Turkey’s New Emigration Wave and Its Implications

Turkey’s New Emigration Wave and Its Implications


In recent scholarship about migrant movements in the Middle East, Turkey plays a prominent role as the ”gateway to Europe“ for migrants: It receives much attention as a host and transit country for migrants on the Middle East’s border to Europe, particularly in the context of the Syrian Civil War.[i] Often overlooked, however, are the implications of the recent movement of people fleeing not through but from Turkey. On 15 July 2016 – less than 4 months after the well-known EU-Turkey refugee agreement[ii] had been signed – Turkey was shaken by a bloody coup attempt. The Turkish government reacted immediately with political purges, which resulted in a huge increase in Turkish citizens fleeing the country. How are those people who recently left the country affecting Turkey’s politics?

The New Wave Migrants 

In order to discuss how the recent migration movement affects Turkey, it seems reasonable to first clarify briefly who these migrants are and why they left the country. To begin with, it is important to note that repressive measures against dissidents in Turkey did not start in 2016 but have been a gradual process. For example, one might think of the ongoing conflict in Turkey’s Kurdish regions, or the government’s reactions to the Gezi protests in 2013. The government’s ’counter-coup’ in 2016 was rather one important momentum of authoritarianisation which led to an emigration movement than the root cause for it. Nevertheless, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s political purges have been driving forces behind the recent migration movement that has taken place: Over 15,000 institutions were shut down, more than 130,000 civil servants were suspended, and over 80,000 people were formally arrested or imprisoned.[iii] The two main targets of the AKP government have been members of the Gülen movement[iv] (an Islamist and formerly pro-AKP group which is held responsible for the 2016 coup attempt) and members of pro-Kurdish political movements (who are accused of collaborating with the illegal Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK))[v]. However, the crackdown did not only hit these two groups but rather targeted a broad spectrum of political opposition in Turkey. As a consequence, many thousands of dissidents fled the country, mainly to Western Europe and North America, which provided the benefits of networks of already established diaspora groups. Being the host country for Turkey’s largest diaspora in the world, Germany plays a significant role as a destination country. In Germany, the number of official asylum applications by Turkish citizens rose from 1,500 in 2015 over 5,383 in 2016 to 10,784 in 2019[vi] (Figure 1).

This recent movement of migrants is often referred to as the ’new wave’[vii], in contrast to Turkey’s labour emigration in the 1960-70s and a refugee wave after the military coup of 1980. Regardless of their diverse political backgrounds, new wave migrants share two important features. Firstly, they stand in opposition to the AKP government, in contrast to many established Turkish diaspora groups (such as the Union of International Democrats, for example); and secondly, they are disproportionately educated[viii], many of them being prominent figures of civil society in Turkey.


Figure 1. 

Structural Consequences of the New Migration Wave

From a structural perspective, the new migration wave has been affecting Turkish politics in three ways. Firstly, it contributed to a deterioration of Turkey’s diplomatic relations with Western host countries, particularly Germany. Secondly, it is changing Turkey’s demographics, a phenomenon which is often referred to as brain drain. And thirdly, it is reshaping the structure of Turkey’s diaspora.

The AKP government’s reaction to the wave of emigration was a contributing factor to the deterioration of Turkey’s diplomatic relationships with the refugees’ host countries. President Erdoğan officially declared that by accepting refugees from Turkey, Germany was ’asking for trouble with terror’[ix]. A similar example of the diplomatic disagreements caused by the new migration wave is the case of Turkish lawyer Yılmaz S. He was arrested in Turkey on charges of espionage, because he had examined Turkish asylum seekers’ legal suits in Turkey in the name of the German embassy.[x] German official state media labelled his arrest a ’diplomatic declaration of war’ by Turkey.[xi]

The AKP government officially downplays the idea of a brain drain taking place. At the same time, it has developed several programs with the aim of convincing highly-skilled citizens to stay in Turkey.

