By Halime T. Dasbilek, Esq., Mona Shah, Esq., and Rebecca S. Singh, Esq.
This article is an installment in our ongoing series on Turkish immigration.
On February 6th, 2023, the Kahramanmaras region of Turkey (Türkiye) was hit with a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake. The amount of property damage was astounding, as nearly 300,000 buildings either collapsed or were severely damaged. The larger tragedy of course lies with the massive death toll, which is estimated to be over 52,000. The disaster not only claimed thousands of lives, but also dealt a blow to the regional economy, which was already suffering from skyrocketing inflation and a weakening currency. The world was shocked by the photos and videos of the aftermath of the disaster, and new stories and details of the earthquake’s destruction are still coming to light.
The earthquake was caused by the Anatolian plate moving Southwest towards the Arabica plate. According to Italian seismologist Carlo Doglioni, Turkey has actually moved an estimated five or six meters, putting the country in a tenuous position from this point forward. The World Health Organization (“WHO”) said it was the “worst natural disaster” in the European region for a century. Outside of the death toll, WHO estimates that about 14 million people (an alarming sixth of the country’s total population) have been affected by the disaster in one way or another.
The effects of this natural disaster will certainly be far-reaching and will continue to be seen for years to come as Turkey works to repair and rebuild, as well as mourn the loss of so many of its people. Turkey is estimated to have taken economic damages of more than $50 billion, according to the World Bank. This amount is equivalent to four (4) percent of the country’s 2021 GDP and does not even account for the eventual costs of reconstruction, which could potentially be twice as expensive.
And as much of the world rallies around the affected areas, including the EB-5 focused group IIUSA which has started a fundraiser, we look to what this devastation might change about immigration both into and out of Turkey. Even the European Investment Bank, which previously had banned any financing in Turkey for four years, lifted these restrictions to allow for an aid package of up to 500 million euros. Additionally, a recent United Nations Development Program (UNDP) briefly advanced the idea of a “Türkiye Compact,” proposing that Canada, the European Union, and the United States extend trade concessions to Turkey, enabling private businesses to expand their exports and in return create formal and sustainable employment for both refugees and locals. If implemented, the Türkiye Compact would be a victory for all parties involved. It would reduce Syrian refugees’ dependence on humanitarian assistance, help alleviate public resentment, and diminish the prospects of secondary movements. Most importantly, it could become an organic part of regional reconstruction efforts. Beyond Turkey, it offers a template for other low- and middle-income countries that together host 74% of the world’s 32.5 million refugees. With the support of the global community, Turkey is well-positioned to navigate these changes and emerge stronger and more resilient than ever before.
A compiling list of national issues.
The February earthquake contributes to what was already a troubling housing crisis in Turkey. Turkey has witnessed a major domestic migration in the aftermath of massive earthquakes in early February, with nearly 2 million people having moved from quake-stricken areas to neighboring provinces since the disaster. According to the data announced by the Turkish Statistical Institute, Housing sales across Turkey decreased by 18% in February 2023 compared to the same month of the previous year.
The Country’s housing problem worsened, as thousands of people have left the region in search of safer places. Immigration to the western parts of the country has, in a very short period of time, spiked the rental prices further amid an already existing housing shortage.
This is also not the first time Turkey has dealt with the aftermath of an earthquake. As recently as 2019, the nation was faced with the arduous task of repairing its damaged infrastructure. Just as this period of mourning began, the Turkish people must already experience the shock and horror again.
Meanwhile, Istanbulites are worried that the city of 16 million with its overcrowded and shoddy buildings is likely to be hit by a powerful earthquake at some point in the future since it is situated near the North Anatolian Fault. However, the earthquake has also led to a change in the attitudes of Turkish citizens towards immigration. Many people who were previously opposed to immigration have now become more sympathetic to the plight of refugees and migrants. This has resulted in a greater willingness to accept immigrants into the country and provide them with the support they need.
