Background information Capital: Ankara
Offical language: Turkish
783,562 km2
Population (2004):
Population density:
90 inhabitants per km2
Population growth (2000):
Labour force participation rate (2004)2:
Foreign-born population as a percentage of total (2004):
Unemploment rate:
10.6% (2004); 10.8% (2003); 10.6% (2002) (OECD)
Religions (1999): 99% Muslim (80% Sunni and 20% Alevi or other Shiite); 1% non-Muslim (64% Armenian, 18% Jewish, 2.5% Greek Orthodox, 12% Syrian Orthodox, 3.3% Other


Considering that an estimated 3 million Turkish nationals13 Turks from the territories of its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire.4

Historical Background

In order to gain a better understanding of Turkish migration policies, it is necessary to have a brief look at the political developments which occurred immediately before and after the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923. Towards the end of Ottoman rule in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the rise of nationalist movements changed the demographic face of the once multi-ethnic and multi-religious region tremendously. Starting with the Greek war of independence (1821-29), the Ottoman Empire began to collapse. At the eve of the First World War, its European domains had been reduced to Eastern Thrace and Istanbul, the outermost southeastern corner of the continent. The nation-building processes in the Balkans and Anatolia were accompanied by several consecutive waves of forced migration and ethnic cleansing. Generally speaking, the rise of nationalism resulted in a long-term exodus of Muslim communities from the Balkans to Anatolia as well as an exodus of Christian communities in the other direction.

The Balkan War of 1912/13, in which the Ottoman Empire was faced with a joint alliance of Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece, forced some 800,000 Muslims from their homelands in the Balkans towards Anatolia.56 fled western Anatolia. The Greek Orthodox communities in central Anatolia and along the eastern Black Sea coast initially remained.

Even after the long period of war was over7 and the new Republic of Turkey had been internationally recognised in the Lausanne Peace Treaty of 24 July 1923, migration movements between the Balkans and Anatolia continued. The Treaty of Lausanne included a joint agreement on a population exchange between Turkey and Greece, which led to the resettlement of an estimated 1.3 million ethnic Greeks from central Anatolia and the Black Sea region to Greece and some 400,000 to 500,000 ethnic Turks from Greece to Turkey.8 The criterion for classifying a person as Turkish or Greek was exclusively religious (i.e. Muslims were classified as Turks and Christians as Greeks), although small Turkish-speaking Christian communities and Greek-speaking Muslim communities existed as well. Only the Greek-Orthodox population of Istanbul and the Muslim population of Western Thrace were excluded from the agreement.

Since the Balkan states were eager to remove the Muslim minorities from their territories, and since Turkey wished to compensate for tremendous wartime population losses, migration from the Balkans to Turkey was further encouraged. When Turkey signed a number of treaties of friendship with its Balkan neighbours (Bulgaria in 1925, Greece in 1930, Romania in 1936 and Yugoslavia in 1950), they always included provisions on migration. This resulted in the arrival of several major waves of Balkan immigrants in Turkey.9



National Immigration Policy

    • the 1934 Law on Settlement (Law 2510)
    • the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees
    • the 1994 Regulation on Asylum.

The importance of these laws will be explained in the following paragraphs with regard to aspects of citizenship, refuge and asylum.



The recent adoption of EU legislative standards and the growing importance of Turkey as an immigration country have had a significant impact on the existing citizenship laws, particularly concerning the acquisition of citizenship upon marriage. According to previous provisions, a foreign woman who married a Turkish man was automatically entitled to acquire Turkish citizenship. Due to the increasing number of marriages of convenience, the provision has now become subject to a number of conditions. For example, foreign spouses are now eligible for naturalisation after three years of marriage.  With reference to gender equality, the right to acquire citizenship by way of marriage is now granted to foreign men as well.

