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Russian-Origin Muslims in Turkey
Russian-Origin Muslims in Turkey
A general view of Osmangazi Bridge is seen in Altinova district of Yalova, Turkey on October 06, 2017. Over the last three decades, many Muslims who migrated from the North Caucasus and elsewhere in Russia settled in Yalova. SERGEN SEZGIN / ANADOLU AGENCY / ANADOLU AGENCY VIA AFP
Special Coverage

Russian-Origin Muslims in Turkey

Tens of thousands of Muslim migrants from Russia have come to Turkey of late. Due partly to security concerns, they are more isolated than the generations who arrived previously. Ankara should reach out to better integrate the newcomers, particularly by enrolling their children in school.

What’s new? Turkey, long a welcoming destination for migrants of Muslim origin from Russia, now hosts tens of thousands of relatively recent arrivals. Clustered in somewhat isolated communities, they represent a range of ethnicities and ideologies.

Why does it matter? Turkey is home to millions of refugees and migrants from Russia, Syria and elsewhere, overstretching its social services. It has also been a pathway to Middle Eastern battlefields for Islamist militants. The government faces a substantial challenge in assisting those in need while ensuring security for everyone.

What should be done? Ankara’s policies toward new Muslim migrants from Russia should emphasise access to education for all children and youth to further both humanitarian and integration goals, as well as improved links between these communities, on one hand, and authorities and the rest of civil society, on the other.

I. Overview

Turkey is a hub for Muslim migrants from throughout Russia, who find in Istanbul suburbs and the seaside city of Antalya freedom to worship with like-minded believers and, historically, a warm welcome. But if the Circassians who moved to Turkey from the North Caucasus in the past – many of them fleeing atrocities in the mid-1860s – are now in the Turkish mainstream, newer immigrants bring with them different cultural and social norms. Their tendencies to settle, pray and socialise together are natural for immigrants the world over. Many Turks, however, characterise the newcomers as overly religious and socially backward. The semi-legal status of many migrants, especially among more recent arrivals, limits their economic opportunities and often keeps children out of school. In the 2010s, the travel of Russian-origin fighters through Turkey en route to Syria added worries about militancy to the mix. Ankara needs to address legitimate security priorities – without overreacting – but primarily to build better links to the migrants themselves, including by ensuring that all their children can attend school.

Most Russian-origin Muslims in Turkey, including recent migrants, are peaceful. Having left Russia either for lack of economic opportunity or for fear of persecution, they are looking only to work and build new lives. Many of their number discouraged youths en route to Syria from making the trip, often successfully. They are grateful to Turkey for offering a safe place to raise their families and practice their faith. Turkey-based religious leaders from Russia enjoy worldwide followings, making the country a centre for the Russian-origin Muslim diaspora as a whole.

Still, through the eyes of the state, some members of this community present security challenges. At first, Turkish authorities paid little attention to the flow of foreign-born fighters and sympathisers toward the Islamic State, or ISIS, caliphate declared in Syria and Iraq. Nor did they register the assistance that recent migrants from Russia were offering to facilitate this journey for their compatriots. Over time, however, they became increasingly nervous, particularly after the 2016 bombing of the Istanbul airport was linked to Russian migrants. After ISIS collapsed, with people who fought with and/or lived under its rule relocating to Turkey, among other countries, authorities feel they have even more cause for concern.

The question for authorities, in Turkey as elsewhere, is how to respect the needs, interests, beliefs and cultures of these diverse immigrants, while also ensuring their safety and that of Turkish citizens. This briefing looks at the circumstances and needs of its members in Turkey, and recommends measures that can be taken to assist its members in becoming peaceful, prosperous and well-integrated members of the broader community.

This analysis is one of a series of Crisis Group publications that explore the origins, evolution and status of the Russian-origin Muslim population in Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia and Western European countries (with a focus on Germany, Austria and France). The series draws on well over 100 interviews, virtual and in person, with migrants, authorities, civil society figures and experts in destination and transit countries as well as in Russia. It pairs insights from these interviews with data gleaned from academic literature, media reporting and NGO accounts. It also benefits from Crisis Group’s years of fieldwork in many of the countries concerned, including Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Turkey.

II. Geography

People have been coming to Turkey from the North Caucasus for centuries: Circassians, as those whose ancestors arrived from the Caucasus during past waves of migration call themselves, are spread throughout the country. Muslims who have migrated from the North Caucasus and elsewhere in Russia over the last three decades, however, present a distinct population. Tens of thousands strong, this group is more geographically concentrated, with most settled in and near Istanbul or across the Sea of Marmara in Yalova and Izmit. A smaller, but still substantial, number live further east and south in Anatolia, mostly in and around Antalya.

