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19.12.2006

Migration matters in globalized Turkey

KRISTEN STEVENS


Turkey is among the major routes for illegal immigrants from Asia and the Middle East trying to get to Europe but the story of a flourishing informal economy here paints a more complex and permissive picture for migrants.Turkish immigration officers on Sunday detained 254 foreigners and Turkish citizens planning to immigrate illegally to Europe. The would-be migrants were found cramped in restaurant of a four-star seaside hotel in the southern resort town of Alanya where they had been kept for three days, said local government official Hulusi Doğan, who was quoted by the Anatolia press agency. Pending legal action, the group, which was bound for Germany via Italy by sea, was placed in a local basketball arena and given medical attention. Eleven people, including the manager of the hotel, have been detained according to Alanya police. The group included 50 Turkish citizens while the foreigners came from the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Bangladesh, Somalia and Sudan. On Monday the United Nations Human Rights Commission marked International Migrant's Day by calling on the world to take measures on illegal human trafficking. At the same time they ask countries to recognize that the immigrants are contributing to their economies and that they must not be exploited. Since 1988, 5,742 people have died along the borders of Europe, according to Fortress Europe, an immigration rights group. Among them 1,844 are still missing at sea. During the last 11 years more than 600,000 people have been apprehended in Europe and returned to their countries. From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, Turkey received approximately 5,000–6,000 asylum applications a year, according to the Interior Ministry. Turkey does not officially accept non-European refugees following a ‘geographical reservation' declared in the 1951 Geneva Convention. It became a de facto situation that almost all asylum applications in the country are made by non-Europeans. Times have changed and Turkish authorities, together with the UN High Commission on Refugees Office in Ankara, have responded to the changing nationalities of asylum seekers. They have begun "accepting the applications and trying to secure re-settlement in countries outside Turkey for accepted non-European cases," according to a report prepared for the OECD this month by Koç University migration researcher Ahmet İçduygu.

The report goes on to explain that some of these foreigners, referred to as irregular migrants, arrive legally with tourist visas, but often drift into illegality as they overstay their right of entry, or try to enter a third country without proper travel documents. In this ‘waiting' period, most go underground and work illegally.

By recent estimates, some 50,000–100,000 foreign workers are employed illegally each year in Turkey. Empirical data has shown that many of these foreigners are mistreated or forced into labor by Turkish officials, police, intermediaries and employers. Some in authority have also been known to confiscate their documents. While work opportunities have declined since Turkey was hit hard by the 2001 financial crisis, the law on Foreigners' Work Permits (2003) has liberalized work conditions for non-nationals and should pave the way for radical changes for migrant labor in Turkey, wrote Içduyguç. There is no contesting the fact that the foreign contribution to the informal labor sector benefits the economy. For example, the industrial sector benefits when cheap migrant labor keeps production costs down, said Ahmet Öncü, Sabanci University Economics director.The Istanbul-based Helsinki Refugee Support Project, Özlem Dalkiran, said she has seen an increase in the number of applications approved by the Interior Ministry since they began providing legal advice to asylum applicants in 2004. Currently, of the clients they have from 34 countries, the majority comes from Somalia, Iran and the Sudan.The faces of immigration in Turkey have changed dramatically in recent decades, consisting largely of transit migrants, clandestine laborers, asylum-seekers and refugees, who have begun to arrive in sizeable numbers. Generally these foreigners overstay their visas, cross the borders illegally or apply for asylum through Ministry of the Interior. If the asylum applications are in process, they are no longer considered illegal. During the last decade, the majority of migration to Turkey has come from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.From 1995 to the late 1990s the numbers of people trying to cross into Europe illegally increased. According to Içduygu's report, some 100,000 people were apprehended at the border in early 2000. Since then the number of apprehensions has dropped to 50,000. Of course, said Içduygu, "the real volume is higher than these numbers."Positioned at the corner of Europe, the flow of people coming through Turkey is inevitable. They are looking for a way into the continent to make a better life for themselves. Many cannot make it across the border or decide to stay in Turkey. The EU has expressed concerns about the rate of transit migration through Turkey, and in particular has asked Turkey to bolster its efforts to prevent of human trafficking. Turkey took this criticism seriously, Içduygu said. "The numbers of illegal border crossings are declining and prison terms for human traffickers have increased."With globalization, migration flow is internationally diversifying and increasing, Içduygu said. Whether conditions will change based on Turkey's EU position remains to be seen. Over the last 30 years, "the numbers of refugees and people using TK as a transit country have increased," he said, adding that the trend is likely to continue regardless of EU status.Also affecting the labor market is the portrait of Turkish citizens emigrating out of Turkey. While emigration from Turkey was predominantly unskilled in the 1960s and 1970s, the last 20 years Turkey has experienced a radical brain drain, according to Koç University migration studies researcher Sebnem Akcapar. Içduygu said in his OECD report that Turkish emigrant labour has become increasingly highly-skilled, university trained and internationally-oriented.