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What’s behind the rise in Turkish citizens seeking asylum in Europe and North America?

‘I call the recent migration a perpetual exodus.’

Vendors stand in their stall outside a local office of President Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AK Party, ahead of the May 28 runoff vote, at a fresh market in Istanbul, Turkey May 23, 2023. Dilara Senkaya/Reuters
A number of overlapping factors are pushing Turkish citizens to seek protection outside of the country, including long-standing persecution of minorities, political persecution, economic malaise, and sense of political pessimism.

Last year, more than 100,000 Turkish citizens applied for asylum in EU countries – an 82% increase from the previous year. They are now the third largest nationality seeking protection in the EU after Syrians and Afghans. The number of people from Türkiye apprehended while irregularly crossing the US-Mexico border has also been on the rise, from around 1,400 in 2021 to nearly 15,500 last year. 

The uptick in citizens taking irregular routes to seek protection outside of Türkiye is a significant development in a country that itself hosts the largest refugee population in the world and that is a major – if not always cooperative – partner in EU efforts to try to curb migration. 

There are around 3.6 million refugees and asylum seekers in Türkiye – the vast majority from neighbouring Syria. And, since 2011, Türkiye – also a major transit country for Syrians, Afghans, and others trying to reach Europe – has received nearly 10 billion euros in migration-related funding from the EU.

The outflow of Turkish citizens taking irregular routes to both the EU and the US is being driven by a number of overlapping factors that have accumulated over time, according to Bahar Baser, an academic at Durham University in the UK who studies Turkish migration.

Minorities – such as the Kurds – and political dissidents have long faced persecution in Türkiye, and the country has been experiencing a prolonged economic crisis since 2018. The reelection of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – who has dominated Turkish politics for the past 20 years – to another presidential term last May also helped cement a sense of fatalism about the country’s direction for some people, according to Baser.

“I call the recent migration a perpetual exodus. Maybe the seeds were already planted in the [2013] Gezi protests or later, in the many elections won by Erdoğan. People have been thinking about leaving, and slowly but surely, they do it,” Baser said. 

The Gezi protests were a series of mass anti-government demonstrations that precipitated a violent crackdown from Turkish authorities.

In the past, people leaving Türkiye to seek protection in the West have mostly come from specific groups – Kurds in the 1990s, due to fighting between the state and insurgence groups, or supporters of the Gülen movement, which Erdoğan accused of being behind a failed coup attempt in 2016. Thousands of members of the movement were imprisoned and purged from public institutions following the attempted coup. “This time it is a more heterogeneous group,” Baser said. 

‘I lost all hope and finally decided to leave the country’

Hasan Ali, a 35-year-old who asked to be referred to by an alias due to safety concerns, is one of the people who have become fed up and is trying to leave Türkiye. When The New Humanitarian met him in Istanbul, he said that as a Kurd and Alevi – a minority religious group – he had been targeted by Turkish authorities. 

He is currently on trial, accused of being a member of a terrorist organisation. “The state constantly harasses you. If you make noise, they arrest you. If you think differently, they brand you a terrorist,” he said.

He is now saving up money to try to reach Switzerland, where his brother already has asylum. 

“After the general election last May [2023], I lost all hope and finally decided to leave the country,” he said. “I’m fed up with politics. I want to live in a country where they don’t treat me like a terrorist; where I don’t face harassment by the state.” 

Roza, 35, has already made the journey that Ali is hoping to take. Due to fears for her family’s safety in Türkiye, she asked to use a pseudonym. In 2022, she paid 10,000 euros to smugglers who flew her to Bosnia, a visa-free country for Turkish citizens. From there she continued – by car and on foot – through forest and mountain and across borders under cover of darkness. 

“The smugglers kept demanding more money and breaking their promises. But they didn’t cheat me, I cheated them,” Roza said. “I borrowed 200 euros from one of them that I never gave back. When we reached Italy, I knew I could no longer trust them, so I arranged my own transport with friends.” 

After a dangerous month on the road, she reached the Netherlands and applied for asylum. Roza is Kurdish and Alevi, she was active in left-wing movements, and she is also a lesbian – all things that made her a target of state repression in Türkiye.

“When I was 14, they put me in a closed psychiatric ward for ‘not acting like a girl’. I wanted to fight, but they put me on very strong sedatives.” 

As a child, her mother told her to never tell anyone that she was Kurdish or Alevi. The working-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Istanbul where she grew up was a seedbed for radical left-wing organisations. But, as a lesbian, she wasn’t safe there either. 

“When I was 14, they put me in a closed psychiatric ward for ‘not acting like a girl’,” she told The New Humanitarian by phone from the Netherlands. “I wanted to fight, but they put me on very strong sedatives. These kinds of drugs were certainly not meant for children.” 

