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Educated Young Turks Seeking Their Future Abroad

Turkey is seeing a brain drain driven by more than just rising unemployment.

by Cagri Sari 10 July 2019

Pinar (not her real name), a sociology student at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, said that she would leave Turkey as soon as she completed her bachelor studies. Her plan was to do a master’s degree in Germany and remain there after she graduated.


“I don’t think I will be able to find suitable employment here,” Pinar explained. “And if I start to express my views and opinions more openly, then the chances of my future employment would get even slimmer.”


Pinar is far from the only one who plans to try her luck abroad. A 64-percent, year-on-year increase in emigration from Turkey has been driven by concerns about unemployment, personal freedom, and security, particularly among the young.


According to the Turkish Institute of Statistics (TurkStat), about 113,000 Turkish citizens emigrated in 2018 – 44,000 more than in 2017, when 69,000 left the country.


Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in Turkey stood at 14.9 percent in 2018, an increase of 4.1 percent compared to the previous year. Out of the total number of unemployed, 26.1 percent are young people aged 15-24.


Reporting on data for the first six months of 2019, Trading Economics, a site tracking global economic information, wrote, “The number of unemployed people rose by 1.33 million from [the same period] a year ago, to 4.54 million, while employment dropped by 704,000 to 27.80 million."


Graduation ceremony at the Hacettepe University in Ankara. Experts say that the deepening economic crisis and rising unemployment will result in an even bigger numbers of young emigrants from Turkey in the near future. Photo by Tamer Arda Ersin.


"The deepening economic crisis, ever-increasing living costs, and rising unemployment will result in even bigger numbers of young emigrants from Turkey," predicted Can Selcuki, chief executive of Istanbul Economy Research, a public polling company.


Although Turkey has experienced years of economic growth under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recent economic troubles have now resulted in high inflation and recession.


However, it is not just high unemployment and the weak economy driving young Turks to try their luck abroad. There is also a sense of uncertainty and fear of political persecution that intensified after the failed coup attempt in 2016.


Starting Young


For some, the plans to leave Turkey start even before the end of their schooling. Dicle Kaplan – a 17-year-old girl living in Izmir, western Turkey – has decided to study abroad after high school and has her parents’ full support.


“When I meet people who studied abroad, I can see that they have learned a great deal,” Dicle said. “They also seem happier and have better opportunities for the future.”


Graduation ceremony at the Hacettepe University in Ankara. Experts say that the deepening economic crisis and rising unemployment will result in an even bigger numbers of young emigrants from Turkey in the near future. Photo by Tamer Arda Ersin.


Her father, Cihan Kaplan, said that educational institutions in Turkey were too much under the influence of the current government.


“I think Turkey is an unsafe country for a young, secular person,” he continued. “The patriarchal society and the conservative government interfere in the lives of young people. My daughter is nervous about what she’s wearing and cannot stay out with friends until the small hours, [even] if she wants to. For me, as a parent, that is really a problem.


“Some private schools in Turkey still offer good quality education,” Kaplan acknowledged. “But since they cost a lot of money, sending children abroad seems to be a wiser option.”


Professional opportunities often seem better abroad, too. Merve Colak moved to Spain three years ago to finish a Ph.D. in astrophysics after graduating from Hacettepe University in Ankara. Colak now works in her field and has no immediate plans to return to Turkey.


“I decided to live abroad because I got tired of nepotism in Turkey and constant concerns for my future,” she explained.


“Being a foreigner and living abroad can be very hard,” she continued, adding that she had to cope with “discrimination and solitude.”


However, she concluded, “Spain offers much better opportunities for scientists in my field.”


Burcu Dogan is another highly educated woman who decided to build her future outside Turkey. The 28-year-old has a degree in genetics from a respected state university in Turkey but currently lives in the UK.


Dogan, who describes herself as a socialist, said she felt she had to escape the oppressive political atmosphere in Turkey.


“I couldn’t breathe there anymore,” she said. “My family and my friends are [also] under constant pressure from the authorities, and it’s really hard to live like that.”


Dogan has found temporary work in the UK but hopes to continue her studies in genetics if she gets a residence permit. She has not ruled out returning to Turkey in the future, but only if the political situation improves.


“I miss my homeland a lot, but many things have to change first,” she said. “We need proper democracy. And, of course, better employment opportunities that would allow young people to build a comfortable future there.”

Cagri Sari is the editor of the politics section of Evrensel newspaper. Based in Istanbul, she previously spent six years at Hayat TV as a reporter and editor. Sari writes mostly about politics and freedom of the press.
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