Migration from Turkey to the UK
16 May 2017
The long history of migration from Turkey to the UK has produced a sizeable diaspora population in the last four to five decades. Cypriots arrived even earlier, fleeing the troubled island in the Eastern Mediterranean, a movement which was facilitated by the colonial ties between the two countries, but many Turks and Kurds of the mainland did not even consider the UK as a destination in the 1960s and 1970s. Migration flows from mainland Turkey to the UK have been influenced by three key political events. Firstly, a sizeable group of Alevis arrived as refugees following the Maraş massacre in the late 1970s. Secondly, the 1980 military coup brought a subsequent wave of Turkish movers to the UK. And the third wave of movers from Turkey was the Kurds, mainly from south-eastern Turkey, who arrived mostly as asylum seekers in response to the protracted armed conflict between Turkish troops and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a conflict which also involved the forced displacement of local populations by the State in south-eastern Turkey. While the UK’s Turkish diaspora is not as large as those of other ethnic groups such as Indians, it has similar ethnic, religious and political fragmentation. My research traces both its composition as a group and the question of its ‘integration’ in the UK.
In line with the propositions of the conflict model of human mobility (Sirkeci and Cohen, 2016; Cohen and Sirkeci, 2011), Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Cypriots, Laz, Circassians, Zazas, Alevis, Sunnis, and others fled Turkey over the last six decades in order to avoid conflicts, overcome difficulties and barriers, and escape disagreements and tensions. Each group, as well as every individual within it, has a unique story of conflict. Some of these are latent tensions which were quietly left behind whereas others are explicit and persist in the diaspora. The tensions between the Turks and Kurds as well as Alevis and Sunnis are as alive in the UK as they are back in Turkey. While these distinct groups may look identical to a foreign eye they have their own communities, institutions and ways in which they integrate with the mainstream and other minority populations in Britain.
It is important for us to clarify our definition of the population we examine here. Choice of a name is always problematic but most apt is the term ‘Turkish-speaking community’, which refers to three major ethnic communities: Turkish-Cypriots, Turks, and Kurds from Turkey as well as some other minority groups such as Bulgarian or German citizens with Turkish ethnic origins. There are various analytical reasons to justify referring to this very diverse group of people as a ‘Turkish-speaking community’ (see Aksoy, 2006; Issa, 2005; Lytra and Baraç, 2009; King et al., 2008; Unutulmaz, 2014). Turkish is not the mother tongue for many of the individuals in this group, but it is spoken and understood by a vast majority of them. There are Kurds speaking Kurdish and Zazaki as well as many individuals from second and third generations who express themselves in English better than any other language. Nevertheless, the focus of our study is all those groups who are either migrants from Turkey (including the Turkish-controlled part of Cyprus) or their descendants. These groups share a geographical and, more importantly, political, cultural and socio-economic space in London and elsewhere in the UK. Thus, while not culturally or otherwise homogenous, they are engaged – if not totally integrated – with one another.
A controversial number
The number of Turks, Kurds and Turkish Cypriots in the UK is interestingly controversial. Many in the community believe that there are at least half a million. Some go further, arguing that Turkish Cypriots alone are equal to that figure, or that Alevis alone number several hundreds of thousands. Unlike large Turkish communities found in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and Switzerland, however, Turks, Kurds and Turkish Cypriots are relatively small minority groups in the UK. We believe the “half a million Turks” figure comes from a vague and careless comment quoted in a parliamentary commission hearing. We also understand the sentiments among the community leaders and members who simply want to make an impression, perhaps to claim political significance. Nevertheless, none of these figures is based on hard evidence and they lack credibility. Therefore, it is important to clarify what we know and what we do not know about the size, composition and spread of this particular migrant population. Despite unsubstantiated claims, the number of movers originating from Turkey and the Turkish part of Cyprus and their descendants born in the UK are estimated to be somewhere between 180,000 and 250,000 (Sirkeci and Esipova, 2013). This relatively small population has been part and parcel of a British–Turkish culture of migration. That is to say that now a two-way migration corridor is established between the two countries and increasing exposure to what is ‘Turkish’ has made Turkey a growing UK tourist destination and, moreover, a place where UK citizens have settled in their thousands. While not comparable to the size of the Turkish population in the UK, a significant number of UK citizens, especially retirees, have already settled in Turkey, particularly in south-western coastal areas.
Steady, slow growth of immigration to Europe established a migration culture
Migration to the UK has formed some part of Turkish out-migration in each of its five distinct periods of modern migration: 1) mass labour migrations in the 1960s and 1970s; 2) refugee migrations in the 1980s; 3) asylum-seeker flows through the 1990s; 4) irregular migration flows from the late 1980s onwards and 5) contemporary migration which has been more varied in composition and mechanisms since the 2000s. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that more than 5 million Turkish citizens are living outside Turkey, around 4 million of whom reside in Western Europe. Although this represents only 6% of Turkey’s population, it is a sizeable diaspora group in Europe. According to Turkish official statistics, the overwhelming majority of Turkish migrants and family members live in Germany (between 1,527,118 and 2,500,000), France (541,000), the Netherlands (384,000), Belgium (160,000), Switzerland (120,000), Austria (112,000), and the UK (180,000–250,000) (Sirkeci and Esipova, 2013), with smaller populations in Denmark and Sweden. These figures exclude former Turkish citizens who were naturalized in these countries.
