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Explaining the evolution of Turkey’s diaspora engagement policy: a holistic approach
This article provides a comprehensive framework to explain why Turkey has adopted a pro-
active diaspora agenda since the early 2000s. It shows that Turkey’s diaspora policy is the result
of an amalgamation of domestic, transnational, and international factors: Domestically, the
AKP’s rise to power resulted in drastic economic and political reforms and the promotion of a
new identity based on neo-Ottomanism and Sunni-Muslim nationalism. These developments
have transformed Turkey’s state-diaspora relations. The 2013 Gezi Park protests and the 2016
failed coup attempt also played a role. Transnationally, Turkish expatriates’ growing socio-
economic and political clout in their host countries, as evidenced by the mushrooming of
political parties founded by Turks in Europe, has urged Turkey to reconsider the efficacy of its
diaspora as a source of influence abroad as well as a noteworthy electorate in national elections.
Various international events have also shaped Turkey’s new diaspora agenda, including Turkey’s
increasing bargaining power vis-à-vis the EU since the early 2000s, particularly after the
European refugee crisis, and the rise of Islamophobia in the post-9/11 era. I suggest that
domestic factors have played the most significant role in shaping Turkey’s diaspora agenda. I
examine the domestic dimension both as an independent factor and also in relation to
transnational and international factors. The configuration of a new political elite has changed the
ways in which Turkey interacts with its transnational diaspora and perceives its international
position vis-à-vis European countries. The findings of the article draw on official statements and
documents, semi-structured in-depth interviews conducted with Turkish officials, the Euro-Turks
Barometer Survey, and news sources.
Keywords: Turkey, diaspora engagement policy, domestic, transnational, international
Origin states have always been interested in their diasporic communities; this is hardly rare or
new. Countries across the globe have long established institutions targeting their diasporas, some
of the oldest dating back to the nineteenth century. Today, over half of all United Nations
member states have at least one state institution at the ministerial or sub-ministerial level devoted
to the management of diaspora affairs (Gamlen 2014).
There are more than 6.5 million Turkish citizens living abroad. Approximately 5.5
million Turks live in Europe, rendering the Turkish diaspora the largest Muslim immigrant group
in the region (Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2020a). Yet Turkey has institutionalized its
diaspora policy only recently. This article questions Ankara’s relatively sudden interest in its
emigrants, given that a large number of people from Turkey have been living in Europe for over
four decades. It argues that a confluence of domestic, transnational, and international factors
need to be examined together in order to fully understand the metamorphosis of Turkey’s
diaspora engagement policy. I suggest that domestic factors have played the most significant role
in shaping Turkey’s diaspora agenda. I examine the domestic dimension both as an independent
factor and also in relation to transnational and international factors (Délano 2011). More
specifically, I show how the configuration of a new elite has changed the ways in which Turkey
interacts with its transnational diaspora, and defines and perceives its international position vis-à-
vis European countries.
Despite the plummeting remittances, which make up less than 0.2% of Turkey’s GDP
since the early 2000s (World Bank 2020), Turkey’s engagement with its expatriates entered a
new stage with the conservative Justice and Development Party’s (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi,
AKP) rise to power in 2002. In 2010, the Directorate for Turks Abroad and Related
Communities (YTB) came into existence as the first over-arching diaspora institution to
coordinate the Turkish government’s official activities geared towards overseas Turks. The
Union of International Democrats (UID), the Yunus Emre Institute, and the Office of Public
Diplomacy (the Directorate of Communications since 2018) are the other newly-founded Turkish
diaspora institutions. The UID organizes diaspora rallies and supports political lobbying
activities, the Yunus Emre Institute streamlines Turkey’s cultural diplomacy activities, and the
the Directorate of Communications works towards improving Turkey’s global image. In addition
to these institutions, Turkey also introduced external voting in 2014.
Turkey’s policies and institutions targeting its émigré community have attracted ample
scholarly attention (Ünver 2013; Aydın 2014; Öktem 2014). The growing scholarship on the
topic demonstrates that Turkey’s earlier policies aimed to encourage remittance transfers,
accelerate Turkey’s European Union (EU) harmonization process, and curb Islamist and Kurdish
political dissidence. Turkey’s post-2000 policies, however, focus on promoting a positive image
of Turkey; enhancing public diplomacy; and attracting diaspora votes. Turkey’s new diaspora
engagement strategy also seeks to fight other dissident groups, such as the Gülen Movement led
by the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is accused of plotting the 2016 coup
attempt; to utilize the Turkish diaspora as a lobby group abroad; and to protect the Turkish
immigrant community against racism and Islamophobia (Arkilic 2016a; Sahin-Mencutek and
Baser 2018; Yanaşmayan and Kaşlı 2019; Aksel 2019).
Turkey’s growing engagement with its diaspora has become visible on many occasions.
For example, between 2011 and 2020, the YTB has provided $17 billion to support over 1000
Turkish civil society organization projects in 70 countries (YTB 2020a). Moreover, since their
creation, the YTB and the UID have held many capacity-development, leadership, legal training,
and brain-storming meetings to deepen ties between Ankara and the Turkish diaspora
community. Pro-AKP diaspora rallies organized in large stadiums across Europe constitute
another important dimension of the Turkish state’s paternalistic diaspora policy. Most rally-goers
are followers of conservative-nationalist Turkish immigrant organizations, which also charter
buses and provide free meals to boost participation in these rallies. While capacity-development
programs and rallies have played a key role in empowering and increasing the visibility of
conservative immigrant organizations, Ankara’s selective diaspora engagement has marginalized
dissident voices within the diaspora (e.g. Alevi, Kurdish, secular, and Gülenist groups).
Additionally, Turkey’s bifurcated diaspora engagement policy has created tensions between the
AKP government and European countries, which argue that Ankara’s ‘long arm’ in the
transnational space is detrimental to the Turkish community’s integration prospects and acts a
tool of foreign intervention (Arkilic 2020).