As a young adult, she faced regular abuse and arrest, and physical attacks by Islamist and nationalist groups. In 2015, she was studying at a university in the southeast of the country when fighting broke out between Kurdish militant groups and the Turkish military. “I understood that I could no longer live in this country and decided to leave,” she recalled. 

It took her another seven years to gather the courage, necessary networks, and money for the journey to the Netherlands. After nine months living in asylum camps, and after multiple interviews and cross-examinations, the Dutch state granted her protection.

“I’m happy here now,” she said. “I have a flat, I can work on my art, and no one asks me ‘Are you a boy or a girl’, as they used to in Türkiye.”

‘We were refugees in our own country; we are refugees here’

While Roza was granted asylum, many other Turkish citizens applying for protection in the EU are not so fortunate. Last year, 75% of applications were rejected. There is no hard data indicating how many of those who are rejected get deported. Anecdotal evidence suggests most of them enter into years of legal limbo involving court appeals, or they end up living undocumented and working in the informal economy.

“[European authorities] look at Türkiye… and think, ‘Yes, there is oppression, but it is not as bad as after the coup attempt’,” said Baser. “They look at [applicants’] records of human rights violations, torture, and the proof they provide. To be an activist who was silenced is not enough to be granted asylum.”

The exit routes people take to leave Türkiye vary as widely as the demographics of people on the road out. Some obtain tourist visas to an EU country and apply for asylum on arrival. But Schengen visas are increasingly difficult for Turkish citizens to obtain, even for white-collar workers with steady jobs.

As a result, many people take a route similar to the one Roza took: flying visa-free to Bosnia or Serbia and then entering the EU with the help of smuggling networks. But people who are wanted by Turkish authorities or who are banned from leaving the country because they are on trial have to follow the well-worn path taken by refugees and asylum seekers from other countries who have travelled across Türkiye for years en route to the EU: either across the Maritsa River (or Evros River) that forms the border with Greece or by boat to the Greek islands.

Both of these routes are dangerous, with hundreds of people having drowned over the years and Greek authorities regularly pushing people back across the border – both on land and at sea – into Türkiye.

The route to North America, however, is a much longer journey. Like thousands of people around the world, an increasing number of Turkish citizens have been flying to Latin American countries with favourable visa arrangements and then trekking across the continent – a dangerous journey – to try to reach the US or Canada.

In March, Turkish Airlines announced that new restrictions have been imposed on passengers travelling to Latin American countries, including Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Columbia, Panama, and Cuba. Passengers now have to provide return tickets and fully paid hotel reservations to enter. No official explanation was given for the change, but it was likely to crack down on people flying from Türkiye to Latin America to then try to reach the US-Mexico border. 

Özlem, 45, is one of the people who made this long journey in 2022. Due to fear for her family’s safety, she asked that only her first name be used. A Kurdish and human rights activist, she said she had been detained, tortured, and put on trial multiple times by Turkish authorities. Finally, she decided to leave Türkiye and try to join her brother in Canada.

“The journey was difficult, but my experiences in Türkiye prepared me.”

She took a flight to Cancún, Mexico, posing as a tourist. Once there, she made her way to Ciudad Juárez – a border city in northern Mexico – and crossed the Rio Grande river, which forms the border with the US city of El Paso, Texas. “The journey was difficult, but my experiences in Türkiye prepared me. We were refugees in our own country; we are refugees here,” she said.

“First, the American Border Patrol took me to a camp in El Paso, then to another in Louisiana. The conditions in the camps were terrible,” she continued. “For the transfer, they put us in an orange jumpsuit and chained our legs and hands together. It was humiliating. We are already fleeing persecution, and they treat us like criminals or murderers.”

When she was finally released from the camp in Louisiana, she made her way up to the Canadian border, crossed on foot, and applied for asylum. 

“One of the Canadian officers asked me how, as a woman on her own, I could make the whole journey in such a short time, without speaking [Spanish or English]. I told them that if a woman has the will, she can achieve anything,” she said. 

A positive change ahead?

In local elections in March this year, President Erdoğan suffered his biggest defeat since coming to power two decades ago. Many opposed to how he has governed the country for the past two decades hope that this is a sign of the beginning of the end of Erdoğan’s AKP party’s dominance of Turkish politics.

“The local elections were definitely a positive change. They showed that there is competitive authoritarianism, but there is still hope,” said Baser. 

Even if Erdoğan falls from power, however, it may not be the democratic opening some are hoping for, and authoritarian politics and democratic backsliding could continue, Baser warned. Türkiye has a long history of coups, economic crises, and persecution of minorities that long predated Erdoğan’s time in power. 

For now, the long-term factors pushing Turkish citizens to seek protection outside the country are expected to persist. It remains to be seen whether the denting of Erdoğan’s political power in the local elections will make a difference in the number of Turkish citizens applying for asylum in the EU and North America. 

Edited by Eric Reidy.

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