Posted on April 5, 2021

The Turkish Diaspora in Europe

Max Hoffman et al., Center for American Progress, December 10, 2020

Introduction and summary

More than 5 million people of Turkish descent live in Europe outside Turkey itself, a human connection that has bound Turkey and the wider European community together since large-scale migration began in the 1960s. The questions of immigration, citizenship, integration, assimilation, and social exchange sparked by this migration and the establishment of permanent Turkish diaspora communities in Europe have long been politically sensitive. Conservative and far-right parties in Europe have seized upon issues of migration and cultural diversity, often engaging in fearmongering about immigrant communities and playing upon some Europeans’ anxiety about rapid demographic change. Relations between the European Union—as well as many of its constituent member states—and Turkey have deteriorated dramatically in recent years. And since 2014, Turks abroad, in Europe and elsewhere around the world, have been able to vote in Turkish elections, leading to active campaigning by some Turkish leaders in European countries. For these and several other reasons, political and academic interest in the Turkish diaspora and its interactions with European society and politics has significantly increased in recent years.

The Turkish and Turkish-Kurdish diaspora feels at home in Europe overall, its members expressing high levels of satisfaction with their living circumstances and general contentment with host nations’ integration policies. Ethnic Turks and Kurds living in Germany, France, Austria, and the Netherlands feel their presence is generally accepted by their non-Turkish and non-Kurdish neighbors and colleagues, and they are pleased with the educational and economic opportunities the host nations offer. For most, these positives outweigh the still meaningful levels of discrimination they encounter in their daily lives.

The diaspora is largely uninterested in European politics, with few strong grievances against the authorities and little involvement in party politics in the countries in question. Diaspora communities in France and the Netherlands appear more fully integrated into those societies than do communities in Germany and Austria. Nevertheless, across the board, most in the Europe-based Turkish diaspora continue to identify themselves first and foremost as Turks rather than as full members of the societies they inhabit, and they remain more absorbed with developments and politics in Turkey than in their current countries of residence. In short, they strongly endorse, implicitly and explicitly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s maxim that Turks in Europe should “integrate but not assimilate,” even as their precise understanding of that phrase is open to interpretation.

These findings, and many others, are revealed in a public opinion survey of Turkish diaspora communities in four European countries, conducted from November 2019 to January 2020 by the Center for American Progress, the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), the Foundation Max van der Stoel, and the Fondation Jean-Jaurès.

This report builds upon previous CAP public opinion research on national identity in Turkey and casts light on how the Turkish diaspora feels about European host countries; how Europeans of Turkish descent identify with Turkey and the Turkish community; and how these communities feel about the European Union and crucial issues of integration, migration, and politics. {snip}


Key findings

One in five Turks living in the sampled countries say they plan to return to Turkey to live, while 72 percent want to remain in their current country of residence. The proportion of Germany-based respondents who say they plan to return or move to Turkey is slightly higher, at 24 percent, than in the other countries.


Most respondents identify primarily as a Turk—72 percent overall—and few identify primarily as a member of the host nation, though the French diaspora community is somewhat distinct in this regard, with a larger minority identifying primarily as French. There is considerable diversity, variation, and nuance in respondents’ answers to the questions about what is important to them. Yet the concepts of “Turkishness,” religion, and passing down Turkish traditions to the next generation are all very important to respondents, with all of these being given significantly more importance than identification with the host nation.

Responses on the use of language reveal a clear—and unsurprising—divide between the language used at home and that used at work: Most respondents speak the language of the host country at work but prefer Turkish at home. They are fairly split in the language they use to get their news, but Turkish is clearly favored when it comes to entertainment. Respondents rate their knowledge of Turkish highly. (Only 6 percent of the respondents self-identify primarily as Kurds, and they likewise rate their knowledge of Kurdish highly, though not quite as highly as Turks rate their Turkish.) Not surprisingly, the younger generation reports being more proficient in the language of their host country than older members of the diaspora, who are less likely to have been immersed in it from an early age.

{snip} There is a high degree of interest in news about Turkey, far more than there is in news about the country of residence. Younger respondents are somewhat less focused on news from Turkey than are older respondents, but they still register as much interest in news about Turkey as about their country of residence.

In general, respondents have positive views toward their own Turkish community in their host country, positive views of the local non-Turkish population, somewhat positive views of the Kurdish community, and only slightly positive views of non-Turkish migrants and refugees.