Studies look at various factors to explain changes and continuities in Turkey’s diaspora
policy. In her seminal work, Østergaard-Nielsen (2003a) emphasizes international factors, such
as the acceleration of EU accession negotiations in the early 2000s that brought about more
active engagement with Euro-Turks. Meanwhile, Adamson (2019) highlights domestic factors,
including pluralization and the promotion of Sunni-Muslim nationalism and neo-Ottomanism, a
political ideology that suggests that Turkey should reassume a historic and critical role in the
world due to its Ottoman legacy and engage more with territories that once belonged to the
Other scholars focus on a combination of factors at two different levels to explain
Turkey’s initiatives in diaspora management. Mügge (2012), for example, underscores
transnational and domestic factors, such as immigrants’ length of stay in the host country and the
local political setting in the homeland and host states. Likewise, Aydın (2014) cautions that
Turkey’s new diaspora policy should be understood in the context of the emergence of a
transnational diaspora and the establishment of a new domestic elite that has adopted a new
discourse on Muslim national identity and redefined Turkish foreign policy based on neo-
Ottoman notions. Köşer-Akçapar and Aksel (2017) suggest that transnational (the
acknowledgment of permanent Turkish immigrant populations abroad) and international factors
(the re-orientation of Turkish foreign policy after the 2000s) explain Turkey’s new diaspora
framework better. Okyay (2015), on the other hand, points to a combination of domestic and
international factors, such as transformations in Turkey’s economic development model, Turkish
policy-makers’ conceptions of nationhood and narratives of nationalism, and the Turkish state’s
political-cultural self-positioning vis-à-vis the West and its non-Western neighborhood.
In her analysis of the evolution of Mexico’s diaspora engagement policies from the
nineteenth century to the present day, Délano (2011) offers a multi-level view that takes all three
dimensions into account. The present article follows this line of thinking and argues that a
holistic approach that combines domestic, transnational, and international factors would help
scholars in their efforts to place the novel aspects of Turkey’s post-2000 diaspora policy within a
historical and broader context.
Domestically, the AKP’s rise to power has resulted in drastic economic and political
reforms and the promotion of a new identity based on neo-Ottomanism and Sunni-Muslim
nationalism. These developments have transformed Turkey’s state-diaspora relations. The 2013
Gezi Park protests that started as an environmental movement and quickly evolved into
nationwide protests against the backdrop of the AKP’s democratic decay, and the 2016 aborted
coup attempt and its aftershocks also played a role. Transnationally, Turkish expatriates’
growing socio-economic and political clout in their host countries, as evidenced by the
emergence of political parties founded by Turks in Europe has urged Turkey to reconsider the
efficacy of its diaspora as a source of influence abroad as well as a noteworthy electorate in
national elections. Various international developments have also shaped Turkey’s new diaspora
agenda, including Turkey’s increasing bargaining power vis-à-vis the EU since the early 2000s,
particularly after the European refugee crisis, and the rise of Islamophobia in the post-9/11 era.
The findings of this study draw from multi-sited fieldwork conducted in France,
Germany, and Turkey between 2013 and 2019 and original data derived from semi-structured in-
depth elite interviews. I conducted 15 interviews with Turkish officials representing the AKP,
the Ministry for EU Affairs (the Directorate for EU Affairs since 2018), the Directorate of
Communications, the YTB, the Turkish Consulate and the Turkish Embassy in Paris and Berlin,
and Turkish origin politicians in France and Germany. Interviews were conducted in France and
Germany because Europe hosts the largest Turkish diaspora in the world and these two countries
are home to the highest number of Turks in Europe; an estimated 650,000 Turks live in France
(Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2020b) and 3.4 million in Germany (Turkish Ministry of
Foreign Affairs 2020c). The findings also draw from official statements and documents, the
Euro-Turks Barometer Survey, and Turkish and English news sources.
The article is structured as follows: First, I map the history of Turkish emigration to
Europe. Second, I present the theoretical underpinnings of this study. Next, the role of domestic,
transnational, and international factors in the evolution of Turkey’s diaspora agenda is addressed.
The article concludes with a discussion on what Turkey’s new diaspora policy means for Turks
abroad and European host countries.
The history of Turkish emigration to Europe
Large-scale Turkish emigration to Europe started with labour emigration facilitated by short-
term guest worker agreements in the aftermath of World War II. The first agreement was signed
with the Federal Republic of Germany in 1961, followed by accords with Austria (1964),
Belgium (1964), the Netherlands (1964), France (1965), Sweden (1967), Switzerland (1971),
Denmark (1973), and Norway (1981) (İçduygu 2009). Turkish authorities encouraged labour
emigration in order to remedy the country’s perennial unemployment problem and to boost
economic development through remittances.
The number of Turkish workers sent to Europe peaked in the 1970s. By the end of 1973,
the Turkish Employment Service had sent more than 780,000 workers to Western Europe, of
which around 80% settled in Germany. While a year later the international oil crisis brought an
end to official labour recruitment, European countries had already granted Turkish immigrants
permanent residence permits and the right to family reunification. This decision changed the
demographic make-up of Turkish immigration (Hecker 2006).
Emigration patterns from Turkey diversified further in the 1980s and 1990s as Turkey’s
economic and political instability worsened following the 1980 military coup. The escalation of
civil war between right-wing and left-wing factions, the outbreak of an armed conflict between
the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 1984, and atrocities targeting
Alevis in Sivas, Kahramanmaraş, Malatya, Çorum, and Istanbul between the late 1970s and
1990s triggered the departure of leftist, Kurdish, and Alevi asylum seekers from the country
(Hecker 2006; Sökefeld 2008; Arkilic and Gurcan 2020). The 1980s and 1990s also marked the
beginning of the outflow of low-skilled Turkish emigration to the Middle East, North Africa, and
former Soviet countries (İçduygu 2008) as well as an increased emigration of students and
highly-skilled workers to the United States, Canada, and Australia (Köşer-Akçapar 2006).
