Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Cash Back: North African Migration to Turkey

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Usually, when we speak about “emigration destinations” for North African countries, we mean Europe, USA, Canada, and some Gulf countries. As the borders of these countries become more and more hermetically sealed, young migration candidates from North Africa have to choose between classic-but-risky clandestine migration or new opportunities in their home countries. These are on a growing economic trend [1] and encouraging investment to create new opportunities for the youth,[2] urging  young people not to take the emigration option as a solution for unemployment. Even so, a subset of North African migrants are moving in a new direction: Turkey. Statistics for this category have not yet been well established [3] but suggest that North Africans in Turkey are still a minority.

But unlike European countries, no visa is needed for North African migrants to enter Turkish territory. Thus entering Turkey is seen by some North African migrants as a way of entering the European Union clandestinely over the  Turkish-Greek border, although some people do choose to stay in Turkey.

Turkey has a long history in hosting migrants. If we just consider influxes from the beginning of the XXth century, we can distinguish the following major waves:

– Immigration of Muslims and Turkish-Greek exchange of population

– Immigration from Hungary

– Post-Soviet Union immigration from Bulgaria and Romania

– Iranian immigration

While traditional immigration destination countries for North Africans are facing economic crises and unemployment issues, Turkey is in a relatively stable growing trend and, unlike Spain and other European Union countries, is safely closing the Financial Crisis chapter (cf comparative unemployment charts, figures 1 and 2) and is able to attract economic migrants who are refugees from the “European dream” which no longer has a meaning. What are the reasons then why this shifting of migrants’ preferences from EU countries to Turkey is not yet happening?

Figure 1 - Spain's unemployement rate from 2004 to end 2010

Figure 1 - Spain's unemployement rate from 2004 to end 2010

Figure 2 - Turkey's unemployment rate from 2004 to end 2010

Figure 2 - Turkey's unemployment rate from 2004 to end 2010

During a two week stay in Turkey, between Istanbul, Ankara and the tourist cities of the south cost where occasional workers come to work in the summer season (Antalya, Izmir, Bodrum) I interviewed some migrants. The following interview with Karim (name changed on request), a 25 year old Moroccan living in Istanbul was most revealing[4]:

Lbadikho for FC_Org: Karim, you have a Bachelor’s degree and you were a member of a heavy metal band in Morocco. Tell me more about your previous life in Morocco, and why you decided to move to Turkey.

Karim: After my baccalaureate (high school leaving qualification equivalent to A levels), I did three years of cinema and audiovisual studies. After taking my degree, I did a short two year stint with a private company working for Moroccan TV. At the same time, my metal band applied to be part of “Le Boulevard des Jeunes Musiciens”. We were refused for 2008, but in 2009 we sent them a sample tape and our application was accepted so that we could play in “Le Boulevard”.

Lbadikho: Why migrate and why Turkey after all this?

Karim: I wanted international experience, and in Morocco I had a colleague who used to go to Turkey to make Turkish video clips. He gave me a lot of positive feedback about his time there and encouraged me to try the country.

Lbadikho: Indeed, I’ve heard that Turkish shows are popular on Moroccan TV these days, is the popularity warranted?

Karim: Yes, my opinion of Turkish shows is very positive, and when I watched Turkish shows on Moroccan TV, I realized that their work is not out of my reach and that I am able to work at such a level. On top of this, my bandmate was also planning to go to Turkey, and he persuaded me to come with him.

Lbadikho: For the same professional reasons?

Karim: No, he is here to work as an English teacher. He gives private classes and now works in a private language center. He has a Moroccan BA in English literature. He is luckier than me, he finds job offers easily!

Lbadikho: Have you met other migrants, especially North Africans, since you came to Istanbul?

Karim: In the beginning, my friend (the bandmate) proposed that we go and try to find Arab people here…

Lbadikho: (interrupting): In some way, you were looking for the Arab community here to make your integration “smoother”?

Karim: Yes, we thought it might be useful to know people speaking our own language. We started to go to Kumkapy [5] and found Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians, but also people from Sudan or Djibouti… All having the same objective: to cross to Greece and reach the Schengen zone. We met a lot of weird people there, like a Moroccan who pretended he was from France and told us that we will not find a job in Turkey, that we just have to jump on the first opportunity to cross to Greece, and that he could help us in this.

Lbadikho: While in fact he was a people smuggler?

Karim: Exactly! When we met him the second time he explicitly proposed to help us cross to Greece if we gave him money. That place (Kumkapy) was definitely not for us, our plan is to work in Turkey in the fields we graduated in, and we never went back there.

