Tolay, J.: Integration of Immigrants in Turkey. 2013

Download PDF Document


Turkey has become a country of immigration. Since the late 1980s with the first influx of Iranian nationals fleeing the Islamic revolution, and more significantly since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, with the tightening of the borders of the EU and Turkey’s growth within the global economy, Turkey has received millions of foreigners coming and settling in Turkey for asylum, business, employment, retirement or education. However, because of their spontaneous, unplanned and informal nature, these immigration flows have gone largely unnoticed for a long time. As a result, the issue of integration of these populations had not been raised until recently and no public policy was in place to facilitate integration. However, the nature of immigration policy and the structure of Turkish society and economy had meant that some immigrants could use other channels of integration. Finally, a new comprehensive immigration law was passed in April 2013 that openly refers to the need of integration of immigrant populations and the active role that Turkish authorities can play in this process.

The nature of immigration in Turkey: no need for integration?

Even though Turkey has always been a country receiving important numbers of immigrants into its territory, it is only in the last 30 years that immigration had meant a more visible cultural diversity in the country. From 1923 until the late 1980s, the large majority of people immigrating into Turkey were people who fell under the loose understanding of “Turkishness.” Such immigrants were usually Sunni Muslim and/or Turkish speakers from the Balkans mainly, and the goal of the Turkish government was to fully assimilate them in order to reinforce the cultural homogeneity of the country: integration then meant assimilation. At the same time, Turkey has witnessed a steady emigration of its non-Muslim population (mainly Greeks, Armenians, Jews and Assyrians), further diminishing the cultural diversity of the country.

The arrival of Iranians in the 1980s, Iraqis (mainly Iraqi Kurds) in the early 1990s, Russians, Moldovans, Ukrainians, Romanians in the mid-1990s, and even more countries of origins spanning across Africa, Europe and Asia in the 2000s, has reversed this trend. As these new incoming populations could not fall under the category of “Turkishness,” cultural diversity expanded considerably. However, this new phenomenon did not spark a new discussion regarding Turkey’s new cultural diversity and the question of how to incorporate these populations into Turkish society.

There are a number of reasons why this public discussion did not happen. One is because these inflows were unplanned: they were mainly spontaneous, either dictated by political upheavals and conflicts in the case of refugee movements, or encouraged by new economic opportunities sparked by the economic transition of the former Soviet space and Turkey’s integration in the global economy. In any case the Turkish government had nothing to do with these new arrivals: it had not been actively recruiting foreign labor the way most Western European countries had done in the 1960s, it did not have appropriate laws and regulations to deal with asylum and immigration, and it did not realize until later in the 2000s that Turkey had indeed, unintentionally, become a country of immigration. The large majority of immigrants in Turkey are not legally recognized as immigrants: they are usually either “tourists” or “irregular foreigners.”

Another reason why the issue of immigration did not become a public issue is related to the relative invisibility of immigrants. A number of studies have shown that immigrants often opt to remain as far away from public sight as possible. Some happen to be invisible, simply because they work as domestic workers (nannies for young children or the elderly, housemaid, etc.). Others intend to remain invisible given their irregular situation, so as to avoid controls from the police.

Because of its unplanned and invisible character, immigration into Turkey tends to be ignored. But even when it is recognized (immigration can never be fully invisible), people in Turkey justify the absence of a public discussion over their integration because of the “temporary” nature of such immigration: asylum seekers will be resettled in a third country, transit migrants will move on to their final destination, workers will return to their home country once enough capital has been accumulated. Most migrants themselves often believe in a short stay in Turkey, even if their stay often ends up lasting much longer. But most interestingly, it is the Turkish society that assumes that such a stay will be short term because, almost by definition, “Turkey is not a country of immigration”, “it is not a country of foreigners”: Turkey’ nation-state was indeed created in 1923 as “the homeland for Turks” and this conception is still strongly ingrained in Turkish consciousness which can hardly conceive that Turkey could become a country of settlement for non-Turks.

