Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Turkey’s diaspora engagement policy under the Justice and Development Party

Bahar Baser, imi.ox.ac.uk

uncaptioned image from article

Over the last couple of decades, academics have been trying to understand and interpret the mechanisms behind sending-states’ policies on outreach to their citizens abroad, and how diaspora-building policies are cultivated by political actors in the homeland. Home states have been establishing institutions and other state-initiated mechanisms which motivate and control emigrants’ social, political and economic contributions to national interests. Among these home states is Turkey, which has been engaging with its citizens abroad since the 1960s. This engagement has evolved and experienced various policy shifts over the last 50 years. Since the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi – AKP) came to power in 2002, Turkey has been revising its policy towards its citizens abroad via both discursive references and policy changes and is on its way to establishing a coherent and systematic emigration and diaspora engagement policy which emphasises cultural, political and socio-economic ties.
Turkey has maintained relations with its citizens abroad since the beginning of the ‘guest worker’ programmes in the 1960s; however, state engagement with these populations has changed over the last decade. This is reflected in AKP politicians’ speeches as well as in newly emerging policies that directly address the diaspora communities abroad. These are policies to both build and engage the diaspora, and include mechanisms of reviving and emphasising cultural heritage, the shared past and values, as well as creating dedicated institutions to monitor these tasks. Although in line with current neo-liberal trends across other countries in the so-called ‘Global South’, Turkey’s diaspora-making policies are also a mirror of its fragmented political and social culture.


In the 1960s, in order to decrease unemployment and benefit from remittances as tools of development, the Turkish state promoted emigration through bilateral labour agreements. At the same time, European countries needed labour migration due to industrialisation and the lack of a local labour supply to respond. Aiming to reduce unemployment and increase remittances, Turkey signed bilateral labour recruitment agreements with the Federal Republic of Germany (1961); Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium (1964); France (1965); and Sweden and Australia (1967). These agreements were based on temporary contracts, with no assumption that the workers would stay in Europe longer than the terms of the bilateral agreements. Large numbers of Turks (including other groups with Turkish citizenship, such as Kurds and Assyrians) migrated to Western Europe as temporary labour migrants, and mass migration continued with family reunifications. The expectation that the temporary migrants would shortly return, contributing to their homeland the skills that they acquired abroad, however, did not come to pass. Many Turkish immigrants opted to stay in their host countries, leading to a Turkish migrant community which today is estimated at around 5 million (of which 4 million in Europe).
Until the 1970s, diaspora policy was non-existent; engagement with these communities was based solely on maintaining people’s attachments to their homeland and providing them with practical information about their migration status (Aksel, 2014; Aydin, 2014). A transformation in mentality began in 1970s when the state, recognising the migration phenomenon to be longer-lasting than expected, and with unintended consequences, aimed to prevent cultural assimilation. The Turkish state focused on providing guidance on pensions and took care of practical matters through social attachés who were responsible for improving the situations of Turkish migrants abroad (Aydin, 2014). The state started putting policies in place to facilitate migrants sending remittances back home and using savings to invest in the home country. On the cultural and religious front, the formal religious institution in Turkey called Diyanet started a plan to send imams abroad to facilitate the religious education and practices of Turkish migrants. Initially Diyanet was solely in charge of the administration of mosques and the appointment of imams and muezzins.
Before the 1980s, one can observe an emerging emigration policy dedicated to tapping the economic potential of migrants, but no signs that the state began to see the migrant community as an asset that could help to facilitate foreign policy aims or transnational politics in general. The political instability in Turkey had a significant impact on the profile of migrants who went to Germany in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The military coup d’état in 1980 and the policies that ensued forced many activists (Kurdish and leftist) to live in exile in various European countries. It was becoming clear that there was a new flow of emigrants making their permanent residence abroad. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the government’s first attempts to form diasporic ethnic and religious organisations began at the end of the 1970s and continued into the early 1980s. What we see after the 1980s is a Turkish state closely monitoring the activities of migrants in Europe, especially in Germany. The establishment of migrant organisations became extremely politicised. Some movements which were banned, oppressed or stigmatised in Turkey diffused their activities to Europe and founded NGOs, civil society organisations or underground groups operating under the title of migrant organisations. The Turkish state’s response to such activities was to tighten monitoring activities, but at the same time encourage segmented integration without assimilation into the host countries (Mugge, 2011; Baser, 2015).
By the 1980s the authorities were becoming more and more convinced that migrants’ situations – meant to be temporary – were becoming permanent. Consequently, the law permitting dual citizenship was passed in the early 1980s. For those who stayed abroad, the state also systematised sending teachers and imams to several countries to teach the Turkish curriculum and the Turkish interpretation of Islam under different arrangements through the Ministry of Education and the Directorate of Religious Affairs. They also began investing in other institutions such as the “Higher Coordination Council for Workers, consisting of Social Affairs and Economic Affairs Committees” (Aksel, 2014). The economic mentality of the state emigration policy was slowly replaced with social, cultural and political measures for integration abroad.
During the 1990s, proposed Turkish accession to the EU was also a very hot topic. At that time, the Turkish state began to perceive Turkish migrants in Europe as representatives of the Turkish population, initialising its diaspora-building efforts to successfully integrate Turkish immigrants into host societies in order to promote a positive image of Turkey (Mugge, 2013) and enhance public diplomacy (Ozdora-Aksak and Molleda, 2014; Aydin, 2014). To this end, Turkish policy makers began to engage more actively with Turkish immigrants, for example paying attention to their integration and discrimination problems. According to Aydin (2014), two main motives dominated the state’s engagement with citizens abroad during the 1990s: wanting to facilitate the integration of Turkish citizens in their countries of residence and wanting to support them in their demands for cultural rights. However, at the same time, the state continued to have security concerns which led it to monitor organisations for dissidents who opposed Turkish state policies, and to manipulate and use other organisations that were voluntarily supporting “Turkish interests” within the host countries.
At the end of the 1990s, two institutional steps were taken to strengthen the link between Turkish emigrants and the home country. In 1998, the Advisory Committee for Turkish Citizens Living Abroad (Yurtdışında Yaşayan Vatandaşlar Danışma Kurulu) and the High Committee for Turkish Citizens Living Abroad (Yurtdışında Yaşayan Vatandaşlar Üst Kurulu) were established under the Prime Ministry to monitor the problems faced by Turkish citizens abroad and report on them in the Turkish parliament. Since 1998, the numbers of representatives in these two committees have increased, and the geography of the number of countries represented has expanded (Aksel, 2014).