Members of the diaspora community say they perceive a fair amount of discrimination toward Turks in their host country, but few respondents report being personally insulted or physically attacked for their ethnicity. Many respondents feel that discrimination hurts their career prospects. Views diverge on whether the host country government treats the Turkish community equally with the majority community.

Respondents overwhelmingly say they are happy living in their current country, but a majority—albeit a somewhat smaller one—also say they would be happier in Turkey. Most respondents say their current country is more democratic than Turkey. Nevertheless, most respondents would like to see their host country be more supportive of Turkey. Better bilateral relations, they seem to feel, would mean a better situation for Turks in their current country. Somewhat contradictorily, respondents are divided on whether it is important to defend Turkish policies themselves—and, interestingly, very few say they feel pressure to do so from Turkish government representatives.

Responses are mixed on whether their current country has done a good job integrating Turkish immigrants. Although most respondents say they “feel at home” in their host country, a strong majority say that the Turkish community should be more connected to the non-Turkish community. But equally, a very strong majority of respondents say that the Turkish community should retain its separate identity. These competing desires for connection and separate community affinity seem to reinforce a reflexive adherence to the idea of assimilation without integration—a notion promoted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and explicitly embraced by a broad majority of respondents.

Turks who lack citizenship in their host country are more critical of the host country’s integration efforts than those who are already citizens. Indeed, those who have citizenship are more positive about virtually every aspect of life in the host country. This is perhaps to be expected, since citizenship is among the ultimate measures of full integration on an individual level.

There is strong agreement that respondents’ children receive a good education in their current country. Respondents also feel strongly that the schools in their current country are better than schools in Turkey. Few would prefer their kids to grow up and be educated in Turkey. A strong majority of respondents feel that Turks have a fair chance to attend university in their host country. Views are mixed on whether there is sufficient access to Turkish-language and Islamic education, but few would prefer that Islamic schooling replace public schooling for their children.

Perhaps because of this overall contentment with life in their current country, and despite most respondents reporting living in their current country for a long time—27.5 years, on average, in the whole sample—most say they do not participate in the politics of their current country. Related to this, most even say they do not feel politically represented in their current country; citizens feel more represented than those who only hold Turkish citizenship, but even most citizens report a lack of a sense of representation.

Overall, there is little interest in European politicians and, in general, limited engagement with European politics and political parties, visible in high nonresponse rates to questions about those topics. In general, across countries—and among the relatively limited number of respondents who express opinions on these matters—the Turkish diaspora tends to favor left-wing politicians and political parties, usually has a mixed view of the current leader of the country, has little opinion of most other national and local politicians, and harbors understandable hostility toward far-right xenophobic leaders and parties.


When it comes to a football (soccer) match between Turkey and respondents’ current country—sometimes seen popularly as a measure of spontaneous identification—76 percent say they would support Turkey, 5 percent say they would support their current country, and 11 percent say they would support both. But when their current country plays a third country that is not Turkey, 79 percent say they would support their current country, while just 3.5 percent say they would support the other country.


Among the roughly 66 percent of the sample holding Turkish citizenship, a clear majority (roughly 56 percent) say they voted in the 2018 Turkish elections. Their self-reported preferences roughly mirror those in Turkey, although it is striking that the ultra-nationalist right wing seems to have minimal appeal in the diaspora {snip}


Identity, language, and citizenship


On the question of identity, respondents rated the importance of different aspects of their identity on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the least important and 10 being the most important. Traditional sources of identity—including ethnic background, religion, and cultural traditions—are quite important to nearly all respondents, though relatively less so to those in the French sample. In general, across questions, younger respondents place less emphasis on the various components of Turkish identity surveyed, while less educated respondents and those with less knowledge of the local language place more emphasis. Respondents uniformly place a very high importance on their Turkish or Kurdish identity, with an overall weight of 8.70.