All of these factors have contributed to an overall, usually unintentional, denial of the existence of immigration in Turkey, and of the need for integration measures for these populations. As a result, the legislative and administrative framework governing issues of asylum and immigration was really weak, with different relevant articles found in disparate laws and administrative regulations. And within this framework, there were no serious consideration for issues of integration of immigrants.

Using channels of informal integration

In the absence of a public policy relating to integration, immigrants relied on resources outside of public authorities to satisfy their different needs regarding employment, education, health and overall interaction with the Turkish society. For the few regular migrants (often highly qualified employees, retirees or spouse of a Turkish national), this did not necessarily represent a strong difficulty. Most of the complaints expressed by such migrants were about the administrative complexities in sustaining a regular status. But for immigrants in a more vulnerable situation – asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, working migrants under a “tourist” status –, living in Turkey means using informal channels of integration, and relying heavily on resources offered by society. 

Immigrants in Turkey have been able to integrate partially into Turkish society mainly thanks to the large informal sector of the Turkish economy. The existence of informal housing markets in some areas (such as Kumkapi, Tarlabasi or Zeytinburnu in Istanbul), as well as a number of “niches” open to undocumented migrants in certain sectors of the economy (domestic labor, tanneries, export centers, construction, textile industry, etc.), have helped many immigrants to find their place in Turkey. Migrants usually learn about such housing and work opportunities through social networks, often family members, or acquaintances from religious or ethno-political organizations. Additionally, over time, a number of civil society organizations have been created in order to provide some assistance to immigrants: organizations such as Helsinki Citizens Group, Multeci-Der, IHH Insani Yardim Vakfi, IIMP (Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program), MazlumDer, Amnesty International, Kimse Yok Mu, SGDD and many more have engaged in different activities aiming at facilitating immigrants access to basic services, schooling, health care, heating, food, accommodation, legal services, etc.

In many ways, immigrants also rely on the goodwill of the people of Turkey that they meet daily: landlord, employer, shopkeeper, police officers and other officials, etc. There are many contrasting accounts regarding how Turkish society behaves towards immigrants, with evidence showing both very abusive and exclusive behaviors, as well as very generous and welcoming ones. Traditionally, Turkish society has struggled with the idea of recognizing the existence of cultural diversity, preferring the idea of assimilation that tends to negate the idea of difference: this has proven particularly problematic with the Greek, Jewish, Kurdish and Alevi populations. However, some statistical data seem to indicate that the Turkish society is more tolerant towards immigrants than they are towards minorities living in Turkey (and who have been settled for a long time). The reason might be because such immigrants are not – yet – claiming that they want to become part of Turkish society, hence asking a “temporary” welcome that is easier to grant without challenging the idea of “Turkish nation.”

Indeed, and counter-intuitively, Turkey’s public policy towards immigrants so far – that turns a blind eye to the number of immigrants in the country and their need for integration – may turn out to be helpful to the incorporation of migrants in Turkey. Because the issue of immigration in Turkey has not been politicized (it is neither a matter of public policy, nor a matter of public discussions), immigrants in Turkey are overall exempt from public discourses of discrimination or scapegoating. Because the political stakes are not too high, there has been little pressure on the Turkish police forces to “crack down” on irregular migration. Finally, Turkey’s relatively liberal visa policy, that allows most immigrants to enter, exit, and re-enter easily onto Turkish territory, is preventing a too rigid and tense phenomenon of immigration.

The emergence of government-sponsored integration

Turkish people tend to pride themselves in their misafirperverlik (hospitability) and tolerance towards foreigners. A lot of praise could indeed go into the good works that Turkish counterparts have put in assisting different types of immigrants settling into their Turkish life. A striking recent example is Turkey’s ability to host more than half a million Syrian refugees in 2012 and 2013, that has been recognized and applauded by the international community.