In the 25 years since 1987, on average annually about 85,000 Turks moved to OECD countries while over 45,000 left them, and the number moving to OECD countries, per annum, declined to around 60,000 in the decade to 2013 (OECD, 2014). These steady moves created strong diaspora populations including over 1,969,979 Turkish citizens and 1,720,892 Turks naturalized in their countries of residence within the OECD area by the end of 2012 (OECD, 2014). Due to the changing economic balance between Turkey and destination countries and established culture of migration, however, some popular destination countries have become source countries, and we have also seen a sizeable number of Turks moving [back] to Turkey (Sirkeci and Zeyneloglu, 2014). Contemporary migration is following more of a pattern of mutual flows between Europe and Turkey, with Turkey also emerging as a key destination for those in relatively deprived countries outside Europe.
Given the political events which propelled migration from Turkey, we would expect the vast majority of the over 1 million asylum applications filed by Turkish citizens in the three decades following the 1980 coup (Sirkeci and Esipova, 2013) to have been by the Kurds and other minorities, including a sizeable group of left wing political affiliates. Overall, we expect political, ethnic and religious minorities from Turkey to be overrepresented among emigrants, a supposition which holds true for the UK too. The UK began requiring entry visas from Turkish citizens on 23 June 1989 which, unsurprisingly, has influenced the mechanisms of migration. Initially much larger numbers reported having applied for asylum and irregular migration increased dramatically in the following period. Subsequently, the historic case of Tum and Dari vs the UK paved the way since 2004 for a new category of Turkish immigrants whom we might refer to as the “Ankara Agreement movers”.
Where do Turkish migrants live in the UK?
The Turkish and Kurdish immigrants who arrived in the 1990s mostly settled in the northern boroughs of London, namely Enfield, Hackney, Haringey and Islington. According to the 2011 UK population census, the total number of residents born in Turkey was 93,916. Very small numbers who were born in Northern Cyprus (i.e. Turkish Cypriots) were reported in the 2011 census: only 3,026 residents in England and 11 in Wales, of which 2,497 were located in London. This overall figure supports the argument that despite hearsay and unfounded claims common in the migrant community as well as in some parts of academia, the total population of Turkish, Kurdish and Cypriot Turks including their later generations in the UK should not be beyond 250,000 (Sirkeci and Açık, 2015: 144).
The immigrant population born in Turkey constitutes only a fraction of the population in each of the countries of the UK, and never beyond a sixth of a percentage point. England is home to over 95% of the Turkish-born and, like nearly all other immigrant minorities, and despite differences between ethnic groups mentioned above, London unsurprisingly accommodates nearly 64% of those born in Turkey as well as overall Turkish- and Kurdish-speaking communities in the UK. 53% of Londoner Turks and Kurds live in inner London boroughs, with 23% of Turkey-born Londoners resident in Enfield, a north London borough where foreign-born individuals constitute 35% of the population. As one of the largest immigrant groups in this particular borough, they make up 4.5% of the total population and 25% of those foreign-born are originally from Turkey. Neighbouring counties such as Essex, Hertfordshire and Sussex host about a fourth of the Turkish-born and overall the population seems fairly dispersed, particularly the Kurdish population, which are present outside London to a greater degree than the Turks, who are predominantly in London. Sizeable communities of 500 or more also exist in larger cities such as Manchester, Glasgow, and Sheffield. During the late 1990s and in 2000s, many asylum seekers from Turkey were sent to remote parts of the UK as a result of an asylum dispersal policy. Many of those moved to London and surrounding areas later on, but many others settled in these areas to which they were sent. The nationwide spread of Turkish- and Kurdish-run takeaway shops and supply chains might also have contributed to this dispersal: at the most recent British Kebab Awards ceremony, it was mentioned that there are over 20,000 kebab shops/restaurants in the UK, although Companies House lists only about 2,100 businesses with the word “kebab” in their names (Sirkeci, 2016).
When second and third generations are also included, we expect these figures to increase further. However, it is worth looking at the size of the population born in Turkey as reported by the two previous censuses in 1991 and 2001, respectively, to avoid any exaggeration of the total number of Turkish-born and their descendants in the UK. According to the 1991 UK Census, in England and Wales, there were about 26,000 individuals born in Turkey. This number grew to 52,893 in the 2001 Census, of whom 39,128 were resident in London. In each inter-censal period (i.e. 1991 to 2001 and 2001 to 2011), therefore, the Turkish-born population has nearly doubled. This is a remarkable increase, which also coincided with high levels of asylum seeker flows from Turkey on both sides of the millennium. In the 2011 UK census, it should be noted, one novelty was the inclusion of open-ended (i.e. self-reported) responses about ethnicity. This allows us to engage with the data and understand the size and dispersal of Turkish- and Kurdish-speaking populations in the UK, giving us probably the most accurate about the size of the Turkish diaspora in the UK.