Turks living abroad were never referred to as “diaspora” until the AKP came to power (Unver, 2013:183). Prior to that, the Turkish state had been only selectively intervening in matters related to its diaspora (Mugge, 2011: 20). After 2002 and the beginning of the AKP era, however, one can observe a clear trend of efforts to mobilise the diaspora with a holistic approach that simultaneously included social, economic and political agendas.
According to Aydin (2014), this sudden shift has three main motivations: the emergence of a solid diaspora community abroad along with their transnational networks; the establishment of a new state elite and their new discourse stressing Muslim national identity in Turkey and abroad; and lastly, the re-orientation of Turkish foreign policy due to shifts of power in Turkish society. On the other hand, Mugge (2011: 21) interprets the evolution of Turkish state policies over time from the perspective of migrants’ length of stay and the political climate in both the home and host countries. She argues that the policy change over time occurred because of political developments in Turkey, shifting state goals which made migrants relevant for foreign policy, and changes within the migrant community itself (Mugge, 2011: 28). In official documents, the chief explanation for this onset is given as Turkey’s new “outward looking foreign policy” (Yurtnac, 2012).
In 2003, a parliamentary commission was installed to study the problems of Turks living abroad. Led by the former head of Diyanet and a parliamentary member of the AKP (Mugge, 2011: 27), it recommended the establishment of a special unit to deal with Turkish citizens abroad in order to strengthen ties and capitalise on already existing political and economic loyalties. AKP’s commitment to reviving historical ties with former Ottoman territories as well as to strengthening relationships with Muslim communities abroad shaped the formation of the diaspora policy. The neo-Ottoman ideology that the political party pursued affected how they defined the “citizen” who lives abroad and individuals who are “kin” to ethnic Turks. Their discourse on the citizens and relatives abroad who are part of the great Turkish nation also translated into their diaspora-building and engagement mechanisms. In addition, there was a clear reference to a Muslim nationalist/Sunni Muslim identity which isolated other Turkish citizens from different ethnic origins, such as Armenian, Assyrian and Kurdish groups. The newly emerging policy also distanced itself from the Alevite communities (Aydin, 2014; Baser, 2015).


