While the term “nation of immigrants” is most readily associated with the United States, an American strategic ally on the other side of the globe can claim the same distinction dating back centuries.
For Turkey, the term takes on new meaning today while the country shelters nearly two million Syrian refugees who have fled civil war. This Turkish practice of incorporating diverse ethnic groups precedes modern day Turkey. During the Ottoman Empire, the ethnic makeup of Anatolia evolved thanks to generous government policies towards immigrants and refugees during regional and global conflicts that shifted large population groups. As a result, modern Turks exhibit a cultural mosaic of ethnicities and religions, with ancestral roots tracing throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
In 1492, while Columbus voyaged across the Atlantic, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain expelled their Jewish citizens. Nationless, Jews in the region were desperate for safe haven until the Ottoman Empire financed their immigration to Asia Minor in 1497. Nearly 250,000 Jews would ultimately settle in Ottoman lands. This Jewish population has remained an integrated part of Turkey, and vibrant Jewish communities continue to thrive in the cities of Istanbul and Izmir.
Leading up to and in the years following the Russian Empire’s annexation of Crimea in 1783, more than 100,000 Crimean Muslims would enter Anatolia. After the Crimean War ended in 1856, another 100,000 Crimean Muslims again escaped persecution by becoming Ottoman, and then Turkish, citizens. Additionally, the Ottoman Empire opened its doors to up to one and a half million Circassians, the indigenous people of the northwestern Caucasus, when they were massacred and exiled from their villages by the Russian army in 1864.
With the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the modern Turkish Republic came another series of migrations. The early 1920s experienced a massive movement of Muslims from Greece to Turkey and Orthodox Christians to Greece as part of a larger population shift stemming from the disbandment of Ottoman territories. This, in combination with migrations of those fleeing violence during World War II, resulted in more than 800,000 immigrants arriving in Turkey between 1923 and 1945, including almost 100,000 Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe who made Turkey their country of first asylum.
More recently, another significant migration occurred when Turkey enabled Iranians fleeing the Islamic Revolution of 1979 to enter Turkey without visas. The total number of Iranian dissidents who benefited from this arrangement between 1980 and 1991 is estimated at 1.5 million.
Turkey continued to be a safe haven for its neighbors during the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War. As a result of the Halabja attack in 1988, close to 60,000 Kurds fled to Turkey. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, 460,000 refugees of Kurdish, Turkmen, Chaldean and Arab origin poured into Turkey, many more taking refuge in camps along the Turkish-Iraqi border.
The humanitarian crisis during the Gulf War provided Turkey with important lessons for the Syrian crisis. During attacks on Kobane in late 2014, close to 200,000 Kurdish refugees all entered Turkey in few days and received humanitarian aid upon arrival. In January 2015, Turkey opened its biggest camp in the border town of Suruc for 35,000 refugees from Kobane, in addition to 21 refugee camps near the Syrian border.
Turkey’s practice of accepting persons who flee persecution or dire conditions in their homelands has benefited Christians as well. Beginning in 2010, regional conflict caused an exodus of Chaldean Christians from northern Iraq. Turkey allowed 3,800 refugees from the Assyrian Christian community to stay in Turkey for up to three years while they sought permanent asylum elsewhere. Currently, tens of thousands of Armenian migrants are living in Turkey, where they find economic opportunities unavailable in their home country.
Today, Turkey has assumed an outsized role facing another humanitarian crisis. The Syrian Civil War has resulted in the internal and external displacement of nearly 11 million people, more than 1.7 million of whom have found refuge in Turkey. In response, the Turkish government has provided more than $5.5 billion in humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugees in need of healthcare, schooling and food and water provisions. For a country with an annual government spending of about $200 billion, this is a large sacrifice and commitment to make.
In the face of international pressure to close its border with Syria, a dangerous region given the want of extremists to travel to Syria’s lawless interior, Turkey continues to provide much needed aid and safe harbor for displaced Syrians. It is estimated that in the last four years, more than 40,000 Syrian babies have been born in Turkey and approximately 30 percent of Syrian refugees are likely to become permanent residents there.
These victims have found sanctuary in Turkey, and like many refugees before them, they also have the opportunity to forge productive lives in a new homeland.
McCurdy is the president of the Turkish Coalition of America.