This settlement pattern is partly the result of the camps established around Istanbul and Yalova to house refugees arriving from the North Caucasus in the mid-1990s. These camps were open until 2014. When they were finally closed, authorities offered many residents, as well as some former residents who had come in the 1990s, citizenship, rent support and, in some cases, housing.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, October 2020.Hide Footnote The housing provided was in Izmit and Başakşehir (and inside it, especially Kayaşehir), Esenyurt and Beylikdüzü, three urban districts of Istanbul. Others found homes in Yalova itself. A local NGO helped newcomers who did not receive government support or citizenship, particularly widowed women and orphaned children, to find homes in the lower-cost Başakşehir.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, October 2020.Hide Footnote

There were newcomers in the camps in part because as more migrants came from Russia over time, they bought or rented homes from compatriots who were moving on, perhaps to bigger places close at hand. Long-time residents also helped new arrivals rent nearby apartments when other neighbours left, creating tight-knit communities that frequent the same mosques and restaurants.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interview in previous capacity, migrant from Russia, Istanbul, 2017.Hide Footnote According to residents, some 10,000 Russian citizens live in Kayaşehir alone.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in previous capacity, migrant from Dagestan, Istanbul, 2016, 2017; migrant from Russia, Istanbul, 2017; migrant from North Ossetia, Istanbul, 2019; migrant from Dagestan, Yalova, 2019.Hide Footnote

Istanbul has remained the most popular destination for migrants from Russia.

Istanbul has remained the most popular destination for migrants from Russia. Indeed, in 2016 and 2017, many well-known Islamist activists from Dagestan, Chechnya, Novy Urengoy and Tiumen congregated at the Kayaşehir mosque. While some later moved on to Ukraine or returned to Russia, a substantial number continue to live there.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Istanbul is also a centre for people who had planned to go to Syria or Iraq but changed their minds for whatever reason. Muslims from Russia who travelled to Syria but later left, due either to disenchantment or to the caliphate’s defeat, also tend to settle among this longstanding community. As one community member told Crisis Group: “Here [at the mosque in Kayaşehir], I can meet an imam from Urengoy, a preacher from the Kotrovsk [Salafi] mosque in Dagestan and people who have long been underground [involved in the insurgency in the North Caucasus]”.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interview in previous capacity, migrant from Stavropol, August 2017.Hide Footnote

In 2014-2015, Turkish authorities worked with donors to provide new and recent immigrants who might otherwise have stayed in the Istanbul area with housing and support in a number of Anatolian cities, namely Trabzon, Sakarya, Izmit and Amasya. But officials did not try to move families with children enrolled in school or with elderly relatives who needed medical care. As a result, relatively few North Caucasian immigrants now reside in Anatolia.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote One Turkish foundation representative working with immigrants said most of those who did settle in Anatolia, particularly among those who came in the early 1990s, were of Ingush, Karachai or Abkhaz ancestry.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Turkish foundation representative, 26 October 2020.Hide Footnote More recently, however, a substantial number of people emigrating from central Russia (Tatarstan and Bashkortostan), Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow have found homes in Anatolia. One such person told Crisis Group that some 5,000 recent immigrants of Tatar ethnicity are now living in Antalya and Alanya.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interview in previous capacity, Tatar community representative, Antalya, May 2017.Hide Footnote

III. Faith, Ideology and Schisms

As elsewhere, recent immigrants from Russia in Turkey embrace a variety of approaches to faith and just as wide a sampling of political ideologies. Belief systems range from those of comparatively secular Chechen nationalists to those of Salafis. As noted, the vast majority are peaceful, but some former ISIS and Caucasus Emirate affiliates have found their way to Turkey.[fn]Crisis Group staff and consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, Russian migrant from Urengoy, Istanbul, May 2017; member of Nursi-ist community, Istanbul, May 2017; and Tatar community representative, Antalya, May 2017.Hide Footnote

A number of Russian-origin Islamic leaders have settled in Turkey. Some are friendly with Russian officials. Mohammad Karachai, long a prominent cleric in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Russia, now lives in Istanbul, where he heads a Russian-Turkish friendship society.[fn]Karachai Mohammad Abdullaevich”, Islamic Encyclopedia, 14 November 2012 (Russian); “Activists regarded the rehabilitation of the Karachays as incomplete”, Caucasian Knot, 3 May 2019 (Russian).Hide Footnote His organisation works with migrants and cooperates with the Russian embassy and formal Russian religious organisations.[fn]Crisis Group interview, community member, Istanbul, March 2020.Hide Footnote

Others have a worldwide following. Ali Evteev, the former mufti of North Ossetia and a graduate of the Saudi Arabia Islamic University, heads up the Alif-TV YouTube channel and the Islamic online academy, Medina. The latter is one of the most globally influential Russian-language Muslim educational programs, and unusual in being neither connected to Kremlin-approved muftiates nor banned in Russia.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Ali Evteev, former mufti of North Ossetia, Istanbul, June 2019; person knowledgeable about Alif-TV and Medina, Istanbul, March 2020. Crisis Group online interview, Medina online lecture listener, Susuman, April 2019.Hide Footnote

