Turkey’s Looming Immigration Crisis: Syrian Refugees and Others

Turkey’s Looming Immigration Crisis:

Syrian Refugees and Others

Human mobility is one difficult phenomenon to analyse and predict simply because the process is complex, the data poor, and the theory still underdeveloped. I have been advocating a new model of human mobility revolving around conflict which is defined in a very broad sense to include a range of tensions from individual covert disputes to violent clashes [1]. Hence the context and reality is plotted over a continuum running from cooperation on one end to wars on the other. This in return is reflected on individual and community perceptions of the reality which is again plotted over a continuum of insecurity. People tend to move when they perceive the environment of insecurity as unbearable or they stay put when they see they can cope with the conflict or when they are not capable of moving. Established culture of migration [2] can facilitate mobility and thus migration from certain regions and countries continue no matter what changes in the broader environment. Turkey is rich in conflicts both domestically and regionally. We can find ample evidence from the neighbouring regions of Turkey supporting such a conflict model of migration. However, the current challenges and deficiencies in immigration and asylum statistics [3] are preventing any more accurate analysis of population flows to, in and from Turkey. In this brief analysis, therefore, I am looking at external and indirect data and estimates to highlight what would be the real volume of immigration in Turkey.

Knowing the volume of flows and stocks is important and the real volume is likely to be much higher than the official figures which stands around 1.3 million, about a million of whom are Turkish citizens. Turkey, unfortunately, suffers from lack of legislation and sanctions on hate crimes and in daily routine such racism and hatred is much more common than her Western European neighbours. In recent years, the efforts of main opposition party and some left wing media has gone without fruition. Nevertheless, the need for action and preparation is there. Otherwise, the unfortunate incidents –i.e. crimes against immigrants- we have seen in Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, France and elsewhere can get on record in Turkey too.

We have some striking contrast between various figures on the volume and flows of human mobility in Turkey. The total number of foreign born in Turkey has been steadily growing since the early years of the Republic (Table 1). Nevertheless, the growth seems disproportionate to the changes in Turkish context and Turkey’s immediate neighbourhood. In this venue, Soyaltin recently reported on irregularity in Turkish migration [4]. I have been elaborating these statistics quite a while and most recently presented at IUSSP seminar [5]. Accordingly, the total number of asylum applications in the since 1995 is between 93,000 and 125,000 while the total number of apprehended undocumented (or irregular) migrants is nearly 900,000. Another proof for Turkey’s growing popularity as a destination is tourism statistics. In 1984, only about 2 million visitors passed through Turkish borders whereas in 2012, this figure was 34 million.

Figure 1: Stock of foreign-born in Turkey, reported by censuses, 1935-2000 Source: Turkish Statistic Institute,censuses

Figure 1: Stock of foreign-born in Turkey, reported by censuses, 1935-2000
Source: Turkish Statistic Institute,censuses

Figure 2: Asylum applications and apprehensions in Turkey, 1995-2012 Source: Foreigners Borders and Asylum of the General Directorate of Security (Turkey); UNHCR (Turkey); Sirkeci (2009b). * Only the 1st quarter of 2012.

Figure 2: Asylum applications and apprehensions in Turkey, 1995-2012
Source: Foreigners Borders and Asylum of the General Directorate of Security (Turkey); UNHCR (Turkey); Sirkeci (2009b). * Only the 1st quarter of 2012.

As of 31st July 2013, the total number of Syrians arrived in Turkey was 490,000, of whom 431,081 were registered or awaiting decision at UNHCR. In such conflict situations, we do expect long term population displacement and sudden creation of immigrant communities. The refugee camps set up for Palestinians after the 1967 war are still populated by over 5 million people in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Palestine today. In many European and North American countries, Kosovar, Bosnian, Iraqi, and Somali immigrant communities are established; all following the wars and conflicts in these regions. Hence, pursuing our conflict model of migration, I do register these as representing cases of “cultures of migration” for respective groups. The Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey today is a good sign that in the foreseeable future, there will be strong Syrian immigrant population settling in Turkey.

Despite the on-going sorry saga of membership, hard statistics about Turkey are not far from her member counterparts, with the exception of a very disappointing record of human rights and press freedoms. Heavy handed response to recent protests in Istanbul and elsewhere is there to provide plenty of evidence for the latter. Economic outlook and prospects in Turkey is comparable to particularly southern European members of the European Union. Overall, macro indicators seem on par with developed countries. I am not intending to do an economic analysis here, but just to point out the fact that we expect similarity in other features including human mobility.

In many developed countries, for example, the number of movers who left the country and those who moved in are similar. For example, about 8 million people left the UK since 1981 and the total number of Brits living abroad is estimated to be 5.6 million compared to about 7.6 million immigrants in the country. For example, Brazil registers about 1.4 million emigrants and 700,000 immigrants according to World Bank estimates. The emigration and immigration figures for Russian Federation are almost identical. Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal are seen similar patterns where immigrant stocks are at similar levels with the number of emigrants. Obviously every country has a different history and a multitude of factors influence these flows, but yet some comparability is expected. For Turkey, claiming about 6 million movers abroad compared to only about quarter of a million immigrants in the country represents a drastic picture given the country’s appeal has grown and population traffic through the borders increased significantly in the last three decades.