The future of Turkish immigration
For Turkey, the recent arrival of around 3 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees has of course shifted the paradigm. The steady slow growth of European immigration alongside efforts to control irregular migration were the basis for the new legal framework, but the arrival of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in such numbers has turned attention towards conflict and integration. It now finds itself at the forefront of accommodating large-scale inward mobility, which is also bringing greater attention to Turkey’s own diasporic populations as well as its migration history. Thus Turkey’s ambition to become a full member of the EU cannot be the only basis on which it builds its migration policy. Soon Turkey may need to revisit both its newly adopted Law on Foreigners and International Protection (4 April 2013) (See Eroglu, 2015) and the readmission agreement with the EU governing the treatment of unauthorised migrants originating from or transiting through Turkey.
Events which have unfolded in Turkey since 2011 – the Gezi protests, the 17–25 December 2013 operations, general and presidential elections, resurging conflicts between the state and the PKK, the failed military coup on 15 July 2016 and the purge that followed – have added more fuel to the fire. Thus, one should expect more immigration from Turkey to Britain in the near future. These flows may include some asylum-seeking movers but given the established culture of migration between the two countries, all types of movers arriving through various channels are more likely. While the post-coup purge is pushing out more intellectuals and academics, the Ankara Agreement (a Turkish businessperson visa) and educational opportunities are likely to be more frequently exploited by Turkish citizens in search of security.
Turkish citizens in industrialised countries between 1980 and 2011 made 1,033,000 asylum applications (Sirkeci and Esipova, 2013: 3); although the volume of asylum-seekers from Turkey has sharply decreased over the last decade, 41,224 asylum applications were lodged between 2010 and 2016, and according to UNHCR there has been an upsurge in the aftermath of the recent failed military coup and the purges that followed. The number of asylum applications by Turkish citizens filed in industrialised countries showed a threefold increase in July–August 2016 on the previous year, while the number of applications lodged in Germany alone have increased sixfold (Sirkeci, 2017). In addition, the numbers of Turkish students studying abroad, of whom some stay, grew from 37,000 in 2007 to 53,000 in 2012 (OECD, 2014).Variation in mover categories across countries can also be seen as a response to national legislation, as in the UK where, due to further restrictions on immigration, many Turkish citizens arrive with visas based on the Ankara Agreement (Sirkeci et al. 2016: 87–100), which provide special advantages while limiting settlement options. When considering Turkish migration and integration one must also, of course, take into account the 3 million Turkish movers who have returned to Turkey, including nearly 150,000 contract workers who moved largely to Arab countries and countries of the former Soviet Union in the 1970s. These flows are, however, relatively small in the rich variety of current migration flows from Turkey.
Migration from Turkey to the UK is set to increase due to an emerging culture of migration between the two countries which is evident both in increasing number of trips as well as growing diaspora populations in both countries, UK-born in Turkey and Turkey-born in the UK, respectively. Although the current political climate in Turkey is not making it attractive for immigrants, it is creating a strong environment of insecurity, which is the key driver for future migrations from Turkey to the UK. The more able and mobile groups, such as entrepreneurs and high-skilled movers may be more visible among those moving to the UK in the near future. As the number of Turkish citizens applying for asylum in OECD countries grow, the UK may also see some significant increase in the number of Turkish asylum applications. Asylum seekers’ movement is no different than other movement as people tend to target destination countries with established diaspora communities from the same countries of origin. The strong Turkish and Kurdish diaspora in the UK will be a magnet for new movers. Nevertheless, Turkey with its relative economic power would continue to attract movers from countries characterised by political and economic insecurities in the Middle East and beyond.
This is a modified extract from Sirkeci et al. (2016). For an extended version of this article see: Sirkeci, I., Bilecen, T., Costu, Y., Dedeoglu, S., Kesici, M.R., Seker, D., Tilbe, F., Unutulmaz, K.O. (2016). Little Turkey in Great Britain. London: Transnational Press London.
Listen to the author’s recent presentation in the IMI seminar series, ‘Integration of Brits in Turkey and Turks in Britain’
About the author
Professor Ibrahim Sirkeci is Chair in Transnational Studies and Director of Regent’s Centre for Transnational Studies at Regent’s University London. Before joining Regent’s in 2005, Prof Sirkeci worked at the University of Bristol. His research interests cover ethnic minorities, population movements, internal and international migration, remittances, integration, transnational marketing, and diaspora consumers. His new book Little Turkey in Great Britain (2016) is about contemporary movers originating from Turkey, their movement trajectories, experiences, practices, and integration in the UK.
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