Particularly since 2011, Turkey’s socio-economic and democratic backsliding, the rise of
political Islam, the 2013 Gezi Park protests, and a staggering EU accession process have sparked
another wave of Turkish emigration, this time spearheaded by secular Turks, skilled emigrants,
students, sacked public employees, and signatories of the Academics for Peace declaration. The
number of Turks seeking asylum in Europe has skyrocketed since the 2016 coup attempt.
According to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in Germany, before 2016, Germany
used to receive 1,800 asylum applications from Turkish citizens per year on average. In 2016,
this number rose to 5,742 and to 11,423 in 2019 (Duvar 2019). As a result of these
developments, the already heterogeneous Turkish diasporic space has become even more
divided. The table presented below details the presence of the Turkish community in major
Table 1: Turkish Immigrant Population in Major European Countries
Country Turkish Population in Numbers and Percentage
Germany 3,400,000 (4.1%)
France 650,000 (0.9%)
Netherlands 410,000 (2.4%)
Austria 300,000 (3.4%)
United Kingdom 250,000 (0.3%)
Belgium 220,000 (1.9%)
Switzerland 120,000 (1.4%)
Denmark 70,000 (1.2%)
Sweden 60,000 (0.6%)
Norway 16,000 (0.3%)
Finland 13,000 (0.2%)
Sources: Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2020b-2020i), Kamer (2020), and Erdoğan (2013)
Engaging diasporas: insights from diaspora, transnationalism, and citizenship studies
Early discussions of diasporas mostly focused on Greek, Jewish, and Armenian groups. While
these cases were often referred to as ‘catastrophic’ or ‘victim’ diasporas, the conceptualization of
the term has diversified with the labelling of Chinese, Indian, and Lebanese expatriate
communities as ‘trading’ diasporas, particularly since the 1950s. Over time, labour emigrants
have also been called ‘diaspora’ (Sheffer 2003). As Brah (1996) points out, diasporic journeys
are not temporary sojourns; their goal is to settle down and to put roots ‘elsewhere.’ In doing so,
these journeys upend traditional understandings of ‘home’ and ‘nativism,’ and create contested
spaces for immigrants and natives, ‘reaching naturally for the messy territory of the
multicultural’ (Hall 2012, 30).
While the term ‘diaspora’ is used to describe a community, ‘transnationalism’ refers to
processes that transcend international borders (Bauböck and Faist 2010). More specifically,
Vertovec (1999, 149) defines transnationalism as ‘the multiple ties and interactions linking
people or institutions across the borders of nation-states.’ ‘Mobility’ and ‘locality’ are concepts
that are at the heart of transnationalism. According to Dahinden (2010, 51), transnational
formations are an outcome of a combination of ‘mobility,’ which is ‘the physical movement of
people in transnational space,’ and ‘locality,’ which means ‘being rooted or anchored—socially,
economically or politically—in the country of immigration and/or in the sending country.’
Diaspora narrative thus ‘reflects a sense of being part of an ongoing transnational network that
includes dispersed people who retain a sense of their uniqueness and an interest in their
homeland’ (Shuval 2000, 43).
Diasporic identities are affected by the policies or the ‘political opportunity structures’ of
both home and host states (Totoricaguena 2007) and diasporas can develop multiple loyalties and
attachments to places. In her study of the Lebanese diaspora, Abdelhady (2006) demonstrates
that Lebanese define home both locally and globally as they remain in touch with their
homeland, host states, local diasporic community, and even co-nationals across the world. They
remain equally interested in local issues unique to them and in global issues that go beyond their
ethnic or national identities (Brettell 2006, 332). Globalization and technological advances have
made these interactions easier by rendering national boundaries more permeable and by
necessitating a reassessment of citizenship, diasporic identity, and diasporic enclaves (Safran
2007; Laguerre 2009).
Scholars have coined other terms to explain migrants’ complex relations with their
countries of origin. ‘State-led transnationalism’ (Margheritis 2007; Gamlen 2014) or ‘state-led
long-distance nationalism,’ refers to the concept of a territorial homeland governed by a state
that claims to be acting in the name of the nation, and ideas of common history, descent, blood,
and race to seek membership in the transnational state (Glick-Schiller 2005). In this sense, long-
distance nationalism is a transnational practice as it ‘binds together immigrants, their
descendants, and those who have remained in their homeland into a single transborder citizenry
… and view[s] emigrants and their descendants as part of the nation, whatever legal citizenship
the émigrés may have’ (Glick-Schiller and Fouron, 2001, 20).
Scholars have written extensively on why sending states engage their diasporas. Koinova
and Tsourapas (2018), for example, draw attention to utilitarian, identity-based, and governance
explanations. According to the utilitarian view, diasporas are seen as material assets that serve as
resources for the sending country in terms of remittances, a safety valve against unemployment,
and entrepreneurs with technical and financial expertise (Brinkerhoff 2008; Escriba-Folch et al.
2015). They are also considered a political force to lobby foreign countries and international
organizations in favour of the sending states (Østergaard-Nielsen 2003a; Shain and Barth 2003).
In contrast, the identity-based school views diasporas as sources of symbolic power through
which origin states enhance emigrants’ links to the homeland and foster citizenship by
subverting territorial understandings of state sovereignty, borders, and belonging (Collyer 2013;
Gamlen et al. 2019). According to this approach, diaspora engagement policies serve as a tool of
long-distance nationalism exercised by the sending states (Mylonas 2012). Finally, the
governance-oriented view suggests that sending states engage their diasporas through bilateral
treaties and cooperation with international actors, which bring together state and non-state actors
to manage international migration (Hollifield 2012).
