Migration and development: Focus on Turkey

Migration and development: Focus on Turkey

Martin, Philip

The ninth Migration Dialogue seminar was held March 29-31, 2001 in Istanbul, Turkey. Migration Dialogue seminars provide an opportunity for 40 to 45 opinion leaders to discuss in an intensive and off-the-record setting the major immigration and integration issues facing emigration, transit, and immigration countries.

This report was prepared after the seminar for participants and others interested in migration and development issues. It has not been approved by participants, and thus should not be considered a consensus document.

The condintions and issues discussed included:

The Turkish government has been engaged since the 1920s in a modernization effort. In the 1960s, the government began to promote the export of surplus labor, in the hope that sending workers abroad from less-developed parts of the country would bring the remittances and returned workers with skills acquired abroad needed for modernization. Among the governments of labor– exporting countries, Turkeys has been unique in its high hopes for recruitment, remittances, and returns: they were expected to bring about a transformation of the country. This unrealized expectation helps to explain the widespread frustration with migration’s actual effects in Turkey.

The Turkish government’s current number-one goal is full membership in the EU. Ankara stresses that the EU should embrace full Turkish membership (1) because of the country’s strategic position between Europe and Asia and (2) to send a signal to other Muslim societies, such as those of North Africa, that the EU will include Muslim societies that are secular and democratic.

There are about 3.5 million Turks living abroad. Of these, 3 million are in Europe, and 70 percent are in Germany. Many Europeans fear that Turkish EU membership would lead to another wave of migration; estimates are that 20 to 30 percent of Turkish youth would emigrate to seek higher wages in Europe if they could do so. Turkey hopes that admission to the EU will bring EU assistance and foreign direct investment that creates jobs and pushes up wages in Turkey, thus making migration insignificant.

Turkey is an emigration, transit and immigration country. There are 3 to 4 million Turks abroad, 3 to 4 million foreigners living in Turkey (perhaps half Iranians), and tens of thousands who move through Turkey to Europe. Turkey is revising its asylum law in a manner that will allow persons fleeing persecution outside Europe to be considered refugees in Turkey, and to establish for the first time a support system for refugees.

Participants generally agreed that:

There is a sharp contrast between the role of migration in the efforts of Mexico and that of Turkey to integrate with larger economies nearby. In both cases, migration started before liberalization of trade, during eras in which governments pursued since-abandoned state-led industrialization policies. Mexico– U.S. migration probably expedited the acceptance of NAFTA in the U.S. NAFTA proponents promised that freer trade would prevent Mexican immigration from becoming even greater in the future. Proponents of EU membership for Turkey cannot make a parallel argument, since Turkey-EU migration has been reduced to 50,000-70,000 a year from 200,000 a year in the early 1970s, and fears of restarting migration flows are one reason why the EU has been slow to begin negotiations for Turkeys EU entry.

Most of the Turkish and Mexican migrants were and are unskilled workers from rural areas, and popular perceptions of Turkey in the EU and Mexico in the U.S. have thus been shaped by interactions with such workers and their families. In Europe, “unskilled Turks” are believed to have played an important role in creating attitudes that slow EU entry, and Turkish elites sometimes imply that they sympathize with Europeans trying to deal with Anatolian peasants.’ It is in this sense that several speakers asserted that Turkish labor migration was a lose– lose- proposition – Europe got unskilled Turks that have proved difficult to integrate, and the presence of Turkish migrants in the EU makes it harder for Turkey to win full EU membership. North American reactions to Mexican immigrants, on the other hand, have not hurt NAFTA in the U.S. Congress.

Mexican economic integration with the U.S. has proceeded much faster than Turkish economic integration with the EU. Mexico proposed NAFTA in 1990, and the treaty went into effect less than four years later, on January 1, 1994. Turkey has been discussing integration with the EC/EU since the 1963 Ankara Agreement, but negotiations on Turkey’s entry into the EU have not yet begun. Membership in the EU entails far more rights and responsibilities than does NAFTA membership. The Turkish government does not believe that the Mexican experience holds many lessons for its efforts to join the EU.

History weighs heavily in Turkish attitudes toward Europe. The dissolution of the Ottoman empire left an impression on Turks that persists to this day. Several speakers noted that never-implemented plans to divide Turkey after World War I, and the forced return of many Turks from former Ottoman territories, makes the Turkish government suspect that outsiders are trying to take advantage of Turks.


Turkey, a country of 67 million people, has the world’s 25th largest economy, generating goods and services worth $200 billion a year, $3,000 per capita. About 17 percent of Turkish GDP is from agriculture, 25 percent from manufacturing and 58 percent from services. Employment is divided as follows: agriculture, 45 percent, manufacturing 15 percent, and services 40 percent.

