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Jose Miguel Dias Rocha

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s popularity among Turks in Belgium was confirmed once again in the June 24 Turkish presidential election. No less than 74.9 percent of the 75,000 voters (some 140,000 Belgian Turks had registered beforehand to vote, which means that one out of two actually voted) supported the outgoing president[1]. This has sparked the eternal debate in Belgium media on the integration of and the reasons why the Turkish community in the country voted so overwhelmingly in favor of the Turkish President[2]. These results are part of a broader trend, since 77.1% of Belgians of Turkish origin answered “yes” to the 2017 referendum in favor of a presidential system – after which a Flemish newspaper’s (Het Nieuwsblad, one of the most popular in Belgium) headline was “Absolute power, thanks to the Turks among us” written on a picture of Erdoğan[3].

It is estimated that there are around 200,000 – 220,000 Turks in Belgium, which means that, along with the Moroccan, the Turkish community is the largest non-EU migrant one in the country[4]. Who are those “Turks among Belgians”? As it happened in Germany, the mass-migration from Turkey to Belgium started in the 1960s when the Belgian government signed several recruitment agreements (including with Turkey, in 1964) for Gastarbeiter (guest workers) to immigrate to Belgium in order to cope with a severe labor shortage. Of the first wave of Turkish immigrants, nearly 60 percent were born in the countryside or in a small village located in central Anatolian provinces: The three provinces that provided the most Turkish immigrants are Afyon, Eskisehir, and Kayseri[5]. Actually, around 1/3 of them came from Afyon, particularly Emirdağ. Considering the first-generation Turkish migrants, 30 percent were illiterate. Since the beginning, “[Turkish and Moroccan] communities were separated from Belgian society in cultural enclaves with almost no naturalization and the migrants and their descendants tended to be viewed as temporary and culturally distinct gastarbeiders[6], and the results of that initial lack of integration can still be seen nowadays.

In line with the reality in countries like Germany or Austria, one can hardly say that the integration of the Turkish community in Belgium is a story of success. A 2006 study developed by the King Baudouin Foundation shows that almost 60% of Turks in Belgium live under the poverty line[7]. Besides that, the average unemployment rate of Belgian Turks is extremely high compared with the overall unemployment rate – this fact does not come as a surprise given that both men and women belonging to the Turkish community have a low level of education, even in comparison to other migrant groups[8]. Fortunately, the situation is slightly better when it comes to the second and third generations as the number of younger Turks with university degrees is growing, albeit still rather low. The problem with getting a job has lead many Turks to create their own business, mainly grocery stores, fruit and vegetable stores, bakeries, “doner” takeaway shops, restaurants and cafes[9].

It is also worrying that Belgian Turks “know the language of the host society but they generally speak their mother tongue in their houses, in the group of friends, in the school or work” as a result of “living together with other Turks in Turkish neighborhoods and limited relations” with the host society[10]: In fact, 1 in 3 young Turk has no friends other than those who share the same (Turkish) origin[11]. When it comes to marriages between a Turkish and a non-Turkish origin, the numbers reveal the lack of amalgamation in Belgian society: 92% of the Turks in Belgium are married to persons of Turkish origin[12]. In addition, another survey showed that for almost 40% of Turks in Flanders, personally, the observance of the laws and regulations of their religion is more important than those of the Belgian state, a much higher percentage compared to that of the other five surveyed groups[13].

The lack of integration is also emphasized by the immigrants with a Turkish migrant background. A research led by Ahmet Kaya found that racism and discrimination are the most important problems faced by Belgian Turks and to top that off “those who complain about discrimination in everyday life (being treated as an alien) are mainly youngsters”[14]. Because of those obstacles, the number of Turks leaving Belgium has been rising for ten years in a row: In 2015, 1,351 Belgian Turks decided to go back to Turkey[15].

Be that as it may, the Turkish community in Belgium is quite heterogeneous since it encompasses Turks of Kurdish origin, Christians, Sunnis, Alevis, etc. Consequently, its organizations are very diverse, fragmented and “long based on political and ideological cleavages in Turkey, from the left-right opposition to the religious versus secular cleavage”[16]. The greatest division, mirroring the situation in Germany, is between Belgium’s Kurdish (the Kurdish Institute of Paris estimates that there are about 70,000-85,000 Kurds living in the country[17]) and non-Kurdish Turks: For instance, in March 2017, four people have reportedly been injured after a clash outside the Turkish Consulate in Brussels and some months later Antwerp was the scene of an intense fight between some hundreds of Kurdish activists (campaigning to get Abdullah Öcalan out of prison) and Turks.

The truth is that the Turkish government has been criticizing Belgium as it considers that the country fails to act against the PKK[18]. In 2017, the Belgian Court of Appeals decided that PKK members cannot be tried for terrorism links, a decision which was overturned later by Belgium’s Supreme Court. One year earlier, supporters of the PKK set up a tent outside EU buildings in Brussels, causing some diplomatic tensions as Turkey summoned the Belgian ambassador to complain about it. The Turkish government also expressed its discomfort with a march celebrating of PKK’s first armed actions against the Turkish army in 1984 which took place in Belgium. In November 2016, Erdoğan described Belgium as an “insensitive” country which is “an important center for both the PKK and [Fetullah Terrorist Organization] FETO”[19].