By contrast, Abu Umar Sasitlinskii, originally from Dagestan, is on Russia’s Interpol wanted lists. In Turkey, he runs two madrasas for youth and adults, one in Yalova and one in Kayaşehir. He is also a philanthropist: he has raised some $10 million, in large part from Muslims in Russia, to dig wells and build mosques in Niger and Bangladesh. Sasitlinskii’s stated vision is one not of violent jihad, but rather of charity, religious education and peaceful proselytising (daawa).[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, Ahlu-Sunna council members from Dagestan, London, September 2020; Kyiv, October 2020; Istanbul, March 2020. Crisis Group interviews, directors of charity associated with Sasitlinskii, Le Mans, July 2019; Stockholm, October 2019.Hide Footnote Moreover, his popularity among Russian-speaking Muslims and lack of connection to violence make Sasitlinskii appealing as a public face representing fundamentalist Muslims from Russia. Several community members described Sasitlinskii as, in effect, the leader of the Russian-speaking community of believers (shura) in Turkey. They say Russian authorities persecute him because his strong following calls into question the authority of government-connected clergy in Dagestan.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, Ahlu-Sunna council members from Dagestan, London, September 2020; Kyiv, October 2020; Istanbul, March 2020. Crisis Group interviews, directors of charity associated with Sasitlinskii, Le Mans, July 2019; Stockholm, October 2019.Hide Footnote

The majority of migrants who find themselves in opposition to Moscow are peaceful political dissidents.

The majority of migrants who find themselves in opposition to Moscow are peaceful political dissidents. Some community leaders, however, are tied to armed movements. As already discussed, Turkey welcomed refugees and fighters from the Chechen wars. While the former greatly outnumber the latter, not a few former combatants remain. Movladi Udugov, for example, once a senior official of the self-proclaimed Chechen Ichkeria, and later head of information for the Caucasus Emirate, has been based in Turkey since 2000.[fn]Udugov Movladi Saidarbievich”, Caucasian Knot, 28 December 2016 (Russian); Mairbek Vatchagaev, “Assassinations of Rebel-Connected Chechens Continue in Turkey”, Jamestown Foundation, 6 November 2015; Crisis Group interview, Turkish Chechen community member, Berlin, March 2019.Hide Footnote Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has demanded his extradition (along with eleven others he identifies as “terrorists”).[fn]Liz Fuller, “Chechen leader demands Turkey hand over ‘terrorists’”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 8 July 2016.Hide Footnote Other former combatants, whether from the North Caucasus or Syria and Iraq, also continue to live among the migrant population, if less openly.

In addition, Turkey hosts a sizeable number of people like Sasitlinskii, whose beliefs lead Russian authorities to view them as dangerous, although the extent of their ties to violent groups is unclear. For example, religious leaders representing jamaats or fundamentalist communities from Dagestan’s Gimri, Khadjalmakhi and Andi villages make up a network of perhaps 1,000 people spread throughout the Istanbul area (including Kayaşehir, Yalova, Esenyurt and Beylikdüzü). This same network also includes people who studied at Islamic universities in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in previous capacity, former and current Islamic university students, Makhachkala, November 2016; Istanbul, February 2016 and May 2017. Crisis Group interviews, former and current Islamic university students, London, November 2019; Istanbul, June 2019.Hide Footnote Members say they were subject to arrest and harassment by Russian authorities, leading them to emigrate. Some of them are on Interpol wanted lists, placed there by Russian police, who accuse them of ties to violent groups.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interview in previous capacity, migrant from Dagestan, Yalova, 2016. Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan, Yalova, 2019.
 Hide Footnote

As evidence of Sasitlinskii’s sway, interlocutors told Crisis Group that leaders of the Gimri jamaat defer to him, as does Abdulla Kostekskii.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, Ahlu-Sunna council members from Dagestan, London, Kiev, September 2020.Hide Footnote Kostekskii is a Caucasus Emirate leader who arrived in Turkey in 2014 from Syria, where he has said he was studying Islam and representing the Emirate. Around 2016, he took over a school for orphaned children and a Russian-language madrasa in Yalova. The school had been run by Sasitlinskii, but the latter transferred control to Kostekskii, reportedly when he was feeling pressure from Turkish authorities.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in previous capacity, Caucasus Emirate affiliates, 2016 and 2017. Crisis Group interviews, Caucasus Emirate affiliates, 2019.Hide Footnote After a series of arrests of his followers in Yalova in 2016 and 2017 as part of a general crackdown on migrants from Russia, Kostekskii relocated to Kayaşehir. Kostekskii has been a leading voice in the Dagestani community rejecting ISIS, and he is influential well beyond Turkey, especially in Ukraine where several hundred of his followers, who had first come to Turkey, have relocated. He told interlocutors that he was under threat from ISIS, even in Turkey, as long as the group had reach.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, current and former Caucasus Emirate affiliates, Yalova, February 2016. He released a video the day after the murder in which he described the killing as permitted by Islam and Paty as responsible for his own death. “Abdulla Kostekskii: On the defender of the honour of the Prophet Muhammad, ‘Salia-allahu, aleikhi va-salaam’”, video, YouTube, 21 October 2020.Hide Footnote Kostekskii has, however, justified the murder of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty, who was killed by a man of Chechen ancestry in ostensible response to a classroom viewing of caricatures of the prophet Muhammad.

