Engaging Turkey’s Emigrants

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Engaging Turkey’s Emigrants


Over the last decade, Turkey’s policies on emigrants have undergone through transformation, compatible with the global trend of home states’ involvement in the political, economic and social practices and conditions of members living in other countries. In the literature on international migration, Turkey is exemplified as one of the classical cases of country of emigration as a result of the mass migration especially to Europe beginning with the 1960s. Nevertheless, only limited interest has been given regarding Turkish states’ policies on emigrants. This article examines the changes in the Turkish statecraft on emigrants, by discussing the ongoing processes of naming and institution building.


In December 2015, the Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s declaration of the new government program to the Turkish Grand National Assembly included a particular section on Turkey’s prospective foreign policy priorities, which comprised of the relations with non-resident citizens and other communities that were denominated as “related”.  In his address, Davutoğlu declared that “the protection of the interests” of these two populations, “developing language and cultural heritage and bringing services for overseas to a permanent and healthy way” was one of the main elements of the foreign policy priorities of the government. Actually, the speech is part of a decade-old project of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments that has by now become embedded in the Turkish state’s policies on populations approached in terms of extra-territorial membership.

While this interest of the AKP government and the Turkish state to become more engaged with emigrants and citizens living abroad harbors in itself specificities of Turkey and Turkish politics, it is far from being a unique case. In fact, over the last years there has been a rapidly expanding discussion in the literature on international migration about the transformations in the origin states’ policies on emigrant engagement. The followers of this discussion argue that many states develop new and systematized programs to approach emigrants and non-resident citizens in their permanency, and to promote their social and political integration in their countries of residence (Bauböck 2003: 710). In this article, I examine the transformations that take place in the emigrant policies of Turkey by looking at the processes of naming and institution building. Before beginning my discussion on Turkey, in the next section I provide a brief analysis of the existing literature on this issue.

Engaging Emigrants

Once associated with different titles, ranging from guest workers to opportunists, fugitives or even traitors, emigrants are increasingly calling states’ attention as the extended political communities. Home states are increasingly interested in involving in and regulating the economic, political and social conditions of the emigrants originated from their borders. In this context, Portes et al. (1999: 467) argued that sending governments no longer wanted their immigrants to return, but to “achieve a secure status in the wealthy nations to which they have moved and from which they can make sustained economic and political contributions in the name of patriotism and home town loyalty”. Along the same line, Bauböck (2003: 710) suggested that this change in the attitude indicated both the acceptance of permanent emigration, but also the adoption of a strategy by the origin countries for promoting the political integration of the immigrants in the host country.

According to the international migration literature, beginning with the 1990s origin states are establishing new forms of relationship with the populations that they consider as members of the society living outside of their borders. Based on Gamlen’s (2008) definition of “diasporic membership”, home states are:

  1. Aiming to maintain their relations with the emigrants through cross-border processes and practices,
  2. Attempting to create new spheres of incorporation for emigrants to integrate in the social, economic and political areas both related to home country and host country.

As a result, home states adopt different strategies in order to keep, build, integrate and benefit from emigrant groups. Levitt and de la Dehesa (2003: 589-590) identify a wider array of policy choices, which are employed by the states, including:

(1) ministerial or consular reforms; (2) investment policies which seek to attract or channel migrant remittances; extension of political rights in the form of dual citizenship or nationality; (3) the right to vote from overseas, or the right to run for public office; (4) the extension of state protections or services to nationals living abroad that go beyond traditional consular services; (5) and the implementation of symbolic policies designed to reinforce emigrants’ sense of enduring membership.

Not all states employ the same strategies for engaging with their emigrants or citizens living abroad, and the divergences in the policy choice depend on the costliness of such policies and the states’ capacities in implementing them (Levitt and de la Dehesa 2003: 606). In the next section, I focus on Turkish state’s emigrant policies, first examining its history, and then concentrating on the recent policy changes of the Turkish state related to the issue of emigrants and non-resident citizens. The section incorporates a discussion why the changes took place, what were the naming practices and how was the institutional setting re-structured in the Turkish context.

