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How Turkey Can Bring Its Brain Drain Back Home

Turkey heads to the polls next year as it faces its worst economic crisis in decades. Disillusioned by corruption, many young people have already left. However, Turkey's disaffected young expats are still very attached to their country, and could offer the best hope for a new future for the country.

Photo of people on a passenger ferry on the Bosphorus, with Istanbul in the background

Leaving Istanbul?

Bekir Ağırdır*


ISTANBUL — Turkey goes to the polls next June in crucial national elections. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is up against several serious challenges, as a dissatisfied electorate faces the worst economic crisis of his two-decade rule. The opposition is polling well, but the traditional media landscape is in the hands of the government and its supporters.

But against this backdrop, many, especially the young, are disillusioned with the country and its entire political system.

Young or old, people from every demographic, cultural group and class who worry about the future of Turkey are looking for something new. Relationships and dialogues between people from different political traditions and backgrounds are increasing. We all constantly feel the country's declining quality of life and worry about the prevalence of crime and lawlessness.

The question that most of us have is how to recover from the corruption and wreckage of the country's current landscape. How to reestablish our institutions and rules? And who can transcend political affiliation to do so? Where the energy will come from is a question for all of us, not just the politicians. It is also our responsibility.

The new drive will come from fresh perspectives — from the young, women, civil society. But our biggest strength is our intellectual capacity and collective reservoir of emotional intelligence.

Every election is a beginning

Professor Refet Gürkaynak from Bilkent University in Ankara had an interesting point in his presentation at this year's Brand Week Istanbul event. Gürkaynak said that each year the students become more qualified than the previous ones. I have often written about young people — about their hopelessness, despair, lack of dreams, lack of role models, their unhappiness. However, I have also observed the energy, excitement and successes of the young audiences of the event and heard about their worries, too.

Hundreds of youth attended the 11 sessions held under the sub-event called “Every election is a beginning”. They paid rapt attention. All of them were intensely curious about what they could and should do regarding the upcoming elections in Turkey next year. I once again saw that the greatest resource Turkey has is its youth.

This time the reasons are political.

The Turkish Statistical Institute has not published international migration statistics for two years. According to the last one in 2019, 84,863 Turkish citizens moved abroad and the largest group was people between 25 and 29 years of age.

We know that since 2019, there has been a considerable increase in the numbers of young people moving abroad in professions such as academia, engineering, software development and banking. While we do not have the exact numbers, Turkey is facing a very serious brain drain. We also see the people who are migrating are increasingly younger.

Brain drain to developed countries from countries like Turkey is old news; it has happened throughout history. However, this time the reasons are political. They are about losing faith in the future of the country and not able to see a place for themselves in that future.

Brain drain to brain power

The increase in students' qualifications that Gürkaynak mentioned may stem from the urge to migrate abroad. It may be only natural for university students to be more hardworking and ambitious if they want to move abroad and compete with their colleagues from developed countries. We know most of those who have moved abroad in recent years have successfully found employment in Western universities, financial institutions and other kind of companies. There is a solid Turkish presence in the London finance market and in NGOs, for instance.

Professor Ufuk Akçiğit from the University of Chicago gave a presentation called “Turning the Brain Drain into Brain Power” at the same event. It made clear that some Turkish migrants have become very successful, even becoming regional or global directors at their positions.

These people are connected to global information, efforts, debates and networks wherever they may be. They are improving their skills and qualifications with these new connections. If this is the situation with Turkey’s brain drain, maybe it is time to think about how we can use this for the country’s benefit.

People under a giant Turkish flag in IstanbulPeople under a giant Turkish flag in Istanbul

Lu Zhe/Xinhua/ZUMA

Hearts and minds are still with Turkey

Since we know that these people left the country because of politics and their worries about the future, we also know that they won’t be returning unless there is significant change in the political economic conditions of Turkey. However, the worries that triggered their migration also have hope for the country. Their hearts and minds are still with Turkey.

So, we can develop methods and ways to employ their improved skills and network connections for the benefit of the country. Every young person is aware that the future of Turkey and theirs are intertwined whether they plan to leave one day or not.

Turkey badly needs to hear a different vision for the future of the country.

The KONDA Research and Consultancy Company in Turkey found that 81% of young people do not claim membership to any political party nor do they intend to. The survey also showed that young people feel disconnected from civil society organizations, such as NGOs. But not because of a lack of trust in them. Rather, there's a negative perception of the Turkish state’s approach to NGOs and oppression of their members. The other reason for the youth to be wary of NGOs is “dysfunctionality.”

Young people are much more likely to be involved in politics online or in activist networks. Traditional politics – with its ideologies, political organizations, parties, leaders and hierarchy — are perceived totally differently by young people. Their understanding of politics is more flexible, agile and non-hierarchical routes within structures that enable participating.

The young people we see as “apolitical” through the lens of traditional politics may very well be more involved in political action than us. We may be unable to see their actions because they are not working for organizations with signs and a street address but disorganized local micro networks.

What the future holds 

Turkey badly needs to hear a different vision for the future of the country. This is needed not just by the youth or migrants but everyone — conservative or secular; Turk or Kurd; left or right.

Relationships between different political traditions and identities have been on the rise. These movements also do not necessarily wave signs or have street addresses. But they are attempts to build a new future for the country.

People from every group and class who worry about the future of Turkey looking for something. People who, at the very least, have realized that a future that does not include everyone is not possible.

These networks may be disregarded today because they do not act the same way as traditional organizations. They may seem like small ripples right now, but they could potentially turn into a wave that will change Turkey.

*Bekir Ağırdır is the General Director for KONDA.

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