The small minority of Russian-origin Muslims in Turkey who espouse violence [...] casts a shadow over the community as a whole

The small minority of Russian-origin Muslims in Turkey who espouse violence as a means of achieving their goals casts a shadow over the community as a whole, particularly through rivalries between armed groups that they have brought to Turkey. As one man said: “From the moment that the Caucasus Emirate was created, it began causing problems in Yalova among our small circle of refugees”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan, Istanbul, 10 March 2020.Hide Footnote Those who rejected the Emirate would not attend religious services with people they saw as aligned with it, and vice versa, he said. The birth of ISIS then divided those inclined toward the Emirate, who made a choice between the Caucasus militant group and the nascent caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Young people from Russia aligned with both groups made their way to Syria, and some youth from the Turkey-based community did as well. Later, when the caliphate was defeated, men and women began to return from Syria and Iraq, and some number remain in Turkey.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interview in a previous capacity, migrant from Dagestan, Yalova, August 2017; Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan, Istanbul, 10 March 2020.Hide Footnote

A Chechen community representative, however, rejected the notion of ISIS links entirely, arguing that such reports were Russian fabrications intended to discredit Chechens in Turkey, whereas, in fact, he said, very few Chechens had such ties.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish Chechen community member, Istanbul, 17 November 2020.Hide Footnote Representatives of Circassian ethnic foundations similarly said alignment with jihadist groups was rare; instead, they said, any violence that Russian-origin Muslims engaged in resulted more from their “Chechen culture” than religious doctrine.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Kafed (Federation of Caucasus Foundations) leaders and members, 3 November 2020.Hide Footnote

The Chechen community representative described schisms among nationalists, fundamentalist Salafis and supporters of the Caucasus Emirate.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish Chechen community member, Istanbul, 17 November 2020.Hide Footnote Other community members spoke of similar dynamics.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, Circassian community members, November-December 2020.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, a related but important divide specific to Chechen-origin migrants is that between those who fought for Chechen independence and their supporters, and those loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov and his circle in Chechnya.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, Kafed leaders and members, 3 November 2020.Hide Footnote Many Crisis Group interlocutors said the second group is quite small. A Turkish NGO representative who has worked extensively with Russian-origin Muslims agreed that Kadyrov’s networks are not very active and estimated that 95 per cent or more of recent immigrants are anti-Russian and anti-Kadyrov.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote But Kadyrov does have supporters in Turkey, perhaps counting some Russian students from Chechnya who are in Turkey temporarily.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, 6 October 2020; Crisis Group interview, academic researcher working on these communities, Istanbul, 11 November 2020.Hide Footnote

That these rivalries turn violent is evidenced not just by the nervousness of people like Kostekskii, worrying about his safety, as described above, but the sporadic execution-style killings of Chechen nationalist leaders and the murders or attempted murders of people with ties to the Caucasus Emirate, which many community members believe to be linked to Ramzan Kadyrov and his networks.[fn]Vatchagaev, “Assassinations of Rebel-Connected Chechens Continue in Turkey”, op. cit.; Crisis Group interview with migrants from Chechnya, Vienna, November 2019; Helsinki, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Ideological, religious and social differences also create barriers between different subsets of migrants.

Ideological, religious and social differences also create barriers between different subsets of migrants. Practices like polygamy, uncommon and illegal, but which come up among new migrants from the North Caucasus especially, are condemned by older migrants.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interview in previous capacity, migrant from Karachay-Cherkessia, Kayseri, March 2018.Hide Footnote Moreover, the series of large-scale detentions among Russian-origin Muslims in 2015-2017, described below, left many recent migrants wary of both the authorities on one hand and their more conservative compatriots on the other, including followers of Sasitlinskii and Kostekskii and professed Salafis, who all seem likely targets for additional government attention, which they fear could rub off.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interview in previous capacity, North Caucasus community representatives, Istanbul, May 2017. Crisis Group interviews, March and December 2020.Hide Footnote

A Turkish official said the Russian-origin community self-polices, doing all it can to keep people with ISIS or criminal links from overstepping their bounds. He attributed this phenomenon both to the threat of repercussions for the community as a whole if criminals are found in their midst (that is, greater police attention and surveillance, and perhaps more difficulty remaining in Turkey) and to migrants’ gratitude to Turkey for continuing to welcome them from Russia.[fn]Crisis Group interview, official from Turkish presidency, Ankara, 27 October 2020.Hide Footnote But interviews with migrants themselves suggest that most simply do their best to keep their distance, insofar as they can, from people and areas that might link them to suspect individuals.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interview in previous capacity, North Caucasus community representatives, Istanbul, May 2017. Crisis Group interviews, March and December 2020.Hide Footnote As one man said: “I try never to go to that area [Esenyurt and Başakşehir]”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, North Caucasus community representative, Istanbul, December 2020.Hide Footnote

