Turkish Youth Seek an Escape

This article was originally written as part of an internship application in May 2016. I’ve expanded from the original piece and added more info contextualising this in reference to recent events in Turkey.

Young Turkish students are silently nurturing desires to move abroad. Turkey’s recent political trajectory should make this no surprise, as Erdogan’s leading Justice and Development Party (AKP) has pursued policies which have alienated liberal secularist and leftist Turks.

July’s aborted coup attempt has compounded a feeling of hopelessness amongst Turkish youth. Many feel their career prospects have been left dead in the water, especially considering the crackdown on academics and the closure of multiple scholarship programs.

Turkey’s Education Ministry has dismissed more than 27,000 staff, with 4,225 university academics suspended. The deans of every university in the country were forced to resign.

The intimidation of academics in Turkey is not a new phenomena. The post-coup measures follow the pending trials of academics who spoke out against military maneuvers in the south-east under the name ‘Academics for Peace.’

A Greek minority Turkish citizen studying in London noted that after witnessing the attacks on ‘Academics for Peace’, she decided against becoming an academic within Turkey.

Before deciding on academia, the student had wanted to be a journalist. However, frequent detentions of journalists made her sure that “Turkey is clearly among the worst countries to become one.”

Another student who conducted her under- and post-graduate education in Switzerland reflected on the perceived lack of academic freedom within Turkey, saying that she “does not feel free to research, speak [about] and write” her PhD thesis.

The academic environment in Turkey, which another student described as having “too much pressure,” has led her to return to Switzerland in hopes of completing her education.

Education is central to many young Turks’ escape plans. Many students in the social sciences and humanities hope to undertake their graduate studies in Europe, where they perceive a brighter future with more academic freedom and the possibility to realise their career plans.

Studying abroad acts not only as an escape from political pressures but also as an investment for the future. Turkish students studying in London and Germany noted that they would be able to make a substantial living upon their return.

Their counterparts educated in Turkey, on the contrary, unequivocally expressed that if they could find a job relevant to their field of study, the money they could earn would not be enough to subsist on.

A graduate student from Istanbul, now in Barcelona, alluded to a European education as an escape from mandatory conscription.

Young HDP voters tended to paint conscription as a “violation of human rights,” whilst CHP voters insisted that they were not against the practice in essence, rather that they sought to avoid military service in the current political situation.

The same graduate student in Barcelona added “I completely disagree [with] dying for nothing in a war created by ourselves,” alluding to Turkey’s continued urban conflict with Kurdish separatists in the south-east.

By working abroad for 3 years after he finishes his MA, he could avoid conscription altogether. Students in Turkey, however, are forced to choose between enlisting or paying the government up to $7,500.

However, young men who can afford this exemption payment are few and far between. Turkey’s minimum wage stands at $433 per month, with most students working part-time bar jobs to afford basic living costs.

“If I interpret feeling safe as feeling free, then I feel the desire to live abroad,” commented a student in Istanbul, revealing the uneasiness many young Turks have with the current political situation.

While many students express fear in regards to the growing presence of police on campuses and increasingly frequent bombings, the majority also fear other aspects of Turkish society.

“If I say that I voted for [HDP] in public, I am most likely to be lynched or harassed,” said another student from Istanbul. Turkish students increasingly feel as if they are minorities in their own country, regardless of ethnicity.

Female students especially see themselves at risk. The graduate student in Switzerland explained that “I can’t really see a future for myself in Turkey as a human, a woman [or] an academic.”

LGBTQ+ and minority ethnic students, such as Armenians, also expressed that Turkish society has “no place” for them.

“I feel like [I am] a minority most of the time in society, being a leftist, a woman, [a female] engineer, not covered [and] not religious,” added another student.

“I don’t want to leave my country if something doesn’t go [seriously] wrong,” she explained in May. Since then, the rising tensions of post-coup Turkey have seen her nurture a desire to migrate to the USA with her American boyfriend.

Despite feelings of alienation derived from societal pressures and political machinations, the majority still envisioned a place for themselves in Turkish society in the future when interviewed in May.

Though Turkish youth perceive their society in pessimistic tones, expressing the desire to move abroad sometimes comes with the caveat: “I would come back to Turkey eventually.”

As academic and career opportunities grow less distinct, Turkey’s young people are feeling a rising pressure to migrate after having experienced the first coup of their lifetimes.

While attached to their homeland, there is a distinct feeling amongst Turkish youth that “things will not get better soon.”