Turkey has had uneven economic growth. For example, the Turkish economy shrank by six percent in 1994, expanded by seven to eight percent a year between 1995 and 1997, and shrank by five percent in 1999 – the 1999 recession was due in part to an August 17, 1999 earthquake that killed 17,000 Turks and left 500,000 people homeless.

In December 2000, the stock market plunged and interest rates rose after there were fears of widespread bank failures. Many of the failed banks were public banks run by or with close connections to political leaders; some made unsecured loans resulting in losses of $20 to $30 billion, fueling allegations of corruption. On February 22, 2001, when the president accused the prime minister of not doing enough to pursue corruption allegations, there was another panic that led to a 18 percent one-day fall in the stock market; the Turkish lira dropped 30 percent, to 1 million lira to $1. Turkey agreed to additional economic reforms in order to obtain additional IMF support.

Turkey has a very high inflation rate, due in part to losses incurred by state enterprises and deficits in the social security system. These deficits are financed by internal and external borrowing, which pushes up real interest rates and drives down the Turkish lira. Turkey usually runs balance of trade deficits – there was a $10 billion deficit on goods trade in 1999 – offset in part by a surplus in services exports (the tourism surplus was $5 billion in 1999 and the contracting surplus $1.2 billion). Workers’ remittances were $4.5 billion in 1999, making labor exports about as important as tourism as a source of foreign exchange.

Financial uncertainty is only one of many factors that put Turkey on a knife edge. The image of Turkey teetering between Europe and Asia helps to explain the uncertainty about Turkish EU entry in both Turkey and EU nations. For example, what priority should be placed on EU entry, if EU membership requires changes in areas that Turkey feels outsiders do not understand, including the rights of the Kurdish minority and the present division of Cyprus into Turkish- and Greek-dominated areas?

Labor Market

There are 47 million Turks of working age, defined as persons 12 years or older. Half, 23 million, are in the labor force, including nine million women; Turkey has a relatively low labor force participation rate. About half of Turkish workers are in formal jobs (covered by social security) and 45 percent are employed in agriculture; most Turkish women in the labor force are unpaid family workers in agriculture. The 11 million Turks employed in agriculture have lowerthan-average wages. The official unemployment rate is seven percent, and another seven percent of Turks in the work force are considered underemployed.2 Unemployment Insurance, enacted in 1998-99, covers only the half of the work force in the formal sector.

Two sectors – public employment and agriculture – need significant reforms. About 30 percent of Turkish workers are public employees. Turkey has many State Economic Enterprises (SEE), public-sector companies that produce textiles, food products, iron and steel, petrochemicals, tobacco and electricity. Many SEEs are overstaffed and lose money. Turkey is under pressure from the World Bank and the IMF to privatize SEEs, but privatization has been slowed by union and popular opposition to layoffs, and by corruption – some past privatization efforts were marked by sweetheart deals with insiders or business people connected to politicians.3 Turkish agriculture, traditionally dominated by grains and sheep, contains many small units – 70 percent of farms are less than 1.5 hectares or four acres. At the other end of the size spectrum, a handful of very large units take advantage of irrigation to produce high-value fruits and nuts,4 especially in the Harran Plain below the Ataturk dam in the southeast the dam is expected to irrigate 1.8 million hectares. To subsidize small farmers, the government offers higher-than-world prices for some crops; such subsidy schemes mostly benefit the largest producers. Agricultural subsidies were 7.5 percent of GDP in 1997.

Migration and the EU

The 3.5 million Turks abroad in 1998 were equivalent to five percent of Turkish residents, and the 1.3 million Turkish workers abroad in 1998 were equivalent to six percent of Turkish workers. Remittances peaked at $5.4 billion in 1998 and were $4.5 billion in 1999.

Turkish labor migration began in the early 1960s. Much of the literature evaluating this migration has a negative flavor because expectations in Turkey as well as in Western European host countries were not filfilled. Germany, France, and Belgium wound up with significant immigrant populations rather than workers who went home after a year or two. Nor did Turkey get what it wanted: an economic take-off toward developed country status from the recruitment, remittances, and return of migrant workers.