Another branch of the literature delves into various explanatory factors at the domestic,
transnational, and international levels. At the domestic level, regime type, political climate, and
the capacity of the origin state (Mügge 2012; Glasius 2017; Koinova and Tsourapas 2018) are
said to determine the type of links sending states establish with their diasporas, in addition to
ideological factors, such as elite conceptions of nationhood and narratives on nationalism or
populism (Mügge 2013; Han 2019).
At the transnational level, characteristics of the diaspora community—such as size,
organizational capacity, rising or decreasing levels of political activism, length of stay in the host
country, and growing influence in the host country—may trigger ruptures in the diaspora
outreach policies of origin countries (Délano 2011; Mügge 2012). In a similar vein, origin states
may develop differential diaspora policies if they believe certain émigré communities will be
more effective in serving the interests of the homeland than others (Tsourapas 2015; Koinova
and Tsourapas 2018).
At the international level, the diaspora engagement policies of sending states may be
influenced by their geopolitical position, economic and political relationship with host states,
perceptions regarding the possibilities and limits of their actions within the global power
structure, and the global proliferation of diaspora engagement policies (Østergaard-Nielsen
2003a; Shain and Barth 2003; Délano 2011). Studies suggest that host states’ political climate as
well as citizenship and integration policies, the role of international or regional organizations,
and specific international norms may also influence state-diaspora relations (Brand 2006). The
following section will apply this multi-level framework to the Turkish case.
A new actor takes the stage: the AKP’s transformation of domestic politics
The ways in which Turkish policy-makers see the Turkish diaspora have changed drastically
over time. In the 1960s and 1970s, Turkish bureaucrats had an unfavourable perception of
Turkish emigrants, considering them uncultivated ‘peasants’ or ‘remittance machines.’ Since
they believed that guest workers would be temporary residents, Turkey’s diaspora policies
promoted emigration for employment and remittance inflows into the country in that time period
Over the 1980s and 1990s, Turkish officials became more concerned with containing
dissident group activities. The military government in power (1980–1983) characterized diaspora
organizations as ‘pro-state’ and ‘anti-state’ groups. Secular organizations were seen as ‘allies’
because they imported the Turkish state’s nationalist discourse to the transnational space,
whereas Alevi, Kurdish, and leftist groups were considered ‘enemies’ and placed under constant
state surveillance (Şenay 2013). In this period there was also a clear distinction between
‘official’ Islam, represented by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and its branches in
Europe, and ‘parallel’ Islamic groups, such as the Millî Görüş. Accordingly, the Turkish
government regarded Islamic organizations other than Diyanet-linked ones as foes (Akgönül
2005; Arkilic 2015).
Although earlier Turkish governments had been somewhat engaged with overseas Turks
from the 1980s onwards, they failed to form robust relations with the diaspora until the early
2000s. This was due to various reasons, including Turkey’s unstable economic atmosphere
stymied by a series of recessions, the escalating war with Kurdish separatists in the 1990s that
put a heavy financial burden on the country, bouts of military rule, and a succession of short-
lived coalition governments.
Forging a more formal diaspora engagement policy from the early 2000s onwards
coincided with the configuration of a new political elite that splintered from the reformist wing
of the Millî Görüş. In the 2002 parliamentarian elections, the AKP opened a new chapter in
Turkish politics by becoming the first party in 11 years to win an outright parliamentary
majority. During the first two terms of his reign, the party’s leader and incumbent President
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promoted a new party identity premised on democratic, liberal, and
pluralistic values, and an open-market economy.
In the earlier years of the AKP rule, Turkey’s economy thrived, with an average annual
growth rate of 7.5%, making it one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. The AKP’s
export-oriented policy boosted Turkish exports from $36 billion in 2002 to $132 billion only six
years later (Kösebalaban 2011). A strict privatization and recovery program under the auspices
of the World Bank and the IMF enabled the country to lower its inflation and to attract
unprecedented foreign direct investment. Turkey’s GDP per capita income rose from $2,800 in
2001 to $10,000 in 2011, and the unemployment rate, inflation rate, and budget deficit had all
reached record lows by 2012 (Taşpınar 2012). As the Turkish economy improved and Anatolia-
based conservative businesses gained more prominence in the economy and opened up to the
global market, the AKP government began to form stronger relations with Turks abroad. An
official from the YTB argued that the development of a pro-active diaspora agenda was closely
linked to ‘the AKP government’s strong political will’ and ‘Turkey’s growing economic and
political power and visibility in the region.’1 An AKP deputy agreed that Turkey’s diaspora
policy began to institutionalize at a time when Turkey gained political and economic confidence
In addition to serving as the vanguard of economic liberalization and an expansion-
oriented development model, the AKP’s initial commitment to bringing the country closer to the
EU led the government to pass an array of constitutional and judicial reforms in the mid-2000s
(Müftüler-Bac 2005). As these reforms went into effect, AKP officials opted for the term
‘diaspora’ to refer to the Turkish émigré population for the first time. Given that ‘diaspora’ had
previously referred to former non-Muslim ethnic groups of the Ottoman Empire, this was a
surprising shift. These bureaucrats suggested that anyone who originated from Anatolia,
regardless of religious or ethnic background, should be considered part of the Turkish diaspora
As Adamson (2019) argues, in this period, the AKP also empowered formerly
stigmatized Islamist groups, such as the Millî Görüş and the Gülen Movement by creating a
‘more vibrant civil society in which religious expression and religious organizations became
more prominent.’ The rapprochement between the AKP and such Islamic groups influenced the
Turkish transnational space significantly. This process of reconciliation culminated in increased
cooperation between Turkish institutions and conservative immigrant organizations (Bruce 2019;
Another significant domestic change that transformed state-diaspora relations is the
replacement of secularist tones in the Kemalist conception of nationhood with a Sunni-Islamic
narrative and the introduction of a neo-Ottoman foreign policy agenda between 2009 and 2014
(İçduygu and Aksel 2013; Okyay 2015). Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s then Minister of Foreign
Affairs and architect of this agenda, argued that Turkey should not remain a ‘peripheral’ power
that merely follows the order of superpower allies, but turn into a ‘central superpower’ with
multiple regional identities (Davutoğlu 2009). The AKP elite’s conception of a new Turkey
based on the Ottoman imperial dream of becoming ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ (Yavuz 2006) has
reinforced ties with Turks abroad as well as with kin and relative communities.