Furthermore, the mass emigration of its citizens might turn into a long-term problem for Turkey. As mentioned before, new wave migrants are disproportionately skilled and educated.[xii] As a consequence, their emigration is changing Turkey’s demographics. There are some attempts to tackle this issue under the discourse of brain drain. In 2018, the main opposition party Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP) published a report[xiii] on the consequences of mass emigration for Turkey. The report claims that Turkey’s brain drain to 20 OECD countries has (until 2018) led to a deficit of 220 billion US$. Apart from Turkey’s economic deficit, the report problematises a loss of qualified personnel in the public sector, particularly in healthcare and education. The report argues that the main reason for the increasing tendency of brain drain is the AKP government’s repression towards its citizens, specifically since the 2016 coup attempt. In 2019, the CHP proposed to establish a parliamentary commission to systematically investigate the drivers of this rapid rise in emigration numbers but the government coalition outvoted the proposal. The AKP government officially downplays the idea of a brain drain taking place.[xiv] At the same time, however, it has developed several programs with the aim of convincing highly-skilled citizens to stay in Turkey.[xv] One example of these programs is the National Leading Researchers Program.[xvi] Research is yet to be done on how exactly and to what extent the absence of new wave migrants will change Turkey’s domestic population structure in the long run.

The new migration wave is reshaping social dynamics within the Turkish diaspora too. Not only is the number of political dissidents in Turkey’s diaspora growing, but so is the divide within such diaspora groups. Aside from cultural prejudices and socio-economic class dynamics, Turkey’s diaspora surveillance contributes to a split between dominant diaspora groups and new wave migrants. In Germany, Turkish-German employees of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) were caught spying on new wave asylum seekers and reporting their testimonials back to Turkey.[xvii] Such instances have led to a relationship of mistrust between new wave migrants and established diaspora groups.[xviii] For example, in an interview with Deutsche Welle, one new wave immigrant from Turkey said: ’We avoid the Turkish community, which has long lived here [in Germany]. Otherwise, we cannot be sure to avoid someone betraying us to the [Turkish] government’.[xix] 

The consequences of the new wave migration movement discussed so far are undoubtedly factors which affect Turkish politics. But such a discussion leaves out one central aspect: agency of migrants.

New Wave Migrants’ Engagement with Turkish Politics 

The few existing studies on new wave migrants depict them as passive consumers of Turkish politics rather than active agents shaping it.[xx] They suggest that the average political involvement of new wave migrants does not considerably influence Turkish politics. This might be true for the average Turkish migrant. However, a purely quantitative analysis of the new wave’s transnational engagement in Turkish politics misses two important nuances. Firstly, it is not capable of measuring the discursive power that migrants’ engagement might have in Turkey. For example, political conversations taking place on social media are a relevant form of active engagement with the homeland, even if their effects might not be as easy to measure as, for example, migrants’ donations to Turkish political parties. Secondly, a quantitative analysis cannot capture the important influence which a select few emigrants might have on Turkish politics. This is particularly relevant considering that many of those who left the country are prominent figures of Turkish society. To understand the new wave’s influence on Turkey, we therefore need an analysis which goes beyond statistical measures. There are several influential groups within new wave migrants, and the following paragraphs discuss some of these in more detail.

One particularly active group within the new migration wave is that of academics.[xxi] They engage in a multitude of activities strengthening the domestic Turkish opposition from abroad. One such example is the Germany-based project Off-University. This is a platform where new wave academics offer digital courses in English or Turkish from abroad. Their aim is to digitally ‘uphold and sustain academic life and knowledge threatened by anti-democratic and authoritarian regimes.’[xxii] Another influential academic organization is Academics for Peace.[xxiii] They do not only teach Turkish students transnationally but take a role as active members of Turkish civil society from abroad. For example, they are engaged in fundraising activities for academics who are still living in Turkey[xxiv] and run petition campaigns such as a recent one to free imprisoned academics in Turkey.[xxv] Furthermore, they try to leverage the pressure other countries can put on the AKP government, for example with their international call for an academic boycott of Turkey.[xxvi]

Turkey-related media outlets by new wave migrants reshape Turkey’s politics in two ways. Being abroad enables them to circumvent state censorship, and operating online enables them to reach not only Turkey’s diaspora groups but also those living in Turkey.