IV. Society

According to a Russian researcher, recent immigrants from Russia to Turkey include men, young families with children of pre-school or school age, and some widows of militants killed in counter-terrorist operations. The average age of these migrants, the researcher writes, is comparatively young (30 to 40 years old).[fn]Naima Nefliasheva, “How New Mukhajirs from Russia Live in Turkey: Migration of Russian Muslims in the 2000s”, Asia and Africa Today, vol. 8 (2018), pp. 27-34.Hide Footnote

As the discussion on geographic settlement indicates, most recent immigrants of Russian origin live, worship, work and socialise within closely knit circles based on their home villages, ethnicity and religious/ideological belief system. Both migrants and observers confirmed that the community as a whole avoids interaction not just with Turkish authorities, but also with other outsiders.[fn]Crisis Group interview, academic researcher working on these communities, Istanbul, 11 November 2020.Hide Footnote Language is also a limiting factor. Older migrants, including those who came twenty or more years ago, often do not speak Turkish.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote

Women of all ages often have particularly limited interaction outside their families.

Women of all ages often have particularly limited interaction outside their families and immediate social circles. Many will not speak with others without the approval of male relatives.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish foundation representative, Istanbul, 26 October 2020.Hide Footnote Most religiously observant women from the Caucasus and the more fundamentalist Tatar women (a minority among that community) rarely leave their homes. Only those who truly need the money find work.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Ingushetia, Istanbul, February 2021.Hide Footnote

The isolation of women and girls likely protects them from some dangers but may leave them vulnerable to others. Early marriage is reportedly common.[fn]Crisis Group interview, academic researcher working on these communities, Istanbul, 11 November 2020.Hide Footnote Widows from the North Caucasus or central Russia, including those whose husbands were killed in insurgent operations or in Syria, may be in particularly difficult straits. The same is true of women whose husbands are in prison with lengthy sentences. Some look to marry for protection, either to men who are also from Russia or to Turkish citizens, who may, on average, be better able to provide for them financially. Some accept to be unofficial, illegal “second wives” of men who are already legally married.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, migrant from Chechnya, Istanbul, 2017; migrant from Ingushetia, Istanbul, February 2021.Hide Footnote In some cases, migrants said, these marriages require mothers to leave their children at local orphanages, either temporarily or permanently.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan, Istanbul, March 2020.Hide Footnote

Polygamy is illegal in both Russia and Turkey, but it has become more common in eastern parts of the North Caucasus in recent years. Some men leave one wife and set of children in Russia and bring another family to Turkey. They then shuttle between the two.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Ingushetia, Istanbul, February 2021.Hide Footnote In other cases, both sets of wives and children accompany a single husband to Turkey.

Community isolation and insularity cuts off recent migrants from Russia to Turkey from established Turkish society. Although the longstanding Circassian community was supportive of Turkey welcoming those who fled the Chechen wars, especially, there has been little interaction between them and new immigrants, although there are some economic relationships, as discussed below.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Ankara-based specialist in Russian foreign policy, 7 October 2020; Crisis Group interview, Turkish foundation representative, Istanbul, 26 October 2020.Hide Footnote Immigrants from the Russian North Caucasus have also built few close ties with communities originating in Georgia, which are also prominent in Turkey. While several civil society organisations and clubs work to advance Circassian rights and interests in Turkey, Chechen and recent North Caucasus immigrant groups have not, for the most part, taken part. Nor have they formed many of their own associations.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, Kafed leaders and members, 3 November 2020.Hide Footnote

The more secular nature of longer-standing Circassian communities lead many among them to view the newcomers as overly religious and/or politically radical. Just as other migrants may avoid the more Salafi-leaning among them because they relate this form of observance to ties to violent groups, some long-term Turkish residents see newly arrived Russian-origin Muslims through the same lens. Conversely, one expert suggested that media reports that “othered” both North Caucasus and Syrian immigrants might play a role in increasing their own fears of outside contacts.[fn]Crisis Group interview, academic researcher working on these communities, Istanbul, 11 November 2020.Hide Footnote Other prejudices likely also play a role. Representatives of longer-standing communities argue that recent immigrants practice polygamy, will not marry outside their close-knit communities and refuse to send their children to public schools.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, Ankara-based specialist in Russian foreign policy, 7 October 2020; Kafed leaders and members, 3 November 2020. Crisis Group interviews, Turkish foundation representative, Istanbul, 26 October 2020; academic researcher working on these communities, Istanbul, 11 November 2020.Hide Footnote While these assertions are true of some, they are not, of course, true of everyone. Nonetheless, the stereotypes limit contact.

