The emigration of well-educated and skilled individuals from Turkey to Western countries has been attracting greater media attention, particularly after recent economic and political crises. Academics, journalists, other professionals and students have been increasingly leaving the country for the short or long term in recent years.
After a coup attempt on July 15, 2016 followed by a systematic attack on academic freedom through the dismissal of professors from the country’s most prestigious universities and the cancellation of their passports as well as the shutting down of civil society and nongovernmental organizations, Turkish citizens began to feel the seriousness of the political pressure.
The latest studies on Turkey’s ongoing brain drain find that the rise of authoritarianism, religious nationalism, financial difficulties and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s strict control over universities are the main inducements for emigration.
“President [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan has a serious problem communicating with young people. He continues to terrorize all segments of Turkish society who are not on his side politically. Women and young people in particular are his targets,” Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) MP Hüda Kaya told Turkish Minute in a phone interview.
The AKP government’s appointment of an outside rector to Istanbul’s prestigious Boğaziçi University has led to weeks of demonstrations, hundreds of arrests and one of the most sustained protests in recent years against Erdoğan’s autocracy.
The protests began in early January, immediately after Erdoğan appointed Melih Bulu, a former parliamentary candidate for Erdoğan’s AKP, as rector. The biggest protests since the Gezi demonstrations, which swept across Turkey in the summer of 2013, have reawakened the awareness of one of Turkey’s most important problems — Erdoğan’s commanding sway over state institutions.
Kaya thinks the communication gap between the government and young people makes things difficult for Erdoğan, who continues to publicly humiliate Boğaziçi students and their supporters with gross insults, regardless of local and international reaction.
“They call the young people ‘perverts, vandals, snakes whose heads will be crushed’! This is unacceptable. The government cannot move forward without the support of the younger generation. Approximately 7 million young people will vote for the first time in the coming elections in 2023. Most young people have opposing views, and they don’t accept AKP policies. The government is aware of this. The AKP has no future, they are finished,” said Kaya.
The Turkish authorities’ response to the protests is harsh and familiar. Police raid students’ homes, and peaceful protests meet with excessive force. Government officials continue to label the demonstrators as terrorists and LGBT students as perverts who violate “Turkish national values.”
According to the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat) Turkey witnessed a 2 percent increase in its number of emigrants in 2019 compared to the previous year. A total of 330,289 people left the country last year, about 40.8 percent of whom were between the ages of 20 and 34.
Recent studies show that young people who do not want to live in “Erdoğan’s Turkey” are looking for a free and democratic country where they can find better working conditions and a higher standard of living.
In November 2019 Erdoğan had declared his political mission as “raising devout Muslim generations.” However, Konda, a Turkish pollster, found that young people were less likely than the broader population to identify themselves as “religious conservatives” in 2019. They were less likely to fast, pray regularly or wear a headscarf. Konda’s research showed that Turkish youth had “challenged” Erdoğan’s most coveted national project.
Turkish Minute spoke with Kerim Has, a Turkish academic based in Moscow since 2006. Has thinks young people who want to have a quality education and stay away from the polarized and repressive political atmosphere in Turkey try to leave the country.
“There is a risk that one day you can suddenly be accused of being a ‘terrorist’ and that immediately afterward you can face an unlawful arrest. People also go abroad to avoid this lack of personal security. Under Erdoğan’s one-man rule, young people are getting more exhausted by the day. People also want to leave for their ideals, which no longer seem realizable in Turkey,” Has said.
Young citizens are becoming increasingly disappointed with the widespread nepotism in the country and losing their hopes of finding a job based on their merits if they don’t know any high-ranking people. Many people feel that even their basic freedoms are being taken away from them.
Nesi Altaras, a Jew from Istanbul and master’s student at McGill University in Montreal who has been living in Canada for six years, thinks the lack of free speech and academic freedom lowers the quality of education at universities in Turkey and makes it harder to live like a young person.
“It becomes suffocating to constantly self-censor. This is compounded by the terrible economic situation. Young people can’t find jobs, and even when they do, they aren’t able to enjoy the standard of living they seek, [barely able to] pay their rent, go out to eat or travel. For people who belong to the non-Muslim minorities of Turkey, like me, the rise in nationalism and anti-Semitism further adds to these push factors.” Altaras told Turkish Minute.
Erdoğan’s interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, branded demonstrators “LGBT perverts” in a tweet that violated Twitter rules about “hateful conduct” and was hidden from public view. The US State Department condemned anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and voiced concern at the detention of protesters. The UN Human Rights Office called for the immediate release of the detained students in a tweet, condemning the “homophobic and transphobic comments by officials, inciting hatred and discrimination against LGBT people.”
Erdoğan has also made homophobic comments. “As for LGBT, there is no such thing,” he said at a party meeting earlier this month. “This country is … moral, and it will walk to the future with these values.”
In the light of these facts, the protest against the pro-government rector’s appointment has turned into a struggle for democracy, freedom of expression and equality in Turkey. After the Gezi Park protests of 2013, many of Turkey’s educated, politically progressive young people started to leave the country. Facing the oppressive and authoritarian government response — purging the public sector of any of its opponents — after the attempted coup in 2016, more young people decided to leave.
Students at Boğaziçi University have written an open letter to Erdoğan listing their demands and promising that their protests would continue as long as newly appointed rector Bulu remains in the position.
Altaras thinks the Boğaziçi protests will not cause a new wave of emigration. “An overwhelming majority of young people already want to leave. There’s nothing new. Although some people who leave for education or political reasons have the desire to move back, each year away ties you to your new place and further alienates you from Turkey as you wait for things to improve,” she said.
However, Has underlined that the brain drain that has been ongoing for a long time will accelerate even more after the Boğaziçi University protests. Has thinks people will only think about a return to Turkey when democracy and the rule of law have been established in the country and, of course, when economic conditions improve accordingly.
“I don’t think even in the future the perception of Turkey in terms of democracy and human rights will be equal to that of Western countries; therefore, at the moment while people are making ‘plans to go,’ we are far from discussing the conditions for returning,” Has said.