Turkish border statistics show that over two decades up to nearly 2 million more Turkish citizens left Turkey than those returned. This may mean, about that many Turkish citizens moved abroad since 1994. Then we turn to the statistics for the entries and exits by foreign citizens. There is a surplus of 6,059,050 between 1995 and 2012. In other words, up to over 6 million foreign-born visitors might have stayed in Turkey. A GDP per capita very similar to Southern Europe and higher than Eastern Europe as well as most countries in the world, relative political stability, and particular cultural appeal to those from Muslim countries of Middle East, Asia, and Africa are all pull factors for Turkey as a destination. The World Bank’s estimations of bilateral remittance flows also shows that the remittance receipts in Turkey was just below $1 billion whilst the total sent from Turkey stood nearly $3 billion by 2010. When we remember the fact that remittances are often money transfers between migrants abroad and their left-behind families, this is just another striking figure pointing a possible gap between actual volume of immigrants in Turkey and official statistics. All these indicate that there must be a much larger volume of immigrants in Turkey.

Figure 3. Number of entries and the balance after exits deducted, 1995-2012 Source: Turkish border statistics.

Figure 3. Number of entries and the balance after exits deducted, 1995-2012
Source: Turkish border statistics.

Examining available statistics, published studies and theory, I am of the opinion that the total volume of immigrants in Turkey might be in excess of a couple of millions which would still represent less than 5% of the total population. It is every low compared to Western Europe. However, the trouble comes only when tensions and clashes emerge between the native population and the movers from Syria and elsewhere. Not only from the South and East, but from North too there are increasing flows of movers to Turkey. For example, net migration from Germany to Turkey has been reversed in the last 6 years [6]. Many more Turks from Germany are destined to Turkey than those heading to Germany. Turkey seems not yet prepared for this challenge. In many meetings I have attended with Turkish authorities and politicians in the last 10 years, their naively positive attitude towards immigration was so clear. However, this might be just a pre-immigration country state of mind and can suddenly change when the numbers surge. Therefore, Turkey needs to speed up efforts in stocking its legal resources while also putting much effort to prevent xenophobic attitudes while also thinking of ways in which international human mobility can be managed. There might be already many more millions of immigrants within her borders but surely many more will be arriving soon.

İbrahim Sirkeci, Professor of Transnational Studies and Director of Regent’s Center for Transnational Studies, Regent’s University London

Please cite this publication as follows:

Sirkeci, Ibrahim (October, 2013), “Turkey’s Looming Immigration Crisis: Syrian Refugees and Others”, Vol. II, Issue 8, pp.6-10, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=4177)


[1] Sirkeci, Ibrahim (2009) “Transnational mobility and conflict”, Migration Letters, Vol.6, No.1, pp.3-14. Also in Turkish: Sirkeci, Ibrahim (2012) “Transnasyonal mobilite ve çatışma” , Migration Letters, Vol.9, No.4, pp.353-263.

[2] In our co-authored book, we have developed a “cultures of migration” model linked to cumulative causation model and conflict models. Accordingly we argue that over time, migration experiences accumulate and migration becomes an obvious strategic option to individuals and groups when faced with difficulties (i.e. conflicts) and it tends to remain so from thereafter. Please see Cohen, Jeffrey H. and Sirkeci, Ibrahim (2011) Cultures of Migration, the Global Nature of Contemporary Mobility. University of Texas Press, Austin, USA.

[3] Sirkeci, Ibrahim (2009). Improving the Immigration and Asylum Statistics in Turkey – Türkiye’de Uluslararası Göç ve Sıgınma statistiklerinin Geliştirilmesi, Nov. 2009, Turkish Statistical Institute, Ankara, Turkey.

[4] Soyaltın, Diğdem (May, 2013), “Good news, Bad News or No News: Management of Irregular Migration in Turkey”, Vol. II, Issue 3, pp.33-45, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=3237).

[5] Sirkeci, I. and Martin, P.L. (2013). Sources of Irregularity and Managing Migration in Turkey, paper presented at International Seminar: International Migration in the Middle East and North Africa after the Arab Uprising: A Long Term Perspective. Organized by the IUSSP Scientific Panel on International Migration in collaboration with the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies (CMRS) at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and ESRC-DFID, Cairo, Egypt, 22-23 April 2013.

[6] Sirkeci, Ibrahim and Esipova, Neli (2013) ‘Turkish migration in Europe and desire to migrate to and from Turkey’. Border Crossing: Transnational Working Papers, No. 1301. Available at: http://www.regents.ac.uk/home/research/bctwp/.



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