A second influential group within the new migration wave have been journalists. Turkey-related media outlets by new wave migrants reshape Turkey’s politics in two ways. On the one hand, they act as part of the Turkish public sphere, speaking to a Turkish audience. Being abroad enables them to circumvent state censorship, and operating online enables them to reach not only Turkey’s diaspora groups but also those living in Turkey. One example of such a media outlet is the media group Artı Media, consisting of the TV channel Artı TV and its online magazine Artı Gerçek. It was founded by new wave journalist Celal Başlangıç in Germany in 2017. With the financial support of the European Endowment for Democracy, Artı Media critically reports and comments on Turkish politics without being suspect to the AKP government’s censorship. It is particularly interesting that even though Artı Media operates from Germany, they have an audience located in Turkey.[xxvii] On the other hand, media outlets led by new wave migrants influence Turkey’s international image, targeting non-Turkish audiences. They challenge Turkey’s official government narratives of political happenings in the international sphere. The Website Turkey Purge is a powerful example of this. It was founded by a group of anonymous journalists who fled Turkey after 2016[xxviii] and is run in English. It provides detailed information on the post-2016 purges, including statistical analyses, as well as reports on human rights violations and living conditions in Turkey’s prisons. With 17,000 followers on twitter, the website seems to have quite an outreach.

A third influential group within new wave migrants are artists. One example of this is the engagement of Ezhel, a prominent Turkish rapper. After having spent a month in prison (over lyrics promoting drug use[xxix]) in 2018, he emigrated to Germany. As a prominent figure in Turkish youth and internet culture, he has perfect conditions to influence the Turkish public sphere from abroad. He is not subject to Turkish censorship anymore, and at the same time he is still digitally connected to the Turkish public sphere as a celebrity. A recent interview by Ezhel is a notable example of the interaction between him as a new wave migrant and the domestic Turkish public. Can Dündar (who is yet another example of a prominent and influential new wave migrant) held an interview with Ezhel on his program Where Is Turkey Heading?. In this one-hour interview, Ezhel spoke about the political messages of his music and about his imprisonment. After having been widely circulated on Turkish social media, this Germany-produced interview was picked up by traditional Turkish media outlets too. The highly circulated and pro-government newspaper, Sabah, for example, published an article about the interview with the heading ’Abusive Insult to President Erdogan from Drug Addict Rapper Ezhel!’[xxx]. Such a headline proves that the new wave’s political engagement does not only shape Turkish politics within Turkey’s diaspora communities, but that some of their messages actually reach and provoke a knee-jerk response from mainstream domestic political actors in Turkey too.


In contrast to a flourishing literature on migration movements through Turkey, this article discussed the often overlooked phenomenon of the recent migration movement from Turkey. From a structural perspective, the new wave of migration is affecting, firstly, Turkey’s diplomatic relations with the migrants’ host countries; secondly, Turkey’s domestic population structure; and thirdly, political dynamics within the Turkish diaspora. Moreover, the new wave is more than a structural factor in Turkish politics, and new wave migrants actively influence Turkish politics. Particularly – but now exclusively – prominent figures within the new migration wave successfully use the advantages of being abroad to influence the domestic political discourse in Turkey. This has been exemplified by the current political engagement and influence of new wave academics, journalists, and artists. A study of the new migration wave shows that if we want to understand Turkish politics, it is not enough to look at Turkey. The migration movements of Turkey’s citizens and their transnational engagement with Turkey from all over the world are crucial factors which shape the country’s politics.

