Turkey's secular brain drain

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Article Summary
Frustrated by the government’s authoritarian and Islamist pressures, well-educated secular Turks are increasingly looking for opportunities to settle abroad.

I had a lunch the other day with the former head of a prominent think tank in Washington. The first thing he asked was, “What’s going on in Turkey, for God’s sake? Experienced, senior people keep asking us for opportunities to work or move here.” I tried to explain the situation as far as I could. A wave of secular immigration from Turkey is a fact. Anxiety and frustration over Turkey’s course are prompting those who have the means to look for a future abroad. This is what they call “human capital flight.”

And what does this pretentious term mean? It means that your doctors, engineers, academics, or in short, the educated, are frustrated with the growing authoritarianism and chaos in the country and are looking for a future overseas, mostly by emigrating to foreign countries.

White-collar Turks employed in international companies are seeking out positions in the overseas offices of their companies. Those who have the financial means are looking for opportunities to buy a home or start a business abroad as a way to legally settle down there. Some are going to relatives based abroad, trying to join them there. Others are going abroad on temporary job contracts and then scrambling to get permanent positions. In the United States, the number of green card applications [by Turks] has significantly increased. Put simply, white-collar Turks are desperate and leaving. They are looking for a better future. They don’t want to raise their children in such a country.

Relevant research indicates that political instability and authoritarian rule lead people to lose trust in their government and state, to look for better future elsewhere and, in most cases, to immigrate to countries promising better prospects.

In today’s Turkey, one has no future without any organic connection to the governing party, or unless one acquiesces to the government or lavishes “gifts” on certain people. In other words, one cannot move up the ladder either in the private sector or public administration, lacking any chance of social mobility. The process is further exacerbated by the disarray in the education system. We see that even children who go to private schools with great sacrifices on behalf of parents are not given a proper education. Many of us are anxious about our children’s job prospects, their competing with international peers and building decent lives for themselves.

Turkey experienced human capital flights in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s before it saw a reverse brain drain in the 2007-2011 period when many expatriate Turks returned home, convinced that Turkey offered better prospects. This meant a significant gain of human capital. The damaging impact of the global crisis on Western economies was a major factor that contributed to the process.

Now we see this crucial human capital has again turned its direction overseas. The authoritarian tendencies, the corruption and the growing religious impositions on society over the past two years have scared off the human capital that Turkey so much needs. In previous years, the flights were driven mostly by economic and opportunity-related reasons, while today the motive is mostly ideological. The human capital flight is being further accelerated by the increased fanning of social polarization and alienation in recent years.

Despite the [positive] narrative they are shaping at home through tightly controlled media, the expectations for Turkey are negative. Why would otherwise qualified people abandon their homes, jobs and the established order to look for a future in alien lands?

Alarm bells are ringing for Turkey’s future. Worst of all, people are losing faith that change can be secured through normal political means. The secular exodus, so it seems, will inevitably continue.

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Found in: suppression of freedoms, turkey, state censorship, persecution, media freedom, islamization, brain drain
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