Following former Prime Minister Davutoğlu’s concept of “strategic depth”, the AKP began to perceive Turkey’s role in global politics differently than previous governments. Their idea was that Turkey has an important geo-strategic location and history, and thus a country that should have a greater say in world politics (Aydin, 2014). Their perception of Turkey as a global economic and political power also shaped its diaspora-embracing policies: firstly, by considering Turkish citizens, relatives and kin groups to be part of the Turkish nation, the Turkish government effectively broadened its diaspora to include Azerbaijani, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek and Turkmen groups as external members. Official estimates put the number of diaspora members at around 6 million Turkish citizens and around 200 million kin and related communities (Yurtnac, 2012). Secondly, the government’s shift in perspective compelled policy makers to pursue the further mobilisation of diaspora groups, as they saw them as an opportunity to maximise their own power in global politics. This attitude was reflected at an institutional level as well. The Presidency for Turks Abroad and Relative Communities (YTB) was established in 2010. Its eight departments include: overseas citizens; cultural and social relations; institutional relations and communications; international students; strategy development; legal advisory services, human resources and education; support services; and information technology (Yurtnac, 2012). Following Davutoglu’s doctrine of being influential in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Balkans and Europe at the same time, the YTB also embraced kin and relative groups all around the world in addition to the diaspora due to its “historic responsibility” towards them (Yurtnac, 2012), and began formulating similar policies that would address all of them simultaneously. The former chairman of YTB, Kemal Yurtnac, presented the aims of the YTB in an officially published document in which he argues that the Turkish diaspora can be Turkey’s “public diplomacy” and “soft power” in international politics (Yurtnac, 2012).
Turkey’s new directorate has been working vigorously to create, organise and activate its diaspora. Workshops are being organised all around Europe, and attempts are being made to merge Turkish and Azeri diaspora organisations under certain umbrella federations. There are also more Turkish associations being founded in different countries. As suggested by Gamlen (2008), the congresses organised by state-sponsored NGOs or diaspora organisations are a crucial sign that the Turkish state is actually involved in forming its own diaspora abroad. Other conferences were organised for the anniversary of the 50th year of migration to countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. The YTB also began publishing in 2012 a quarterly journal in Turkish titled “Artı 90”, which references the Ottoman past and calls the Turkish emigrants “co-ethnics” and “ex-Ottoman citizens” in order to reconnect them with the Turkish state (Aksel, 2014).
Institutional efforts aside, over the last decade there has been an increase in politicians visiting Europe to address large communities of diaspora members. Consular units have also been expanded and special arrangements made in institutional frameworks. An advisory board/ consultative expatriate council has been formed under the auspices of YTB which consists of diaspora members from all around the world. The state is also encouraging the emergence of new civil society organisations that would lobby for Turkish interests in the diaspora’s countries of residence. Public diplomacy (Unver, 2013) is a novel duty that has been given to selected diaspora groups. However, it should be kept in mind that these developments solely benefit the diaspora groups that can be defined as pro-government. While the centre-right conservative diaspora organisations are taking the opportunities provided to flourish, other organisations who are in the opposition do not benefit from this wave of attention, least of all positively (Baser, 2015).
A 2012 amendment to the law facilitated external voting for Turkish citizens residing abroad, allowing them to vote at certain places arranged by the Turkish embassies in their countries of residence. External voting proved to be one of the most effective mechanisms to strengthen political ties within the diaspora-building project as it caused the transnationalisation of political party programmes. For instance, there have been election campaigns specifically tailored for the diaspora: political parties included diaspora candidates in their lists and each party addressed the diaspora’s needs and expectations in their party programmes, or at least paid lip service to them.
Economically, the new strategy has received tremendous support from business associations. In 2009, the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEIK) established the World Turkish Business Council, which brings Turkish companies operating abroad together with diaspora entrepreneurs. Business associations also emphasise that they are pleased to be helping to turn diaspora policies into national policies, as it will benefit Turkey economically. Furthermore, diaspora organisations which are established as business associations have been mushrooming over the last decade, with the Swedish-Turkish Business Network, founded in 2011, just one example.
On the cultural and linguistic front, Yunus Emre Institutes were established in more than 40 centres across Europe with cultural diplomacy as their objective. As a part of diaspora policies to strengthen cultural ties, the Turkish state accelerated efforts to provide education in its national language and to sponsor the teaching of its national language abroad. The Turkish language is currently taught abroad under the “Turkish and Turkish Culture Programme” which gives Turkish children abroad access to elective Turkish classes in their schools, as well as in the Yunus Emre Institutes.


