Prof. Franck Düvell, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), University of Oxford; Director of Turkish Migration Studies network (TurkMiS), Oxford

During Ottoman times, when the country was the political and economic power centre of the region and during the early years of the republic and due to population exchange Turkey was a destination country for migrants. Only after the Second World War and during the reconstruction of the northern European powers Turkey began sending migrant workers and turned into a country of emigration. But already from the 1970s, Turkey also received migrants and refugees, like from Bulgaria, Bosnia and later from Iraq. From around 2010, immigration began out-numbering emigration and Turkey went through a migration transition and became a net immigration country. The outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011 and from 2014 in Iraq displaced large numbers of people and hugely accelerated the process of migration to Turkey.

Meanwhile, anxieties are arising over the future of Syrians and other refugees in Turkey. Initially, they were perceived as ‘guests’, a notion that bears no legal status; the main feature of guests are both welcomed but also expected to leave again after a while. Meanwhile, and according to the new Law on Foreigners and International protection they are categorised as people under temporary protection, again the notion lies on temporariness. However, many have arrived 3, 4 years ago, have been in limbo ever since. Now the questions arise when temporary becomes long-term or even permanent, when do refugees become immigrants, are recognised as residents or even citizens? Many sources suggest that many of the Syrians will not want or will not be able to return and only few will be regularly resettled to other countries; total resettlement quotas from Turkey are down to 15,000 per year. This means that large numbers of Syrians are going to stay in Turkey. So far, however, Turkish politics and society like to emphasise how generous they are, how much they have already done and spent but that they do not yet accept that the presence of Syrians could become permanent.

However, other countries before had received similar large numbers of refugees, sometimes also over short periods of time. There were 11.5 million refugees during World War I – the Netherlands received one million Belgiums – adding 15 percent to its population, and 60 million during World War II. Lebanon received large numbers of Palestinians, 450,000, ten percent of the population, Egypt hosts at least 340,000 refugees from Palestine, Sudan and Somalia; Pakistan and Iran received large numbers of Afghans (1.6 million respectively 840,000), Kenya received around half a million Somalis, Germany in 1991 received around 700,000 refugees from former Yugoslavia, many of these were send back forcefully and often ever since live in dire conditions; Germany also already hosts a million or so refugees from previous times, like Kurds, Afghans, Iranians, Tamils, Somalis and many others, also many of the people who entered Germany and the UK in the 1960s as ‘guestworkers’ were in fact refugees from war between India and Pakistan, or military ruling in Portugal, Spain and Greece. And the countries in the Great Lakes region, Burundi, Rwanda, Congo and others experienced the influx of large numbers of refugees (2.1 million Rwandans in 1994, there were still 500,000 Congolese refugees in 2014).

Equally, other countries before went through rapid migration transition, became immigration countries hosting previously unprecedented numbers of immigrants. This was the case in Spain, Portugal and Italy who from the late 1990s and early 2000s and under conditions of economic growth began attracting millions of immigrants from mainly North Africa, South East Asia, South America (Spain), Ukraine and Moldova. This was rather unexpected, the countries were unprepared and had no legal framework in place; therefore most of this migration was irregular and matters only normalised through a series of regularisation programmes accompanying the introduction of adequate immigration legislation. And Russia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union received up to 5 million migrants, though mostly ethnic Russians, and later another 6 million labour migrants. And the UK again received almost one million Poles within a few years after 2004.

In 2015, there were not only at least 900,000 foreign born people in Turkey, often of Turkish descent, but also around half a million holders of various immigration permits (foreign residents, workers, students, family members and others), 1.9 million Syrians, 2-300,000 other refugees and an estimated 4-800,000 irregular immigrants, a total of 4-4.4 million immigrants. This represents around 6 percent of the total population. However, this is just over half the EU average (11 percent) and just a little more than a third of the level of of immigration of many other industrialised countries. The argument made here is that Turkey has a long history of immigration, has always been integrated and indeed been the main gravity centre of the regional migration system. Migration is thus nothing new or exceptional. Further to this, large-scale migration as well as the sudden influx of migrants or refugees is not actually exceptional to Turkey but has been experienced by many other countries before. Turkey is rather becoming a normal affluent, stable and thus attractive industrial country integrated with the rest of the world. This inevitably brings people from many parts of the world to Turkey coming for business opportunities, employment, education but also the safety that the country offers. Turkey is thus now reaching a more normal state having some proportion of immigrants. The current levels of migrants and refugees in Turkey are actually still well below the levels found in all other developed and industrial countries, like Germany, the UK, Sweden, Brazil, or Russia (Japan and China are the only exceptions). Considering sheer numbers Turkey should have few problems to accommodate current or even higher levels of migrants and refugees. But in order to avoid the mistakes made by other countries, notably, Germany where a policy of denial resulted in severe problems in the integration of migrants into the host society a more pro-active policy is required that harmonises co- habitation in a sustainable fashion to the benefits of all.


by Prof. Franck Düvell

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