Home on Fire: Solidarity of Turkish Emigrants during the Summer Wildfires

by Deniz Pelek

During the summer of 2021, Turkey experienced the worst wildfires in the country’s history. Almost 300 wildfires occurred in July and August, resulting in the destruction of thousands of hectares of forest as well as the deaths of eight people and thousands of animals. The inability of the government to respond effectively to this natural disaster enhanced anxiety and dissatisfaction among the people in the area. Various solidarity campaigns were organized by civilians alongside the state-led efforts, such as the “Global Call Help Turkey” campaign, which was organized by local residents and became one of the top stories on social media in Turkey. One of the interesting aspects of these solidarity efforts was the active involvement of the Turkish emigrants. 

This blog post looks at the solidarity of Turkish emigrants by sending remittances to their country of origin in reaction to these wildfires. Our aim is to ignite the debate around emigrants’ transnational identities and sense of belonging in the context of disasters. We ask: What types of remittances were sent in the case of environmental disasters in the homeland? How are they shaped by the emigrants’ sense of belonging? While the focus is on the summer wildfires in Turkey, the results may be instructive for other environmental disasters and national contexts too. 

Climate crisis and wildfires

The year 2021 has been marked by many wildfires in various countries around the world, such as the US, Algeria, Cyprus, Israel, India, Turkey, Greece and South Africa. In fact, summer fires are not unusual, but their magnitude and intensity this summer were unprecedented. High temperatures and heatwaves hit the Mediterranean region severely. In Turkey, the adverse effects of climate change were observed in the form of several “natural” disasters such as flash floods, droughts and sea snot. Among these, the high number of wildfires stood out, marking Turkey’s worst fire season in its history. The blazes started first on the Southern coast of Turkey and spread to the Aegean region rapidly. Specifically, the villages and cities in Antalya, Muğla, Aydın, Isparta and Denizli were exposed to the flames on a large scale. Consequently, thousands of people in these regions were evacuated. According to the European Forest Fire Information System, around 175,000 hectares were burned, which – as illustrated in the graph below – is more than eight times the average for this time of year measured between 2008 and 2020.

Because of the wildfires, eight people and thousands of animals lost their lives, and thousands of buildings were damaged. The environmental losses also included the destruction of countless plants and trees that made up the ecosystem that had developed around the pine forests and olive groves along the coasts. Its rehabilitation may take a long time.

Firefighting against the wildfires 

These wildfires occurred mostly in touristic and agricultural regions of Turkey. As the fires started, tourists and residents fled or were evacuated from the villages and beaches. The photos from the field showed a situation of a real climate emergency. 

However, the government did not respond immediately to this crisis. The fires were not extinguished for a while, which ultimately exacerbated the environmental and economic outcomes. The government was accused of being slow, inadequate and lacking the resources to combat the wildfires. Especially, the lack of firefighting planes was heavily criticized, which put pressure on the government to procure them from abroad

In the meantime, local people sought to extinguish fires on their own and they also helped firefighting crews by carrying water, and providing food and other basic commodities to the emergency teams. Civilians launched on social media a solidarity campaign called “Global Call: Help Turkey”, which aimed to get firefighting aircrafts from foreign countries. However, Fahrettin Altun, the Head of Media and Communications Department in the Turkish Presidency, blamed the campaign for exposing Turkey as helpless. Following this, a counter campaign called “Strong Turkey” and “We Don’t Need Help” was organized by the government, although it did not prove as popular as the citizen-based one (“Help Turkey”). All these efforts raised more attention to the issue, including among Turks abroad. 

Transnational Solidarity between Turkish emigrants and the victims of wildfires

Turkey has a long-standing history of migration to the EU, with the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimating that 5.5 million out of a total of 6.5 million Turks abroad reside in Western Europe. During the wildfires, there were examples of solidarity from afar among Turkish emigrants in response to the wildfires occurring in their homeland. This raises the question of how transnational identities and sense of belonging are shaped by the disasters in the countries of origin. We can observe the patterns of solidarity and sense of belonging in two types of migrant behaviour: i) fund-raising campaigns and ii) physical help in the firefighting effort. 

Turkish emigrants organized various fund-raising campaigns in different parts of the world. These campaigns were local and different in scope and form. For instance, while a campaign in Austria preferred sending collective remittances via a civil society organization called “Ahbap”, which aims to help people in Turkey more generally, another group of people who collected money in Germany travelled to Turkey and transferred this financial help to the people directly. Regardless of which channels of transmission they used, these initiatives suggest a sense of belonging of Turkish emigrants to their country of origin.

Spending annual summer holidays in Turkey are common for many Turkish emigrants. In 2021, their vacation in August coincided with the wildfire season. Some of them decided to join the aid crews organized by local people. For instance, a family who had been in Antalya for the holidays decided to stay there after the start of wildfires instead of travelling back to Germany. A member of the family – a child of Turkish emigrants to Germany – said to the Anadolu Agency:

When the fires started, we came to the neighbourhoods to help people as much as we can. We will continue to give our support until the end of our holiday. We also started a fund-raising campaign among our relatives in Germany for people in need in this neighbourhood. The Motherland cannot be exchanged for anything. Even if we were born and grown up in Germany, we do not feel alienated here.

Moreover, some Turkish emigrants travelled to Turkey solely to help people. For instance, Doğan Atalay, a firefighter in Germany, flew to Antalya to join the firefighting crews. He worked voluntarily to extinguish the fires and serve as a translator between the Turkish firefighters and their foreign counterparts. He expressed his sentiments to Hürriyet newspaper as follows:

I never experienced this kind of thing in my life before. God help us! I do not mention my feelings, I am too sensitive now. It is really difficult. Thank Allah, firefighters from every part of Turkey come and join. It is not easy. I am proud of it. If I can do something for my homeland, lucky me!

The case of Doğan Atalay is interesting since he brought the experience he gained abroad to his homeland. In addition to his physical help in extinguishing the fires, he also shared his knowledge about firefighting and used his ability to speak a foreign language – a type of transfer different from the usual monetary aid given during times of disaster. 

Final remarks

Transnational identities and remittances have been studied in different ways. In this blog post, we pointed out solidarity attempts with a strong sense of belonging manifested through different types of remittances transferred from Turkish emigrants to their countrymen in the context of wildfires. One can easily argue that disasters have always occurred in history, and migrants can develop solidarity relations to the people in need in their places of origin. Why was this so much more visible during this year’s wildfires? As the previous sections showed, migrants diversified their remittances, which were widely publicised in the news.

Technological advancement in transportation and communication made the organization and transfer of both types of remittances easier. The ties with the homeland are being strengthened by news, social media and instant communication applications such as WhatsApp and Telegram. Organizing solidarity campaigns is more practical with these new means of communication. Technological developments in the field of transportation have also offered low cost and shorter flight options that make immediate and direct physical help possible. 

The depicted acts of solidarity by the Turkish emigrants point to the importance of remittances during disasters in the 21stcentury in the case of countries of mass emigration. Although the wildfires in Turkey appeared to be a unique example of emigrant solidarity due to the widespread media attention and the strong reaction of Turkish emigrants, it could be argued that diverse types of remittances – financial, social and knowledge transfers – emerge in other national and local contexts as well. Similar solidarity campaigns organized by the diaspora for the disasters in GreeceAlgeria and Israel can likewise be analysed from this perspective.