EU leaders should not fear a 'Turkish invasion of Europe'

Just 13 per cent of Turkey’s adult population expressed a desire to migrate, lower than many other countries.

With a year to go until the people of Romania and Bulgaria gain free movement across the EU, familiar concerns have already been raised about the possibility of uncontrolled immigration into the UK and the consequences this could have on the housing and labour markets.

Stoking up such fears has long accompanied talks of EU expansion to Eastern and Southern Europe nations. But the economic balance of power in Europe has shifted, and European leaders need to take a more sensible view of migration. Nowhere is this more the case than with Turkey, which would become the EU’s most easterly and second most populous nation. Accession talks with Turkey began in October 2005 but have stalled, primarily due to opposition in Germany and France.

While there are concerns over the Cyprus issue and the Turkish justice system, ‘freedom of movement for workers’ remains one of the most intractable barriers to Turkish accession, particularly for Germany and France. Turkey’s history as a major source of immigration into Europe since the 1960s, creating visible and sizeable Turkish minorities, has long held back its ambitions to join the EU. If Turkey joins, the fear is that millions of Turks will migrate to Europe, overwhelming local labour markets and exacerbating cultural tensions.

Yet analysis of Gallup World Poll data on migration prospects show there is little basis for this fear. While the desire to migrate is always higher than actual migration rates, comparing data across different countries helps us understand patterns in mobility routes and intensity today and in the future. The findings, which I presented last month as chair of the Turkish Migration in Europe Conference at Regent’s College London, allow us to evaluate the notion of a ‘Turkish invasion of Europe’ following its accession to the EU.

The data showed that around 630 million individuals reported a desire to move to another country, with about 7.6 per cent of the world’s adult population saying they would like to migrate within a year, and about 3 per cent already preparing – so, applying for visas and booking travel.

Comparing Turkish migration attitudes in relation to other nations, we see that 13 per cent of Turkey’s adult population expressed a desire to migrate, lower than popular immigration destinations like Germany (18 per cent), France (19 per cent) and the UK (30 per cent). Turkey’s figure is also lower than the 16 per cent among Southern and Eastern European neighbours. Desire to migrate is relatively high in the troubled countries in Turkey’s neighbourhood: Iraq (16 per cent), Syria (27 per cent) and Iran (15 per cent). Meanwhile, other emerging market economies like Brazil and Russia have reported similar rates to Turkey: both 13 per cent.

Turkey’s record of economic progress and relative political stability in the last decade are key reasons for this shift. Turkey is rapidly becoming a destination country for thousands coming from Africa, Asia and Middle East, as a beacon of stability for the region. Continuing economic crisis in Europe and Turkey’s steady growth, as well as discrimination in some cases, has paved the way for further migration from Europe to Turkey, including many second and third generation Turkish minority members arriving from Germany. Indeed, in the last decade the net Turkish migration to Germany has been negative.

Although it is clear that Turkey is likely to produce some more outward migration, all of her European neighbours are more likely to generate more migrants in the near future. Turkey can already be considered as an immigration destination, and this trend is likely to continue.

With the launch of the "positive agenda" between Turkey and the EU in May last year, and the EU Commission's report in October which called on Turkey to do more to progress its membership bid, 2013 promises to be an important year for Turkey’s European ambitions. Its path to the EU is unlikely to be straightforward, with many barriers still to be crossed, and many politicians in influential nations opposed to its membership. Yet the shift in migration trends is great reason for optimism – showing how the nation’s rapid economic growth is making it increasingly plausible for these barriers to be overcome.

Ibrahim Sirkeci is director of Regent's Centre for Transnational Studies, Regent’s College

EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule (R) and Turkey's EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis give a joint press conference in Ankara on May 17, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ibrahim Sirkeci is director of Regent's Centre for Transnational Studies, Regent’s College

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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