Austro-Turks: Young, Smart... and Thinking of Going Back

Ambitious and bilingual, second-generation Turkish Austrians still face old stereotypes. More and more of them see their future in a resurgent Turkey, to Austria’s detriment

Top Stories | Vera Mair | April 2012

Photo: David Real

The picture of Inan Türkmen, a 24-year old with black hair and a stylish, short beard, has gone through virtually all Austrian newspapers. Passersby recognise him on the street. Overnight, the native Upper Austrian with Turkish heritage has become the face and voice of a generation of young Austro-Turks.

"Young immigrants are underestimated," writes Türkmen. "We don’t want to be pigeonholed as unskilled workers or Döner vendors. We are on the rise and people have to accept that." That is the message of We Are Coming, his memoir-cum-manifesto released in early March.

The son of an iron-welder and a cleaning woman who emigrated from Turkey to Austria in the mid-80s, Türkmen was born and raised in Linz. Nonetheless, people sometimes talk to him in monosyllables, To. Make. Sure. He. O-kay? Under. Stands… Some even tell him to go back to where he came from. "I am from Linz, you jerk," he usually shoots back in dialect, which often elicits startled stares. Today, Türkmen studies economics in Vienna. Fed up with clichés about Turkey and Turkish people, he wrote We Are Coming, juxtaposing anecdotes of the discrimination he has experienced with impressive statistics about Turkey.

His tone is polemical, even polarising. Whether you like it or not, "Turkish influence will rise in Europe," Türkmen writes. "Together, we… outnumber you. We are younger and hungrier, our economy is developing faster, and we are stronger." Passages like these have lead critics to accuse Türkmen of seeking to grab headlines, rather than advance mutual understanding.

One of the critics is Alev Korun, Green MP and party spokesperson for integration, migration and human rights. A Turkish immigrant and Austrian citizen herself, she finds Türkmen’s rhetoric of "us versus them" unhelpful. Categorising people into foreigners and natives, Korun says, is "meaningless", as it reduces them to a single aspect of their identity. "We aren’t just immigrants," Korun stresses, "we are men and women who have various political attitudes, and each of us has his own social background."

Setting rhetoric aside, what about Türkmen’s substantive argument? Is Austria’s Turkish community really numerically stronger, younger, and hungrier than the rest?

The first claim strikes an odd note. In Austria, there are 185,000 residents who were either born in Turkey or hold Turkish nationality, making it the third largest group of foreign nationals after Germans (220,000) and nationals of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo (209,000).

But it is true that families with a Turkish background have more children – 2.4 per woman 2010, compared to the Austrian average of 1.4. This also makes them younger, with a median age of 36 years, as opposed to the national average of 42.

However, the influx of Turks is also slowing. While in 2002, about 11,000 Turks came to the Alpine Republic, eight years later only about 4,000 did, according to Statistik Austria. Under the circumstances, one wonders if Türkmen ought to reconsider his book title.

Reversing the brain-drain

"We are not coming, we’re leaving," affirms Muhammed Sanaç, a Viennese religious education teacher with Turkish parents, and the spokesperson of the Youth Council of the Islamic Faith Community in Austria. Several of his friends, many of whom are academics, want to emigrate to Turkey. "Because they feel disadvantaged and outcast by society here," Sanaç explains. The impression is widely shared among Austria’s first and second generation Turkish immigrants: 54% said they experienced discrimination "all of the time" or "most of the time", according to a 2010 poll by Statistik Austria.

As a result, the reverse brain-drain of second-generation immigrants may be a general trend. There is no data for Austria, but a survey of German universities in 2008 found that over a third of students and academics with a Turkish background saw their future in Turkey. As for their reasons, 41% referred to "lacking a sense of home in Germany," while 25% invoked "professional opportunities".

Meanwhile, Turkey’s economy is booming, growing by 7.5% in 2011, compared to Austria’s growth-rate of 3% according to the Austrian Chamber of Commerce (WKO). "Given this competition," Alexander Janda, Managing Director of the Austrian Integration Fund (ÖIF), says "Austria should try to retain these well-qualified people by giving them appropriate professional opportunities."

Still, statistics temper Türkmen’s fanfare to the young Austro-Turks’ professional success. In 2010, unemployment among Austrian Turks was double the national rate (13% rather than 6.4%), and the proportion of Turkish nationals attending institutes of higher education was below the Austrian average, according to Statistik Austria. But the reasons are partly historical: In the 1970s, Austria gave residence permits to Turkish construction workers – at the time called "guest workers" – with little more than compulsory education. As a result, the statistics may be skewed at the expense of second-generation Turks earning degrees.

Like Inan Türkmen, Mike Galeli is recognised on the street: His hunger for success has already paid off. The 44-year-old actor and model who was born in Istanbul and raised in Vorarlberg, stars in TV series and big screen films in Turkey and Austria. When he was awarded the title Mister Vorarlberg in 1989, at the beginning of his career, he got hate letters saying, "Turk, go home!" But Galeli stayed. "I’ll show you!" he thought back then. "I have a right to stay. I am an Austrian who just has Turkish roots!"

Then, his perseverance made good economic sense. Today, many young Austro-Turks may reach a different conclusion.

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