[i] See for example Çavlin, A. 2020. Syrian refugees in Turkey: a demographic profile and linked social challenges / edited by Alanur Çavlin. 1st. ed.
[ii] Council of the EU. 18 March 2016. EU-Turkey statement. Press Release 144/16.
[iii] Uysal, N. 2019. ”The Rise of Diasporas as Adversarial Non-State Actors in Public Diplomacy: The Turkish Case“. In The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 14, pp. 272-292.
[iv] Die Presse. 14. October 2017. ”Mehr als 600 türkische Beamte hoffen auf Asyl in Deutschland“. Retrieved from https://www.diepresse.com/5302792/mehr-als-600-turkische-beamte-hoffen-auf-asyl-in-deutschland (last access: 04 Dec. 2020).
[v] Kurds made up 85.1 percent of Turkish asylum seekers in Germany by the end of September 2016. Witting, V. 07. December 2016. ”New Wave of Turkish Asylum Seekers“. Retrieved from https://en.qantara.de/content/new-wave-of-turkish-asylum-seekers-ever-optimistic (last access: 04. Dec. 2020).
[vi] Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge (BAMF). 2020. ”Das Bundesamt in Zahlen 2019. Asyl, Migration, Integration.” Retrieved from https://www.bamf.de/SharedDocs/Anlagen/DE/Statistik/BundesamtinZahlen/bundesamt-in-zahlen-2019.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=5 (last access: 04 Dec. 2020).
[vii] Çömlekçi, M. & Bozkanat, E. 2019. ”Alternatif Diasporanın Sosyal Medya İletişimi: ’New Wave in Berlin’. Facebook Grubu Örneği”. In Gümüşhane University e-journal of Faculty of Communication 7(2), pp. 932-952.
[viii] Turkish asylum seekers in Germany in 2018 were higher educated than asylum seekers of any other country: Bewarder, M. 10. January 2020. ”Mehr Asylbewerber aus der Türkei – Bundesregierung kritisiert ’Missbrauch der Justiz’”. In Die Welt. Retrieved from https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article204891706/Asylbewerber-aus-der-Tuerkei-Bundesregierung-kritisiert-Missbrauch-der-Justiz.html (last access: 04 Dec. 2020).
[ix] BBC News. 28. September 2018. ”Turkey-Germany: Erdogan urges Merkel to extradite Gulen ‚terrorists’”. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-45684390 (last access: 04. Dec. 2020).[x] Europoean Council on Refugees and Exiles. 06 December 2019. ”Turkish Authorities Confiscate Personal Data of Hundreds of Turkish Asylum-Seekers”, retrieved from https://www.ecre.org/turkish-authorities-confiscate-personal-data-of-hundreds-of-turkish-asylum-seekers/ (last access: 04 Dec. 2020)
[xi] Mayer-Rüth, O. 21 Nov 2019. ”In Türkei verhafteter Anwalt. Eine diplomatische Kampfansage”. In Tagesschau online, retrieved from https://www.tagesschau.de/investigativ/anwalt-tuerkei-101.html  (last access: 04 Dec. 2020).
[xii] Bewarder, M. 10. January 2020. ”Mehr Asylbewerber aus der Türkei – Bundesregierung kritisiert ’Missbrauch der Justiz’”. In Die Welt. Retrieved from https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article204891706/Asylbewerber-aus-der-Tuerkei-Bundesregierung-kritisiert-Missbrauch-der-Justiz.html (last access: 04 Dec. 2020).
[xiii] Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi. 2018. ”AKP’nin Yol Açtığı Büyük Beyin Göçü” Bilim Platformu Politika Notları, 31.
[xiv] BBC News Türkçe. 6 January 2019. ”Cumhurbaşkanlığı: New York Times’ın beyin göçü haberi asılsız”, retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler-dunya-46775663 (last access: 04 Dec. 2020).
[xv] Aksoy, B. & Gürsoy, S. 2018. ”Beyin Göçü: Nedenleri, Etkileri ve Türkiye“. In: Namal M.K: Sosyal Politika ve Çalışma İlişkilerinde Güncel Sorunlar, pp. 55-73.
