish citizenship. With Bulgarian membership in the EU expected by 2007, ever-growing numbers of these refugees are returning to reclaim their Bulgarian citizenship.

Today, officially sanctioned immigration into Turkey has for all intent and purposes dropped to a trickle. Since the early 1990s, however, Turkey has witnessed a new form of irregular immigration involving nationals of neighboring countries, EU nationals, and transit migrants. Turkey allows nationals of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, and the Central Asian republics to enter the country quite freely either without visas or with visas that can easily be obtained at airports and other entry points. A large number of these people are involved in small-scale trade. However, some overstay their visas and illegally work as household help, commercial sex workers, and laborers, especially on construction sites and in the tourism sector.

It is very difficult to estimate the numbers of such irregular immigrants in Turkey. However, figures ranging from 150,000 to one million are often cited. To these groups must be added trafficked people, particularly women. These are people who have either been coerced or deceived into traveling to Turkey for commercial sex work, and remain in Turkey against their wishes. There is also an increasing number of EU member-state nationals engaged in professional activities who are settling in Turkey, particularly in Istanbul, as well as European retirees in some of the Mediterranean resorts. They, too, constitute a relatively new phenomenon in terms of immigration into Turkey, and their numbers are estimated at 100,000-120,000.

Lastly, since the second half of the 1990s, the number of irregular migrants using Turkey as a transit route to Europe has grown. These people are mostly nationals of neighboring countries in the Middle East such as Iraq, Iran, and Syria, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Turkish government has been under massive pressure from a number of EU member countries to curb this transit migration. However, there are no reliable figures available to bear out Turkey's success or failure in this regard. Each year approximately 90,000 irregular migrants have been apprehended by the Turkish authorities. They have also stopped ships laden with undocumented, would-be immigrants from reaching the shores of southern Mediterranean countries.

While a lack of hard numbers makes it difficult to determine, it appears that government measures may be reducing the use of Turkey as a transit route. In August 2002, the government introduced new articles to the Penal Code criminalizing human smuggling and trafficking, and instituted stricter controls at borders and ports. In September 2003, the U.S. administration announced that Turkey would be upgraded from a category of countries threatened with sanctions. Previously, Turkey had been put in this category based on the U.S. State Department's "Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000: Trafficking in Persons Reports."

Turkey is also a country of asylum, and is among the original signatories of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. However, Turkey is today among a very small number of countries that maintains a "geographical limitation" to the agreement's applicability as defined in Article 1.B(1)(a) of the Convention. Accordingly, Turkey does not grant refugee status to asylum seekers coming from outside Europe, and maintains a two-tiered asylum policy.

The first tier of this policy is centered on Europe and is deeply rooted in Turkey's role as a Western ally neighboring the Soviet Union during the Cold War. During that period, in close cooperation with UNHCR, Turkey received refugees from the Communist Bloc countries in Europe, including the Soviet Union. Such refugees, during their stay in Turkey, enjoyed all the rights provided for in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Only a very small number were allowed to stay on in Turkey, often as a result of marriages with Turkish nationals. The others were resettled out of Turkey. Although it is very difficult to obtain accurate statistics on their numbers, the Ministry of Interior has indicated that some 13,500 asylum seekers benefited from the protection of the 1951 Convention between 1970 and 1996. Statistics for previous years are not available.

In addition, approximately 20,000 Bosnians were granted temporary asylum in Turkey during hostilities in the former Yugoslavia between 1992-1995. Some of the refugees were housed in a refugee camp near the Bulgarian border, while many went on to stay with relatives in large cities such as Istanbul and Bursa. Since the signing of the Dayton Peace Plan in 1995, many of these refugees have been steadily returning to Bosnia. In addition, in 1998 and 1999, approximately 18,000 Kosovars came to Turkey to seek protection from the strife in their ancestral homeland. The majority have returned. There are also more than 17,000 Ahiska Turks who have been granted residence permits.

The second tier of Turkey's asylum policy deals with people from outside Europe. The new policy emerged in 1980 in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, and subsequent instability in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Upheaval in these areas led to a steady increase in the number of asylum seekers coming from outside Europe. For a long time, the government allowed UNHCR considerable leeway to temporarily shelter these asylum seekers with the tacit understanding that they would be resettled out of Turkey if UNHCR recognized them as refugees, and that those whose claims were rejected would be deported. However, the growth in the number of illegal entries into Turkey and in the number of rejected asylum seekers stranded in Turkey strained this practice. The situation was also aggravated by the 1988 and 1991 mass influxes of Kurdish refugees amounting to almost half a million.

To cope with this overload, the government introduced the 1994 Asylum Regulation, which reflects the ascendance of national security concerns over refugee rights. Its application led to an increase in the number of violations of the principle of "non-refoulement" (the return of asylum seekers to situations in which they may be threatened) and attracted widespread criticism from refugee advocacy and human rights circles.

