Graduation ceremony at the Ankara University. A sense of uncertainty and fear of political persecution that intensified after the failed coup attempt in 2016 are driving young Turks to try their luck abroad. (Credits: Tamer Arda Erşin)

Immigration from Turkey rose by more than 60 percent last year compared to 2017, according to a recent survey, a trend attributed to concerns about unemployment, personal freedom and security. 

TurkStat’s data, published in May this year, also showed that the unemployment rate in Turkey was 14.9 percent, an increase of 4.1 per cent compared to the previous year. Out of the total number of unemployed, 26.1 per cent are young people aged 15-24. 

For the last 17 years, Turkey has been ruled by the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Although the country experienced years of economic growth under AKP rule, recent economic troubles have now resulted in high inflation and recession. 

Can Selçuki, chief executive of the İstanbul Economy Research public survey company, predicted that the youth emigration trend would continue. 

“The deepening economic crisis, ever-increasing living costs and rising unemployment will result in even bigger numbers of young emigrants from Turkey,” he said. 

Others note that it’s not just high unemployment and the weak economy driving young Turks to try their luck abroad. There is also a sense of uncertainty and fear of political persecution that intensified after the failed coup attempt in 2016. 

Pınar (not her real name), a sociology student at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, said that she would leave Turkey as soon as she completed her bachelor studies. Her plan was to do a master’s degree in Germany and remain there after she graduated. 

Graduation ceremony at the Hacettepe University in Ankara.
Experts say that the deepening economic crisis and rising unemployment will result in even bigger numbers of young emigrants from Turkey in the near future.
(Credits: Tamer Arda Erşin)

According to the Turkish Institute of Statistics (TurkStat), about 113,000 Turkish citizens emigrated in 2018 – 44,000 more than the year before, when 69,000 left the country. 

“I don’t think I will be able to find suitable employment here,” she explained. “And if I start to express my views and opinions more openly, then the chances of my future employment would get even slimmer.” 

For some, the plans to leave Turkey start even before the end of their schooling. Dicle Kaplan, a 17- year-old girl living in Izmir, western Turkey, has decided to study abroad after high school and has her parents’ full support. 

“When I meet people who studied abroad, I can see that they have learned a great deal,” Dicle said. “They also seem happier and have better opportunities for the future.” 

Her father, Cihan Kaplan, said that educational institutions in Turkey were too much under the influence of the current government. 

“I think Turkey is an unsafe country for a young, secular person,” he continued. “The patriarchal society and the conservative government interfere in the lives of young people. My daughter is nervous about what she’s wearing and cannot stay out with friends until small hours, if she wants to. For me, as a parent, that is really a problem.” 

“Some private schools in Turkey still offer good quality education,” Kaplan noted. “But since they cost a lot of money, sending children abroad seems to be a wiser option.” 

Professional opportunities often seem better abroad, too. Merve Çolak moved to Spain three years ago to finish a PhD in astrophysics after graduating from Hacettepe University in Ankara. Çolak now works in her field and has no immediate plans to return to Turkey. 

“I decided to live abroad because I got tired of nepotism in Turkey and constant concerns for my future,” she explained. 

“Being a foreigner and living abroad can be very hard,” she continued, adding that she has to cope with “discrimination and solitude”. 

“However, Spain offers much better opportunities for scientists in my field,” Çolak concluded. 

Burcu Doğan is another highly-educated woman who decided to build her future outside Turkey. The 28-year-old has a degree in genetics from a respected state university in Turkey but currently lives in England. 

Doğan, who describes herself as a socialist, said she felt she had to escape the oppressive political atmosphere in Turkey. 

“I couldn’t breathe there anymore,” she said. “My family and my friends are under constant pressure from the authorities and it’s really hard to live like that.” 

Doğan has found temporary work in England, but hopes to continue her studies in genetics if she gets a residence permit. She has not ruled out returning to Turkey in the future, but only if the political situation improves. 

“I miss my homeland a lot, but many things have to change first,” she said. “We need proper democracy. And, of course, better employment opportunities that would allow young people to build a comfortable future there.”