A Historical Framework for the Balkan Migrations to Turkey

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Identities are the product of history. That’s why it can be said that the importance of the Ottoman Empire in shaping the Balkan populations’ identities is undeniable. The common Ottoman past and their history in general makes the Balkan populations similar to each-other. The connections between Turkish and Balkan populations have been deep and permanent before and after the creation of the Republic of Turkey. The Balkan migration flows to Turkey have a special importance on the continuation of these ties.

In the late Ottoman period, there were two significant waves of migration from the Balkans to Turkey: the migrations influenced by the Russian-Ottoman War of 1877-1878 and the migrations that were caused by the Balkan wars of 1912-1913.[1] During these periods for the Balkan peoples, religion compared to language has been a factor that has strongly influenced these migrations. This was the reason why in Anatolia in this period it was very difficult to distinguish the nuances between “Turk” and “Muslim” categories as these terms were used in a reciprocal way. The ruling Unity and Progress Party (İttihat ve Terakki) has taken up the issue of emigration by signing an agreement on population exchange. The relocation of immigrants from the Balkans to Anatolian lands has been mainly in the border regions near Thrace, where the population was largely non-Muslim.

There are a number of documents and agreements that arrange the migrations of the peoples that moved from Balkans to Turkey. Lausanne (1923) is an important historical document because, after the announcement of the Republic of Turkey (1923) under this agreement about 150 thousand ethnic Greeks living in Anatolia were exchanged with 360 thousand Muslims who had lived in Greece. This number includes ethnic Turks and Muslim Albanians who are classified as Turks by Greek authorities. In the 1950s and 1960s, the migration from Greece to Turkey was the third largest demographic movement (26 thousand Muslims) after those from Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.

Another document signed between Turkey and Bulgaria, is the Treaty of Amity (1925). By the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey (1923), until 1939 some 200 thousand people emigrated from Bulgaria to Turkey. During this period, there were ethnic and labor migrations from the Balkans. The first one was political in nature. In 1950-1953 period, after the declaration of the communist state of Bulgaria and the collectivization of land, around 250 thousand of Bulgarian Turks also migrated to Turkey. After the 1968, there are signed agreements which aimed at uniting separated families and in this context around 50 thousand to 130 thousand people migrated from Bulgaria to Turkey. In 1985, Bulgarian authorities launched an assimilation campaign, called the Revival Process in Bulgaria, according to wearing traditional Turkish dress and speaking Turkish in public places banned. In this period, approximately 350 thousand Bulgarian Turks migrated to Turkey.

After the establishment of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, those parts of the population –especially the Turks and Muslims- who were not pleased by the communist regime, began to migrate to Turkey. As a result of difficult economic, political and social conditions, many Turks have emigrated from Yugoslavia to Turkey. This populace that emigrated to Anatolian lands, has come voluntarily without any treaty signed between the two states. Between 1950-1960 years, approximately 150 thousand Turks, Albanians, Pomaks, and Bosnians have migrated from Communist Yugoslavia to Turkey.

During the Cold War years, the smallest migration flows to Turkey, came from Romania, with only 1200 immigrants. This small number can be explained by the fairly liberal cultural and minority rights that the Turkish community enjoyed in Romania after World War II.

While migrations from the Balkans to Turkey in the period leading up to the end of the Cold War were more ethno-religious in character, the post-Cold War Balkanese wave movements to Turkey – excluding the Bosnian and Muslims Albanians of Kosovo – are characterized as economic migrations.

Turkey accepted Bosnian Muslims as refugees after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992. Within three years, about 20,000 Bosniak emigrants were given asylum in Turkey, and after the adoption of the Dayton Peace Agreement some of them have returned to Bosnia.

It can be said that migrations from Balkan to Turkey in different periods of history have been specially in the basis of religion. The people with Muslim religious identity moved from Balkans to Turkey for different reasons. With the fall of communism in the Balkan countries, Turkey became a strategic choice of emigration destination for Muslim Albanians from Albania, due to the presence of networks, existing relations, the lack of entry requirements (most migrants buy a tourist visa at the border), and the absence of anti-foreigner and anti-Albanian racism. Nevertheless, after 2008, the decline of the migration flows from Balkans to Turkey can be explained in the terms that Turkey become a less attractive destination compared with the new opportunities that EU offers to Balkan populations. There is also the sympathy that Balkan countries have towards the Euro-Atlantic structures, a strong factor that directly affects the choices they make in the migration process.

[1] Ahmet İçduygu and Deniz Sert, “The Changing Waves of Migration from the Balkans to Turkey: A Historical Account”,, Access Date: 04/05/2017.

Doç. Dr. Erjada PROGONATI
Erjada Progonati, 1983 yılında Arnavutluk’ta doğdu. İlkokul, ortaokul ve lise eğitimini Arnavutluk’ta tamamladıktan sonra, 2001 yılında Ankara Üniversitesi’nde Türkçe dili eğitimini aldı. 2006 yılında Gazi Üniversitesi, Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümünden mezun oldu. 2008 yılında Yüksek Lisans ve 2012 yılında Doktora programlarını tamamladı. Uzmanlık alanları, Balkanlar ve Avrupa siyaseti. Türkçe’nin yanı sıra, İngilizce, İtalyanca, Yunanca, Fransızca, Rusça ve İspanyolca dillerini iyi derecede bilmektedir. 2013 yılından itibaren Hitit Üniversitesi, Siyaset Bilimi ve Kamu Yönetimi Bölümünde Doçent olarak çalışmaktadır.