The Turkish Case

Looking at the history of emigrant policies of modern Turkey, it is possible to distinguish four different periods that were marked by critical ruptures. The first of these periods takes place from the foundation of the republic to the 1960s, when projects of homogenization were at the center of policy making. During this period the policies on emigration and ethnic kin were complementary of one another; policies on the kin determined which immigrants who could be naturalized, while emigration policies dealt with the voluntary or involuntary resettlement non-Turkish non-Muslims (Aksel 2014; İçduygu and Aksel 2015). This period was marked by a concern over territoriality and the realization of projects and institutions of  “nation-building” which facilitated the process of standardization under the common title of “Turkish citizen” (Aksel 2014). Turkish state’s involvement during the early periods after the labor recruitment agreements was based on simple reciprocal relations of promoting the return of economic and social capital gained by emigrants abroad (Bilgili and Siegel 2013). The main institutional intermediary between the state and emigrants was Turkish Employment Service, rather than Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As such, the Turkish state perceived of its citizens in Europe and elsewhere not as emigrants but rather as workers abroad or overseas until the mid-1980s (Aksel 2014).

In the post-1980 period, the post-coup mentality of securitization in state’s affairs with its citizens as well as the opening up to the financial globalization and market economy have shaped the emigrant policies. Emigrants started to be entitled as citizens living abroad, rather than via concepts denoting their temporary status in the overseas, and were provided with new rights (i.e. dual citizenship, social security rights, relaxations on military service, customs voting) as they were considered as settled populations with transnational linkages to the homeland. Despite the overall change, this period was a continuation of the reactive policies of the state, in order to respond to the daily needs of emigrants, as well as create alternatives to the rising oppositions. The Presidency of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Education had a central position in exporting culture from Turkey to overseas (Østergaard-Nielsen 2003). While the post-1980s were a transition period towards the new management of emigrants, the main rupture took place in the early 2000s. As a result, over the last decade, Turkey’s policies on emigrants have undergone a transformation, compatible with the global trend of involving in the political, economic and social practices and conditions of members living in other countries. For the particularity of the Turkish case, the glorification of the market, the candidacy to the European Union, and more importantly the abrupt shifts in the state governance under the successive single party government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been effective for the changing policies related to emigrants.


Along with the transformations in the policy making, the practices of naming for identifying certain groups of emigrants in Turkey transformed over time, from exchanged/non-exchanged in the early republican period, to workers abroad in the 1960s and in the more recent period to expatriates and citizens living abroad in the period that followed the 1980s. Over the last years, the concept of diaspora has appeared in the policy making discourse, marking the adoption of a new perspective towards emigrants. A very recent example of this usage is the international journal that will start to be published in late 2016 by the Presidency on Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB) under the name of “Diaspora, Culture and Society”. According to its call for papers, the journal will seek mainly for articles on belonging, identity, religion, cultural life, discrimination and human rights violations that concentrate on non-resident citizens of Turkey[1]. These topics illustrate the areas where the YTB’s has set as its main institutional objectives.

The emergence and the use of this notion are critical to grasp, as they denote a strategic choice by the policy actors. “Diaspora” is a trending concept, not only in the academia, but also among the policy-makers, international institutions, policy consulting companies as well as the public opinion, even in countries where it had never been referred to before. According to the precursors of “diaspora studies” (Sheffer 1986; Safran 1991; Cohen 1997), the earlier accounts of the concept can be traced back in the ancient Greece, where it has derived from the verb “diaspeiro”, meaning “to sow widely”. Remaining latent for a long period until the 1970s, the concept regained attention during the advent of globalization and increased mobility across borders. While the older conceptualizations of diaspora clearly implied a return to an (imagined) homeland (Safran 1991), newer uses of the term replaced it “with dense and continuous linkages across borders” (Faist 2010: 12). Rather than bounding within the imagery of origin and destination, the new meanings included countries of onward migration (Faist 2010) and the multiplicity of spaces. For scholars who argue that the concept should not reify certain groups of people, the concept of diaspora exists as a result of different ways of constructing, imagining and managing the relations between states and populations (Waldinger 2008).