However, Turkey’s diaspora engagement policies have been highly ‘selective’ in the
sense that they tend to favour Sunni Islamic groups (Öktem 2014; Yanaşmayan and Kaşlı 2019).
The Gezi Park demonstrations deepened tensions between the AKP and anti-AKP diaspora
groups. Police violence aimed at Gezi protestors caused outrage in the transnational space and
motivated many immigrant organizations, such as the Federation of Alevi Unions in Germany
(AABF), to organize large-scale anti-government demonstrations in various European cities
Since 2015, particularly after the 2017 constitutional referendum that replaced Turkey’s
parliamentary system with presidentialism, the AKP has succumbed to democratic backsliding.
As Esen and Gümüsçü (2015) note, with Turkey’s transition into competitive authoritarianism,
civil liberties have systematically been truncated, a strong one-man rule with unchecked powers
has become dominant, and the pluralization reforms have failed. The AKP’s ‘Sunnification’
process in domestic and foreign policy that projects Turkey as a homogenously Sunni Muslim
state and subdues expressions of minority identity (Lord 2019; Okcuoglu 2019) has aggravated
relations between the Turkish state and Alevi, Kurdish, and secular groups.
The post-2013 collapse of the AKP’s partnership with the Gülen Movement following
their disagreement on which camp would attain more power resulted in a brutal fight that led to
the 2016 failed coup (Taş 2017). Accordingly, the AKP’s relations with Gülen-affiliated diaspora
members and organizations have soured, rendering Gülenists in Europe the main enemy of the
state. In the wake of the post-coup purge, Turkey has urged European policy-makers to shut
down Gülen-linked institutions and to arrest or extradite Gülenists to Turkey, which has become
an alarming source of tension between Turkey and European states (Arkilic 2020).
Turkey has also been going through an economic slowdown in recent years, which
reached its peak in 2018 when Turkish lira lost value by 18%. This was the highest single-day
drop of the Turkish lira since the devaluation of the currency in 2001. After the crisis, Turkey’s
excessive current account deficit and foreign currency debt rose by 5.8% of the GDP and $457
billion, respectively (Arbaa and Varon 2019). Turkey’s financial instability is likely to have
negative consequences for its ambitious diaspora engagement policy.
From guest workers to citizens: turning to transnational factors
Turkish immigrants’ permanent settlement in their host countries started with family
reunifications in the mid-1970s and has gained momentum since the late 1990s (Kaya 2007).
Despite establishing local associations and owning homes and businesses in their new
destinations, most Turkish immigrants continued to retain strong ties to Turkey (Østergaard-
Nielsen 2003b). A 1996 study with Turkish immigrant organization leaders in Germany revealed
that 29 of the 31 leaders interviewed had been born in Turkey. According to another survey
carried out in that period, 86.6% of German Turks reported that they only read newspapers in
their native language (Ögelman 2003). A similar study from 2003 found that ‘about one-third of
Turkish migrants speak mostly their country of origin’s language at home’ and that ‘only slightly
more than 40% of all Turkish migrants have German friends (Diehl and Blohm 2003).
The 2013 Euro-Turks Barometer Survey (Erdoğan 2013) showed that this is no longer the
case: 57% of Turks have been living in Europe for over 21 years and 91% were either born in
European countries or have been living in Europe for more than 11 years. Moreover, 82.5%
believe that they are highly integrated into the society in which they live and 60% see themselves
as people with multiple identities. For example, in Germany, 77.4% of the people with a Turkish
background reported that they were determined to stay in Germany permanently.
Permanent settlement has affected Turks in Europe in various ways. Turkish businesses
have thrived over the last two decades, expanding their economic activities and going beyond the
food and service industries. As of 2015, there were 140,000 businesses established by Turks
across Europe. These enterprises employed 640,000 people and their total annual revenue
exceeded $70 billion (Arkilic 2016b). It is expected that there will be 200,000 Turkish
entrepreneurs in Europe by 2023, providing jobs to more than one million people (Kaçar 2012).
In Germany, there were over 60,000 Turkish businesses in the mid-2000s, employing
approximately 420,000 workers (Kaya 2007). Today there are about 80,000 Turkish-German
businesses, providing jobs to 500,000 people (Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2020c). In
addition, studies document that Euro-Turks’ educational attainment has improved significantly
(Erzan and Kirişçi 2008; Türkmen 2019). A Turkish origin German parliamentarian told me that
within the last ten years the number of Turkish origin university students in Germany has
doubled.3 In parallel to the Turkish émigré population’s improving social standing, Ankara has
begun to see its expatriates not only as a socio-economic but also as a political power lobby, as
officials from the Turkish Consulate in Paris and the YTB pointed out.4
Politically, the Turkish community has gradually attained a stronger position in Europe
through increased naturalization rates. Almost half of the people of Turkish origin living in
Europe had citizenship of their country of settlement as of 2013 (Erdoğan 2013). Of the 4.6
million holders of Turkish citizenship recorded by Turkish consular services in Europe, 461,407
of them gained citizenship of their host countries between 2005 and 2014 (Bel Air 2016). In
2016 alone, 32,800 Turks in Europe became a citizen of an EU country (half were granted
German citizenship, followed by French citizenship), making the community the largest group to
acquire EU citizenship after Moroccans, Albanians, Indians, and Pakistanis (Zanfrini 2018).
