Background InformationCapital: Ankara
Official language:
783,562 km2
Population (2007):
Population density (2007):
90 per km2
Population growth (2006):
Foreign nationals as percentage of population (2006):
Labor force participation rate (2008):
45.2 %
Unemployment rate (2008):
11.7 %
Religions (2005):
99.8% Muslim, 0.2% Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Protestants and other non-Muslims

With the exception of the influx of the Turkish Muslim populations of the Ottoman Empire who were left out of its newly established borders in 1923, Turkey has largely been considered a country of emigration throughout much of the 20th century. Emigration that began in the early 20th century with the outflow of non-Muslim populations from Anatolia as a part of the nation-building process, continued in the 1960s and 1970s in the form of labor migration by Turkish nationals, mainly to Western Europe and especially to Germany. It continued until recent times in the form of family reunification and asylum applications, resulting in the establishment of a large Turkish community within the borders of the European Union.

However, the last quarter of the 20th

Historical Trends in Emigration and Immigration

Creating the Turkish nation-state
The Republic of Turkey is the successor to the Ottoman Empire, which was partitioned by the Allied Powers after World War I. The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire began with the Young Turk Revolution that reversed the suspension of the Ottoman parliament by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, marking the onset of the Second Constitutional Era. It ended with the aforementioned partitioning, which prompted the establishment of the Turkish national movement for independence under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1919. What followed was the War of Independence that ended with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne and the establishment of the Republic in 1923.

During the first years of its existence, the new Republic of Turkey became a landscape for two parallel international migratory movements: the mass departure of non-Muslim minority populations (e.g., Greek Orthodox Christians to Greece) and the influx of those Turkish Muslim populations from the Ottoman Empire (especially the Balkans) that were left outside of the borders of the Republic. Not only in Turkey have policies aimed at nation-building been the cause of international migratory movements; the first half of the twentieth century was very much marked by state and nation building, generating large waves of forced migrations and deportations:1

2.  From the foundation of the Republic in 1923 until 1997, more than 1.6 million such immigrants arrived and settled in Turkey and were readily accepted into society.

The early years of the Republic of Turkey were a period of homogenization of the population within its borders into a Turkish-Muslim identity. This process was consolidated by the state policies in the early 1930s. The Law on Settlement of 1934 is the major piece of legislation that sustains this conservative state philosophy even today. The law contains terms on who can immigrate, settle, and acquire refugee status in the country, giving notable preference to immigrants and refugees of 'Turkish descent and culture'.

Labor emigration to Western Europe

1960s and 1990s:
Diversification of labor emigration and Turkish asylum-seekers
34 By the end of the century, Turkish immigrant communities in traditional immigration countries, such as Australia, Canada, and the United States, had grown considerably.

Yet, emigration from Turkey has not always been in the form of labor migration. Since the early 1980s, the intervention of the Turkish military in civilian politics and the escalation of violence resulting from the efforts to subdue the PKK,5 a separatist Kurdish movement in south eastern Turkey, have caused many Turkish citizens to seek asylum in Western Europe. Movements related to asylum and refuge are an important aspect of Turkish migration and are dealt with in detail below (see Refuge and Asylum).

Since 1979:
Becoming a country of transit and destination
Apart from the influx of Muslim populations in the earlier years of the Republic, the first wave of migrants to Turkey arrived from Iran in 1979, following the regime change in that country. Emigration to Turkey was a temporary arrangement for most of the Iranians, who subsequently departed for Europe or North America. This was followed by the arrival of Iraqi and Bulgarian citizens, who also sought refuge in Turkey (see Refuge and Asylum).

While many migrants have come to Turkey seeking protection from political persecution and violence (see Refuge and Asylum and Irregular Migration), Turkey has also received many economic migrants, especially from the former Soviet Republics. Recently, Turkey has even been attracting an increasing number of immigrants from Western Europe. There are several reasons for this change. Firstly, on the macro level, the transition to democracy and the liberalization of the economy after the military coup of 1980, as well as the general impact of the entire globalization process, has turned Turkey into a more desirable place for immigrants. Secondly, since the second half of the 1980s, Turkey has become an attractive vacation destination for Western European tourists who later chose to come back for longer periods.6 Thirdly, the start of accession negotiations with the EU has played a role in making Turkey an acceptable choice for long-term residence among EU nationals.7 All in all, in addition to being a country of origin and transit, Turkey is becoming a country of destination for a considerable number of foreign nationals, through both regular and irregular channels.

