Huseyin Buyukdag says he loves Turkey and his job as a teacher, but with the rampant economic crisis and growing repression in his country, he said he and his wife have decided to try and find a better life in Germany.
They are among a growing number of young and educated looking to leave Turkey, where rights and freedoms are being eroded and inflation is surging under increasingly authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
After Erdogan secured a third term in office in May elections, things are unlikely to change, Buyukdag said.
“Even if I don’t want this, even if I hate this, I will ... leave this beautiful country,” the 27-year-old English teacher said.
Buyukdag and his wife, a nurse, live in the impoverished southeastern province of Sirnak. Their government-appointed jobs bring the two roughly up to US$1,750 a month — over the official poverty line of US$1,564.
It is enough to make ends meet in their border province, but far short of what is needed in big cities like Istanbul or the capital, Ankara, and nowhere enough for a young couple to save or start a family.
Turkey, a country of more than 84 million people hit by a series of crises in recent years, saw the official annual inflation at 61 percent last month, though some economists believe the real figure is double that number.
For many, the way out is through education visas to study abroad or work permits.
TurkStat, the government’s statistics bureau, said 139,531 Turkish citizens left the country last year, compared with 103,613 in 2021. Those aged 25 to 29 formed the biggest group.
The numbers are a significant increase from 77,810 Turks who left in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak.
The brain drain is separate from the hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants and those escaping wars and troubles at home, like in Syria or Iraq, who use Turkey as a route to Europe, often setting off on dangerous voyages across the Mediterranean Sea with the help of people smugglers.
Sociologist and author Besim Dellaloglu attributed some of the exodus of the “uppermost educated layers of society” to an erosion of democratic norms.
“I do not have the impression that this migration will be reversed without decreasing polarization in Turkey,” Dellaloglu said.
Most likely to emigrate are medical professionals and information technology (IT) specialists, Dellaloglu said, but also highly trained individuals from all sectors.
Ahmet Akkoc, a 24-year-old IT engineer, left two years ago to study for a master’s degree in Denmark but then found a job in Copenhagen and decided to stay.
“I had an area that I wanted to specialize in and there was absolutely no demand for that specialization in Turkey,” he said.
Last year, more than 2,600 doctors applied for the necessary documents from the Turkish Medical Association to be able to practice outside the country. Physicians mostly cited small salaries, grueling working conditions and an uptick in violence by disgruntled patients as reasons for their decision.
In one of his speeches last year, an angry Erdogan said all doctors who wanted to can “go ahead and leave.”
He later softened his tone, saying those who left would soon return as Turkey holds the promise of a “bright future.”
Many other Turks prefer to stay, even with an increasingly polarized society.
“I can understand the people who are leaving, some things really need to change,” said Fatma Zehra Eksi, a 22-year-old student from Istanbul who says she is a reluctant supporter of Erdogan. “But if we ... leave because we are not comfortable here, then there will be no one left here to change things.”
Serap Ilgin, a 26-year-old copywriter in Istanbul, said she grew up with the values of secular Turkey and its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
“Leaving is not a solution, on the contrary, I think we need to stay here and fight,” she said.
The growing discontent comes as Turkey marks the 100th anniversary of Ataturk’s proclamation of a secular republic, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire
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