More specifically, Ersanilli and Koopmans (2010) show that over the course of the
1990s, the naturalization rate of Turks in Germany increased from 0.1% in 1990 to 4% in 2000.
The naturalization rate of French Turks points to a similar trend, climbing from 0.6% in 1990 to
5.9% in 2000. The German case is particularly interesting. A change in Germany’s citizenship
law in 2000 doubled the number of ethnic Turks with the right to vote over the past decade,
increasing their importance as a voter bloc (Escritt 2017). As of 2015, 42% of Turks in Germany
held German citizenship (Bel Air 2016). A recent report published by the German Statistics
Institute notes that among all immigrant groups, Turks have become German citizens in greatest
numbers (Barfield 2014).
Turks in Europe have also increasingly begun to participate in local and national politics
since the 2000s. In the 2008 French local elections, 200 Turkish origin French citizens ran in
municipal assembly and vice-mayoral races, and 107 were elected as councillors. Given that only
four Turks had been elected to local councils in the 2001 local elections, this was an unexpected
and important political development (Hürriyet 2014; Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2020b).
An official from the Turkish Consulate in Paris pointed out that there are approximately 200
Turkish origin councillors in France at present.5
Turks in Germany have also become important players in host state politics. In 1994,
Leyla Onur and Cem Özdemir, the co-chair of the Green Party between 2008 and 2018, entered
the German Federal Parliament Bundestag. This was followed by the election of other
parliamentarians of Turkish descent in subsequent elections, such as Ekin Deligöz, Lale Akgün,
and Hakkı Keskin. In 2009, Aydan Özoğuz became the first German Turk to serve as a minister.
In the 2013 German federal elections, the number of Bundestag deputies of Turkish origin rose
from five to 11. The elected deputies represented mainly left-wing parties, including the Social
Democratic Party, the Greens, and the Left Party. In the same elections, Cemile Yusuf became
the first Turkish origin parliamentarian on the Christian Democratic Union ranks (Hürriyet Daily
News 2013). In 2017, of the 92 Turkish origin candidates running in the election, 14 were elected
to the Bundestag (Hürriyet Daily News 2017). Some of these politicians have openly criticized
AKP policies. For example, when Cem Özdemir and Aydan Özoğuz supported the 2016 German
parliamentary motion that recognized the 1915 mass killings of Ottoman Armenians as
‘genocide,’ President Erdoğan argued that they are traitors whose ‘blood should be examined in
a laboratory.’ In response to the insults they received from the Turkish community at home and
abroad, Özoğuz noted that ‘Turkey should understand that we are not an extension of Turkey’
and Özdemir expressed his worries regarding threats targeting him (Deutsche Welle 2016).
However, there are many Turkish origin politicians in Europe that have helped Ankara to
connect with the Turkish diaspora and asked for the diaspora’s support for Turkish elections. For
example, Mehmet Kaplan, a Turkish-born Green Party politician, who had become Sweden’s
Minister of Housing in 2014, was forced to resign in 2016 as he was openly campaigning for the
AKP in Europe (Cornell 2017). Other Turkish origin politicians, such as a Green Party deputy in
Germany6 and two local councillors in France7 also argued that the AKP’s growing sphere of
influence over the Turkish diaspora is a positive development that came too late and that external
voting is a right that needs to be exercised by the diaspora. All in all, the growing political role
Turkish origin expatriates play in host state politics has encouraged the Turkish state to tap into
the diaspora’s potential and harness them as a political asset. As Aydın (2014, 16) concludes,
‘the Turkish government is aware of the importance of this political representation and regards it
as a political lever for exerting favourable influence on the relationship of Turkey to the EU.’
Turks in Europe have even formed political parties over the last two decades. The
Alliance for Innovation and Justice Party, a local party established in Cologne in the early 2000s
achieved visibility in the German political scene in the mid-2000s. The party’s first major
success came in 2009 when it secured two seats in Bonn’s local council. The party won 17,000
votes in the 2013 German federal elections, becoming the first ‘immigrant political party’ to
compete in national elections (Arkilic 2013). The Alliance of German Democrats, another party
established by German Turks in 2016, made its debut in the 2017 North Rein-Westphalia state
elections. Even though the party is polling below 1% nationally and needs a 5% threshold to win
seats, it has the potential to affect Germany’s political dynamics in the future (Escritt 2017).
Other European countries have experienced a similar phenomenon. The Equality and
Justice Party, the first party established by French Turks, participated in the 2015 Provincial
General Assembly elections; however, it was eliminated in the first round. That said, only two
months after its establishment, it garnered the support of thousands of people in four cities and
ten cantons across France (Anadolu Ajansı 2016). Turkish origin citizens also formed DENK in
the Netherlands in 2015 and the New Movement for the Future Party in Austria in 2017, two
other ethnic Turkish parties vying for votes (Daily Sabah 2018).
Euro-Turks’ voting potential in Turkish elections is another reason why Turkey has
shown a considerable interest in its diaspora in recent years. Germany is the fourth largest
constituency after Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir: 1.5 million German Turks are eligible to cast
their ballot in Turkish elections (Yener-Roderburg 2020). Due to their large number, overseas
Turks form a significant constituency and their voting preferences play a decisive role in tight
electoral races. For example, in the 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum that resulted in the
victory of the ‘yes’ camp by a small margin (51.18%), the Turkish diaspora played a critical role.