Organized Turkish labor migration began with an October 1961 agreement between Turkey and Germany. The annual exit of migrants rose to 66,000 in 1964, 130,000 in 1970, and peaked at 136,000 in 1973. Between 1961 and 1975, about 805,000 Turks were sent abroad through the Turkish Employment Service; other Turks emigrated as tourists and then went to work. When labor recruitment was stopped in 1973, there were 1 million Turks on waiting lists maintained by TES to go abroad for jobs. It is estimated that 1.5 to 2 million Turks went abroad for employment between 1961 and 1973, equivalent to 10 to 12 percent of Turkey’s 1970 work force and 40 percent of Turkish men aged 20-39 in the Turkish work force in 1970.

The government promoted worker emigration and anticipated eventual free access to the European labor market. The September 1963 Ankara Association Agreement and the Additional Protocol of 1973 promised a steady reciprocal lowering of EC tariff and eventually migration barriers, with Turks having “free access” to the European labor market by December 1986. However, the Ankara Agreement was not implemented. In December 1976, Turkey announced that it could not decrease its trade barriers in 1977 and 1978 as scheduled, and in January 1982 the European Parliament persuaded the EC Commission to suspend negotiations over closer EC-Turkish relations. On April 14, 1987, Turkey applied for EC membership. On December 18, 1989, the EC Commission rebuffed Turkeys application. The EU cited several factors that made Turkey not ready for EU membership, including its lack of adherence to basic human rights conventions and the gap between the Turkish and EU economies. In 1996, a Turkish-EU customs union went into effect that had a limited NAFTA-like impact of increasing foreign investment in Turkey foreign companies wanting to use low-cost Turkish labor to manufacture products such as autos for European markets invested in the country. However, imports also increased as a result of lower tariffs, reducing profits and employment in other Turkish industries.

Turkey is struggling with several chicken-egg problems related to EU entry. The EU wants Turkey to abolish the death penalty and increase respect for human rights, which Turkey believes it can do only after terrorism is eliminated. Similarly, the EU wants Turkey to restructure its economy before entry negotiations begin. Ankara argues that there will be more foreign investment (currently foreign direct investment or FDI is about $1 billion a year, verus $30 to $40 billion a year to Mexico)5 and thus less restructuring pain if the EU makes a definite commitment to admit Turkey before workers are displaced from agriculture and SEEs. Turkey tends to have weak coalition governments, so higher unemployment could produce political protests that bring down government.

In December 1999, EU leaders put Turkey on a list of countries eligible for future EU entry, but announced that political and economic reforms were required before accession negotiations could begin. In November 2000 the EU issued an Accession Partnership Document (APD) with a list of issues Turkey must deal with before negotiations can begin, including guaranteeing minority rights, reducing torture and the role of the military in politics, and supporting efforts to find a solution to the division of Cyprus.

Turkey’s cabinet in March 2001 approved a 1000-page response to the EU’s APD, the National Program for Adoption of the Acquis, that would result in the enactment of 89 new laws and amendments to 94 others in order to, inter alia, “improve Turkeys human rights record, combat the torture of prisoners, enhance women’s rights and bring the country’s inflation-prone economy up to European standards.” (www.abgs.gov.tr) For Turkey’s government, EU entry is the number-one priority, and Turkey is promising major economic and political reforms to prepare the way for entry negotiations. Opinion polls suggest that a majority of Turks support EU membership, some 60-65 percent in March 2001.

If admitted, Turkey would be the most populous EU country within a generation. Germany is projected to have 80 million residents in 2025, and Turkey 88 million. Turkey would have the largest land area in the EU, about 300,000 square miles, 50 percent larger than France.

Ankara hopes that EU aid and investment can create jobs for displaced workers and new labor force entrants. If this strategy failed, and Turkey entered the EU with immediate freedom of movement, there would almost certainly be large-scale emigration. Turkey has one of the fastest population growth rates in Europe, about 1.5 percent or 1 million a year, and a labor force of 31 million that is growing by almost 3 percent or 900,000 a year. Doubt that Turkey can meet this job creation challenge lie at the root of some of the European fears surrounding Turkish entry into the EU. The Turkish government is explicit that “we do not want to overwhelm Europe with unskilled Turkish workers,” but at the same time takes the position that full EU membership cannot be divorced from freedom of movement.

After Turkey applied for EU entry in 1987, there was an effort to project probable emigration if Turkey were to join the EU and Turks gained freedom of movement rights in 2005 or 2010. The opinions of key informants in Turkey and EU nations was that there would be an initial wave of Turks testing EU labor markets as soon as they could – 25 to 35 percent of the 20-29 year old men were expected to seek jobs abroad – followed by a level of labor migration that depended on the evolution of European labor markets. If there were jobs available in Europe at high wages, Turks would stay and more might come. If not, Turkish migration would be expected to wane.