These divides also affect philanthropy. A number of civil society and charitable organisations provide various sorts of aid and support to new migrants.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Ankara-based specialist in Russian foreign policy, 7 October 2020. Crisis Group interview, Turkish foundation representative, Istanbul, 26 October 2020.Hide Footnote They include some groups that support fundamentalist and Islamist viewpoints.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish foundation representative, Istanbul, October 2020.Hide Footnote By contrast, many traditional Circassian foundations have sought to funnel their assistance to more secular immigrants rather than support those they fear have extreme political views or ties to violent groups in Syria.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, Kafed leaders and members, 3 November 2020.Hide Footnote But most assistance to this community comes from within, from fellow immigrants from the North Caucasus, further strengthening community insularity.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Ankara-based specialist in Russian foreign policy, 7 October 2020.Hide Footnote That said, outside groups may now have more access, as the COVID-19 pandemic has increased needs, and thus created somewhat more openness, according to one analyst familiar with the situation.[fn]Crisis Group interview, academic researcher working on these communities, Istanbul, 11 November 2020. Crisis Group was unable, in part due to the pandemic, to carry out further research on these dynamics.Hide Footnote

Russian-origin migrants who attain citizenship and thus the right to work have more economic opportunities and move more easily in Turkish society, while in most cases also maintaining their identity. Some, for example, join affinity groups at universities.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote Salafi religious tendencies also cross ethnic and national lines and Turkish Salafis and those from abroad sometimes link up as well.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish foundation representative, Istanbul, October 2020.Hide Footnote

V. Youth and Education

Social workers report that in many cases, families avoid sending their children to school.[fn]Crisis Group interview, academic researcher working on these communities, Istanbul, 11 November 2020.Hide Footnote Crisis Group research, however, indicates that educational choices generally reflect individuals’ and families’ long-term plans. Those who expect to stay in Turkey for the long term and hope to become part of Turkish society see education as a means of doing so. They send their children to public (or, if they can afford it, private) schools and creches predominantly populated by the children of Turkish citizens.[fn]Crisis Group interview, North Caucasus community representative, Istanbul, January 2021.Hide Footnote

Younger people in general are more likely to speak Turkish and seek to become active members of Turkish society.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote Young adults who hope to make a life in Turkey may enroll in Turkish universities. One former member of the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot Takfir val-Hijra who is now active in Nogai ethnic networks told Crisis Group that he enrolled in an Istanbul university in order to “become part of the Turkish academic community”. He and his wife have also sent their children to Turkish schools and supplement their income by offering Russian-language tours in Istanbul.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interview in previous capacity, Nogai migrant from Russia, Istanbul, February 2016. Crisis Group interview, January 2021.Hide Footnote

Migrants who see Turkey as a temporary stop [...] often avoid sending children to school.

Migrants who see Turkey as a temporary stop on the way to Western Europe or another destination do often avoid sending children to school. One family from Ingushetia who fled Russia for fear of reprisal for their involvement in political protests in 2018 and 2019 said they did not enroll their children in Turkish schools because they did not want to draw attention to themselves. With family members still in Russia, they wanted to live as quietly in Turkey as possible. The mother home-schools her youngest children and the oldest child works with a Russian teacher online.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Ingushetia, Istanbul, February 2021.Hide Footnote

Affiliates of ISIS, the Caucasus Emirate and associated or like-minded groups have their own networks of creches and schools. Run entirely by community members, these require no documentation. They thus function comparatively under the radar, although community members suspect that Turkish authorities carry out some surveillance.[fn]Crisis Group interview, North Caucasus migrant, Istanbul, December 2021.Hide Footnote They are one of the few options for people whose presence in Turkey and financial situations are precarious, such as the children of widows and second and third wives of fighters.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Dagestani, Istanbul, March 2020.Hide Footnote Russian citizens predominate at these schools, but some pupils are of Central Asian origin.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Abu Umar Sasitlinskii, Istanbul, February 2016; migrant from Ingushetia, Istanbul, February 2020.Hide Footnote

Abu Umar Sasitlinskii’s schools, which, as noted, are also seen as “in a fairly radical key” by more secular migrants, offer another option for people of uncertain legal status.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Abu Umar Sasitlinskii, Istanbul, February 2016; North Caucasus community representative, Istanbul, January 2021.Hide Footnote The poverty and limited options of the parents combine with the fundamentalist nature of the schooling to make other migrants nervous: “The children [at such schools] are all susceptible ... to radicalisation”, according to one interlocutor.[fn]Crisis Group interview, North Caucasus community representative, Istanbul, January 2021.Hide Footnote

VI. Legal Status

Russian-origin Muslims face an uneven legal and economic situation in Turkey, thanks partly to the legacy of the camps where many lived when they reached the country. Although meant to be temporary, the camps remained open for decades, housing successive waves of immigrants, the conditions growing ever more crowded, with several families sharing toilets and kitchens.[fn]Aynura Babayeva, “Report about Chechen Refugees in Turkey and Georgia”, Borderline Europe, 2012; “Asylum and Refugee Rights Monitoring Report for 2010”, Human Rights Research Association, 2011 (Turkish).Hide Footnote In 2010, a report indicated that few children in the camps were formally enrolled in schools, and in 2012, another report found that many camp-born children lacked formal paperwork.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote At the same time, former camp residents have certain advantages, such as the citizenship offered to them when the government shut down the camps. Many also received seven or eight months of vocational training.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote

Many migrants fear going to Russian authorities to get their passports renewed.

