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Brain drain: As Turkey’s youth looks abroad, some mothers are encouraging them
This coming fall, Sennur Baybuğa's daughter will be leaving Turkey for France to study abroad.
"I don't want my daughter to ever return to this country," said Baybuğa, a lawyer.
"We used to call ourselves a developing country, but I can't say that anymore," she continued. "Our reputation is low, our credit rating is low ... We are now a third-world country with problems in education, law and environment. I don't want to sacrifice my daughter for it."
After the May elections, Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan extended his two-decade rule in Turkey despite an economic downturn that has since accelerated. In response, an increasing number of opposition voters are fed up and have intensified their efforts to move abroad.
"Leaving Turkey" has been a trending topic on social media in recent months, with some accounts specifically producing content about overseas jobs and education opportunities, attracting a significant following among Turkish citizens.
At the same time, the phrase "How can I go abroad" has been trending on Google search terms among a particular group: mothers in Turkey.
Behind those keyboards, mothers who spoke to Turkey recap said they were most often seeking opportunities for their children or for their entire families to relocate overseas. They were mainly driven by extensive uncertainty in their home country, citing political or economic issues and a perceived decline in commitments to democratic values.
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Emigration and the concept of a “brain drain” are not new in Turkey. For decades, the country has experienced a steady outflow, particularly to European countries. This century, the number of people leaving Turkey saw significant jumps after the Gezi protests in 2013 and the coup attempt in 2016 – two events that triggered government crackdowns on a wide array of dissidents.
Using official data from TurkStat, Turkey recap calculated nearly 500,000 Turkish citizens left the country between 2016 to 2020 (the most recently available calendar year for such statistics.)
About half of this group was aged 20 to 34 and yearly data showed an upward trend in youth emigration over the assessed time period. More recently, a survey published in June found 63 percent of Turkish youth expressed a desire to live abroad.
"People are trying to go abroad even for a short time or under the pretext of language schools," Osman Yılmaz, the president of the Overseas Education Consultants Association (YEDAB), told Turkey recap.
According to Yılmaz, some families hope to join their children as migrants after sending them first, while others opt for schools abroad since the fees are comparable to local schools.
“Lost my sense of belonging”
For Baybuğa, the lawyer, the main reason she wanted her daughter to stay away from Turkey was her pessimism about the future.
Recalling the oft-repeated cliches and warnings about "Turkey becoming Iran" under a conservative government, Baybuğa said she has found herself feeling a bit naive lately.
"I feel like this slogan of fear, which we laughed at in [past] years, is coming to life," Baybuğa told Turkey recap.
"There are universities everywhere, but the quality of education is miserable. Imams serve as educators in schools," she continued. "Those in power and the people who support them terrify me. I lost my sense of belonging to this country. I don't want my daughter to live like this."
Belma Yıldıztaş, an Ankara resident, defines living in Turkey as a life-long concern but admits the results of the final elections intensified her fears.
"There’s always been a threat against disadvantaged groups in Turkey, and even though those threats are not pointed directly at me, it does not decrease my anxiety," the mother of two said.
“Turkey wouldn’t be a country I’d choose to live in myself,” she continued. “But I had faith in what we could do to contribute to change. Now that I have children, it pushes me to prioritize our own lives.”
Working in civil society, Yıldıztaş said she worried that some more recent policies and practices run counter to egalitarianism and secularism. The economic crisis was another factor pushing her to seek alternatives.
"I feel poor for the first time in a long time," she said. "I can maintain the standards I have provided for my children, but it is only possible with sacrifices. It's not hard to imagine how much more sacrifice this will require in the days to come."
“Never feel financially secure”
Journalist Barış Altıntaş also finds the economic conditions alarming.
"We pay our taxes, but those never return to us in terms of quality education," Altıntaş said. "I only have one child. Yet I never feel financially secure with the mounting school fees and other costs."
Polarization in Turkey, which Altıntaş believes significantly increased after the coup attempt in 2016, was another reason for her concerns about raising a child in the country.
Though she wants to continue living in Turkey, Altıntaş confessed, "I would love to be able to provide my child with the opportunity to reside in the EU in the future … Raising a child in Turkey is becoming more and more difficult every day."
Another mother, Selvinaz Karaboğa, is from Adıyaman, a southeastern province that was heavily affected by the Feb. 6 earthquakes. The 57-year-old financial consultant compared the current situation with events from Turkey’s contemporary history, like the 1980 coup and the 2001 financial crisis
"This one is worse than others," Karaboğa told Turkey recap, adding she has four children and one grandchild. "With the decline in the freedoms and the economic situation we live in, I fear for their future. Yet I still sell hope to my children even though I lost it all."
Reflecting on recent trends, Fazilet Taştan, a lawyer in Şanlıurfa, said she didn’t believe there was a way to protect children from what's happening around them.
"We thought they weren't aware of anything, but when the election results saddened us, they hugged and tried to comfort us," she recalled.
"I'm planning to send my children abroad for school," Taştan continued. "It became almost impossible to reach quality education and health services here. The future worries me."
Diego Cupolo, co-founder + editor @diegocupolo
Gonca Tokyol, freelance journalist @goncatokyol
Ingrid Woudwijk, freelance journalist @deingrid
Verda Uyar, freelance journalist @verdauyar
Gökalp Badak, editorial intern @gklpbdk