Returning home or forced out, thousands of Iraqis leave Turkey

The 46,000 Iraqis who left the country last year constitute the highest number of departures by a single nationality

Members of Iraq’s Turkmen community prepare to return from Ankara with transport provided by the ITF party. Photo: Iraqi Turkmen Front
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When Ahmed Albayati swapped the southern Iraqi oil centre of Basra for the Turkish resort of Antalya in late 2018, the difference between the two cities was clear.

A water pollution crisis in Basra had caused more than 100,000 people to fall sick, including one of his daughters, who is now nine years old.

There were widespread demonstrations over poor service provision by the government.

“There was a water crisis, protests; the political situation was not stable,” Mr Albayati, 35, an oil and gasfield worker, told The National.

By comparison, in Antalya, his family of four lived within a five-minute walk from a Mediterranean beach, and his daughters studied at good international school where they learnt English, Russian and Turkish.

“My family enjoyed their time there – Antalya was very friendly for expats, and the majority of people where I was living were Britons, Ukrainians and Russians,” Mr Albayati said.

“My daughter’s school helped her to speak a really very good level of English.”

Due to its geographical position, Turkey has long been a final destination for migrants, as well as a transit point, mostly for people travelling from east to west and hoping to reach Europe.

But increasingly tough living conditions have made Mr Albayati change his mind. The Covid-19 pandemic, followed by prolonged economic turmoil, led to increasing stress among Turks that was often taken out on migrant communities, he said.

In March this year, he moved his family back to Basra.

“When the economy worsened, even though I was doing well, I started to feel a lot of stress,” he said.

He described increasing hostility and resentment by Turks towards expatriates, especially Arabs.

When you read the news, how the Turks are suffering because of the economy and the media repeats every day how they don’t like Arabs coming in – this gave me a lot of stress. This was why it was good to leave
Ahmed Albayati, Iraqi expatriate in Turkey

“When you read the news, how the Turks are suffering because of the economy and the media repeats every day how they don’t like Arabs coming in – this gave me a lot of stress. This was why it was good to leave.”

Mr Albayati has found another good school for his daughters in Basra, a city he describes as having “changed a lot” for the better in the time he was away.

He has no plans to move from Iraq again.

“The kids like it here,” he said. “But from time to time, they still remember this place [Antalya] because they also had a very good life there.”

Large exodus

Mr Albayati is not alone. According to Turkish government statistics, a net 46,000 Iraqis left the country last year – by far the highest number of departures by any single nationality. About 275,000 Iraqis are still in Turkey, statistics show.

Many of those leaving are returning to Iraq, according to Turkish and Iraqi governments, and political officials.

They described how worsening economic conditions in Turkey, increased difficulties obtaining residency documents and, sometimes, racism have driven thousands to return to their home country.

“It’s not forced returns, it’s voluntary returns, but because of a strained situation,” said a senior Iraqi government official.

Turkey’s economy has been going through a sustained period of instability, with low interest rates driving runaway inflation, currently at 62 per cent.

“The inflation is crazy. The prices for the daily groceries increase on a daily basis and the same for rent and bills,” said Zaid al-Hasani, 38, from Baghdad, who left Ankara in June last year.

Others are returning to Iraq because of improved safety and job prospects in their home country.

Iraqi Turkmen

Among them are thousands of Iraq's Turkmen minority going back to areas they fled during the ISIS takeover.

According to Kutluhan Yaycili, a representative of the Iraqi Turkmen Front political party in Ankara, about 120,000 Turkmen fled northern Iraq for Turkey in 2014, mostly from Mosul and the Turkmen-majority town of Telafar.

Over the past year, the Iraqi Turkmen Front has helped about 3,000-and-counting Iraqi Turkmen to return to Iraq, including support in obtaining new copies of lost personal identification documents, help retrieving property from squatters and providing transport back across the border, he said.

For Turkmen politicians, there is an incentive to encourage returns to Iraq: they fear that their absence will allow other groups in Iraq’s political landscape, divided along ethnic and sectarian lines, to dominate Telafar, instead.

“For us, Telafar is the largest city in Iraq,” Mr Yayçılı told The National. “More than 90 per cent of the population is Turkmen, and we want them to return because we don’t want to lose the region. If you are not present there, other groups will come in.”

Jaafar Al-Talafary, an activist living in Telafar, confirmed that many former residents had returned from Turkey in the past year.

The town was badly damaged in the war against ISIS but reconstruction had since improved the availability of basic services, he said.

“There is reconstruction, and the [Iraqi] government is providing compensation to those whose homes and properties were damaged,” he said by phone from Telafar.

Other Iraqis are moving on from Turkey to third countries.

Mr Al-Hasani did not return to Iraq but instead moved to Canada through an official refugee resettlement programme.

In Iraq, there is “general corruption in every governmental or private institution, plus the unstable political and security situation which make it impossible to raise children or plan for your future,” he said from Burlington, Ontario.

Forced returns

While many Iraqis are leaving Turkey voluntarily, others are being detained and sometimes deported, according to human rights lawyers and migration observers.

About 7,800 Iraqis have been detained as “irregular migrants” this year – the highest number since 2019, according to Turkish government figures.

The Turkish government is clamping down on migrants who overstay their visas or enter the country without one, according to observers.

“The government's policy, especially in the past six months, has been very tough and they are trying to send them back, especially to bordering counties – Syria, Iraq, Iran, etc,” said Murat Erdogan, a Turkish academic specialising in migration.

Claiming asylum has become almost impossible in Turkey, according to human rights lawyer Mahmut Kacan. That has left migrants, including many Iraqis, vulnerable to detention and deportation.

“For the past two years, the asylum system has been out of reach,” Mr Kacan said.

“Say you arrive from Iraq, if you go to the migration management centre to claim asylum, your claim is not received and you will be taken into administrative detention,” he said.

He cited the example of a client from northern Iraq who was deported several months ago, after his asylum claim was not processed.

“This was a case I followed, but I believe there are many cases like this,” MrKacan said

Turkey’s migration management authority did not respond to The National's request for comment.

Updated: December 15, 2023, 5:51 AM