Immigration and Integration Policy

Although Turkey has rather conservative policies on the permanent settlement of foreigners, migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees, the visa system of the country has been somewhat liberal. The Turkish Passport Law that outlines the conditions under which foreigners can obtain entry visas states that those who want to live in Turkey must enter the country legally. Additionally, some foreign citizens must possess an entry visa. However, until recently, citizens of more than 40 countries did not need to obtain a visa to enter the country, and nationals of more than 30 countries could obtain one at the border. Moreover, regardless of their continuing participation in irregular migration, citizens of Iran, Morocco, and Tunisia still enjoy three-month visa exemptions.8

The major legal instrument that decides the residence and working status of foreigners in Turkey is the Turkish Law on Foreigners (Law No. 5683, dated 15 July 1950). It states that foreigners must apply for a residence permit that is issued by the local police department after a detailed investigation. There is also the Law on the Residence and Travel Activities of Foreigners (Law No. 7564), which regulates the conditions for the residency and settlement of foreigners. Frequently, a work permit or proof of sufficient financial resources is a prerequisite for a residence permit. In addition, the applicant must demonstrate hat he/she has no intention of disturbing public order in the country. Only after the fulfillment of these conditions may a residence permit be issued. It is valid for one year, then renewable for a period of three years and then again for a period of five years.

The new Law on Work Permits for Foreigners (Law No. 4817, dated 15 March 2003) is the most important legislative change regarding the economic activities of foreigners. The new Law nullified the discriminatory Law on Activities and Professions in Turkey Reserved for Turkish Citizens (Law No. 2007, dated 16 June 1932) that barred foreign citizens from practicing certain professions. The new Law reflects the attitude that work permits for foreigners be allocated on the basis of labor market demands, not nationality. It gives foreigners easier access to work in Turkey by allowing work permits to be issued to individuals rather than companies, and institutionalizes the process by making the Ministry of Labor and Social Security the only authority in charge.9

Local authorities in some municipalities where migrant communities are clustered, such as Zeytinburnu in Istanbul, have begun to develop integration policies and practices towards migrants, but their impact has been rather negligible without backing from Ankara, the capital. At the national level, integration policy is not yet on the political agenda.


In Turkey, citizenship is granted in three main ways. In ex lege acquisition of citizenship, children of Turkish mothers or fathers are automatically granted citizenship, whether the child was born in Turkey or not. If they cannot acquire the citizenship of their parents, children born in Turkey to non-Turkish citizens are also granted citizenship automatically (ius soli). Turkish citizenship can also be awarded on other grounds at the discretion of the authorities.10 The Citizenship Law111213 Yet, this lack of recognition on the part of host states does not prevent them from becoming involved in political activities. In Germany, where dual citizenship has been a controversial issue, migrant community associations are encouraged. Accordingly, there are a total of 2,014 active Turkish-migrant associations in Germany.14 While 668 of these can be defined as religious associations, 670 are involved in socio-cultural, 343 in athletic, and 333 in other activities. A significant number of these associations have a connection with Islamic movements, and a considerable number of them represent the Kurdish diaspora.

Refuge and Asylum

Since the turbulence of the early 1980s, including a military coup in 1980 and the rise of the Kurdish conflict, Turkey has increasingly become a source of asylum-seekers looking for refuge in other parts of the world. According to statistics made available by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), between 1981 and 2005 over 664,000 Turkish citizens applied for asylum, mostly in various European countries. Refugee recognition rates have differed from country to country, but generally have been low, as many have tried to use asylum channels as a means of emigrating for other purposes. Since the conflict between the Turkish armed forces and the PKK grew less intense in the second half of the 1990s, and with the political reforms that were initiated at the same time, asylum applications by Turkish citizens have decreased.