The recent employment of the concept by the Turkish policy makers embodies this process of constructing new relations between the state and the society living abroad. For Aksel (2014) and Öktem (2014: 9), Turkey has a long and controversial history of naming groups that have kept its relations with the homeland and of using the term “diaspora” to denominate such groups. Until recently this concept was understood with negative connotations associated with historical emigrant groups from Anatolia, such as the Armenians and the Greek, with whom the Turkish state had strongly conflictual relations in its foreign policy. Öktem (2014) argues that even the recent usages of the term takes place in caution, however there is a clear trend among the members of the government and the new institutions for emigrant engagement. The use of the concept of diasporas to denote “groupness” among the emigrant community illustrates the Turkish state’s interest in appending emigrants in the national narrative. It also becomes a part of the symbolic practices of the AKP government and its interest to reframe Turkey as a “strong country” in the international arena, which keeps hold of populations under a new membership umbrella, along with other institutional and legal changes, such as voting from abroad (Şahin-Mencütek and Erdoğan 2015: 7).


Increasing Turkey’s presence and visibility abroad has entered the top priorities of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since the AKP’s gaining of power in 2002. As Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu emphasized in his address in the Turkish Grand National Assembly in June 2012, that this objective was being pursued through three mechanisms: increasing the number of foreign missions abroad, lifting the visa restrictions for facilitating the movement of Turkish citizens across borders and maintaining the security of Turkish citizens living abroad. In the same speech Davutoğlu pointed out that the population was a crucial capital for the state: “(we) do not have natural gas sources, we neither have rich petrol sources; all our capital is our people. We are going to demolish all the walls behind our people”[2]. This logic has been based on an interest of state’s management of the populations under its jurisdiction for economic and social productivity.

Still occupying a crucial position in the management of state’s relations with emigrants and non-resident citizens, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has undergone transformation during this last period. In terms of foreign missions, the number of Turkish consulates rose from 55 to 81 and embassies increased from 91 to 134 from 2002 to early 2015[3]. These foreign missions have a dual role of being representative of the Turkish state in other countries, and of providing an institutional roof for the citizens dispersed around the globe. Moreover, in 2009 the Turkish state created an online portal for all Turkish citizens overseas and foreigners who would like to process an interactive visa application. For Turkish citizens, the e-Consulate (https://www.konsolosluk.gov.tr/ekonsolosluk/) enables to complete certain procedures on line, including birth and ID registrations, passport renewals and extensions, visa applications and all procedures pertaining to citizenship and a host of others. The portal also provides information about customs, the law, consular issues and the economy, as well as Turkish societies abroad, Turkish workplaces, festivals, associations, speech texts and e-library. To become a member of e-Consulate, the citizens need to enter identification information, which is controlled through comparison with Ministry of Interior Central Civil Registration System (MERNIS). While providing a facilitated service, the e-Consulate collects data on the emigrants’ IDs and contact information.

The practices of the home states to engage with emigrants include institution-building mechanisms specially built for emigrant engagement and make these populations as a “state category”, such as the cases Serbia or in Armenia via “Ministry of Diaspora”, Mexico via “Institute for Mexicans Abroad”, Ireland via the “Irish Abroad Unit”, Italy via the Ministry of Italians Abroad, Philippines via the “Commission on Filipinos Overseas” and China via the “Overseas Employment Office” (Ragazzi 2009: 390). Although previous attempts were made in the late 1990s to monitor emigrants via state ministers and advisory committees formed of representatives among emigrant groups, Turkish state not has established such an institution until very recently. Finally in 2010, the Presidency on Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB) was founded under the Prime Ministry. Rapidly the Presidency occupied a central position in the management of emigrants’ affairs, becoming a coordinative mechanism that worked parallel in many aspects with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Reiterating that the Turkish state’s past actions for populations living abroad were creating alienation in terms of state-society relations, the policy makers have presented the Presidency as an institution long-term needed. For instance, in the January 2013 issue of Artı 90 (Plus 90) magazine published by the Presidency, the Head of Presidency Kemal Yurtnaç wrote that the Turkish state lagged 50 years in the arena for building an administrative structure to reinforce ties between the state and emigrants, by giving examples from the institutional mechanisms in other countries on diaspora affairs[4].