Turkish experts who projected low levels of migration (20 percent or less of 20-29 year olds would emigrate to see if they could find jobs outside Turkey) emphasized that Turkey was growing fast and that the jobs filled by Turks in Europe were difficult, dirty, and dangerous, living outside Turkey was expensive, and there was discrimination against Turks. Those who predicted high levels of emigration (50 percent or more of 20-29 year olds would emigrate) noted that:

– there is significant east-west migration within Turkey that could become international migration since internal migrants often have friends and relatives abroad;

– 1960s-1970s migrants who are settled abroad are seen as economic successes by potential migrants in Turkey, as they return with cars and money for better housing; and

– there is little prospect that enough formal sector jobs will be created for new labor force entrants, especially for young women in urban areas who now have very low labor force participation rates, and there is less room to absorb additional workers in agriculture.

Thus, most Turkish key informants projected an initial wave of emigration larger than that of the 1960s-1970s. However, this migration hump was expected to be short-lived, because most European countries in the late 1980s projected fewer job openings for unskilled migrants. If the number of jobs for unskilled workers shrank as projected in most European countries, and if most Turkish migrants were unskilled, then migration to test the waters would be followed by far less migration, that is, it would appear as a migration hump.

During the 1990s, there was little opportunity for Turks to migrate for employment to Europe, but they could migrate for employment to Russia and the Middle East. In 1998, some 600,000 Turks were on waiting lists maintained by the Turkish Employment Service for overseas jobs; the TES sent 17,000 workers abroad in 1999, 26,000 in 1998, and 33,000 in 1997, down sharply from 60,000 a year in 1994-95. The drop was due to the decline in the number of migrants sent to the ex-USSR, for example, 42,000 sent in 1994 and 7,000 in 1999.

Turkey has begun developing policies to promote the welfare of its migrants abroad. Two commissions were created on February 16, 1998: a Supreme Committee for Nationals Living Abroad chaired by the Prime Minister, and a Coordinating Committee for Nationals Living Abroad, which includes representatives of Turks in 12 foreign countries. Turkey in 1995 made it easier for overseas Turks to naturalize abroad by creating a “special foreign nationality” symbolized by a pink card for Turks who give up their Turkish citizenship, but want to preserve their right to buy and inherit land in Turkey. Also in 1995, Turks under age 20 were permitted to give up Turkish citizenship without fulfilling their Turkish military obligations.

Migration and Development

The constitution enacted in 1960 guaranteed Turks the right to a passport and travel abroad, and the Turkish government in the 1960s embraced exporting surplus labor as the best way to relieve un- and under-employment, especially in agricultural areas, where almost half of the population lived. The government played a significant role in 1960s labor migration, designating certain areas as priority areas for recruitment. Turkey sought to maximize and channel remittances with a variety of programs and policies that ranged from allowing tariff– free imports if returning migrants converted their foreign currency DM savings into lira and establishing Turkish Workers Companies to channel savings into job-creating factories in the migrants’ areas of origin.

Turkey has been trying to modernize in a top-down fashion since Ataturk came to power in 1923, and migration was seen by the government as a way to export surplus labor and accelerate modernization. Migration did accelerate modernization, but not always in anticipated ways. It was very hard in the 1960s and 1970s to create small businesses, or to establish businesses that relied on foreign capital or foreign partners. Turkey during these years had high tariff walls, an overvalued exchange rate, and a preference for state-run businesses, which encouraged migrants returning with savings of $2000 to $5000 to buy land or animals if they returned to farm, or to build better houses, buy vehicles to provide taxi or transport services, or to buy land and housing as investments.

The failure of labor migration to transform Turkey resulted as much in the economic policies of the government that made it hard to establish small businesses as from problems inherent in migration. Migration under a different set of economic policies might well have produced many of the new businesses and jobs desired by Turkey.

Turkey today has a relatively low-wage and low-productivity economy in which workers are moving from agriculture to seek non-farm jobs. The Turkish government wants to continue the economic reforms launched on January 24, 1980, that is, to reform and restructure agriculture, the state-owned SEEs, the pension system, and the banking system. Several speakers argued that, if Turkey is to be modernized, the government must fundamentally change its approach, introducing bottom-up democracy rather than using the traditional top-down approach. Turkey estimates that it needs 15 billion Euro to make needed structural adjustments, but has been promised only 3 billion by the EU. Turkey expects less regional and transitional aid than was received by Portugal and Spain before those countries were fully integrated into the EU.

