Turkey made its Resident-Based Population Registration System available for the general population in February 2018. Citizens can now check their family lines as far back as the records go. Despite some loss of records, many people can track their ancestors up to the late 18th century. The moment the service was made available on Turkey's e-devlet (e-government) platform, millions of Turks flocked to the website, causing it to crash.
The online service also made an interesting revelation. Millions of Turks learned that their grandparents were originally from some of Turkey's neighboring countries. Almost 10 million people were estimated to be originally from Greece, Bulgaria and other Balkan states. Grandparents of another 10 million citizens came from the Caucasus while a further 10 million's ancestors could be traced back to Syria, Iraq and Africa.
This is not surprising as the Republic of Turkey was preceded by the Ottoman Empire, which saw the establishment of 64 nation states on its territory once it collapsed.
Moreover, the existing homeland of the Turks, Anatolia, has been a hub for migrating masses, a sanctuary for refugees, and an open arena for cultural interaction throughout history.
Anatolia as a shelter for refugees
One of the most striking examples of Turkey, then the Ottoman Empire, being a home to refugees was in the 15th century. Some 500,000 Sephardic Jews, escaping from the brutality of the Spanish Inquisitional Court, found shelter under the wings of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman-era Anatolia also saw some colossal waves of migration. Between 1860 and 1922, more than 1 million Tatars from Crimea migrated to Turkey intermittently. In just two decades, between 1859 and 1879, 2 million Circassian and Chechen migrated from the Caucasus.
During the Russo-Turkish War in 1877-78, more than 1.5 million people from the Balkans sought refuge in Turkey. During the 1912-13 Balkan Wars an additional 640,000 refugees arrived. Many of those coming from the Balkans were the grandchildren of those have who migrated to Europe centuries ago.
This trend continued from 1920 onwards in the Republican era as well. With the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and a population exchange between Greece and Turkey the same year, 2 million people emigrated from one side to the other. In the 1950s another 350,000 people reached Turkey's shores from Yugoslavia and Macedonia. Between 1953 and 1975 some 300,000 emigrated from Bulgaria to Turkey. By the 1970s the number of Bulgarian migrants topped 1.6 million. In 1988, more than 500,000 Iraqi Kurds fled Saddam Hussain's oppressive regime and sought refuge in Turkey.
The most generous humanitarian aid country
Turkey continues to carry on its historical mission of being a refuge for people displaced by conflict, violence and persecution. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Turkey hosted the largest number of refugees in the world in 2016 – for three consecutive years. Turkey is currently hosting more than 3 million registered Syrian refugees alongside 300,000 others of different nationalities, registered with the UNHCR. Turkey has maintained an open door policy since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2012.
According to the Turkish Prime Ministry, as of the end of 2017, Turkey has spent $30 billion for the refugees in the country, most of it directly being made from the national budget – in other words, paid for by the Turkish taxpayers. Today, in terms of a national income-to-aid ratio, Turkey is the most generous humanitarian country in the world. Besides refugees, Turkey's economic and social prosperity also serves as an attraction center for people all around the world. According to the country's immigration authorities, around 1 million foreigners live, work, or study in Turkey. The country, however, is facing some real challenges to manage the flow of migrants towards its borders. The country immediately requires a Ministry of Immigration for building a grand plan to manage, absorb and effectively coordinate waves of migration.
In contrast to the general wisdom, migrants are not threats to the society. In fact, they can be opportunities – if managed wisely. Integrating newcomers to the society and establishing a sustainable infrastructure for migration management is a serious challenge for Turkey. To infuse innovation and qualified labor to its emerging economy being an attraction hub for the bright minds of the region is also a necessity for Turkey. Despite the fact the country is still taking baby-steps on all these issues, the Turkish society and the state have the sufficient material and emotional tools – stemming from historical experiences – to be successful.
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