However, starting in 1997, UNHCR and the Turkish government returned to the closer cooperation that had characterized their relationship up until 1994. A new arrangement by the two sides allowed for close cooperation on asylum status determination, as well as the training of officials in asylum law. Currently, the new system handles approximately 4,000 to 4,500 asylum applications per year. Turkey grants asylum seekers temporary protection, but continues to expect that those who are recognized as refugees will eventually be resettled outside of Turkey.

According to government statistics, between January 2000 and August 2003, just over 9,750 refugees were resettled outside of Turkey, mostly to North American and Scandinavian countries as well as Australia and New Zealand. The status determination process and arrangements for resettlement often take around two years. As of August 2003, there were about 10,700 asylum seekers and refugees with temporary residence permits awaiting either a final decision or resettlement visa. Those whose applications are rejected are supposed to be deported to their country of origin, but many go underground and stay in Turkey or try to move on to European countries illegally.

Challenges Ahead

After decades of being known as a country of substantial emigration, Turkey today is facing challenges to its immigration and asylum policies. Turkey's traditional immigration policy was strongly shaped by nation-building concerns, as well as efforts to sustain a homogenous national identity. Turkey's current ambition to become an EU member and the accompanying political liberalization is straining the state's traditional concept of national identity. There is growing pressure to adopt policies that recognize Turkey's ethnic and cultural diversity.

However, this pressure is not yet reflected in immigration legislation. Parliament is currently considering replacing the Settlement Law of 1934. The new draft law, although considerably changed, continues to restrict the right to immigration exclusively to people of "Turkish descent and culture." If past practice is taken as a reference point, this will probably mean that those identities that the state deems unlikely to melt into a homogenous Turkish identity will continue to be excluded.

In other words, Albanians, Bosnians, Circassians, Pomaks, Tatars, and Turks—mostly from the Balkans—will be able to immigrate to Turkey, while others will face a closed door. Minorities claiming a link to Turkey who are not Sunni Muslims, that is, everyone from Armenians and Assyrians to Greeks and Jews, as well as unassimilated Kurds and Alevis, will find it difficult to immigrate. Such a policy will not be in harmony with the emerging European Union "common" immigration policy, which increasingly emphasizes civic connections to host territory, employment prospects, and cultural diversity, rather than a prospective immigrant's ethnic or national origin as grounds for immigration.

There are nevertheless areas where a gradual realignment towards EU practice is occurring. Turkey, as part and parcel of pre-accession requirements, must harmonize its legislation in areas identified in the EU "Accession Partnership" document. One such area is asylum and the lifting of the "geographical limitation." After a long period of resistance, Turkey accepted the elimination of the geographical limitation by 2004 in its national program for the adoption of the Accession Partnership document.

This arrangement will require Turkey to introduce major changes to its asylum policy. In particular, this will mean making it possible for refugees to be integrated into Turkish society, as opposed to relying solely on resettlement and repatriation. A key implication of this will be a reconsideration of Turkey's definition of national identity and even national security. Individuals and groups who previously have not been seen as organically tied to "Turkish descent and culture" (and who have often been seen as potential threats to Turkish national security) will need to be viewed from a very different perspective.

Furthermore, due to the geographic location of Turkey and given the nature of the EU's emerging "common" asylum policy, Turkey is likely to become a country of first asylum. This will involve a considerable administrative and economic burden. However, the harmonization of policy also brings the possibility of benefiting from financial as well as technical assistance.

Turkey is likely to become a country of first asylum

Turkey is also in the process of adopting the EU Schengen visa system, which requires member countries to apply a common visa policy to third-country nationals. This will require replacing Turkey's current, relatively liberal visa system with a much stricter one. Although this will align Turkish practice with that of the EU, it will also make it more difficult for nationals of neighboring non-EU countries to enter Turkey. This may actually result in a net cultural, economic, and social loss, as it may resemble the Cold War days when the movement of people between Turkey and these countries was absolutely minimal. It may also exacerbate illegal migration by forcing people to circumvent visa restrictions.

One final challenge for the immediate future will be alleviating western European fears about waves of Turkish immigrants if Turkey is admitted as an EU member. One argument that could be raised is that a Turkey that becomes integrated into the EU is less likely to flood Europe with migrant labor than if it is kept outside the union. This argument is based on the fact that the EU now has a long record of stabilizing and helping to consolidate democracies and promote economic prosperity. In fact, an increasingly democratic and prosperous Turkey is more likely to become a country that attracts immigrants, particularly from Turkish communities in Europe. Greece, Spain, and Portugal, all of which saw many of their nationals return following their EU accession, are a case in point in this respect.

However, a Turkey that is left outside to meet the challenges of democratization and globalization alone, next to an increasingly unstable Middle East, may fall into the grasp of pressures to emigrate legally, illegally, or through the asylum track. At that point, it is unclear how well Turkey would be able to continue its traditional act of balancing between emigration and immigration.


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