‘Transit migrants turning into labor migrants in Turkey’

‘Transit migrants turning into labor migrants in Turkey’

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‘Transit migrants turning into labor migrants in Turkey’

Transit migrants are increasingly choosing to stay longer in Turkey and are therefore turning into labor migrants, according to Professor Ahmet İçduygu from Koç Üniversity, the head of a think tank on migration issues. ‘The Turkish economy is absorbing labor migrants,’ İçduygu tells the Hürriyet Daily News. HÜRRİYET Photo / Levent Kulu

Turkey is turning from a transit country for migrants into a migrant-receiving country, according to Professor Ahmet İçduygu, the director of the Migration Research Center at Koç University in Istanbul.

“Transit migrants are increasingly turning into labor migrants,” İçduygu told the Hürriyet Daily News, adding that immigration has so far proven beneficial for the Turkish economy.

Can you give us a very short overview of migration trends in Turkey?

In the early republican period, the international migration flow went hand in hand with the nation-building process, with Turks and Muslims living in the Balkans and the Caucasus encouraged to come to Turkey.

In order to homogenize the population, the 1934 settlement law argued that Turkey should be populated by people of Turkish descent. In the 1960s, Turkey was seen as a country of emigration because of labor migration towards Europe.

Starting in the 1980s, Turkey began to turn into a country of immigration. For the first time in the history of modern Turkey, non-Muslims and non-Turks started to arrive in Turkey, starting with the Russian occupation of Afghanistan and later followed by regime change in Iran. In addition, Iraqis of different ethnic origins fled the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, while we had two influxes of Bulgarian Turkish refugees in 1989. In 1991, half a million Kurds from Iraq came, but this was only temporary.     

A key change that further made Turkey a country of immigration was the end of the Cold War. Turkey started to receive “suitcase traders,” who in time turned into labor migrants. They started to find employment in prostitution and the entertainment business, as well as in the agriculture, textile, construction industries. So Turkey received different types of migrants: Labor migrants, refugees and transit migrants.

In the mid-1990s, around 20-30,000 people were apprehended by the police every year. By 2000, this number had reached 100,000. In the early 2000s, the EU started to pressure Turkey on the issue, which became a hot topic between the EU and Turkey - especially after we started membership talks.
Because of this pressure and EU harmonization laws, administrators and politicians started taking the issue seriously, applying stricter controls. We saw a decline to 30-40,000.

Currently, because of the turmoil around Turkey and because the EU talks are not going anywhere, the Turkish state is not taking the issue [of transit migrants] too seriously, so we can see an increase.
From the mid-1990s up to now, more than a million migrants have been apprehended in Turkey. I estimate that half of these were transit migrants; the other half were coming from former Soviet countries and were trying to get to the labor market in Turkey. Now, even the transit migrants are finding employment in Turkey, especially in Istanbul. It has become a hub for migrants.

The Turkish public was shocked when migrants died in the Bosphorus, right in the middle of the city, after their boat sank in November. What does this tell us?

Obviously, this was not the first such event. It shocked people as it happened very close to where many people live in Istanbul. Normally we come across these kinds of incidents in the Aegean. According to my estimates, in the last 15 to 20 years, 2,000 migrants have lost their lives in the Aegean. Greece has built a fence and both the Greek and Turkish authorities are increasingly vigilant on the Aegean, which has diverted the flow to other places like Bulgaria.

How do you think Turkey has fared with the issue over the last decade?

First, let me say that although politicians complain about irregular migrants, economies around the world need cheap labor and absorb such migrants. There are 7 million irregular migrants in southern European countries like Spain, Italy and Greece: There is even regularization in these countries. In Turkey, one million apprehensions have taken place in the last 15 or 20 years; and we know there are another one million who have not been apprehended. When you go to certain neighborhoods in Istanbul you can see irregular migrants in small workshops and factories, while irregular migrants are also employed in childcare and elderly care. This is not just the case in big cities, but also in Central Anatolia, for instance. Irregular migrants can also be seen in prostitution and the entertainment sector.

The Turkish economy is also able to absorb this labor. If 1.5 million people arrive within a period of three years in any country, there would be revolution, but little has happened in Turkey. This means that the economy and the society has somehow absorbed them. In short, immigration has been functional and beneficial for the economy. Immigrants provide cheap labor, and although there is already a high level of unemployment in Turkey, even unemployed Turks don’t want to do what we call the “three D” jobs: Difficult, dirty and dangerous. So these jobs are being done by migrants.

For last two decades, hundreds of thousands have come to Turkey to work in certain sectors and there has been no reaction, not even from labor unions. However, at the end of the day, they are illegal. The government is making attempts to deal with the issue - a new law was endorsed in 2003 and an increasing number of foreigners are getting work permits. However, there is still too much bureaucracy and it is still difficult to get a work permit, so there is still huge potential for the informal market.

The government passed another new law on the issue. What are your thoughts on it?

In 2005, Turkey promised the EU that it would harmonize migration-related policies. Now we have a law on foreigners and international protection. A migration agency has been established. The process leading to the preparation and adoption of the law was very unusual in Turkey; as representatives of civil society are not usually asked to participate. This time, the views of all the stakeholders were taken and their views were reflected in the law. Also, almost all parties in Parliament supported it.

What does that mean? Turkey’s political parties are usually in unbridgeable disagreement on various issues.

The issue was not politicized until the arrival of the Syrians. If it were to be debated today, many would object to the law, because it talked almost about the integration of migrants for the first time in Turkish history. At one point, we may even start discussing changing the 1934 settlement law, which says that only people of Turkish origin or descent can settle in Turkey.

This seems to be an important turning point. We are coming to terms with migrants.

This is firstly due thanks to the harmonization with the EU. Secondly, with so many migrants coming, migration is becoming a very deep reality in the Turkish community. The state’s approach and mentality toward migration has changed. Instead of just Muslim and Turkish migrants, we have also started to receive non-Muslims and non-Turks.

Also, there was a reality before but for some time we ignored it. The EU showed us the need to manage migration. One of the areas where we see the impact of the EU in Turkey is international migration management. In Sweden, a minister of Turkish origin was recently appointed. But can we imagine a change in the public and state mentality in Turkey, for a blond female Russian Christian to be able to become a minister? I cannot imagine this at the moment, but the reality may lead us to have this mentality change. Five years ago, Turkish officials would not even accept that Turkey is a country of immigration.

Who is Ahmet İçduygu?


Ahmet İçduygu is Dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Koç University, Istanbul.

He currently holds a dual appointment as a full professor at Koç, in the Department of International Relations and in the Department of Sociology. He is also the director of the Migration Research Center at Koç (MiReKoc).

İçduygu holds a PhD in Demography from the Australian National University, and has held visiting fellow positions at Stockholm University, the University of Warwick, the University of Manchester, and the European University Institute in Florence.