Minority rights
12 Members of these communities are protected by the constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and worship. Ethnic and religious Muslim minority groups such as Kurds, Laz and Alevis also lack minority status; they are legally safeguarded by the principle of equality and non-discrimination as laid down under the 1982 Turkish Constitution.13

Refuge and Asylum

Until Turkey adopted the Geneva Convention on Refugees on 30 March 1962, Law 2510 (see above) provided the only legal basis for regulating the issue of asylum. Even the adoption of the Geneva Convention was deeply influenced by the culturalist spirit of Law 2510. Turkey accepted the international obligations concerning asylum procedures, recognition and protection of refugees, but inserted a geographical limitation which restricted admission to refugees from Europe. Although Turkey still maintains this geographical limitation, it put into place a system for dealing with non-European asylum applicants in response to refugee movements from the Middle East and some parts of Africa.

Non-European refugees and asylum seekers
Beginning with a significant wave of Iranian refugees following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, migration from the Balkans has been increasingly replaced by large-scale refugee movements from the Middle East and some parts of Africa. The number of Iranians seeking temporary refuge in Turkey at that time is hard to determine exactly. Estimates range from 500,000 to 1.5 million. A second and third wave of refugees emerged in 1988 and 1991 respectively, this time from neighbouring Iraq. In August 1988, Turkey opened its borders to more than 50,000 Kurdish refugees after Iraqi troops had launched a massive offensive against Kurdish fighters in Northern Iraq. At the beginning of the 1991 Gulf War, approximately 60,000 foreign workers fled Iraq via Turkey. In April 1991, some 700,000 to 850,000 Kurds gathered at the Turkish-Iraqi borders seeking shelter from attacks by the Iraqi army. The majority of Kurdish refugees left Turkey soon after a special safety zone had been declared in Northern Iraq, or after they had been given the possibility to resettle in a third country.14 Smaller refugee groups have been arriving from countries such as Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan since the early 1990s.

Foreign Population

Irregular Migration

15 In that year, the main countries of origin for those apprehended were Pakistan, Iraq, Moldova, Afghanistan, Somalia, Mauritania, Ukraine, the Russian Federation and Iran. While these figures may help in estimating the number of irregular migrants entering Turkey each year, it is unclear how many avoid apprehension. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), for example, has estimated that there are 200,000 transit migrants alone each year.1617

Human smuggling and trafficking

The Issue of Migration in Light of EU- Turkish Relations

The issue of migration has become central to EU-Turkish relations.19 Particularly in the run-up to the EU membership negotiations, which were formally opened on 3 October 2005, Turkey came under increasing pressure to reform its legislative system and control irregular migration flows. Three main issues need to be addressed by the Turkish government during the accession process:

    • developing asylum legislation
    • signing readmission agreements with third countries
    • lifting the geographical limitation to the 1951 Refugee Convention

Developing national asylum legislation that reflects international standards will involve taking legal as well as practical measures, such as establishing reception centres, creating protection mechanisms and developing a national integration programme. In light of the EU accession process, major reform efforts have been underway in Turkey, with a National Programme for Accession being introduced by the Turkish parliament in March 2001. This programme outlines measures that need to be taken in order to meet the so-called Copenhagen criteria for EU membership and to bring national legislation in line with the acquis communautaire.2021

    • In March 2003, Turkey ratified the Law on Work Permits for Foreigners (No. 4817), annulling Law No. 2007 of 1932. Under the new law, foreign citizens are now allowed to work as interpreters, guides, photographers, drivers and waiters, as well as in other jobs that used to be open to Turkish citizens only.
    • With regard to combating irregular migration, Turkey has reinforced its legislative framework by amending its national criminal code and ratifying the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organized Crime.
    • Turkey has adopted a number of directives and standards concerning the issues of family reunification and residence rights for third country nationals.
    • The Turkish government has begun negotiating readmission agreements with third countries. Agreements with Syria, Greece, Kyrgyzstan and Romania have already been signed.

A recommendation to lift the geographic limitation on the status of refugees is likely to be submitted to the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) in 2012. The government has also agreed to further intensify cooperation with UNHCR on the procedure of refugee status determination.

