Turkey’s educated secular youth are leaving for Europe

EPA/SEDAT SUNA

Residents of Istanbul walk through Gezi Park, site of mass anti-government protests in 2013.

Turkey’s educated secular youth are leaving for Europe


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Situated a short walk from Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square, the small area known as Gezi Park is a somewhat unremarkable green space in the otherwise unrelenting urban landscape of a city with that counts more than 15 million people as its residents.

Just over five years ago, throughout the late spring and summer of 2013, Gezi became the sight of one of the largest and most violent demonstrations of civil disobedience against the authoritarian rule Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s and his increasingly religious-based dictates.

At the heart of the protests – the guiding force behind the tens of thousands who gathered in the square for nearly three months – was Turkey’s young, secular, and educated class that went far beyond student demonstrators and activists, but mostly included professionals and young Turks who were growing deeply concerned by Erdogan’s roll-back of democratic norms and his turn away from integration with the EU, in favour of Erdogan’s brand nationalistic Islamism which has come to dominate the way he runs the country.

Gezi’s participants rant the gamut of political thought. One could find those who sided with the left and the right, bit for those in Turkey who converged on central Istanbul to protest Erdogan and his omnipresent AK Party, they were all determined to preserve the guiding principles of the modern Turkish Republic, including its commitment to secularism and modernity, but also to the Kemalist belief that Turkey would one day become a fully integrated part of the European family.

The Gezi Park protests, however, despite their huge numbers, failed and were crushed by Erdogan’s heavy-handed use of his riot police. The government refused to engage in any meaningful dialogue with the demonstrators and the police were sent to violently suppress the protests with tear gas, truncheons, and water cannons leaving 11 dead and over 8,000 injured. In the law enforcement mop-up that followed, more than 3,000 people were arrested.

More than five years later, the hopes of the demonstrators have largely died out. After Erdogan’s purges and arrests of tens of thousands in the wake of the failed July 2016 coup, many of the country’s best and brightest –  its educated and secular youth – are leaving in droves for Europe.

There are no official figures on emigration compiled by the Turkish government that break down the motives behind people’s departure, but many say they worry for their safety and their future in Erdogan’s Turkey. Young Turks have told news outlets that the country went from being a stable and relatively prosperous nation for both men and women, with strong economic growth in the region, to a country with increasing societal divisions, rising violence, and a government that continues to become increasingly authoritarian, anti-Western, and religious.

In the face of this rising religious nationalism, the broader exodus of Turkey’s educated population appears to be increasing amongst the country’s secular elite. While there are no official statistics on the migration flow, data released on  September 6 by the Turkish Statistical Institute said 253,640 highly trained Turks left the country for Europe “economic, political, social and cultural” reasons, 42% of whom were between 25-to 34 and mostly from Turkey’s major urban centres, including Istanbul, Ankara, Antalya, and Izmir.

Turkey’s Industry and Technology Minister Mustafa Varank admitted that Turkey is facing a serious brain drain when he met with Erdogan’s cabinet on September 13. Whether Varank was publicly ready to admit that Turkey is facing a major crisis as its educated youth flee for better prospects in the EU remains to be seen, but the government’s own official data confirms that young, secular and highly educated Turks are permanently emigrating to Europe.

In 2016, all graduates from Turkey’s leading English-language high schools applied to foreign universities according to a report from Turkish daily, Hurriyet. Turkey has, in fact, became the main source of “millionaire migrants” in 2016, losing 6,000 wealthy Turks in one year, a major jump compared to the 1,000 that left the country only a year before.

Remarkably, in the months following the July 2016 coup, Germany’s major news network DW reported that more than 1,000 Turkish families fled to Greece seeking asylum, a move that would have been unheard of in previous years as Turkey and Greece are traditional bitter foes, with a centuries-old history of ethnic cleansing and population exchanges stemming from Turkey’s nearly 400-year-long occupation of Greece.

Turkish diaspora communities have long-existed in Western Europe but unlike the waves of migrants that made up the backbone of cheap labour in postwar Germany and Austria, the tens of thousands of emigre Turks seeking a better life in the West are the teachers, lawyers, journalists, intellectuals, judges, and army officers who would have undoubtedly contributed Turkey’s future. Instead, they’ll now be offering their expertise and pursuing their ambitions in places that provide the stability and opportunities that were once promised  – not so long ago – in their homeland.

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