As of 2015, YTB redefined its work objectives on emigrants under three main areas: citizenship projects, education, and cultural/social programs. The Presidency prioritizes certain aspects related to emigrants’ relations with the home and host state and societies, via its specific programs on fight against discrimination, active citizenship and participation, legal support, voting from abroad and flexible citizenship processes (blue card)[5]. One of the most critical policy implications of the foundation of YTB has been its lobbying on extra-territorial voting to Turkish policy makers and the resulting amendments in the electoral law. As of 2014 presidential election, emigrants are able to vote from their countries of residence through consular voting. While the voter turnout rate remained limited in August 2014 elections (18.9%) (Abadan-Unat et al. 2014), its increase to 36.88% in May 2015 and finally to 40.01% in November 2015 illustrates that there is a reciprocal relation and increasing interest by the emigrants to engage more with Turkish politics. However, in their analysis of the adoption of extra-territorial voting in Turkey, Mencütek and Erdoğan (2015: 11) also argue that while this political right took place as emigrants’ active request since the 1980s, the timing of its implementation has been related to the evolution of domestic politics rather than the result of emigrant lobbying.


Once considered either as temporary migrants who were expected to return in the near future or traitors who left their homelands, emigrants from Turkey are increasingly entering in the political debates as extended political communities. In this article, I discussed two arenas of change in the recent years: the first one related to the symbolic practices of naming and second the institution-building mechanisms. Although there is an ostensible change in the modality of governing populations abroad, its language, tools and mechanisms have not been centralized among different state institutions, decision makers and opinion leaders. Moreover, despite the Turkish state’s and the associating economic platforms’ general attempt to bring the emigrant populations under the same social, political and cultural roof, the selective support based on ethnic, ideological or religious affiliation results in the furthering among emigrant groups. According to Kaya and Kentel’s (2005) seminal study including qualitative and quantitative fieldwork in Germany, France and Belgium, and Kaya’s (2011: 505) further research, the Turkish state’s official lobbying activities in promoting the emigrants’ participation in the political arena resulted foremost in ideological competition and rivalry among emigrant groups for the claim of being the sole representative (Kaya 2011: 504-505). Başer (2014; 2015) and Şenay’s (2011) studies also highlight the existence of demarcations of relationship between certain emigrant populations and the Turkish state, based on ethnicity and ideological compliance. As the Turkish state’s engagement towards emigrants is certainly not independent from its official ideological premises, the selective relations with the emigrant groups result in the deepening of ideological cleavages among populations living abroad who had migrated from the same lands.

Damla B. Aksel, PhD Candidate, Koç University, İstanbul

Please cite this publication as follows:

Aksel, D. B. (November, 2016), “Engaging Turkey’s Emigrants”, Vol. V, Issue 11, pp.6 – 14, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=13008)


Abadan-Unat, Nermin, Volkan Çıdam, Dilek Çınar, Zeynep Kadirbeyoğlu, Selcan Kaynak, Bahar Özay and Sercan Taş. 2014. Voting behavior of Euro-Turks and Turkey’s presidential elections of 2014. Report for Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

Aksel, Damla B. 2014. “Kins, Distant Workers, Diasporas: Constructing Turkey’s Transnational Members Abroad.” Turkish Studies 15(2): 195-219.

Başer, Bahar. 2014. “The awakening of a latent diaspora: the political mobilization of first and second generation Turkish migrants in Sweden.” Ethnopolitics 13(4): 355-376.

Başer, Bahar. 2015. Diasporas and homeland conflicts: A comparative perspective. Ashgate Publishing.

Bauböck, Rainer. 2003. “Towards a Political Theory of Migrant Transnationalism.” International Migration Review 37(3): 700-723.

