This article was published by Al-Monitor, byKadri Gursel September 21, 2018
Speaking at an Istanbul fair Sept. 13, Turkish Industry and Technology Minister Mustafa Varank — a long-time chief adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before joining the Cabinet after the June elections — lamented that the country was “unfortunately losing its qualified human resources through brain drain.” It was a rather remarkable statement, for such admissions are rare in Turkish government quarters.
Varank’s statement is backed by newly released official statistics that speak of an accelerating, dramatic brain drain that is stripping Turkey of its well-educated youth — the sole strategic asset the country has for any quest of global competitiveness and prosperity.
The staggering 42.5% increase in emigration last year stems from the political watersheds in 2016 and 2017. The failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, and the ensuing state of emergency resulted in severe restrictions on rights and freedoms. Then came the April 16, 2017, constitutional referendum, in which an authoritarian presidential regime was narrowly approved. Erdogan’s victory in the June 24 elections, which completed the transition to the new regime, and the ensuing economic downturn are expected to further accelerate the emigration wave.
This gloomy forecast is backed by the findings of a recent survey that polling company Istanbul Economic Research shared with Al-Monitor. The survey, conducted in August among 2,500 respondents across Turkey, asked young people aged 24-35 what investment they would make if they had 5 million Turkish liras ($780,000).
Many of those leaving Turkey belong to the young generation that became politicized during the mass anti-government protests in Turkey in the summer of 2013, which came to be known historically as the “Gezi resistance.” The protest movement was triggered by a plan to build a shopping mall in the place of Gezi Park on Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square, replicating Ottoman barracks that stood there until 1940.
Sercan Celebi, a leading founder of Vote and Beyond — a Gezi-inspired civic initiative dedicated to election integrity — described a sense of despair among the Gezi generation. “Those who took to the streets with various motivations during the Gezi protests are now leaving the country because they are left with no other democratic channel to display their indignation. Since the street is no longer an alternative, abroad has become ‘the street,’” Celebi told Al-Monitor.
He added, “This is a productive generation that has truly equipped itself with science and technology and is capable of preparing the country for a new future and providing added value. They have lost hope in both the government and the opposition. Their dreams hardly mesh with the dream the [current] decision-makers have for the country, which is a totalitarian and isolationist dream that says ‘I want everything for myself, even if I settle for less.’”
CK is a 34-year-old Istanbulite who studied international relations at one of the city’s prestigious universities and later obtained a postgraduate degree. “During the Gezi protests, I was out in the street almost every evening — from the second day of the protests to the last intervention of the police,” he said from Poland, where he has become an education consultant after leaving Turkey 16 months ago.
Recounting his story to Al-Monitor, CK said, “I was working in the civic society field. The civic society organizations for which I worked closed down, and then I worked as an international project coordinator at a university. During this one-year term, what I was requested to do the most was translate into English the articles of professors. Also, I was constantly questioned about religion.
Selcuki noted, “Couples with children, in particular, are making plans to leave at all costs because they believe they cannot give their kids a life of good standard in Turkey.”
The 33-year-old journalist-turned-translator Selay Sari, who became politicized during the Gezi protests and left her native Istanbul for Madrid in February, agrees. “Turkey is no longer a country suitable for raising kids,” she told Al-Monitor. “If I have kids, I would like to raise them in a European Union country. This was the issue that swayed my decision.”
Twenty-six-year-old Bahadir — a technology entrepreneur with a degree in management information systems from Istanbul’s Bosphorus University — took an active part in the creation of Vote and Beyond. He has been working since April as a director at an asset management company in Berlin. For him, life in Turkey has come to mean “constant inner unrest and dissatisfaction.” He told Al-Monitor, “I don’t get any pleasure out of life. If I have a kid, I’ll foist all my stress on it and raise an unhappy child. How could I wish to raise a child in [Turkey]? Things are not based on continuity and there is economic uncertainty. One cannot develop technology amid bans and censorship. Creativity has been suppressed.”
Other, less visible faces of the brain drain are those who went abroad to study and have now given up plans to return home. Ilker Hepkaner, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in cultural studies at New York University, is one of them. Hepkaner, whose education journey in the United States began in 2010, said, “I made up my mind to not go back to Turkey at the end of 2016.
Others, meanwhile, are preparing to make the move abroad. Ece Altunmaral, a 26-year-old social entrepreneur, is about to move her textile business to London, where she had studied finance several years ago. Altunmaral worked for a well-known foreign finance firm in Istanbul before quitting in 2016 to set up her textile company, which operates on a “responsible production” basis.
The stories of those young people are the summary of a Turkey that is becoming more introverted and growing poorer in every sense of the word, as politics and ideology have led loyalty to replace merit as the norm to move up, mediocrity has prevailed over quests for creativity and quality, and freedom of expression has been severely suppressed.
Found in:TURKISH ECONOMY
Kadri Gursel is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. His main focuses are Turkish foreign policy, international affairs, press freedom and Turkey’s Kurdish question, as well as Turkey’s evolving political Islam and its national and regional impacts. He wrote a column for the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet from May 2016 to September 2018 and for daily Milliyet from 2007 to July 2015. Gursel also worked for the Agence France-Presse from 1993 to 1997. While at the AFP, he was kidnapped by Kurdish militants in 1995. He recounted his misadventures at the hands of the PKK in his book titled “Dağdakiler” ("Those of the Mountains"). On Twitter: @KadriGursel