When I went to Kumkapy after this interview, I found out that the profile of people there is mainly migrant with no higher education. People with this  kind of profile are not as lucky as Karim and his friend in Turkey. Their only way to find a job in Europe is to work as illegal migrants in low-skilled jobs: in fast food, construction or agriculture. Turkey has no need of  such profiles, especially if people do not speak Turkish. Nevertheless, on the southern coast, some tourist areas do employ Arabic speaking migrants in bars, night clubs etc.

Lbadikho: So let me understand: on one hand, there are people with high education who can work here even if they do not speak Turkish, and on the other, people with low or no education coming to Turkey as a transit point to Europe. As I will go to Kumkapy to see people with the second profile, tell me more about yourself: what are your plans for Turkey in the long term?

Karim: Maybe I am repeating myself but my purpose in coming here was to gain international experience. The choice of Turkey –in addition to what I said before- was also motivated by the simple fact that getting a Schengen work visa is a lot of hassle but I can enter Turkey without any border complications! For the experience I am looking for, I have everything in Turkey I could expect from Europe but without any risk of having my visa refused!

Lbadikho: You’ve repeatedly mentioned “professional experience abroad”, should I guess from this that you have career plans back in Morocco?

Karim: I don’t think I will settle in Turkey. After a very short period of  six months, I intend to go back to Morocco.

Lbadikho: Happy to hear this, Karim, I hope you’re not saying it just like the first generations of migrants to Europe in the 1960s and 1970ss. We’ve  spoken a lot since we met about Kumkapy and the migrants looking for smugglers… Have you also met during your stay North Africans with other types of profiles? I mean people with university degrees who come to Turkey for itself and not as a transit to Europe?

Karim: Almost none. More interestingly, I have met many people from sub-Saharan countries coming here to study…

Lbadikho (interrupting): Sorry to interrupt I am not speaking about students, I have met many of them at the University of Istanbul, also students  from North Africa, I am asking you about people coming with degrees and seeking ‘regular jobs’ so to speak. Is it a new trend? Are there many people in the same case as you and Salim? Do you think there is now a trend of North African migration to Turkey?

Karim: I do not think there is a lot, but even so Turkey is going to be more and more attractive and I expect it will turn into a new trend in few years. But up to now, I have not met any cases like us, only people coming here to transit to Europe.

Lbadikho: That confirms what I have read in the literature where  I did not find reports speaking about immigration from North Africa to Turkey. The majority of works focus on classic immigration and population exchanges between Turkey and border countries…

Karim: But as Turkey might join the European Union, I think it is now a good time to come before the borders start closing…

Lbadikho: Thank you very much for talking with me, Karim.

Karim: You’re welcome.

After all’s said and done, the question still remains: why  do North Africans still prefer migrating to Europe, even clandestinely, rather than coming to Turkey legitimately where real job prospects exist?

Here, to conclude, are some answers:

Actually there is a lack of information coupled with prejudices about Turkey as it is culturally close to migrant exporter countries. Turkish emigration to Germany also fuels these prejudices. Moreover, Turkey is not a former colonizer of North Africa which means that migrants’ networks take more time to establish than they do in France, for instance. One has also to consider that North African communities in the European Union are attracting new migrants.

In addition to this, Turkey’s age pyramid is similar to that of the migrating countries and the country does not have a labour need in the same sectors of the population (blue collar and non-qualified) whereas opportunities do exist for white collar emigrants who, depending on their level of education, have an easier chance of migrating to Europe (business school grads, academics…)

Finally, the refusal of Turkey’s application for European Union membership also enhances prejudices.

[1] GDP average annual growth from 2000 to 2010 in Morocco and Tunisia is in the range of 4%.

[2] Particular cases are Morocco and Tunisia: both have encouraged tourism and off-shoring to promote employment, but as these two sectors have insignificant added value, they are not able to absorb the high unemployment rate among educated youth.

[3] Look at migration statistics for Turkey and see that no mention of North African is made in them, only Asia Minor, the Middle East and European border countries.

[4] In the same context, I met many Iranian students taking a break in their studies and working in Turkey, most of them came from the Turkish speaking Iranian province of Azerbaidjan.

[5] A neighbourhood in south European Istanbul, many north African migrants usually meet in Kumkapy where smugglers offer opportunities to cross to Greece.


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Mehdi Lbadikho Twitter: @L_badikho

Lbadikho, Engineer, Blogger at and co-founder of the Moroccan portal Also blogging about sustainable development issues in Morocco at