A look at Turkey’s brain drain

A total of 330,289 people emigrated from Turkey in 2019, according to the government’s official statistics body. Turkey’s brain drain has been talked about for a number of years, but it is quite difficult to quantify exactly what effect it is having, because it’s difficult to measure the impact of people not being somewhere. 

I know from personal experience and anecdotally what brain drain looks like. My partner and many of her friends are voluntary exiles from Turkey. Many of the Turkish people I know are graduates of Turkey’s best universities, including Boğaziçi, which is currently being attacked on a daily basis by the government and their lackeys in the Turkish right wing press. 

After the Gezi Park protests in 2013, many of Turkey’s educated, politically progressive young people began talking about leaving the country. When the coup attempt happened in 2016, people looked at the oppressive and authoritarian government response, purging the public sector of any its opponents, and decided that the opportunities in the business, cultural, academic or charity sectors were not good for people like them, and generally for those who do not support the Turkish government.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), founded by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has spread its roots throughout and through the state and throughout the business sector, and the reality is that if you are not an obedient government supporter, your opportunities do not look good. 

I wanted to find out people’s reasons for leaving Turkey, and asked people to fill in an anonymous questionnaire so I could better understand the reasons for Turkey’s brain drain. I have had 129 responses so far to this survey, so I am not going to pretend that this data constitutes a truly representative sample of Turkey’s exiles and their reasons for leaving, but it does give a snapshot of at least part of this large cohort of Turkish exiles living abroad.

 

It is worth noting that 49.2 percent of respondents were between 30-40, and 67.2 percent between 25-40. This is certainly bad for Turkey’s economy, as the country has paid to educate these people, who now see no future for themselves in Turkey and have taken their skills and capital abroad. You would think that this exodus of educated, economically productive people would concern the Turkish government, yet it is currently making the situation worse by attacking students at the prestigious Boğaziçi University.

A lack of educational opportunities was mentioned by many people as a key reason for leaving, with 47 out of 129, or 36 percent of respondents specifically mentioning leaving Turkey for better educational opportunities elsewhere. A total of 16 of 129, or 12 percent, specifically mentioned leaving specifically to pursue a Masters degree or a PhD.

Meanwhile, 32 respondents, or 24 percent, mentioned the government, President Erdoğan, or political pressures generally as their main reason for leaving, while 28 respondents, 21 percent, mentioned economic reasons for leaving, and 18 respondents or 14 percent mentioned social reasons. 

Some of the social reasons for leaving were perhaps the most interesting. A number of people mentioned feeling that their social, political or sexual identity was not accepted by society. One respondent gave his reason for leaving as the lack of acceptance in society as a gay person.

“I was fed up living in the closet even to my close friends,” the person said.

Another wrote, “In my small bubble I was more than happy maybe even happier than where am I at the moment but constantly being insulted, lifestyle denounced I felt need to do a change.”

 

The vast majority of responses to the question  “What do you miss most about Turkey?’’ revolved around family, food, culture and weather.

Turkey’s brain drain is undoubtedly having an effect on the economy and society of the country. 

In some ways, it’s an interesting echo of what happened in Turkey a century ago, when intercommunal violence and the persecution of the Young Turk Ottoman government led to hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Christians leaving. This was compounded by the population exchanges that followed the First World War, when the forced exodus of Greeks led to a huge decrease in skilled workmen and businessmen, which dampened Turkey’s economic development probably into the 1960s or 70s.

The economic costs of political repression are high. When Turkey’s Kemalist establishment used its power to repress religious conservatives and Kurds, the victims were mostly working class people who did not have the option to leave Turkey. But now it is the educated, the liberal, the bourgeois and Westernised Turks who are being attacked by the government. They have far more ability to vote with their feet and leave the country. 

Not only has foreign direct investment into Turkey dried up, but some of the capital owned by Turks is also leaving the country, further compounding Turkey’s balance of payments deficit and depreciating the value of the Turkish lira.

The Turkish government is continuing to target liberal institutions like Boğaziçi University, partly in order to distract from the dire economic situation, but the impact of this simply worsens Turkey’s growing economic problems. Turkey is heading towards an economic reckoning of some kind, where all the diversionary tactics employed by the government will no longer work. 

The AKP’s reputation was made by Turkey’s economic performance in the first decade of the 20th century. Its undoing will be the avoidable economic disaster it has created in the past decade.