On the other hand, Turkey has always been a country of destination for asylum-seekers looking for a safe haven. As stated earlier, the Law on Settlement15

The 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees is the second main legal document that has implications for refugees and asylum-seekers in Turkey. By becoming a signatory of the Convention in 1962, Turkey accepted international obligations concerning asylum and refugees, but maintained a geographical limitation on the origin of persons seeking protection. It did not assume any obligations with regard to asylum-seekers and refugees from outside Europe. As it did not have specific regulations regarding the status of non-European asylum-seekers, Turkey applied its domestic laws to foreigners entering the country. According to the law, foreigners are expected to possess valid identification upon their arrival in the country and must depart within the permitted period of stay. Turkish authorities considered non-European asylum-seekers as people under temporary protection who would leave the country one way or another: either to resettle in a third country, if their asylum applications to UNHCR were accepted, or to return to their country of origin, if UNHCR rejected their applications.

In recent times, Turkey has become a major country of asylum for people escaping the mayhem caused by the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, and the current conflict in Iraq. Turkey has also been under pressure to align its asylum system with that of the EU. This would require Turkey to lift its geographical limitation on the origin of asylum-seekers and introduce a fully-fledged national asylum system. Turkish authorities are uneasy about lifting the limitation, fearing that Turkey could become a buffer zone for the EU, which is making its own asylum system more restrictive. Moreover, in response to growing refugee pressures from Iraq, Somalia and Sudan, Turkey has been tightening its asylum policy.

16acquis communautaire

Foreign Population

Recently, a growing number of EU member-state citizens, professionals as well as retirees, have been settling in Turkey, particularly in Istanbul and some of the Mediterranean resorts.17 Their numbers are estimated at around 100,000 to 120,000.

Irregular Migration

In its effort to counter irregular migration, Turkey has taken several legal measures and pursued international collaborations. In August 2002, the government introduced new articles to the Penal Code criminalizing human smuggling and trafficking. It established stricter controls at borders and ports. Meanwhile, a project was implemented in cooperation with an NGO to provide social assistance for victims of trafficking. Presently, there are two shelters for victims of trafficking located in Istanbul and Ankara. In May 2005, the police, in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), initiated an awareness campaign and introduced a telephone hotline for victims of trafficking.

As for its other international efforts, in March 2003, the Turkish Grand National Assembly accepted the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its Additional Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air and began to take legal measures in accordance with the agreement. The Law on Work Permits for Aliens (see above) enacted in 2003 authorized the Ministry of Labor and Social Security to issue all types of work permits for foreigners, in order to ensure better management and control over the process and to avoid illegal employment of foreigners. The Law on the Amendment of Turkish Citizenship enacted in 2003 (see above) requires a probation period of three years for acquiring Turkish citizenship through marriage to limit the inflow of irregular migrants through arranged marriages.

Furthermore, legislation was adapted specifically to tackle the issue of human smuggling. For example, if a person is sentenced for migrant smuggling, his/her transportation permits cannot be renewed for three years and the vehicle used is seized by the Turkish authorities.18 Article 79 of the new Turkish Penal Code Law No: 5237, which was put into force in 2005, defines migrant smuggling and provides for penalties of three to eight years of imprisonment and 10,000 days judicial fines (i.e. a fine amounting to a daily rate multiplied by 10,000). If an act of human smuggling is proven to be part of organized crime, the penalty to be imposed is increased by 50%. Article 79 also provides for punitive measures (confiscation of assets, etc.) against legal entities involved in human smuggling.

Besides taking domestic legal measures, Turkey has also signed readmission agreements with source countries in order to prevent and balance out illegal migration. Such agreements have been signed with Syria, Kyrgyzstan, Romania, Ukraine and Greece; negotiations with Pakistan are still continuing. The European Commission has been pressuring Turkey to negotiate and conclude a readmission treaty with the EU.