[xvi] TÜBİTAK ”Ulusal Lider Araştırmacılar Programı”. Retrieved from https://www.tubitak.gov.tr/sites/default/files/4000/2247av3.pdf (last access: 04 Dec. 2020).[xvii] Johnson, I. P. 21 Aug 2020. ”Report: Turkey’s MIT agency menacing ‘German Turks’”. In Deutsche Welle English. Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/report-turkeys-mit-agency-menacing-german-turks/a-19490657 (last access: 04 Dec. 2020).
[xviii] Handelsblatt. 23 October 2017. ”Türkische Elite bittet um Asyl in Deutschland”. Retrieved from https://www.handelsblatt.com/politik/international/erdogan-fluechtlinge-tuerkische-elite-bittet-um-asyl-in-deutschland/20489524-all.html?ticket=ST-6434316-B7OyaamXACezuiPohKDV-ap2 (last access: 04 Dec. 2020).
[xix] Deutsche Welle English. 01 April 2018. ”Turkish diplomats and civil servants among asylum claimants since 2016 failed coup”. Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/turkish-diplomats-and-civil-servants-among-asylum-claimants-since-2016-failed-coup/a-43217296 (last access: 04 Dec. 2020).
[xx] Turkan Ipek, I. Z. 2018. ”Political Participation and Media Use of Highly Qualified Migrants”. In ViraVerita E-Journal: Interdisciplinary Encounters 8, pp. 99-122.; Inal, E. 2020. The New Wave Of Migration From Turkey To Germany –  An Inquiry Into The Highly-Skilled Labour. Töz Yayinlari.
[xxi] Taz Gazete. 27 February 2017. ”Biz susmadık ve susmayacağız“. Retrieved from https://taz.de/Almanyadaki-Tuerkiyeli-akademisyenler/!5387250/ (last access: 04 Dec. 2020).[xxii] Off University Website. https://off-university.com/en-US/Lesson/List/current-courses  (last access: 04 Dec. 2020).
[xxiii] Academics for Peace, 10 Jan 2016. ”We will not be a party to this crime! (in English, French, German, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Greek)”. Retrieved from https://barisicinakademisyenler.net/node/63 (last access: 04. Dec. 2020).
[xxiv] Gazete Duvar. 15 Mar 2017. ”Barış akademisyenleri için bağış kampanyası”. Retrieved from https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/gundem/2017/03/15/baris-akademisyenleri-icin-bagis-kampanyasi (last access: 04 Dec. 2020).
[xxv] Ibid.
[xxvi] Academic Boycott of Turkey Website, 7 June 2017. ”Call for Targeted Academic Boycott of Turkey”. Retrieved from https://academicboycottofturkey.wordpress.com/2017/06/07/call-for-targeted-academic-boycott-of-turkey/ (last access: 04. Dec. 2020).
[xxvii] Webmgon website. ”Artı TV Kimin? İşte Artı TV’nin Sahibi ve Artı TV Frekans Bilgileri”. Retrieved from https://www.webmgon.com/2018/06/arti-tv-kimin-arti-tv-sahibi-arti-tv-frekans.html (last access: 04 Dec. 2020).
[xxviii] Turkey Purge Website: https://turkeypurge.com/about-us (last access: 04 Dec. 2020).[xxix] O’Connor, R., 25 May 2018. ”Popular Turkish rapper Ezhel arrested over lyrics ‘promoting drug use’”. The Independent. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/ezhel-arrested-turkey-rapper-lyrics-drug-use-promotion-wiz-khalifa-latest-updates-a8369296.html (last access: 04 Dec. 2020).
[xxx] Sabah Gazetesi, 25 September 2020. ”Uyuşturucu müptelası Rapçi Ezhel’den Başkan Erdoğan’a küfürlü hakaret! Sosyal medyada tepki yağıyor“. Retrieved from https://www.sabah.com.tr/yasam/2020/09/25/uyusturucu-muptelasi-rapci-ezhelden-baskan-erdogana-kufurlu-hakaret-sosyal-medyada-tepki-yagiyor (last access: 04 Dec. 2020).

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