An emigration country for 50 years, Turkey has slowly but surely developed emigration policies. However, diaspora policy as we know it has been emerging over the last decade in tandem with the rise of the governing political party. Emigration policy has developed largely from practical issues: attracting remittances, arranging logistical matters for returning emigrants, signing bilateral agreements that guarantee pensions, and facilitating bureaucratic matters. The diaspora policy, on the other hand, is largely related to Turkey’s newly emerging self-perception as a global economic and political power and its imagination of its own transnational polity, which is primarily related to its understanding of who constitutes the Turkish nation. Therefore, the policy formations regarding mobile citizens and the diaspora come from a general global trend, as a result of increased migration and consequently migration management, but they have also been influenced by the ideological motives of the new ruling elite in Turkey. The polity-building approach has been externally inclusive in terms of granting external voting rights, but engagement levels and the ability to build bonds with the diaspora have been affected by the governing parties’ ideology and excluded opposition groups.
Turkey’s recent referendum on constitutional amendments put this newly emerged diaspora-making approach to the test. External voting became a highly contested terrain for both political parties who were trying to canvas votes, as well as for the host countries which had to witness Turkey’s controversial election campaigns on their territory. Starting with the presidential election of 2014, Turkey has experienced election after election which consequently diffused its internal divisions to Europe via transnational campaigning mechanisms. The AKP in particular has used this newly emerging overseas constituency to gather more votes to claim a majority that will give it authority to form the government. The recent crisis with Germany and the Netherlands over AKP’s referendum campaigns abroad clearly showed that the “public diplomacy” pillar of the diaspora engagement policy has utterly failed and the loss of Turkey’s prestige in Europe will have long-term consequences. The diaspora policy aimed to create a soft power but in the end the AKP’s ideology and desire for more power prevailed over tapping diaspora resources and creating bridges between Turkey and Europe, and a “public diplomacy” project turned into a PR disaster. Turkey’s authoritarian turn and the tensions between host states in Europe and the Turkish state will in the long run have consequences for the Turkish migrants in Europe who have struggled so hard to achieve their current political and social status.
For an extended version of this article see:
Baser, B. (forthcoming) ‘Turkey’s ever-evolving attitude-shift towards engagement with its diaspora’, In: Weinar, A. (ed.), Emigration and diaspora policies in the age of mobility. Springer.
For further reading see:
Baser, B. (forthcoming) ‘Mobilizing diasporas as a supplement to domestic and foreign policy: Insights from Turkey’s attempts to reach Turkish citizens abroad’ (with Zeynep Sahin Mencutek), Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies.


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Aydin, Y. (2014). ‘The New Turkish Diaspora Policy: Its Aims, Their Limits and the Challenges for Associations of People of Turkish Origin and Decision-Makers in Germany.’ Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik German Institute for International and Security Affairs Research Paper 10. Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Baser, B. (2015). Diasporas and Homeland Conflicts: A Comparative Perspective. Farnham: Ashgate.
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Gamlen, A. (2006) ‘Diaspora engagement policies: What are they, and what kinds of states use them?’ Centre on Migration, Policy and Society Working Paper 32. Oxford: University of Oxford.
Mugge, L. (2013) ‘Ideologies of nationhood in sending-state transnationalism: comparing Surinam and Turkey’. Ethnicities, 13(3): 338–358. 
Mugge, L. (2011) ‘Managing Transnationalism: Continuity and Change in Turkish State Policy’. International Migration, 50(1): 20–38.
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Ozdora-Aksak, E. and Molleda, J.-C. (2014) ‘Immigrant Integration Through Public Relations and Public Diplomacy: An Analysis of the Turkish Diaspora in the Capital of the European Union’. Turkish Studies, 15(2): 220–241.
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Unver, C. ‘Changing Diaspora Politics of Turkey and Public Diplomacy’. Turkish Policy Quarterly, Spring 2013. 
Yurtnac, K. (2012) ‘Turkey’s New Horizon: Turks Abroad and Related Communities, Centre for Strategic Research’. SAM Papers, 3.


Dr. Bahar Baser is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Peace, Trust and Social Relations. She also holds an associate research fellow position at the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa at Stellenbosch University. Her research is based on Peace and Conflict Studies, with a focus on civil wars and how contentions in deeply divided societies disseminate to the transnational space. She researches issues related to diaspora politics and homeland conflicts, focusing on the role of diaspora groups as non-state actors.
IMI does not have an institutional view and does not aim to present one. The views expressed in this blog are those of individual authors.

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