Of the eligible 2,972,676 overseas voters, 1,325,682 cast a vote in the referendum at polling
stations set up in select countries. The referendum results showcased Turkish expatriates’ high
level of support for the AKP and Erdoğan. The diaspora’s support for the referendum (59.46%)
was even higher than the domestic electorate’s (Supreme Electoral Council 2017). Compared to
Turks living in other parts of the world, Turkish expatriates in Europe showed strikingly higher
support for the referendum. The support was particularly high in countries, such as Germany,
France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Austria, where Turks form a large and visible immigrant
group and suffer from discrimination and exclusion. In Germany, 63.07% of Turkish origin
voters cast a yes vote. French Turks were as supportive of the referendum as German Turks:
64.85% of them voted yes. In Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands, support levels were even
higher than those in Germany and France: 74.99% of Belgian Turks, 73.24% of Austrian Turks,
and 70.94% of Dutch Turks supported the proposed amendments (Arkilic 2021).
Turkey’s augmented bargaining power: changing international dynamics
Turkey’s inability to craft a coherent diaspora policy until the 2000s was also a result of
Turkey’s position at the weaker end of the asymmetric relationship with Europe, until Turkey
was recognized as a candidate for full EU membership at the 1999 Helsinki Summit (Østergaard-
Nielsen 2003a). After the Helsinki Summit, Turkey enjoyed a more balanced set of conditions
and incentives vis-à-vis the EU. As Turkish officials suggested, once full accession negotiations
began at the 2005 Luxembourg Summit, Turkey’s negotiation position grew stronger.8
The 2007 global economic recession and the 2009 Eurozone crisis further changed the
AKP’s perceptions of its power in relation to the EU. While Europe was coping with financial
stress around that time, Turkey paid off its remaining debt to the IMF and witnessed a dramatic
increase in foreign investment (Dombey 2014). Amidst spiralling economic turmoil, Turkish
officials from the Directorate for EU Affairs began to depict Europe as a conflict-ridden region
with stagnant economies and Turkey as a powerful country.9 The words of another Turkish
bureaucrat also reflect this perceptional change: ‘[I]n the past, Turkish officials’ meetings with
European bureaucrats would start by responding to criticisms directed at Turkey. Today, we raise
questions and we criticize the EU.’10 In a similar vein, at a diaspora rally in Germany in 2014,
President Erdoğan warned that ‘[f]or decades, our [Turkish] identity, values, and beliefs have
been insulted … Today’s Turkey is different.’11
Turkish officials suggest that Turkey’s leverage vis-à-vis the EU is amplified after the
outbreak of the 2013 Syrian refugee crisis.12 Over one million refugees arrived in Europe by sea
in 2015. Of these, 800,000 came via the Aegean Sea from Turkey into Greece, accounting for
80% of the people entering Europe irregularly (Clayton and Holland 2015). In March 2016, the
EU struck a deal with Turkey to stem the flow of refugees arriving in Europe, according to which
the EU would pay Turkey €6 billion to block the migration route and monitor smugglers. The
EU also agreed to introduce visa liberalization for Turkish citizens. Thanks to the deal, the total
number of illegal border crossings into the EU dropped to 204,700 by 2017, the lowest since the
outbreak of the Syrian war (European Parliament 2017). Since Turkey hosts the largest refugee
population in the world with over three million, the deal has turned into a bargaining tool for
Turkey (Kaya 2019). In November 2016, when the European Parliament suspended EU
membership talks with Turkey, Erdoğan threatened to cancel the agreement: ‘If you go any
further, these border gates will be opened. Neither me nor my people will be affected by these
dry threats,’ he said (Adamson and Tsourapas 2019, 121).
The 2016 refugee deal serves Turkey’s economic and political interests. Yet since the
forging of the deal, Turkey’s relationship with the EU has become more adversarial as the AKP
‘attempted to leverage Europe’s interest in stemming migration’ to secure benefits (Greenhill
2016; Adamson and Tsourapas 2019, 124). Moreover, an evidence-based assessment of the deal
shows that the agreement has not provided any long-term solution since, despite all the measures
taken, refugee inflows into the Greek islands did not stop. What is more, Turkey is not a safe
third country and the deal urged individuals to take greater risks to bypass border controls,
thereby giving more power to human traffickers (van Liempt et al. 2017). The deal did not fully
commit to the EU’s acquis nor comply with international asylum conventions either. Even its
legality was called into question given that the deal was bilaterally signed by individual EU
states and Turkey rather than by an EU institution (Paçacı-Elitok 2019). Even though the deal is
still in place, Turkey has repeatedly threatened to terminate the agreement on the basis that the
EU has not paid the stipulated amount and seems reluctant to grant visa freedom to Turks.
Diaspora rallies organized on European soil have become another source of tension
between Turkey and Europe. In March 2017 Germany and the Netherlands prevented Turkish
officials from holding pro-referendum diaspora rallies by citing security concerns emanating
from intra-diasporic disagreements and the instrumentalization of the Turkish diaspora by
Ankara for the promotion of domestic interests (BBC 2017). These states are worried that any
homeland-related tension transplanted to their territories would cause serious internal problems.
Turkey’s response to the prevention of diaspora rallies was harsh. Erdoğan called the
Netherlands a ‘Nazi remnant’ and a ‘banana republic’ and likened the German ban to ‘Nazi
practices.’ He also summoned the Dutch chargé d’affaires and German ambassador to Ankara
Following the intensification of diplomatic row between Turkey and these countries,
Turkey’s Minister of Interior Affairs Süleyman Soylu threatened to ‘blow the mind’ of Europe
by breaking the refugee deal and sending 15,000 refugees a month to the EU (Euractiv 2017). In
December 2017, Turkey’s then Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım echoed Soylu’s remarks: ‘You
are not Turkey’s boss. You are not a first class country and we are not a second class country …
You should treat Turkey as an equal partner (Anadolu Ajansı 2017).’
