Exodus: Turkey's Brain Drain

12 May 2017

By Heidi Kingstone

Byline Investigations

A sense of foreboding hangs over President Erdogan’s authoritarian Turkey for the young middle class who no longer consider it home.

With enough money to travel, fluent in English and raised in Ataturk’s pro-western, liberal, secular, nationalist legacy, the educated elite don’t recognise themselves in their country and find it difficult to watch as an Islamist vision further takes hold.

It’s a story I heard first-hand sitting at the dinner table of one of these ‘NO’ voters who began seriously planning their exit after last month’s referendum. I stayed with one such woman in Izmir recently, who was heading to Tanzania where Turks don’t require a visa. This has been an ongoing exodus since the failed coup attempt last July.

While in Turkey, I spoke to a man on Skype who had already made that journey, who asked not to be identified. He had literally packed his bags, left his family and gone to the airport within less than 24-hours. As a member of the Gulemist party, a religious and social movement led by Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen , he was on one of Erdogan’s notorious lists, which grows longer. He had been tipped off that they were coming for him and twenty-fours hours after he had left, the police arrived at his door. 

This new totalitarianism hallmark has frightened academics, civil servants, businessmen and liberals and many more ordinary Turks whose lives have been destroyed.

Erdogan’s government has managed to establish a climate of fear and suspicion, where anybody can be a “terrorist”, either by supporting Gülen or the PKK. If you criticise the government your job is at stake. A state of emergency has been in place since the failed coup in 2016 and the crackdown has forced tens of thousands from their jobs. About 47,000 people have already been arrested. In a recent purge the government suspended 9,103 police as well as 1127 employees from the Ministry of Justice and 487 academics.

The man in Zanzibar intended to reunite with his family and a few months later had bought his wife and children airplane tickets so they could join him. When they tried to get through customs officials confiscated their passports. They remain in Turkey while he lives in Tanzania.

Izmir is the last bastion of Ataturk’s CHP party, Republican People’s Party, and it comes as little surprise that Izmiris and their cousins in Istanbul and Ankara are worried. It’s a story that Turkish journalists aren’t at liberty to report. Turkey imprisoned more journalists than any other country in 2016.

If you are not from a religious and conservative family you don’t feel that the State can protect your interests anymore, on the contrary you see it as a threat, just as the government is considering you as a threat. With Erdogan getting more and more powerful, the country is losing its stability as its foreign policy is now closer to the Middle East than Europe.

Intellectuals fear that Turkey will end up like Syria.

In the not too distant past, people would stay and fight but with government intimidation, the crackdown on demonstrations, the arrest of journalists and academics, the closure of valuable sources of information, such as Wikipedia, there is a sense of hopelessness and negativity. The future they fear will be much darker. The Turkish lira has fallen, businesses have closed, tourism has plummeted. Turks have become distrustful of one another. Even the social bound, so important in the Turkish culture, has been harmed.

Parallels have been made to Germany in the 1930s when Hitler systematically wiped out his enemies and established a totalitarian state. In our last conversation, my Turkish friend told me that another friend with no connection to the Gulenists had been arrested. Dark times indeed for Turkey.