One of the other important effects of the earthquake is the increase in the number of people seeking asylum in other countries. The disaster left many people homeless and jobless, and with the ongoing economic crisis, it has become challenging for them to rebuild their lives. As a result, many Turkish citizens are now looking to emigrate to other countries where they can start anew. This will likely lead to a spike in Turkish immigration applications in countries such as the USA, Germany, the UK, and Canada, which have historically been popular destinations for Turkish migrants.
Old construction poses new danger.
The earthquake has also drawn attention to another problem, which is that the construction of many of Istanbul’s structures preceded laws enforcing stricter, safer building standards, ones that would ensure new structures can better resist seismic activity. This means that not only is it likely that the rest of the country was built similarly, but that the purchase of any new property would come with the added expense of renovation and following the new, stricter building codes.
However, there is a chance that these improved and enforced regulations could usher in a new era of real estate projects, ones that are made with disaster preparedness more in mind. Turkey vowed to implement changes to its building practices following the tragic 1999 Kocaeli province earthquake that left seventeen thousand dead. It instituted new construction rules and implemented mandatory earthquake insurance for all buildings. Architects and urban planners have been warning for years that the rules are not being followed strictly enough. This is an issue that cuts across Turkey’s partisan divide and needs much greater public scrutiny ahead of the May 14 elections. The incentive to provide Turkey with more up-to-code buildings is not only an investment opportunity, but a humanitarian one that could ensure the safety of the Turkish people. But fears of future tremors, particularly in heavily populated Istanbul, have certainly made people rethink their plans for any property purchases in the area.
The problem then becomes that in order to immigrate to Turkey by means of investment, one must purchase property within the country. Suffice it to say that market has now been significantly diminished. Turkey is not a particularly large country, and this horrific blow to its housing and infrastructure means that the area in which there is viable property to purchase has also shrunk.
Turkey’s devastating earthquake comes at a critical time for the country’s future.
With so much happening in the region, it is important to make sure that the cost of human lives is not depreciated, people’s deaths do not become mere figures in statistics, and necessary lessons are learned. There is also a risk that the devastating consequences of the earthquake, just months ahead of critical elections, will be used for political manipulations and information operations—both internally and externally. The outcome of the elections largely depends on the performance to be shown in the recovery process after the 6 February earthquakes.“The recovery process after the earthquake will be the determining factor.”
Legislative and presidential elections will go ahead as planned on May 14 despite the earthquake, and though The president declared a three-month state of emergency across the quake region from the month of February 2023, was fueling rumors that the vote could be postponed. It’s still unclear how voting security will be restored and displaced people will be able to cast a vote.
The elections appear to be the most crucial for Erdogan, in power first as prime minister and then president since 2003. The result of that election has massive consequences for Turkey’s population, economy, currency, and democracy.
How does this upcoming election relate to immigration? It is significant simply because the left-wing party which opposes Erdogan has been vocally anti-CBI; Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has said that the sale of houses to foreigners will be banned for a period of five years if his party comes to power in the upcoming elections.
In a series of tweets on Feb. 21, he wrote that the ban will stay in execution until the house prices fall.
“They [the government] have set up a system that is insulting to its citizens in the country of earthquakes and where millions are homeless. When we come [to power], we will prevent the sale of houses to foreigners for five years and that ban will not be lifted unless the prices fall. We have so many things to correct,” he wrote.
Kılıçdaroğlu also criticized the value-added tax exemption for foreigners buying houses in foreign currency.
Erdogan has relied on the country’s construction sector over his two decades in power, boasting of a modernization drive that has built roads, bridges and tunnels. The post-quake rebuilding effort could yield economic rewards, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The boost to output from reconstruction activities may largely offset the negative impact of the disruption to economic activity.
While there are still challenges to be addressed, the country is taking steps to become more welcoming and supportive of immigrants. This is a positive development that will benefit both immigrants and the wider Turkish community in the long run. With a renewed focus on safety, wellbeing, and skilled workers, Turkish immigration is set to undergo significant changes in the coming years, hopefully the majority of which will be positive.
Aaron Muller contributed to this article.
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