Şebnem Köşer Akçapar

I have known Dr. Şebnem Köşer Akçapar from her contribution in the book Land of Diverse Migrations: Challenges of Emigration and Immigration in Turkey, published by Bilgi University. Here, she wrote a chapter titled “Turkish Highly Skilled Migration to the United States: New Findings and Policy Recommendations”. Back in those days when I read the chapter, I was working on a paper about the Turkish diaspora in the US. So, the chapter was very useful to my research. I think, in Turkey, almost everyone, who studies or conducts research about migration, encounters at least one of her works. In one of our weekly editorial courses (since every week one of the editorial board members of BMS makes a comprehensive presentation on a certain issue of migration studies), I have made a presentation on the religious conversions of refugees. It is a very interesting phenomenon worth to be investigated at length, as some of the forced migrants in Turkey and rejected asylum seekers converted from Islam to a certain denomination in Christianity voluntarily. She suggested that while some were doing it as part of their migration project to find refuge in the global North, some were genuine in fact. So, I have learned so much from her work titled “Conversion as a Migration Strategy in a Transit Country”. She also wrote about the importance of social networks in transit migration and different variables in facilitating migration flows. However, in this interview, I will mainly focus on the diaspora aspect.


Today, I’m happy to introduce our interview with Şebnem Köşer Akçapar, currently working at Koç University Sociology Department.


Thanks so much for accepting our request. Could you tell yourself briefly to our readers?

It is my pleasure indeed to find a voice to reach a young audience other than my own students. I started studying migration in the 1990s not because it was popular. In fact, when I was conducting my Ph.D. fieldwork, there were only a couple of scholars working on this very important topic in Turkey. Now there are so many looking at different aspects of migration studies. This is a welcoming development. I became interested in international migration simply because I had a first-hand experience of living in Germany and Belgium. The 1990s were troubling times for the Turkish immigrants in Western Europe because of neo-Nazi attacks, economic hardships due to reunification and its spill-over effects. First, I was involved in migrant women’s associations and worked as a social worker. The lack of acceptance by the native population and the integration problems of Turkish immigrants were quite obvious. My master’s thesis was about the Mother-Child Project developed by late Prof. Çiğdem Kağıtçıbaşı that we adapted for the Turkish women migrant community. My Ph.D. was about transit migration from Iran through Turkey. Then, I went to Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration as post-doc researcher, and I focused on Turkish skilled migration in the United States, diaspora formation, and political mobilization. Back in Turkey, I now focus on Syrian refugees, public perception of migrants, and the citizenship debate.


Now, you are working at Koç University and giving an undergraduate course, International Migration. What would you say about the contents of the course? Is it popular among the students?

The course is open to senior students from IR, Sociology, and Psychology Departments and titled “International Migration in a Global World”. Throughout the semester, we discuss sociological and political dimensions of international migration. We examine major issues such as the underlying reasons for migration, like failing states, ethnic strife, civil wars, climate change, economic disparities, uneven effects of development, as well as challenges and opportunities that migration brings about. Human security, securitization of migration, human smuggling, integration, feminization of migration, transnationalism are other broader concepts that we also focus and examine in detail through case studies all around the world. Of course, Turkey offers an interesting case study as we see different types of migration – irregular migration, labor migration, international student flows and forced migration. I am glad to say that it is a quite popular course and students are expected to conduct fieldwork and write research papers on a specific topic ranging from LGBTI refugees in Turkey to German-Turks and generational differences, media representations of migrants, internal displacement, returnees, and Alevis as diasporans.


It seems like there is a rising tendency on migration studies, nowadays. What do you recommend to young researchers in Turkey? In which areas are still needed to be studied?

When it comes to migration, there are so many issues and problems to be discussed. I believe it is best to choose a topic that they are passionate about. For example, we still do not have a solid theory to work with on migration. New research should not be repetitive and based on extensive fieldwork and analysis so that it could pave the way for a ground-breaking theory. Why not? This is a time when European, American, even Chinese young scholars come to Turkey to carry out research. Turkey indeed offers a vast opportunity as a case study. Comparative research is also valuable. There is so much we can learn if we compare different ethnic and religious groups residing in different countries, how different countries try to manage migration flows and channel remittances as well as how nation-states seek the support of their diasporic members through state-led transnationalism.


It will be a little “theoretical” question but you don’t have to answer theoretically. You have a number of articles on “the diasporas in the US” such as Ahıska Turks, Turkish Americans, and Uyghurs. In a different one, you deal with Indian and Turkish diasporas in a comparative approach. What would you want to share us about those works? My question is how the diasporas affect building a transnational identity? Do they have a facilitating function or not? Are there “Kreuzbergs” in the US?