Future Challenges

22 the EU intends to place emphasis on developing a common EU policy on asylum, migration and border controls. Priority will be given to addressing irregular migration and trafficking in human beings. Continued efforts on the part of Turkey to align its national legislation with the acquis on migration and asylum may well represent an important step towards fulfilling its goal of full EU membership.23


  1. The Turkish Ministry of Labour and Social Security placed the number of Turkish passport holders in the EU (not including Ireland and Portugal) at 3,038,215 in December 2003. As pointed out in Fargues (2005), there are some concerns about the reliability of Turkish emigration data. This is also the case with statistics from receiving countries in the EU. These statistics often rely on different definitions, counting foreign nationals, persons born abroad, or a combination of both.
  2. The labour force participation rate is defined as the proportion of persons between the ages of 15-64 available for work (both those currently in work and those currently unemployed).
  3. The Balkan War of 1912/13 was followed closely by the First World War (1914- 1918) and the War of Liberation (1919-1922).
  4. It is important to note that many of those entering Turkey as refugees returned to their countries of origin shortly after the political situations there had calmed down. This applies to the most recent influxes from Bulgaria and Bosnia in particular.
  5. These numbers are based on estimations by the United Nations. See United Nations (2000).
  6. The Armenian Protestant and Catholic churches are exceptions, because they were seen as a part of the Armenian community.
  7. The principles of equality, non-discrimination and freedom of religious belief for all citizens are laid down in articles 10, 14, and 24 of the 1982 Turkish Constitution.
  8. All data appearing in this paragraph on the number of refugees are taken from Franz (1994).
  9. Sources: Bureau for Foreigners, Borders, and Asylum at the Directorate of General Security of the Ministry of Interior; Futo and Jandl (2005).
  10. See Futo and Jandl (2005).
  11. http://ec.europa.eu/.

  12. http://ec.europa.eu/justice_home/glossary/glossary_a_en.htm.
  13. See Council of Europe (2005) and European Commission (2005).
  14. See Council of the European Union (2005).
  15. http://ec.europa.eu/

About the Author:
Pierre Hecker
E-Mail: hecker@uni-leipzig.de

Statistical sources

References & further reading

    • Ay, K. et al. (eds.) (2005). Asylum and Migration Legislation. Turkish Ministry of the Interior & UNHCR Turkey. Ankara.
    • Journal of Turkish Weekly. Ankara.
    • Council of Europe,
    • Council of the European Union (2005). Operational Programme of the Council for 2006
    • Erzan,R., Kuzubaş, U. and Yıldız N. (2004).
    • European Commission (2003). National Programme for the Adoption of the Acquis (NPAA), Turkey. Brussels. 
    • European Commission (2004). . Brussels. 
    • European Commission (2005). Turkey 2005 Progress Report. Brussels.
    • Fargues, P. (ed.) (2005). Mediterranean Migration 2005 Report. Euro-Mediterranean Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration (CARIM). 
    • Franz, E. (1994). Population Policy in Turkey: Family Planning and Migration between 1960 and 1992. Hamburg.
    • Futo, P. and Jandl, M. (Eds.) (2005). 2004 Yearbook on Illegal Migration, Human Smuggling and Trafficking in Central and Eastern Europe: A Survey and Analysis of Border Management and Border Apprehension Data from 22 States. Vienna: International Centre for Migration Policy and Development.
    • Irregular Migration in Turkey. IOM Migraton Research Series No.12. Geneva. 
    • International Organization for Migration - IOM (1995). Transit Migration in Turkey. Geneva. 
    • Kirisci, K. (2000): Disaggregating Turkish Citizenship and Immigration Practices. Middle Eastern Studies 36 (3): 1-22.
    • Mannaert, C. (2003). Irregular Migration and Asylum in Turkey. New Issues in Refugee Research, Working Paper No. 89 (UNHCR). 
    • Martin, P. L. (1991). The Unfinished Story: Turkish Labour Migration to Western Europe. International Labour Office. Geneva.
    • United Nations (2000). General Assembly Interim Report by Abdelfattah Amor of 11 August 2000 on elimination of all forms of religious intolerance (A/55/280/Add.1).
    • United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees - UNHCR (2004). Country Operations Plan for Turkey, Planning Year: 2004. 
    • Greek and Turkish Refugees and Deportees 1912-1924. Turkology Update, Leiden Project Working Paper Archive, Leiden. 

Internet links

Migration Research Group
Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.