Religion is also deemed very important, given an overall weight of 7.84, ranging from a high of 8.59 in Austria to a low of just 6.20 in France. As with ethnic identity, older respondents place more importance on their religion than do younger respondents. Respondents say it is very important to maintain Turkish/Kurdish traditions and pass them on to their children, giving this an overall weight of 8.57, ranging from 8.80 in Germany to 7.88 in France. {snip}

Respondents place less emphasis on their host country identity—German, Austrian, French, or Dutch—with an overall weight of 5.92, with the French and Dutch respondents placing more emphasis, at 6.54 and 6.41, respectively. {snip}


In terms of language, again, most respondents speak the language of the host country at work but prefer Turkish at home. This is not surprising, as most of the younger generation of the diaspora are fully comfortable in the language of their host country—used in school and in their careers—but will often return in the evening to multigenerational households in which the older generation is more comfortable using Turkish, having come to the host country as adults. {snip}


Community relations and discrimination


This generally positive view of relations between the diaspora community and the wider national community is complicated somewhat by responses to a series of specific questions about discrimination, which paint a more nuanced picture. The survey asked how much a series of statements applied to the respondent, with 1 being “not at all” and 10 being “very much.” Respondents generally agree that there is discrimination against Turks and Kurds in their country of residence, with a weight of 6.17. There is variation among countries on this score, with respondents in Germany (6.75) and Austria (6.78) reporting higher levels of discrimination than respondents in France (4.71) and the Netherlands (5.71). Younger respondents are more likely to say there is discrimination, and men are more likely to do so than women.

At least at first glance, it is surprising that younger respondents, by most measures more integrated into host country societies than their elders, would perceive greater discrimination. As among the first to arrive in the host country, older residents have likely experienced equal or greater levels of discrimination. One might speculate that it is precisely because they feel more at home in the country that younger generations have higher expectations of equal treatment; better understand subtle forms of discrimination, thanks to their greater linguistic and cultural awareness; and feel more comfortable speaking out. {snip}

This trend holds when respondents are asked if they have ever been personally insulted or physically attacked by xenophobes; Germany reports the highest incidence (3.41), followed by Austria (2.78), France (1.69), and the Netherlands (1.48). Men and younger respondents are again more likely to report such attacks. The trend holds again when respondents are asked if they have been discriminated against because of their Turkish name or origin, with Germany reporting the highest incidence (4.48) and the others following in the same order as above, with an overall average of 3.89. In sum, respondents tend to see ample evidence of discrimination against the diaspora as a group, particularly in Germany and Austria, but do not tend frequently to experience the worst forms of discrimination personally.


Perhaps the best news in the survey is that respondents strongly agree that their German, French, Dutch, and Austrian neighbors and colleagues accept their presence, with an average weight of 8.83 across the survey and consistently high levels of agreement across all four countries and all demographic categories. This response is the closest to a note of unanimity in the entire survey and an impressive indication of a feeling of belonging or acceptance.

Integration and immigration


Respondents are divided about further immigration to their countries of residence; overall, they feel their countries should accept fewer immigrants, with a weight of 5.68, ranging from a low of 4.68 in France to a high of 6.01 in Germany. France is the only country where respondents favor more immigration, albeit narrowly.


Political engagement and European politics

{snip} In general, when Europe-based Turks do express an opinion about European politics, they lean toward social democratic parties and the Greens, with deep skepticism toward conservative parties and near-total rejection of populist, anti-immigrant parties.


The predilection of the Turkish diaspora—at least that portion of it that expresses any sort of political identity in the European context—for the European left stands in seeming contrast to a rightward tilt in many of the diaspora’s views on Turkish politics. Pending further study, this is presumably explained by the minority-friendly policies of left-wing political parties in Europe. The German Social Democratic Party, for example, pushed through a 1999–2000 reform to Germany’s citizenship law explicitly aimed at better-integrating Turkish immigrants—then, as now, seen as a large and somewhat distinct immigrant group worthy of special consideration—likely securing some affinity from the diaspora community. The French socialists have also been generally more responsive to immigrant demands than other French parties. {snip}



The survey presents a decidedly mixed picture for those who wish to see Turkish immigrants fully integrated into European societies. It reflects a generally positive—though far from perfect—record of cross-cultural accommodation and understanding. European Turks deeply appreciate their “adopted” countries—not only for the material advantages and professional and educational opportunities but also for less tangible values, such as freedom, organization, and the rule of law. {snip}

Yet the Turkish community’s primary sense of identity remains overwhelmingly Turkish. On a 1–10 scale, the community rated the importance of its Turkish identity at 8.70 and the importance of its religion at 7.84. These numbers exceed substantially the importance that European Turks place on identification with their country of residence. In short, most think of themselves first as Turkish or Muslim, rather than as Austrian, Dutch, French, or German.  {snip}