Ahıska Turks, Turkish Americans, and Uygurs have all different migration experiences in the US. Ahiska Turks were resettled in different cities in the United States by a concerted initiative by IOM (International Migration Organization) and the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) from a certain rural region in the Russian Federation. They were mainly discriminated, less educated, not given citizenship and twice displaced already. As a result, large numbers of came to the US together and integration programs were put in place even from day one. Uyghurs, on the other hand, went to the US by using their own social networks and applied for refugee status on a personal basis. The reason of their out-migration was very political, so their transnational identity was shaped accordingly. Their objective was mainly by bringing the attention of American public to their cause. They also have dense transnational networks with other Uyghurs living in Germany and in Turkey. Despite the historical background of migration to the New World in the early 20th Century from the Ottoman Empire, Turkish Americans mainly started to arrive in the US as highly-skilled in the 1970s. The profile of Turkish immigrants in the US diversified after the 1980s and 1990s with the influx of unskilled and semi-skilled. They established ethnic neighborhoods in Patterson, New Jersey – similar to Kreuzberg or Kleine Istanbul in Berlin. From a theoretical perspective, what I am trying to underline is that reasons for migration, migration experiences, political opportunity structures available to those immigrants in the host country, socio-economic background of migrants are important determinants in building a transnational identity among migrant populations.

By comparing Indian and Turkish diasporas and the diaspora engagement of Turkey and India, I also wanted to show that transnational political and economic activities of diasporas take place within the framework of a triadic relationship: ethnic diasporas and their organizations, homeland politics and policies of countries of settlement. These three actors are in constant negotiation with each other. Interestingly, India and Turkey discovered their soft power and investment capacity of their diasporas in the United States quite recently. Both countries departed from the earlier perspectives of classifying them as part of brain-drain and thereby loss for homeland and developed many initiatives after the 1990s to attract more FDI and philanthropic involvement with the ever-intensifying transnational activities with circular migrants, returnees and those who stayed behind.  


You have spent 3 years as visiting professor in New Delhi. So, please let me ask how do the diasporas affect Indian national identity? What is the stance of the national government?

Indian diaspora members help build a better India. They took up many philanthropic projects in the field of education, gender equality, medicine. They establish businesses and invest in India. There is a constant flow of ideas, know-how, especially in the IT sector. The Indian government is also working to facilitate investments, reverse brain drain by ensuring technology and skills transfer from the US to India. Diaspora Conventions are held every year since 2003 to engage Indians living abroad. These large gatherings mark the contribution of Indian diasporic community in the development of India. There are many influential Indian-American diaspora institutions, such as Pratham USA, the American India Foundation, Tie Global, the National Federation of India-American Associations working for India and the community living in the US. The Indian-Americans are also seen as a unifying force between the two countries when it comes to lobbying on important political issues.


What about the diasporas in Turkey? Do you think that they have noteworthy power as a pressure group, as an NGO network?

Turkish diaspora is an important factor in Turkey’s foreign relations. The new Turkish diaspora policy is shaped by the recognition of an emerging transnational Turkish diaspora in Western Europe and the US. In the early 2000s, the government mainly needed its diaspora to refurbish the image of Turkey and to boost the stale EU membership agenda. As part of the outreach to its diaspora, Turkey granted its immigrants the right to have dual citizenship in 1981. External electoral participation, i.e. out-of-the-country voting, was practiced in 2014 for the first time during the Presidential elections and later on, during the general elections in 2015. Most recently, we witnessed the repercussions of April 16th referendum process in Germany and in the Netherlands. These events were tragic and certainly needed to be handled by diplomatic ways.

However, Turkey’s engagement with its diasporic communities in Western Europe and the US also differed to a great extent. In Germany, there is a large Turkish immigrant population, around 3 million, of which 1.383,040 have Turkish citizenship. Yet, these immigrants from Turkey are very heterogeneous, from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, such as Kurds, Alevis, and Assyrians. In addition to heterogeneity, the socio-cultural composition and political inclination of Turkish diaspora in Germany have changed in time. The earlier migrant workers which started to head for Germany in the 1960s came from rural backgrounds and the later immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s were urban, more educated and political dissidents. Therefore, other than already hostile migrant organizations like the Kurdish Associations, the lobbying potential in Germany by Turkish migrant organizations was quite limited for two major reasons: a) the lack of willingness to lobby on behalf of Turkish government due to differences in opinion or fear of losing institutional autonomy, like Alevi Community in Germany (AAAF); b) the focus of certain migrant organizations like Turkish Community in Germany (TGD) and Federation of Democratic Workers’ Associations (DIDF) with large representation to secure equal treatment in Germany rather than to be mobilized as lobbying force by Turkey.

In the United States, the highly-skilled, highly educated and ‘Kemalist’ actors in diaspora continue to support Turkey against Armenian and Greek diasporas and build a Turkey caucus in the House of Representatives despite their distance to the governing party. New actors supporting Kurdish and Alevi rights and those with more close ties to government also emerged. Diyanet Center of America (Turkish American Community Center) is run by state officials from Turkey with a giant mosque complex in Maryland and offering Koran courses and community-building activities for the more observant in the US. Turkish American Cultural Society (TACS) is working closely with another government institution which funds migrant organizations in the US. After the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016, there has been an ongoing effort to put an end to the activities of Gulenists and their organizations, namely American Turkish Friendship Association (ATFA) and Rumi Forum in the US. Other than the fragmentation, the number of Turkish-American diaspora is estimated as 250,000. So, since they are not a voting block in the US and have lost the support of the Jewish diaspora after soaring ties with Israel, their impact is smaller as a pressure group.

Thanks again for your answers. Let me conclude by asking whether there is anything you would recommend to Bosphorus Migration Studies?

Thank you. Just one sentence: “Keep up the good work!”

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