Bilgili, Özge and Melissa Siegel. 2014. “From economic to political engagement: Analysing the changing role of the Turkish diaspora.” In Emigration nations: Policies and ideologies of emigrant engagement, edited by Michael Collyer. Springer.

Cohen, Robin. 1997. Global Diasporas: An Introduction. Seattle: WA: University of Washington Press.

Faist, Thomas. 2010. “Diaspora and transnationalism: What kind of dance partners?” In Diaspora and transnationalism: Concepts, theories and methods, edited by Rainer Baubock and Thomas Faist. Amsterdam University Press.

Gamlen, Alan. 2008. “The emigration state and the modern geopolitical imagination.” Political Geography 27(8): 840-56.

İçduygu, Ahmet and Damla B. Aksel. 2015. “Migration Realities and State Responses: Rethinking International Migration Policies in Turkey.” In Social Transformation and Migration: National and Local Experiences in South Korea, Turkey, Mexico and Australia, edited by Stephen Castles, Derya Ozkul and Magdalena Cubas. Palgrave Macmillan.

Kaya, Ayhan and Ferhat Kentel. 2005. Euro-Türkler: Türkiye ile Avrupa Birliği arasında köprü mü, engel mi? İstanbul: Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları.

Kaya, Ayhan. 2011. “Euro-Turks as a Force in EU-Turkey Relations.” South European Society and Politics 16(3): 499-512.

Levitt, Peggy and Rafael de la Dehesa. 2003. “Transnational migration and the redefinition of the state: variations and explanations.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 26(4): 587-611.

Öktem, Kerem. 2014. “Turkey’s new diaspora policy: The challenge of inclusivity, outreach and capacity.” Report prepared for Istanbul Policy Center, Sabancı University, Stiftung Mercator Initiative.

Østergaard-Nielsen, Eva. 2003. Transnational politics: the case of Turks and Kurds in Germany. Routledge.

Portes, Alejandro, Luis E. Guarnizo and Patricia Landolt. 1999. “The study of transnationalism: pitfalls and promise of an emergent research field.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 22(2): 217-237.

Ragazzi, Francesco. 2009. “Governing diasporas.” International Political Sociology 3: 378- 397.

Safran, William. 1991. “Diasporas in modern societies: Myths of homeland and return.” Diaspora: A journal of transnational studies 1(1): 83-99.

Şahin-Mencütek, Zeynep and Murat Erdoğan. 2015. “The implementation of voting from abroad: Evidence from the 2014 Turkish presidential elections.” International Migration.

Sheffer, Gabriel. 1986. Modern diasporas in international politics. Taylor and Francis.

Waldinger, Roger. 2008. “Foreword.” In Diasporas, Stephane Dufoix. Berkeley, CA; London: University of California Press, xi-xvii.

[1] Diaspora, Kültür ve Toplum. 2016. “Dergi Hakkında.” Accessed April 13. http://diaspora.ytb.gov.tr/hakkinda.html.

[2] Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi, Genel Kurul Tutanağı 24. Dönem 2. Yasama Yılı 116. Birleşim 06/Haziran/2012 Çarşamba http://www.tbmm.gov.tr/tutanak/donem24/yil2/ham/b11601h.htm.

[3] T.C. Başbakanlık Kamu Diplomasisi Koordinatörlüğü. 2016. “13 yılda 65 yeni temsilcilik: Türkiye’nin yurtdışındaki temsilcilik sayısı 228’e çıktı.” Accessed April 14. http://kdk.gov.tr/sayilarla/13-yilda-65-yeni-temsilcilik-turkiyenin-yurtdisindaki-temsilcilik-sayisi-228e-cikti/41.

[4] Artı 90, “Başkan’dan: Üçüncü yıl biterken…” at http://www.arti90dergi.com/dergiler/sayi5ocak2013/files/assets/basic-html/page3.html [last visited 20 August 2013].

[5] Yurtdışı Türkler Başkanlığı. 2016. “Vatandaşlık çalışmaları.” Accessed April 14. http://ytb.gov.tr/ayrimcilikla_mucadele.php.



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