Significant and unexpected shifts to migration patterns are nothing new for Turkey. Examples include the 1923 population swap with Greece, the mass emigration of Turkish labor to Europe in the 1960s and 70s, the continual movement of Turk-Muslim populations to the Turkish Republic from the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans, the opening of doors to Turks from Bulgaria in the 1980s, and the sheltering of Iraqi Kurds fleeing the Saddam Hussein regime in the early 1990s. All of these shifts and movements have come to shape Turkey’s culture, economy, politics, and even demography; however, throughout the course of modern Turkish history, migration has never been politicized to the extent that it is today.
How did refugees become politicized?
Recent data from Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM) shows that the country hosts 3,721,057 Syrians under temporary protection as of 14 October 2021. Beside Syrians, Turkey has also become home to many irregular migrants from Afghanistan. According to the DGMM, they numbered 201,437 in 2019, but have fallen to 50,161 in 2020. The total number of irregular migrants in 2019 was 454,662 and 122,302 in 2020.
Opposition and government sources dispute the actual number of irregular migrants currently living in Turkey. The opposition insists that over 1.5 million non-registered Afghans are living in Turkey, what it deems a significant security threat; but President Erdogan claims that registered and unregistered Afghan refugees combined number only around 300,000.
The heated debate between the government and opposition parties takes its cues from public opinion. In the early days of mass movement from Syria to Turkey, Turkish society showed remarkable hospitality to their southern neighbors fleeing civil war, with only marginal groups voicing xenophobic sentiments. But as their numbers increased, stays lengthened, and visibility grew, Syrians have come to be perceived as a burden, especially in the context of a stagnant Turkish economy and rising youth unemployment. The public opinion polling consultancy KONDA shows that the rate of those in the Turkish community that “do not want to live in the same place as Syrians” increased from 28% to 60% between 2016 and 2019. The way for this increasing anti-refugee sentiment may have been paved by the government’s lack of a comprehensive immigration or integration policy or by President Erdogan’s statement that Turkey has so far spent 40 billion USD on Syrian refugees.
In the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Erdogan and his government considered Syrians to be Turkey’s religious guests, or Muhajirs. But they soon became political tools when Erdogan threatened to allow the refugees to cross its western borders into the EU. Without a doubt, the EU has done very little for displaced Syrians when compared to Turkey, but Erdogan’s statements sent a message to Turkish society as well: refugees are not the responsibility of Turkey alone.
In June and August 2021 two incidents sparked intense debate on Turkey’s Syrian and Afghan populations. The first incident occurred on 12 June in Kocaeli as an Afghan national sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl leading her to the intensive care unit. Secondly, Emirhan Yalcin (an 18-year-old Turkish national) was killed in a fight between locals and Syrians in Ankara on 10 August. Upon news of Yalcin’s death, hundreds rioted in the streets, attacking the shops and homes of Syrians. In the meantime, after the first incident, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, released a video statement on Twitter declaring that one of his party’s priorities is to send refugees back to their home country within two years of coming to power.
As refugees continue to be one of Turkey’s most important political issues, the ongoing war in Syria and the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan may lead to new refugee flows. The current situation and the worsening state of Turkey’s economy have put a spotlight on refugees and the policies that affect them, a reality that will likely have a direct and decisive effect on the voting behaviors of Turkish citizens. Moreover, as of December 2019, 110,000 Syrians, 53,099 of whom had already gained the right to vote in 31 March 2019 local elections, have become Turkish citizens according to the statements of Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu.
Why are Turkish Emigrants important?
Turkey enfranchised its expatriate citizens in 1995, however the first actual vote within this framework was cast in the 2014 presidential elections. According to Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the total population of Turks living abroad exceeds 6.5 million. However, international voter turnout for the presidential and general elections on 24 June 2018 showed that Turkey had 3,044,837 registered voters abroad, or 4.8% of the total electorate according to the Supreme Election Council of Turkey. Even though these elections showed that expatriate voter turnout occurred at less than half the rate of domestic turnout, it should be mentioned that since Turkish citizens abroad have begun casting their ballots, their turnout rate has increased from 8.2% to 44.6%.
It is observed that recent election results from abroad were similar to those in Turkey, namely, in favor of Erdogan. But it should be considered that especially after 2016, many opposition voters went abroad due to political pressure and economic difficulties; this could come to favor the opposition in the next elections. While the number of Turkish citizens who emigrated was 69,326 in 2016, this figure increased by 63.5% in 2017 to 113,326 and to 136,740 in 2018. Almost every month, 10,000 Turkish citizens leave the country.
The results of the “Youth Research” carried out by Yeditepe University and MAK Consulting show that among the 18-29 age group, 76% want to live abroad for a better future, while 77% believe that nepotism outweighs merit when it comes to getting ahead. Hence, more emigration should be expected before the next elections.
It is no secret that Turkey’s next elections constitute a final chance for an exit from authoritarianism. Polls show that Erdogan is losing popularity and that the opposition should have a landslide victory, especially when taking into account their success in the last local elections in Istanbul and Ankara. This doesn’t mean that it will be easy for the opposition to secure a victory. Of course, the declining economy and high unemployment rates will affect voting behavior, but the opposition should still formulate policy recommendations on immigration and a strategy to attract expatriate voters. Still, in emphasizing the need for comprehensive immigration reform, the opposition must offer realistic, rights-based solutions rather than populist approaches that incite hatred and flout international law.
*Burak Yalım is an Istanbul-based doctoral research fellow at Kocaeli University and President of the International Relations Studies Association (TUIC). Yalım’s primary areas of interest include migration and the Balkans. He can be found on Twitter, @burakyalim.