As we have seen before, the sympathy of Turks in Belgium for the Turkish president is straightforward. Nevertheless, the majority of Turks who live in Belgium vote for parties belonging to the left side of the party spectrum in the country[20]. In response to this phenomenon (conservative Turks voting for leftist representatives), and since “the conservative social, cultural, and religious views of the Turkish minority are not expressed by their political representatives” in Europe, some scholars have used the term “representation gap”[21].

According to Professor Ayhan Kaya, to Turks living in Europe and coming from a disadvantaged socio-economic background Erdoğan is a “strong personality who can challenge European leaders” and “heal the sources of their problems”, mainly because they were “searching for a personality to save them from sources of humiliation” in their host societies[22]. By the same token, Mazyar Khoojinian, a researcher on Turkish communities in Belgium, is of the opinion that “Erdoğan presents himself as the voice of the voiceless, the voice of a reborn Turkey that stands up to Western countries”, a rhetoric that plays well with a community who faces several social problems[23]. In Ersa Özürek’s (a Turkish scholar) perspective, the Turkish president tries to convey (successfully) an emotional message: “When people do not pay attention to you, if they do not want you anymore, Turkey will always be there”[24]. Khoojinian also refers the fact that the Turkish diaspora is impressed with the development of Turkey (especially when they visit Turkey on holidays), mainly with the big and recent public constructions/buildings, like new roads, bridges, hospitals[25].

In conclusion, it is possible to realize that the huge support that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan receives in Belgium is caused by a sense of discrimination and lack of sense of belonging by the Turkish communities which, as it happens in countries such as Germany and Austria, have faced several problems when it comes to their integration in the European host societies.


José Miguel DIAS ROCHA – Erasmus Volunteer for SASAM
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[1] The Brussels Times – “One out of two Turks in Belgium registered on election lists voted”. 06/25/2018.

[2] Radio 100,7 – “Quelle place pour Erdogan en Belgique?”. 07/03/2018.

[3] Courrier International – “Vu de Belgique. Peut-on accepter que les Turcs d’Europe soutiennent Erdogan?”. 04/18/2017.

[4] RTFB – “Cinquantième anniversaire de l’immigration turque en Belgique”. 02/10/2012.

[5] Johan Wets – “The Turkish Community in Austria and Belgium: The Challenge of Integration”. Turkish Studies. Volume 7, Number 1, pp. 85-100. 2014.

[6] Ayhan Kaya – “Islam, Migration and Integration: The Age of Securitization”. Palgrave MacMillan, 2009:106.

[7] La Libre – “Les Turcs et les Marocains de Belgique sous le seuil de pauvreté”- 10/16/2006.

[8] Ibid., 5.

[9] Ibid., 5.

[10] Filiz Göktuna Yaylacı – “Belçika’daki Türklerin Dil Kullanımları”. Uşak Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi. Volume 5, Number 2, pp. 63-88. 2012.

[11] La Libre – “Özdemir, Kir & Co : l’échec de l’intégration pose la question de la double nationalité”- 06/01/2015.

[12] King Baudouin Foundation – “Belgian-Turks: A bridge or a breach between Turkey and the European Union?”. 2017.

[13] Les Observateurs – “Belgique: Près de 40% des Turcs de Flandre disent que la religion devrait systématiquement prévaloir sur la loi belge”. 05/09/2018.

[14] Ibid. 6:96-97.

[15] Sudinfo – “Les Turcs quittent de plus en plus la Belgique pour retourner en Turquie”. 04/21/2017.

[16] Meryem Kanmaz – “Does a Turkish Diaspora still exist? Turkish immigrants in Belgium, between Europe and Turkey”. 09/19/2003.

[17] Institut Kurde de Paris – “Kurdish Diaspora”. 12/20/2016.

[18] Anadolu Agency – “Belgium’s high court paves way for trial of PKK members”. 02/14/2018.

[19] Anadolu Agency – “Turkey denounces Belgian PM’s remarks on Erdogan”. 11/17/2016.

[20] Anissa Amjahad and Giulia Sandri – “The Voting Behaviour of Muslim Citizens in Belgium”. July 2012.

[21] Şener Aktürk – “The Turkish Minority in German Politics: Trends, Diversification of Representation, and Policy Implications”. Insight Turkey Winter 2010. Volume 12, Number 1, 2010.

[22] Hürriyet Daily News – “Turkish diaspora see Erdoğan as ‘healer’ of frustrations: Professor Ayhan Kaya”. 05/21/2018.

[23] RTFB – “Comment Erdogan a conquis l’électorat turc de Bruxelles”. 06/09/2018.

[24] Ibid. 2.

[25] Ibid. 22.

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