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As Turkey Marks Its Centennial, Many of Its Best and Brightest Leave

Huseyin Buyukdag says he loves Turkey and his job as a teacher. But with the rampant economic crisis and growing repression in his country, he said he and his wife have decided to try and find a better life in Germany.

They are among a growing number of young and educated looking to leave Turkey, where rights and freedoms are being eroded and inflation is surging under increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

After Erdogan secured a third term in office in May elections, things are unlikely to change, he says.

“Even if I don’t want this, even if I hate this, I will … leave this beautiful country,” the 27-year-old English teacher told The Associated Press.

Buyukdag and his wife, a nurse, live in the impoverished southeastern province of Sirnak. Their government-appointed jobs bring the two roughly up to $1,750 a month — over the official poverty line of $1,564.

It’s enough to make ends meet in their border province but far short of what is needed in big cities like Istanbul or the capital, Ankara, and nowhere enough for a young couple to save or start a family.

Turkey, a country of more than 84 million people hit by a series of crises in recent years, saw the official annual inflation rate hit 61% last month, though some economists believe the real figure is double that number.

For many, the way out is through education visas to study abroad or work permits. TurkStat, the government’s statistics bureau, said 139,531 Turkish citizens left the country in 2022, compared to 103,613 in 2021. Those age 25-29 formed the biggest group.

The numbers are a significant increase from 77,810 Turks who left in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic was at its peak.

The brain drain is separate from the hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants and those escaping wars and troubles at home, like in Syria or Iraq, who use Turkey as a route to Europe, often setting off on dangerous voyages across the Mediterranean Sea with the help of people smugglers. 

Sociologist and author Besim Dellaloglu attributes some of the exodus of the “uppermost educated layers of society” to an erosion of democratic norms.

“I do not have the impression that this migration will be reversed without decreasing polarization in Turkey,” he said.

Most likely to emigrate are medical professionals and IT specialists, Dellaloglu said, but also highly trained individuals from all sectors.

Ahmet Akkoc, a 24-year-old IT engineer, left two years ago to study for a master’s degree in Denmark but then found a job in Copenhagen and decided to stay.

“I had an area that I wanted to specialize in and there was absolutely no demand for that specialization in Turkey,” he said.

In 2022, more than 2,600 doctors applied for the necessary documents from the Turkish Medical Association to be able to practice outside the country. Physicians mostly cited small salaries, grueling working conditions and an uptick in violence by disgruntled patients as reasons for their decision.

In one of his speeches last year, an angry Erdogan said all doctors who wanted to can “go ahead and leave.” He later softened his tone, saying those who left would soon return as Turkey holds the promise of a “bright future.”

Many other Turks prefer to stay, even with an increasingly polarized society.

“I can understand the people who are leaving, some things really need to change,” said Fatma Zehra Eksi, a 22-year-old student from Istanbul who says she is a reluctant supporter of Erdogan. “But if we … leave because we are not comfortable here, then there will be no one left here to change things.”

Serap Ilgin, a 26-year-old copywriter in Istanbul said she grew up with the values of secular Turkey and its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

“Leaving is not a solution, on the contrary, I think we need to stay here and fight,” she said.

The growing discontent comes as Turkey marks the 100th anniversary of Ataturk’s proclamation of a secular republic, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

For his part, Erdogan has heralded the next era as the “Century of Turkey,” promising to make Turkey a global power.

Some aspiring emigrants suggest that these days, even getting tourist visas — seen as a stepping-stone to emigration — has become a challenge for Turks.

Reports in Turkish media and many would-be emigrants interviewed by the AP say European countries have tightened visa restrictions for Turkish travelers. In particular, the rate of visa rejections has spiked, and the application process has become more complex, they say.

“All this treatment makes you feel like you are living in a Third World country,” said Ahmet Batuhan Turk, who recently applied to travel to Denmark. “I guess we are.”

He said the visa process now requires more documents amid stricter checks by European Union countries. However, the AP found no evidence of this, and EU officials have denied it.

Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, the EU envoy to Turkey, said rejections in Turkey were below the global average.

“The European Union has no policy of preventing visas from being issued to Turkish citizens,” he told the Hurriyet newspaper in June.

Often, where demand is high like in Turkey, diplomatic missions outsource the visa application process to third-party companies.

Kerem Cetinalp works as a consultant for Turks applying for visas through such processing centers, advising them on documents they need to put together and how to submit their applications.

The high demand has led to applicants having trouble finding visa appointments, Cetinalp told the AP outside VfSGlobal, a processing center that helps with visas for France and Poland.

Cetinalp said some people were applying for political asylum even though their reason for wanting to leave is economic. This creates confusion and wariness in the West toward Turkish applicants, he said.

Erdogan has accused the EU of “political blackmail” in restricting travel for Turkish nationals, without providing evidence of those alleged restrictions.

His government has vowed to reverse the brain drain and sees the alleged visa rejections as a move to undermine Erdogan’s popularity by making Turks feel they can’t travel freely to Europe. Erdogan has pressed a campaign for return, offering grants and positions to academics working abroad. He said 6,000 had returned under the plan.

But Buyukdag, the teacher, said he and his wife have stepped up their efforts to leave a country where he said he could lose his job for saying the “wrong things.”

“In Germany or in any Western country, you are a valuable person,” he said. “In Turkey, you are not a valuable person because you can be called a traitor any time.” 

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