Another international development that has transformed Turkey’s diaspora outreach is the
rise of Islamophobia in Europe, particularly after 9/11. Germany has experienced increasing anti-
Muslim hate crimes, as evidenced by more than 100 attacks targeting mosque and Islamic
institution in 2018. A year later, German police recorded 813 hate crimes aimed at Muslims,
which injured 54 Muslims (Anadolu Ajansı 2020). Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism
provides a useful framework to analyze growing Islamophobic sentiments in Europe. Orientalism
can be described as ‘a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction
made between “the Orient;” and (most of the time) “the Occident”’ (Said 1979, 2). Put
differently, it is ‘a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the
Orient’ (Said 1979, 23). Scholars have shown that the Western media often represents an
Orientalist construction of Turkey and Turkish identity, depicting Turkey as a ‘non-European’
country and Turkish identity as the ‘out-group’ or the ‘other’ (Arcan 2012, 119). Over the past
two decades, the political environment and debates in Europe have also changed immensely and
negatively for Turks due to the rise of far right and anti-immigrant parties (Vermeulen 2018).
Turkish origin politicians in Europe, such as DENK’s leaders, have even condemned death
threats they have been receiving from far right supporters (Anadolu Ajansı 2019).
The growing hostility against Muslims has urged Turkey to form closer relations with
Euro-Turks, who have found themselves in a more vulnerable position. An official from the
Turkish Consulate in Berlin confirmed that as Islamophobic acts targeting Turks in Germany
have become more widespread and severe since the 2000s, Ankara has had to be more pro-active
in the diasporic space.13 On the basis of these developments, the YTB announced in 2020 that ‘in
the 2000s, new needs have emerged from many directions, our diaspora in Europe faced
educational and employment hardships, institutionalized racism and discrimination,
Islamophobia and citizenship rights issues’ (YTB 2020b). Representatives from the Turkish
Embassy in Paris and the YTB argued that Turkey’s urge to ‘protect’ its citizens abroad from the
perils of rising Islamophobia and far right parties is natural and should be praised rather than
criticized.14 While many diaspora Turks in Europe applaud this message, Turkey’s multi-tiered
engagement policy that has prioritized certain diaspora groups over others, imposed Sunni
Muslim identity over the Turkish diaspora, and asked all members of the diaspora to pledge
allegiance to the Turkish state has triggered a backlash within the Turkish diaspora community
and European host states, as discussed above.
This article has argued that in order to account for the evolution of Turkey’s diaspora policy
from the 1960s to the present, domestic, transnational, and international factors should be
analyzed together. Turkey’s shift from a passive to a pro-active diaspora engagement policy has
been strongly influenced by three main factors: the unique characteristics and political incentives
of the AKP, the increasing socio-economic and political influence of the Turkish émigré
community in Europe following their shift from temporary to permanent settlement, and
Turkey’s changing relations with Europe since the 1999 Helsinki Summit, 9/11, and the
European refugee crisis. This article suggests that the AKP’s rise to power, which is examined as
an independent factor and also in relation to transnational and international factors, has played
the most significant role in shaping Turkey’s diaspora agenda and changed Ankara’s perception
of its capabilities and responsibilities in the context of its relations with the Turkish diaspora and
One of the most contentious debates within diaspora, transnationalism, and citizenship
studies is how a country of origin’s outreach efforts affect immigrant integration in host states.
As Bivand Erdal and Oeppen (2013) and Mügge (2016) summarize, four approaches dominate
this debate. The alarmist perspective argues that immigrants’ attachments and loyalties to their
homeland are detrimental to their integration in their destination countries because these bonds
reinforce ‘competing loyalties’ and create ‘parallel societies.’ The less alarmist but pessimistic
perspective suggests that immigrants need their homeland to survive in a new country where
their cultural and human capital are not immediately transferable. This view expects that the
attachment diaspora members feel toward their homeland will diminish over time. The positive
perspective maintains that a close connection to the homeland does not hinder—and may even
foster—integration. Finally, the pragmatic perspective asserts that the relationship between
attachment to the home state and successful integration in the host state is difficult to disentangle
because of the complexity of the interaction and unique conditions specific to home and host
Given that Turkey is a newcomer in the field of diaspora affairs, I side with the pragmatic
perspective and conclude that it is too soon to reach a conclusion on what kind of an impact
Turkey’s growing sway on its diaspora will have on this community and European host states.
While Turkey’s engagement initiatives have initially been met with suspicion and frustration in
Europe, time will show whether Turkey’s paternalistic approach will improve or hamper the
Turkish diaspora’s integration prospects and relations with their host states.
1 Interview, YTB official, Ankara, 25 June 2019.
2 Interview, AKP deputy, Ankara, 26 June 2019.
3 Interview, Green Party deputy, Berlin, 27 February 2019.
4 Interview, Turkish Consulate official, Paris, 29 January 2019; Interview, YTB official, Ankara,
27 June 2019.
5 Interview, Turkish Consulate official, Paris, 28 January 2019.
6 Interview, Green Party deputy, Berlin, 27 February 2019.
7 Interview, Turkish origin local councillor, Paris, 23 May 2013; Interview, Turkish origin local
councillor, Strasbourg, 28 May 2013.
8 Interview, Directorate of Communications official, Ankara, 1 August 2013; Interview, Turkish
Embassy official, Berlin, 13 February 2019.
9 Interview, Directorate for EU Affairs official, Ankara, 25 July 2013; Interview, YTB official,
Ankara, 25 June 2019.
10 Interview, Directorate of Communications official, Ankara, 1 August 2013.
11 Erdoğan’s full speech is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKvw91v4BnU
12 Interview, Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, Ankara, 26 June 2019.
13 Interview, Turkish Consulate official, Berlin, 26 February 2019.
14 Interview, Turkish Embassy official, Paris, 24 January 2019; Interview, YTB official, Ankara,
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