Amid Turkey's brain drain, why some choose to stay

Why We Wrote This

The decision to leave one’s homeland is hardly ever trivial, even when safety is the issue. Turkey’s economic and political slide has moved many to leave, but the ‘stay or go’ debate is an agonizing one.

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Bengü Gün, director of the Mixer Art Gallery in Istanbul, Turkey, prepared for a new exhibition Jan. 17. Though Ms. Gun plans to stay in the country, young professionals like her, often bilingual and with degrees from Western universities, are leaving Turkey in increasing numbers amid economic, political, and social turmoil.

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Turkey’s so-called brain drain is accelerating, taking with it an educated and financial elite tired of grappling with chronic uncertainty. Among the leading causes: the unhappiness of life under Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and shrinking economic prospects. But are those reasons enough for Turks to leave their homeland behind? The soul-searching was on display recently in Istanbul as an audience of well-off Turks engaged with four panelists who had lived in Western cities. A young woman says she would want her children “to grow up where honesty is a good thing.” But panelists caution about expectations of instant happiness abroad. And in fact, despite the scale of the exodus, many educated and Western-leaning Turks are choosing to stay, preferring to take their chances of excelling at home and making a difference in their native land. Semih Boyaci, a social entrepreneur interviewed at his Impact Hub-Istanbul, says watching turmoil in Turkey while he was in London was also painful. “When you see bright people leaving, it’s something that doesn’t feel good…. From a country’s point of view, it is losing. [Leaving] is not the way to make it a better place.”

The tightly packed audience of well-off and well-educated Turks sat rapt at attention for two hours and forty minutes, without a break, as they heard the pros and cons of joining the growing exodus of their fellow citizens fleeing Turkey.

On everybody’s mind: Are the uncertainty and unhappiness of life under Turkey’s authoritarian and anti-Western president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, combined with shrinking economic prospects and an Islam-oriented retooling of Turkish society, reasons enough to leave their homeland behind?

Turkey’s so-called brain drain is accelerating, jumping 63.5 percent from 2016 to 2017 alone according to government statistics, and taking with it an educated and financial elite tired of grappling with chronic uncertainty.

“I am so unhappy I want to sell my car and move,” says one young woman in the audience. “I don’t have a child, but I don’t feel the motivation to have a child. I would want them to grow up where honesty is a good thing.”

“I want to live in a place that is more civilized,” says another woman. “Every day struggling is hard. I’m tired.”

But from the four panelists, all Turks who have lived in Western cities, speaking at an event billed as an “interactive evening on the question of ‘to stay or to go’ ” conducted by the School of Life Istanbul, come words both of encouragement and caution about the challenges of moving abroad and of raising expectations of instant happiness too high.

Such warnings highlight reasons why, despite the scale of the exodus from Turkey, many young, educated, and Western-leaning Turks are in fact choosing to stay, preferring to take their chances of excelling at home and making a difference in their native land – despite the risks and sense of insecurity – rather than start anew in a foreign place.

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Turks work in the offices of Impact Hub-Istanbul on Jan. 16, 2019 in Istanbul, Turkey. It was co-founded three years ago by Semih Boyaci to encourage social entrepreneurship projects, from saving food to urban renewal.

“Even in the most tolerant and migrant-friendly place, you should know you will never be ‘one of them,’ ” Selin Girit, a BBC journalist who spent a decade in the UK before returning to Turkey in 2015, tells the crowd. “You are always the Turk, ‘the other.’ If you jump into an adventure like that, you need to know this.”

“This is not so romantic as people think,” says panelist and Toronto resident Evrim Kuran about her work in dozens of countries. “My advice is: Bury your home in your heart, and then go off and do your thing.”

Though Ms. Kuran is officially part of Turkey’s brain drain, and says her creative work has been enhanced by living outside the country, she says in her case, “my brain never migrated” away from Turkey. Likewise, she adds: “I know a lot of people living here whose brains have already migrated.”

It is those legions of soul-searching Turks, buffeted by a series of political, economic, and social shocks that for them date back to the anti-government Gezi Park protests in 2013 and before, that have made departure numbers spike.

Some 113,326 Turks migrated away from the country in 2017, the latest official figures available and a significant rise over the 69,326 who left in 2016, according to the Turkish Institute of Statistics.

Another measure is the loss of more than 11,000 of Turkey’s millionaires in 2016 and 2017, roughly 12 percent of the wealthy class, according to the annual Global Wealth Migration Review, as first reported by The New York Times.

The Review states that Turkey was the fourth “worst performing wealth market” in the world in 2016, shrinking 6 percent even as the global average grew 12 percent. Istanbul was one of the top seven cities in the world for millionaire exodus – a phenomenon the report says is a “very bad sign” that indicates “serious problems in a country.”

