Social and economic context of migration

The geographic position of Turkey as a crossroads between Asia and Europe has been a major factor in determining the country’s migration trends. For a number of years, the country had a negative net migration rate but the difference between out-migration and in-migration has been narrowing with the influx of foreign workers to fill gaps resulting from declining fertility and low growth of the working population. Turkey has a large stock of nationals in Europe and circular migration among this group is on the rise, with the country becoming increasingly attractive for young highly skilled people of Turkish descent that were raised and educated in Europe (Elitok and Straubhaar 2010). At the same time, Turkey is becoming a popular destination for migrants from Central Asia with Turkish and Russian language skills to work in the tourism industry. Low-skilled migrants from Central Asia as well as from Moldova and Ukraine also migrate to Turkey to work in agriculture and construction and as domestic helpers (IOM 2008).

Historically, Turkey was part of the Ottoman Empire, a multicultural state, comprised of a number of different ethnicities. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Turkish nation state evolved in Anatolia. Migration flows to the new nation state were mainly Muslims from the Balkans who, on basis of religion, were classified as Turks. In the second half of the century, Turkey became a country of labour out-migration, spurred by the signing of bilateral labour agreements, the earliest one with Germany in 1961, and later with a number of other European countries (Focus Migration 2006). According to the Turkish Ministry of Labour, in 2005, there were almost 4.4 million Turks living abroad (IOM 2008).

At the end of the twentieth century, remittances were an important component of the Turkish economy but that role has since diminished. They peaked in the late 1990s, dropped sharply after 2002, and are now below the level seen in the 1970s (figure 1). Among the reasons for the decline are increasing unemployment of the migrant population in the main destination countries and decreasing family links of second and third generation migrants. The drop in remittances also reflects the country’s transformation from a country of net out-migration to a potential country of net in-migration.

Unemployment of the Turkish migrant population has become a social issue in many countries of destination and is an area of concern for Turkey. Data from the Ministry of Labour indicated that in 2005, the unemployment rate among Turkish migrants was 36 per cent in Belgium, 32.5 per cent in Germany and 25 per cent in France (IOM 2008).

In addition to changing demographics, increased economic development and European policies aimed at cutting the number of foreign workers are key factors contributing to the lower out-migration from Turkey, especially for labour migrants. At the same time, the country’s relative wealth compared to other countries in the subregion and neighbouring subregions and the language proximity has made it an attractive destination country. According to estimates from the United Nations Population Division, net migration could turn positive beginning in 2025 (UN DESA 2010).