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

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.