In contrast, the vast majority of Russian-origin migrants who came after 2014 do not have citizenship. Their status is that of “temporary residents”, meaning that they cannot work legally. Unlike Syrian refugees, who fall under a “temporary protection” status, Russian-origin migrants in this category also have no access to state health services or public schools. Health care is available to those who receive formal asylum, which requires a long and difficult process that few undertake. Asylum applicants may be subject to frequent check-ins with authorities, including bi-weekly visits to the local police, particularly if authorities assess they may pose a security risk. Meanwhile, many migrants fear going to Russian authorities to get their passports renewed, leaving them, in effect, without documents.

Children can go to school if the family receives “regular residency” status, but families must renew this status annually, and the bureaucratic hurdles mean that some are not able to do so every year, leading to gaps in education for many children.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

VII. Work and Economics

To make ends meet, many migrants from Russia work illegally, in small restaurants, on construction sites and so forth. Most of those who work are men, but some women also find employment cleaning houses and/or providing care for children and the elderly.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, 6 October 2020. See also Nefliasheva, “How New Mukhajirs from Russia Live in Turkey”, op. cit.Hide Footnote One migrant pointed out that some women who are unable or hesitant to leave their homes find ways to earn money without doing so: for example, selling baked goods or cosmetics from their apartments. Some women of ethnic Russian background or those from less insular communities, however, may seek outside employment.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Ingushetia, Istanbul, February 2021.Hide Footnote

Other recent migrants to Turkey have found creative ways to make a living, sometimes with the aid of compatriots. For example, some newer arrivals from Dagestan rent farms from fellow ethnic Dargins whose families settled in Turkey long ago. They raise cows and sheep and sell the meat in Yalova, especially during the tourist season.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan, Istanbul, 10 March 2020.Hide Footnote Others work in carpentry and repair, whether of yachts or furniture.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan, Istanbul, 10 March 2020.Hide Footnote A few sell real estate.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interview in previous capacity, real estate agency director, Istanbul, May 2017.Hide Footnote Migrants are also engaged in exporting Turkish goods to Ukraine, including via the internet.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, former Istanbul entrepreneur from Dagestan, Le Mans, October 2020.Hide Footnote Most recently, some migrants from Russia have created a “medical tourism” infrastructure to enable Russian citizens, mainly from the North Caucasus, to travel to Turkey for health care. One such entrepreneur told Crisis Group: “Turkey has successfully reformed its health care. And in Russia, medicine has been destroyed, especially in the North Caucasus”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, medical agency director, Istanbul, February 2021.Hide Footnote

VIII. Official Attitudes

As noted above, the Turkish government welcomed refugees fleeing the Chechen wars in the 1990s and subsequently. It provided housing, other assistance and, prior to 2014, even citizenship to many. But those who settled outside camps and lived scattered in Istanbul’s urban districts and throughout Turkey were not so lucky. Most of these migrants received support only from a few Turkish humanitarian NGOs and later were left to their own devices. Their legal status remains precarious to this day.

With the most recent wave of arrivals, which began in 2014, Turkey has been faced with a steadily growing Russian migrant population that is largely insular and difficult to reach for aid or other purposes. Circassians and Chechens say the emergence of ISIS as well as increasing Russian pressure on Turkey to limit the activities of political exiles fostered a change in policy. While Ankara had previously indicated that it would increase its engagement with and support for these migrants, it now saw them as a potential threat.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, Circassian and Chechen community members in Turkey, October, November 2020 and March 2021. Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, Istanbul, October 2020.Hide Footnote

Prior to 2015, [Turkish] arrests and extraditions of Russian-origin Muslims were rare. That year, they began to increase.

Prior to 2015, arrests and extraditions of Russian-origin Muslims were rare. That year, they began to increase.[fn]Notable historical cases include those of Imran Abdulazimov, Zalim Yarashonen and Ruslan Kurkaev. See “Imran Abdulazimov will not be returned!”, Ajanskafkas, 2 December 2009 (Turkish); Zalim Yaroshonen, “ECHR: Conditions in the Kumkapi ‘guesthouse’ are inhumane”, Bianet, 27 June 2014 (Turkish); “Yarashonen v. Turkey”, European Court of Human Rights, 72710/11, 24 June 2014; and “Kurkaev v. Turkey”, European Court of Human Rights, 10424/05, 19 October 2010.Hide Footnote They rose again when Russian-origin or Russian-speaking persons were accused of responsibility for several terror attacks, including the June 2016 bombing at Istanbul airport. After that, Turkish authorities increased surveillance, raids and detentions of Russian-origin Muslims in the hope that doing so would prevent further attacks. In 2016, Russian media reported, based on information shared by the Turkish general staff, that a disproportionate 99 of 913 people detained in Turkey for suspected ISIS links in 2015 were from Russia.[fn]“No way back: The Russians caught between jail and the Islamic State”, Moscow Times, 21 July 2016.Hide Footnote

