Struggling economy and crackdown boosts Turkish brain drain

The number of Turks with a college degree or higher who have moved abroad has increased threefold in the last 30 years due to concerns over the economy and government crackdown on dissent, analysts said.  

The Turkish lira has fallen some 40 percent against the dollar this year due to concerns about stubbornly high inflation and unemployment. The fall has increased the cost of imported goods and raw materials and many businesses are struggling to pay off debts taken out in dollars or euros. Economists warn Turkey may be heading into a severe economic downturn.

“Turkey is not in a good place,” said Muhammet Hizmetçi, a graduate of Istanbul University who studied translation and interpretation. “When you look at the reports, the proportion of unemployed people with diplomas has increased incrementally. Those employed work under heavy exploitation. Our new graduates want to leave the country when they can't find employment."  

The Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜIK) said in March the unemployment rate for people between the ages of 15 and 24 had increased 1.2 percentage points year-on-year to 20.8 percent.

“I was unemployed during summer break, and even this increased my anxiety. I’m staying in a dormitory in Kocaeli, and due to the lack of money, I came to the point of quitting school. My family isn’t in a very good economic situation. They say there’s free education, but we have to pay for dormitory fees and huge amounts for books,” said Uğur Çalişkan, a second-year student of banking and insurance at Kocaeli University.

According to TÜIK statistics, unemployment among women is nearly five percentage points higher than among men.

“Both the difficulties of being a woman and the country’s economic crisis have affected all sectors,” said 19-year-old Sümeyye Yalçın who is studying tourism and hotel management in Diyarbakır, in Turkey’s southeast. “Right now, I have to do an internship, and I can’t make a living with the money I’m making. Women like me who are working are pushed into a difficult situation. When we don’t like the money that we’re making, they give us the boot. I cannot foresee what will happen in the future, but I feel that life is getting harder every moment.” 

TÜIK said 253,640 people had emigrated from Turkey in 2017, a 42 percent year-on-year increase. Of those, 42 percent are between the ages of 20 and 34.

“Similar to how the Titanic was sinking even while the orchestra was playing, as Turkey is sliding into disaster, those who have realised the danger have started looking for a safe harbour for themselves,” Turkish journalist Bülent Mumay wrote in the German FAZ newspaper.

Official statistics show cities from which most people migrated were Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Antalya, the wealthiest and most Westernised in the country. 

“In other words, (the people in) cities that have the highest income level, industrialisation, and education on average in Turkey have up and left,” Mumay said.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people have been arrested in an ongoing widespread crackdown on dissent following the failed coup of July 2016.  More than 30,000 people were detained and accused of terrorism offences in the first nine months of this year alone, state-run Anadolu news agency said.

More than 150,000 have also been sacked from their jobs, including thousands of academics and teachers accused of links to the secretive Islamist Gülen movement the government says carried out the coup. Many of them have fled abroad. 

"No one is surprised that they left, of course. German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently summarised in a single sentence how justice recently works in the country. She confessed that judicial decisions in Turkey were made not by the system itself, but by politics,” Mumay said. “How can we be angry at those who leave considering this situation? How can we keep them here without economic prosperity, democracy, and justice?”

The crackdown and frequent changes to the curriculum to make it more in line with the ruling Islamist party’s worldview, such as a ban on teaching evolution in high schools, have affected education.

“I’m not undergoing enough training in my high school to earn enough points to study law. One of the reasons for this is with the constantly changing curricula and teacher dismissals. Newly appointed teachers come to replace people who have given their lives for their profession and believe in science," said 15-year-old student Hasan.

According to the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, the brain drain could cost the economy some $230 billion.

“Normally, a brain drain creates problems for countries that faces outward migration, and states take measures to prevent it,” Ulaş Sunata of Bahçeşehir University told Bloomberg. But in Turkey, she said, “at the moment, no such measures exist”.