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What We Can Learn From The Turkish Referendum About Immigration

04/24/2017 11:06 EDT | Updated 04/24/2017 11:06 EDT
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Man putting a ballot into a voting box - Turkey

The results of the recent Turkish referendum reveal a lot about the success of different countries' immigration and integration policies. Although the referendum itself had nothing to do with immigration or integration, in Turkey or elsewhere, it provides an interesting frame for understanding how Turkish immigrants to western societies are or are not adopting western values.

The Turkish referendum, held on April 16th of this year, was about proposed changes to the Turkish constitution. The changes will give the Turkish president significantly more power. They will also completely defang any mediating democratic institutions, dramatically turning Turkey in an authoritarian direction. Sunday's "Yes" result (narrowly achieved and through a highly suspect voting process) signals the effective end to Turkish democracy as we know it.

In this referendum, Turkish expats abroad were eligible to vote. One would think that, in a referendum which more or less pitted western-looking secular republican democracy against authoritarianism, Turkish expats in the West would favour the former. The domestic debate inside Turkey has been so heavily manipulated by Turkey's already fairly authoritarian government -- so one would certainly expect the authoritarian side (the 'Yes' side) to do much better inside Turkey than in the secular democratic west.

Strikingly, the results were completely opposite to that reasonable expectation. Inside Turkey, the Yes side was declared victorious by a margin of about 51 to 49 per cent. Eligible voters outside Turkey, however, delivered a margin of about 60 to 40 per cent for the 'Yes' side. Turks living in the free democratic west were more likely to vote for the full imposition of authoritarianism than were Turks actually living in Turkey, in spite of all the institutional advantages which the Yes side had in Turkey on the ground.

You can see a map and full results here, or in English on the wikipedia page here.

When we discuss immigration policy, the hope is obviously that people who come to the West will adopt western values. But if taken at face value, the results of the Turkish referendum suggest that some immigrants to the West can actually become less western in their outlook, or at least that some countries in the West are doing a relatively poor job selecting for those who have a more western outlook.

While the overall trend is troubling, it is interesting to note the wide variations in referendum results across different western countries, evident in the results linked to above. In the United States, 83.8 per cent of voters voted 'No.' This would seem to suggest a pretty overwhelming adoption of western democratic values in that country. In Canada, we were close behind, with about 72 per cent voting 'No.' Other strong 'No' results were seen in Spain, Switzerland, Poland, Finland, Italy, and the United Kingdom -- in all of these cases, at least 60 per cent of voters said no.

Other European countries in particular showed dramatically different results. In Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands, over 70 per cent of voters cast a 'Yes' vote. The 'Yes' side received over 60 per cent of the vote in Denmark, France, Germany, and Luxembourg. In Germany, over four hundred thousand votes were cast in favour of subjecting Turkey to this new authoritarianism.

It seems from this information that rates of adoption of western values vary quite widely across different countries. A range of factors might account for small variations, but it's worth digging into these wide gaps between referendum results coming out of different countries. What is Italy doing so differently from Austria, Spain from France, and the United States from Germany?

These distinctions merit some detailed study, but a few takeaways are obvious. First of all, the success of a country's immigration and integration policy is not principally about the national origin of those who come. The wide variation among countries where voters had the same national origin makes that obvious. Secondly, radical or authoritarian views are not just things that newcomers can bring with them -- they are things that both newcomers and longstanding residents can develop on their own -- evidenced by the fact that Turkish expats in Germany were more likely to support the authoritarian 'Yes' side than people in Turkey itself. Thirdly, it is not a slam dunk that immigrants embrace western values or do not embrace western values -- some do, and some don't -- and whether or not they do seems to be significantly shaped by the environment created by the country in which they find themselves.

In modern western discussions about immigration and integration, we often get sucked into simplistic binary debates between those who think immigration is invariably positive and those who think immigration is invariably negative. In reality, immigration contains both opportunities and risks. It has generally served Canada very well -- not because we have had open borders, but because we have had well managed immigration and we have encouraged newcomers to feel welcome and to integrate. But we need to also learn the right lessons from Europe's experience with immigration, and ensure that we are managing our immigration system in a way that continues to set us up for long term success.

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