For decades, Osman Akınhay called Istanbul home.
The writer and translator owned Agora Kitaplığı, a bookstore and publishing house in the city’s antiquarian neighborhood of Çukurcuma. But as political instability reigned in the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup attempt – a period that saw thousands of government critics, academics, journalists and intellectuals arrested – he decided to leave. In 2017, he, his wife and their daughter moved to Brighton in the UK.
“As a 59-year-old living during very unstable political times, the most positive side to living in Britain is the ability to wipe out most of the anxiety,” he said. “You leave everything behind.
“Exploring the world, living in a new language, these are the benefits, as well as knowing that your rights as an individual are recognised.”
Akınhay is just one of thousands of Turkish migrants who have made Britain their home in recent years, seeking fresh job opportunities and fleeing growing authoritarianism at home. A deal with the EU, known as the Ankara Agreement, has made it easier for them to get business visas to the UK.
But Brexit – the UK’s divorce from the European bloc – may throw their lives into fresh turmoil.
Since the deal is a European Union Association Agreement – a treaty between EU member states and another country – London will no longer be bound by it after it leaves.
This raises questions about the status of Turks already living in the UK under its terms and recent applicants to the programme.
The terms of the deal allow Turkish nationals to start a company in the UK in a field related to their expertise, and to apply for permanent residency. They can bring their families and their spouses who are eligible for work permits too.
“We are talking about thousands of entrepreneurs who came here legally and most of them are intellectuals,” said A., a Turkish journalist based in the UK and himself a beneficiary of the Ankara Agreement. “If these people try to start a business in different countries, it will be a loss for the United Kingdom.”
During the last three years, Turkey has become a migrant sending country. According to data published by the Turkish Statistical Institute, 253,640 people emigrated in 2017 alone. Their top destination is the UK.
The number of Turks seeking to use the Ankara Agreement has also risen sharply over the past few years, doubling from 3,320 applicants in 2015 to 7,607 in 2018, according to Çiğdem Ülger, a consultant at the London-based legal firm MAK Solicitors and Notary Public. These migrants are increasingly white-collar professionals.
“In 2008 the applications were mostly to set up partnerships as chefs, coiffeurs, house painters, or to start cleaning or shoe-shining companies,” said Ülger. “However, now applications shifted to professions such as journalist, actor, lawyer or architect.”
Experts say the increase may be due to the crackdown on free expression in the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup attempt.
“Unfortunately, Turkey loses blood because of the brain drain,” said Tamer Ulay, a migration law expert at the London-based legal firm Garth Coates, who said that many applicants to the programme were trying their luck before Brexit upends UK immigration measures. “Before the 2016 coup attempt, the Ankara Agreement team was receiving three to five applications per day from the Turks. Now this number has increased to 20 to 25.”
A., a journalist working in a well-established news organization, said that the cancellation of the agreement would affect poorer Turks who lacked the resources to start a new business. It could also backfire for the UK government, which will need to make up a shortfall of labour if other migrants leave for EU member states.
“The picture is blurry,” she said. “It is up to us to fight back.”
The actual date for Britain to leave the UK has been repeatedly postponed. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called for a general election in December to settle the matter, hoping to end years of uncertainty and delays after the British parliament repeatedly rejected deals with the EU.
But although legal experts predict that rights acquired under the deal cannot be rescinded, ordinary Turks are still worried about their status.
One Turkish couple, Mahir Ünsal Eriş and Oylum Yılmaz, explained that they applied for a UK visa under the terms of the Ankara Agreement because they did not want to raise their children in an increasingly Islamist and authoritarian environment in Turkey. Both writers, they said that the media landscape was now dominated by government loyalists.
“We decided not to raise our child in this country,” Yılmaz said. “In addition to this, all the magazines, newspapers, internet websites were either shut down or seized by pro-government actors. This has made it impossible for us to get along by doing our job.”