However, it is critically important to understand the limits of Turkish hospitability towards foreigners. First of all, the discourse of hospitality should be a source of encouragement towards more positive action with foreigners, rather than a sense of self-satisfaction that inhibits further action. Second, one should keep in mind that such hospitability is predicated on the “temporary” stay of immigrants in Turkey. We know from comparative history that immigration naturally becomes a permanent and long-term situation, and as immigration becomes a permanent feature, it is unclear whether Turkey’s societal hospitability will be sufficient. Finally, relying on the society and market to ensure immigrant’s incorporation is not only unsustainable in the long-term, but it is also inconsistent and unreliable, hence unjust. Only a public policy geared towards integration of immigrants can provide equal opportunities for all immigrants. The European Commission has been pushing for more governmental resources put into assisting immigrants in their daily lives in Turkey.

This is why the new “Law on Foreigners and International Protection” adopted in April 2013 by the Turkish parliament is a welcome development. Already in 2010, as the law was in the process of being drafted, a number of administrative regulations and circulars had been adopted in order to facilitate the lives of asylum seekers in Turkey: waiving resident permit fees, improving social services, especially for children, and providing access to education. The new law builds on these efforts and attempts to remedy the lack of comprehensive and consistent legislative and administrative framework dealing with issues of migration and asylum. Beyond providing such a framework, the new law also envisions the creation of a General Directorate of Migration Management. Among its many responsibilities, the Directorate is charged with “Integration:” namely, providing the possibility for foreigners to attend courses introducing them to the “political institutions, language, legal system, culture, history, rights and responsibilities of the country” as well as engage in activities to gain the “knowledge and skills necessary to facilitate their autonomy” in the country (Law 6458, 4th sect, art. 96, par. 1&2). It will be up to the Directorate and its implementing partners to fully interpret and implement this new legal disposition.


Danış, A. Didem, Taraghi, Cherie, & Pérouse, Jean-François. (2009). Integration in Limbo: Iraqi, Afghan, Maghrebi and Iranian Migrants in Istanbul. In A. İçduygu & K. Kirişci (Eds.), Land of Diverse Migrations: Challenges of Emigration and Immigration in Turkey (pp. 443-636). Istanbul: Bilgi University Press.

Erder, Sema. (2007). "Yabancısız" Kurgulanan Ülkenin "Yabancıları". In A. Arı (Ed.), Türkiye’de Yabancı İşçiler: Uluslararası Göç, İşgücü ve Nüfus Hareketleri (pp. 1-82). Istanbul: Derin Yayınları.

European Commission. (2012). Turkey 2012 Progress Report (pp. 94). Brussels.

Helsinki Citizens Assembly. (2007). Unwelcome Guests: The Detention of Refugees in Turkey's "Foreigners' Guesthouses" (pp. 1-58). Istanbul.

Human Rights Watch. (2008). Stuck in a Revolving Door: Iraqis and Other Asylum Seekers and Migrants at the Greece/Turkey Entrance to the European Union (pp. 1-121). New York.

İçduygu, Ahmet, Toktas, Sule, & Soner, B. Ali. (2008). The politics of population in a nation-building process: emigration of non-Muslims from Turkey. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 31(2), 358-389.

Kaiser, Bianca. (2007). Türkiye’deki Avrupa Birliği Yurttaşları: Siyasal ve Toplumsal Katılımın Önündeki Engeller. In A. Kaya & B. Şahin (Eds.), Kökler ve Yollar: Türkiye’de Göç Süreçleri (pp. 475-490). Istanbul: Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları.

Kaya, Ayhan (2013). Europeanization and tolerance in Turkey: the myth of toleration. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kirişci, Kemal. (2000). Disaggregating Turkish Citizenship and Immigration Practices. Middle Eastern Studies, 36(3), 1-22.

 Links (unofficial English version of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection)

Juliette Tolay, Penn State Harrisburg, USA