Immigration, Refugees and Transit Migrants

Turkey is both a country of immigration and of transit. There are about 3.5 million foreigners in Turkey, half of them Iranians. In 1998, for the first time, the number of foreign workers officially entering Turkey was the same as the number of Turks going abroad for employment, about 25,000. Migrants from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan go through Turkey, which, for Constitutional reasons, does not have readmission agreements with EU-member states, and thus does not accept the return of migrants who travel through Turkey en route to Europe.

Many of the foreigners in Turkey are unauthorized. Apprehensions have increased rapidly in the 1990s, from 3,600 in 1995 to 65,600 in 2000. The police reportedly do not try very hard to apprehend unauthorized foreigners because police agencies bear the cost of detaining them. In some cases, organized criminals pay off police, who then do not search out or detain unauthorized foreigners who are being smuggled to other countries. There are three main types of smugglers – PKK sympathizers, international syndicates capable of moving large numbers of migrants by ship, and local, smaller and often opportunistic smugglers.

Turkey’s current immigration policies are shaped by a 1937 law that permits only persons of ethnic Turkish origin to immigrate. Others are explicitly excluded. Turkey accepted and provided support to some two million ethnic Turkish immigrants between 1923 and 1971, and again in 1989 when there was an influx of ethnic Turks from Bulgaria.

Turkeys asylum regulations were revised in 1994 to require foreigners to apply for asylum within five days of entry or be subject to deportation. Between 1994 and 2000, Turkish data suggest that some 20,000 foreigners – including 11,000 Iranians – applied for asylum in Turkey, and 7,300 (including 5,000 Iranians) were accepted as refugees. Some 3,700 applications were rejected, and 8,000 are pending – most rejected asylum seekers are not removed from Turkey. UNHCR data for the same years report 31,000 asylum applications, 11,000 acceptances and 18,000 rejections. Under Turkish law, anyone can appeal a government decision to the Council of State. At least one rejected asylum applicant did so, and the Interior Ministry’s rejection of his asylum application was overturned.

Under pressure from the EU, Turkey is developing a system of reception centers for asylum applicants, and is planning to more closely adhere to UNHCR policies of interviewing applicants to determine if they qualify for refugee status. Some fear that this effort to bring Turkish practice into conformity with UNHCR policies may be bad for people in need of refuge, as Turkey may not provide informal TPS to foreigners in need of protection who do not qualify for asylum, something it often does now. Illegal immigration may also increase, as Iranians and Moldavians going to western Europe through Turkish airports may travel illegally to and through Turkey rather than legally, as at present.

After the 1991 Gulf War, Turkey refused to permit the entry of Kurds from Northern Iraq fleeing the Iraqi military for security reasons (Turkey feared they would include PKK sympathizers), which led to an internationally protected safe zone in Northern Iraq (humanitarian intervention).

1Turkish politicians reportedly tell Turkish migrants abroad that the Turkish government is fighting to reduce the discrimination they experience in Europe, while telling European politicians that they sympathize with efforts to bring Anatolian peasants into the modern world. Mexican politicians, by contrast, call migrants heroes in both the U.S. and Mexico.

2These data are from a Household Labor-Work Force survey in April and October each year in which the respondent determines his labor force status.

3There are large family-run conglomerates, such as Koc Holding, with 108 companies producing, for example, cars and appliances, as well as owning one of Turkey’s largest supermarket chains. Sabanci Holdings has 50 companies in chemicals, textiles, cars, banking, and supermarkets, while Cukorova produces commercial vehicles and paper and has finance and telecom companies. Some of these conglomerates have close ties to leading politicians, which leads to charges of corruption. Observers such as Can Paker, chairman of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, says “Our economy can no longer finance corruption and hope to compete in the world.” Ten of Turkey’s 36 private banks were taken over by the government after they were allegedly mismanaged; when healthy banks cut credit lines to the banks in December 2000, there was a financial crisis.

4Turkey is the largest producer of hazelnuts, accounting for 70 percent of world production and employing three million Turks.

5FDI plans are reviewed annually at : The 2001 survey ranked Mexico 5 in attractiveness for FDI, and Turkey 23rd, after Malaysia.

6Most of the commentaries on the Turkish response focused on what was not promised Turkey did not offer full linguistic rights to Kurds, civilian control over the armed forces, or a withdrawal of Turkish troops from Cyprus. Turkey’s response asked the EU to consider its “special circumstances” when assessing its membership qualifications. Turkey has begun to make other adjustments in anticipation of EU membership negotiations. In August 2000, Turkey agreed to sign two UN conventions that pledge social and political rights for minorities.

Philip Martin

University of California, Davis

Elizabeth Midgley

Washington, DC

Michael Teitelbaum

Sloan Foundation

Copyright Center for Migration Studies Summer 2001

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