Raids and detentions continued into 2017, and broadened, sending a wide range of Russian-origin Muslims living in Turkey to deportation centres, sometimes for months on end. Some were forced to leave Turkey, either for Russia or other countries. Those affected included longstanding residents and property owners. Ostensibly, authorities were acting on evidence, either their own or that supplied by Russia, that indicated ties to violent groups. In some cases, however, raids and detentions appeared to be targeting Russian speakers as a collective.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in previous capacity, Russian-origin Muslims, Istanbul, Antalya, May 2017; Crisis Group consultant’s interview in previous capacity, Dmitrii (Hamza) Chernomorchenko, Helsinki, March 2018.Hide Footnote Some detained persons were later transferred to Russian custody, although others were released, sometimes after pressure from civil society groups.[fn]See “Fifteen Chechens are sent to Russia to their death!”, Haksöz Haber, 1 February 2017 (Turkish); “We repatriate the pregnant wife of a Chechen commander to Russia”, Timeturk, 18 February 2016 (Turkish); “Chechens, the Muslim Brothers and Uighurs are worried”, Duvar, 5 January 2017 (Turkish); “Daughter of former Chechen official is suspected of being a member of an illegal armed group”, Posta, 29 August 2018 (Turkish); “Caucasian disabled emigrant is detained to be deported”, Köklü Değişim, 12 December 2017 (Turkish); and “Turkey steps up scrutiny on Muslim migrants from Russia”, Reuters, 16 February 2017. Crisis Group was able to confirm this phenomenon. Crisis Group analyst’s interviews in a previous capacity, Istanbul and Antalya, May 2017.Hide Footnote Since then, authorities have undertaken no similar broad-brush detentions, even as arrests of ISIS-linked Russian (and other) citizens continue. In February 2021, for instance, Turkish security units reportedly apprehended five Russian citizens at the Turkey-Syria border, four men and one woman, sought on an Interpol red notice.[fn]“Daesh member sought on red notice caught at the border”, TRT Haber, 17 February 2021 (Turkish).Hide Footnote

Both a Turkish NGO representative and a Turkish government official independently told Crisis Group that, generally, Turkish authorities do not deport Russian-origin Muslims unless they are believed to have ISIS ties. Instead, people of concern are closely watched and issued a warning. People linked to ISIS or other groups Turkey deems a threat also receive a G87 code in their paperwork, which marks them as a potential security threat. Authorities may let people so designated remain in Turkey if they can prove in court that they pose no threat and will face life-threatening circumstances if deported. But this process is lengthy, expensive and rarely successful.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, Turkish official, Turkish NGO representative, October 2020.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, people designated with this code have no access to education, health care or even marriage. Nor can they legally move on to a third country.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, October 2020. Crisis Group interview, Turkish Chechen community member, Istanbul, November 2020.Hide Footnote

An NGO representative working with affected communities felt that Turkish authorities often applied the G87 code to people who were not, in truth, linked to terrorism.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote Some migrants and civil society groups have lobbied the government to ease up on such designations for Russian-origin Muslims, and to provide more rights and protection for these individuals. To date, they have had little success.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish Chechen community member, Istanbul, 17 November 2020.Hide Footnote

IX. Ways Forward

Turkey faces a dilemma. Russian-origin Muslims are far from the only migrants in the country, which hosts millions of refugees from around the world, including over three million Syrians. The country must balance humanitarianism with security concerns and the need to husband its strained resources. Understandably, Turkey may also fear that too welcoming an attitude will only lead to an even larger influx of immigrants, far more than its infrastructure can handle.

The priority when it comes to migrants from Russia may well be educational access for those children who do not have it. Education, although expensive and challenging to provide, is a substantial long-term investment in both stability and security for Turkey and for the affected population. Children in school help tie families into Turkish society. Language training, for children and adults, can also help improve communication and the flow of information, and thus relations among authorities, migrants and society at large. Cultural and community centres, for example, can offer language training without requiring identification for enrolment, making it easier to reach isolated populations.

Russia may also have a role to play in Turkey’s response to migrants. Many avoid renewing their Russian documentation for fear of reprisal from authorities. But Russia consistently provides consular services to citizens, with the only exceptions being those who are wanted by law enforcement. The vast majority of Russian citizens in Turkey are not wanted, and need not avoid getting their passports renewed, for example. Russia and Turkey should cooperate to develop an information campaign to ensure that Russian citizens know that services are available to them.

Russian-origin Muslims in Turkey make up one of the most vibrant such communities in the world, making Turkey a centre for the diaspora as a whole. Past waves of migration to Turkey demonstrate that it is possible for migrants to maintain their identity and ideals while becoming part of Turkish society. Education is one tool that can be used to facilitate integration, to the benefit of both migrants and the community as a whole.

Istanbul/Brussels, 12 July 2021