In terms of international cooperation, Turkey became a member of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in 2004. Together they are working to combat human trafficking specifically, in addition to addressing migration issues in general. Moreover, in January 2006, Turkey assumed the Presidency of the Budapest Process, which is an unofficial forum for inter-governmental cooperation and dialogue involving fifty governments and ten international organizations. The forum aims to prevent irregular migration and establish sustainable mechanisms in the field of migration management.

Current Developments and Future Challenges

Based on projections, there are about 3.3 million Turkish nationals living outside the country, of whom approximately 2.7 million are in European countries (see Figure 2). This is a considerable increase from 770,000 in the mid 1970s.19 There are also some 100,000 Turkish workers in Arab countries, 60,000 immigrants in Australia, and over 75,000 workers in the CIS countries (see Figure 2). Furthermore, there are more than a quarter of a million Turkish migrants in Canada and the United States. Based on the figures provided by the OECD and Eurostat, there are also roughly 800,000 Turkish nationals who acquired the citizenship of their host countries between 1991 and 2005.

Today, Turks are the largest immigrant community in Europe. As such, they are becoming an easy target for anti-immigrant feelings and xenophobia. Many people fear the influx of additional immigrants from Turkey if the country becomes a member of the EU. This anxiety within the EU is exacerbated by the social and cultural problems that Turkish immigrants confront while integrating into their host societies. A large percentage of second and third-generation Turkish immigrants perform badly, particularly in the areas of education and employment. Yet, as stated earlier, there is an expanding Turkish immigrant civil society in Europe that addresses the integration problems of the Turkish communities in major European countries.20 Host countries themselves are also becoming more aware of the need to pursue policies supporting integration.

On the other hand, there are econometric studies suggesting that the number of Turkish citizens who would actually migrate to EU countries if Turkey became a member and full freedom of movement was allowed is much less than the general public fears.21 Besides, demographic research demonstrates that by the year 2025, the economically active stratum of the Turkish population (15-64 years of age) will begin to decrease in proportion to the rest of the population.22


  1. See Marcus (1985), Zolberg (1983).
  2. See Kirişci (1996, 2000).
  3. With the end of the Cold War, there were also migration flows into Turkey in the form of luggage-trade. For further information on this form of migration, see Yükseker (2003).
  4. Bahadır (1979).
  5. Kaiser (2007).
  6. Ibid.
  7. http://www.mfa.gov.tr
  8. See Kadirbeyoglu (2007, 2007b).
  9. See Kadirbeyoğlu (2007, 2007b).
  10. See Kaya (2005).
  11. See Abadan-Unat (2002).
  12. Kirişci (2001).
  13. See Kirişci (1996).
  14. The Road Transportation Law (2003) and the Road Transportation Regulation (2004).
  15. The number was cited by Abadan-Unat (2002: 48).
  16. See Erzan and Kirişci (2006); see also Kaya and Kentel (2005).
  17. See Erzan, et. al. (2006).
  18. See Behar (2006).

About the authors:
is the Director of the Migration
Research Program (MiReKoc) in the Department of International

E-mail: aicduygu@ku.edu.tr

Dr. Deniz Sert is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Migration

E-mail: dsert@ku.edu.tr


References and Further Reading

    • Turkish Studies 7(1): 33-44.

    • 7(1): 1-11.

    • Quarterly 15(4): 88-99.

    • Faist and A. Ette (Eds.): The Europeanization of National Immigration
      Policies. London: Palgrave MacMillan Publishers.

    • From Nationhood to Societal Integration. London: Ashgate

    • in the New Europe. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University

    • Citizenship and Minorities in EU Member Countries and
      Reality of Turkey]. Istanbul: TESEV Publications.

    • in a Global World. London and New York: Routledge.
    • Kaya, A. und Kentel, F. (2005): Euro-Türkler Türkiye ile Avrupa

      Turks a Bridge or an Obstacle Between Turkey and the European
      Union? A Comparative Study of German and French

    • 385-412.

    • an Improved Implementation of the 1951 Convention on the


Internet Sources

State Institutions


Research Centers and NGOs

Migration Research Group
Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.