ZOiS Spotlight 5/2024

Turkey: A New Hub for Migration from Russia

by Félix Krawatzek 06/03/2024

Large numbers of Russians migrated to Turkey after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russians now constitute the largest migrant group to hold long- and short-term residence permits in Turkey. A new survey looks at their reasons for leaving Russia, their political attitudes and their plans for the future.

Istanbul, Turkey, February 2024: Strollers on the Galata Bridge with a view of the New Mosque © IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

Turkey is a critical player in Russia’s war against Ukraine. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government expresses support for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and has delivered military and diplomatic assistance. However, the country has not joined Western sanctions against Russia, and has become a top buyer of Russian gas and crude oil and a central hub for travel between the EU and Russia. As well as welcoming Ukrainians fleeing war, Turkey has kept its borders open for Russians leaving their country in the face of growing repressions. Events in the weeks preceding the Russian presidential election give them no reason to hope that the country’s authoritarian system will change any time soon.

In the summer of 2023, we conducted one of the only face-to-face surveys among Russian citizens in Turkey. We surveyed just over 1,000 people in Antalya, Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara and Mersin. The overwhelming majority of respondents – around 80 per cent – had left Russia after the full-scale invasion in February 2022. Similar to the Russians surveyed in other countries, this group has a younger age profile than the overall Russian population (at 34.6, the average age is five years below the national average) and more than 70 per cent come from cities with a population of over 1 million.

A welcoming long-term destination

In its balancing act between East and West, Turkey has maintained an open-door policy for Russian migrants: Russian citizens are now the largest migrant group to hold long- and short-term residence permits in Turkey. As of early 2024, 100,000 Russians had a long-term residence permit, another 67,000 had a short-term residence permit, and nearly 12,000 had a family residence permit.

As in other host countries, we can distinguish two distinct waves of Russian migration. There are those who left in the spring of 2022, comprising political opponents of Putin, journalists and people working in the IT sector; and then there are those who left after the announced partial mobilisation in September 2022. Unsurprisingly, the latter group has a higher share of young men. While some of these migrants are politically active, Turkey has also become a place for better-off Russians who want to circumvent sanctions.

An overwhelming majority of the respondents consider Turkish society – and the authorities – to be (mostly) friendly towards people coming from Russia. In this generally welcoming atmosphere, a third of respondents to our survey say they would like to stay in Turkey for more than three years. People aged 18-24 as well as those aged 50 and older are more likely to indicate a desire to stay for long. This is also true of people with children and those who were students back in Russia, the latter accounting for about one in seven of the respondents.

Developments in the real estate sector are indicative of many Russian migrants’ intentions to stay long-term in Turkey. Russians have become the largest group of foreign buyers of apartments there. In October 2022 alone they accounted for roughly 2,000 of the 5,300 total residential properties bought by foreigners. The considerable growth of real estate purchases by Russians (and Ukrainians) has raised domestic demand dramatically. For the majority of Russians, however, purchasing real estate is not an option, and our survey illustrates that the search for accommodation is the number one concern among migrants.

The presence of Russians can be felt in smaller and bigger cities. The Laleli district of Istanbul, for instance, is considered the ‘heart of Russian Istanbul’, with shop assistants speaking Russian and signs in shops and restaurants in Russian. In Antalya, the majority of foreigners in the districts of Alanya and Konyaaltı are reportedly from Russia.

Connections to Russia and further afield

According to our survey, Russians who left for Turkey maintain a very dense communication network with people back home. More than 80 per cent communicate at least weekly with friends and family in Russia. Such transnational communication is specifically strong among those who have not become active when it comes to any social or political support of Ukrainians in Turkey.

Russians in Turkey are also well connected to other Russians abroad. A little under half of the Russians in Turkey have friends who, like them, left their country after February 2022. Within this group, those younger than 35 are particularly well represented as well as respondents who had participated in protests back in Russia before 2022, speaking to the role of such networks in the decision to migrate. Strong connections exist to people in Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan, and to a lesser extent in Germany and Israel.

Divisions over geopolitics

Mirroring the political line taken by the Turkish government, respondents in Turkey are divided on the war in Ukraine. In our sample, slightly more respondents attribute responsibility for the outbreak and continuation of the war to the US or NATO than to Russia.

A typical respondent who blames the West is aged 35 and older, comes from a city with less than one million inhabitants in Russia, and is in close contact with other Russians in Turkey. By contrast, those who blame Russia have typically been less in touch with other Russians abroad, come from a larger city and are younger than 25. In addition, those who hold Russia accountable are more likely to no longer follow news about the war. The networks emerging in Turkey among Russians might thus be more dense among those critical of the West’s role in the war.

The scepticism about the West that we encounter in our sample reflects the broader attitudes in Turkish society. The German Marshall Fund found that 50 per cent of Turks have negative and 40 per cent positive feelings in relation to US and Russian influence in global affairs.

No one unifying identity among Russians in Turkey

The influx of large numbers of Russians is a relatively recent phenomenon in Turkey, where immigration had previously been dominated by Iraqis and Iranians. Now a sizeable Russian community is in the making there. But given the diverse political attitudes represented across this community, it is unlikely that one strong and overarching group identity will emerge. As the new migrants project themselves into a more long-term future in Turkey, they will find their respective niches in Turkish society with its own political divisions on Russia, the West and the war in Ukraine.

Dr. Felix Krawatzek is a senior researcher and head of the research cluster ‘Youth in and Generational Change’ at ZOiS.