Erdoğan: Buy them a ticket

Yet another measure of falling confidence is that, by mid-2018, the number of Turks who applied to live in the UK under the Ankara Agreement – which requires a significant investment – jumped nearly eight-fold from 2013 to 2017, to 1,190 applications.

“We are looking at numbers very similar to those of countries characterized by wars like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so on,” Ibrahim Sirkeci, a migration expert at Regent’s University London, told the BBC.

“Turkey has always been a country of insecurity, in many respects, and this is not the first time that Turks are leaving Turkey in large numbers,” says Dr. Sirkeci. Yet Turkey is the only industrialized country from which asylum applications to Europe exceed 6,000, he says, noting that in 2016 the number reached 13,000, and in 2018 went over 20,000.

Turkish media are full of stories about “brain migration,” citing outgoing migrants who “do not feel safe,” the “decline in democracy,” and even an “academic genocide” to explain why qualified citizens are leaving in such high numbers.

And Mr. Erdoğan – whose divisive and heavy-handed policies many blame for their decision to leave – has hardly been supportive.

“Those who say they cannot live in Turkey, or in Istanbul, do not offend our country but offend life itself,” Erdoğan said in a speech last March. “We must collect money to buy these people their tickets and send them on their way. They are a burden to our country.”

That was only one burst in the broader salvo of divisive politics since the 2013 Gezi Park unrest, when Erdoğan called the antigovernment, largely secular protesters “terrorists” who defiled “our mosques.”

Other triggers: A failed coup attempt in 2016 prompted a widespread crackdown, purges, and tens of thousands of Turks forced from their jobs. Turkey also suffered dozens of bombings and shootings from Kurdish and Islamic State militants until early 2017.

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Turkish social entrepreneur Semih Boyaci, who plans to stay in the country, in the offices of Impact Hub-Istanbul, which he co-founded, Jan. 16, 2019 in Istanbul, Turkey.

In a 2017 referendum, Turks narrowly voted to give Erdoğan unprecedented powers of an imperial presidency. And Turkey’s struggling economy was hammered further by a weakened currency during a United States-Turkey spat last August.

But many Turks who fit the template of those most likely to depart – often with degrees from Western universities, bilingual, and with good job prospects abroad – are also choosing to stay in Turkey.

The country is losing

“Why invest here? I always thought my own contribution would be higher in my own country, no matter what the circumstances,” says Semih Boyaci, co-founder of the Impact Hub-Istanbul, which focuses on social entrepreneurship. The scores of 20-somethings who work in this energetic, hipster-style place draw their satisfaction from projects as diverse as saving food to urban transformation.

“It makes a big impact on society,” says Mr. Boyaci. “I know there are a lot of hard things [in Turkey] – socially, economically, and politically – but it gives a kind of hope, and also a reason to proceed here.”

“When you see bright people leaving, it’s something that doesn’t feel good,” says Boyaci, who got a master's degree in London and worked there, before returning to Turkey to set up the Impact Hub three years ago.

“Some people think that when they go abroad, all their problems will be solved,” he says. Yet watching turmoil in Turkey while you are away – his experience in London – was also painful.

“I had a perfect opportunity in Europe, but if my country is in a horrible situation, I won’t be at peace,” says Boyaci. “I totally respect individual choices, but from a country’s point of view, it is losing. [Leaving] is not the way to make it a better place.”

‘Nothing is permanent’

Art gallery director Bengü Gün made a similar calculation to stay in Turkey, despite the departure of many artists and buyers. She has been director at the Mixer Gallery since it opened six years ago, and now her space for contemporary art is in the trendy port district of Karaköy.

“Nothing is permanent. So all the people who are not leaving are still considering to go,” says Ms. Gün. “People lost hope, economically as well, not only politically. Mostly in arts, people don’t feel there is freedom of speech, there is big self-censorship with artists.”

Still, events that changed the political scene have often proved useful to artists, because they were “a catalyst to get people to see outside the box,” she says. Likewise, in recent years there has been an increasing appreciation of contemporary art inside the country, which helps sustain some 70 art galleries in Istanbul alone.

Those who have stayed already invested a lot in Turkey, whereas abroad your degree and experience “mean nothing,” says Gün.

Still, the trend is toward an exodus, for those Turks who have the option.

“Last year everyone was talking about this. You would go out to dinner and everyone asks, ‘Do you have a plan B? Are you going to stay here? Is it safe?’” says a 29-year-old, US-educated Turkish woman who asked not to be named. She lives in an upscale area near the Reina nightclub, where an Islamic State gunman shot dead 39 people on New Year’s Eve 2016 – the last such attack of its size in Turkey.

“The shootings and bombings were very effective, because money is one thing, but this is about immediate security,” she says. “If I keep losing my friends, of course it will be uninhabitable for me to live here.... Me and my family love this country and we hope it prospers and gets better, and that’s why we are staying. That’s what we talk about.”

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