Almost as many Turks as Iraqis want EU asylum. Why?

It is not just the war zones of the Middle East that are producing refugees

Refugees from Greece arrive at the airport in Hanover, Germany, Thirsday, April 22, 2021. A year after the start of the action to take in people in need of protection from Greek refugee camps, a plane carrying migrants has landed in Germany for the last time for the time being. A total of almost 3,000 people were taken from deplorable conditions in the camps on the Greek islands. (Julian Stratenschulte/dpa via AP)
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When Europe’s migrant crisis first erupted six years ago, the continent was inundated with a wave of asylum applicants, the bulk of whom hailed from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2015, the number of applicants requesting resettlement in the EU from those three countries tripled, quadrupled and sextupled, respectively, compared with the previous year.

Although the precise reasons why it all seemed to happen at once, in a single year, continue to be debated, the fact that Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq were the main points of origin was less perplexing, given the violent wars experienced there. And Europe was not the only destination for the people fleeing them. Large, middle-income countries in the region – Turkey and Iran chief among them – also absorbed millions of Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis.

They were hardly models of stability themselves. Turkey was witnessing the transformation of its dynamic republic into an increasingly authoritarian country, and although Iran had scored a nuclear deal with western powers that should have buoyed its economy, political sabre-rattling and mismanagement of public funds kept it crippled.

Data released by Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, show that, in the aftermath of the 2015 migrant crisis, increasing numbers of Turks and Iranians have sought to become asylum claimants themselves. According to the agency’s figures, asylum claims from Iranian nationals shot up in 2016 to more than 36,000, quadruple those of two years earlier. Since 2017, they have been overtaken by claims from Turks, who increased their asylum claims by a whopping 520 per cent in the four years up to 2019. Last year, more than 15,000 Turks travelled to Europe as refugees, just a few thousand fewer than the number of Iraqis who did the same.

A stream of refugees out of Iran was, perhaps, a long time coming. The country has been in almost-perpetual economic stagnation and political isolation since its so-called Islamic Revolution, and the flood of Afghans, many of whom were living in Iranian camps, to Europe likely inspired many Iranians to join the trip.

But the trend in Turkey is the result of the more recent, eccentric and oppressive path the country has headed down in recent years. The alienation of ethnic minorities has created an atmosphere of hostility in many eastern and southern Turkish cities, home to large Kurdish and Arab populations. Young people, particularly students, have seen employment opportunities diminish as a result of erratic economic policies and crackdowns on political protests.

Since 2019, Europe has been much tougher on asylum claims and worked to stifle the smuggling routes that support them. Many Syrians and Afghans have been deported back to the wars from whence they fled, and the numbers of new arrivals from the Middle East more generally have shrunk somewhat.

The border freezes caused by Covid-19 will have helped stem the tide. Consequently, many of those fleeing war elsewhere in the region have diverted their ambitions back to Turkey. But for its own people as well as those seeking safety there, it is not quite the haven it once was.