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North Cyprus: People & Life

Demographic Structure

Except for a few Maronites in the Kormakiti (Korušam) area, at the western end of the Kyrenia range, and several hundred Greek Cypriots in the Karpas Peninsula, the people living in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) were Turkish Cypriots, descendants of Turks who settled in Cyprus following the Ottoman conquest in 1571. With the Ottoman conquest, the ethnic and cultural composition of Cyprus changed drastically. Although the island had been ruled by Venetians, its population was mostly Greek. Turkish rule brought an influx of settlers speaking a different language and entertaining other cultural traditions and beliefs. In accordance with the decree of Sultan Selim II, some 5,720 households left Turkey from the Karaman, Išel, Yozgat, Alanya, Antalya, and Aydin regions of Anatolia and migrated to Cyprus. The Turkish migrants were largely farmers, but some earned their livelihoods as shoemakers, tailors, weavers, cooks, masons, tanners, jewelers, miners, and workers in other trades. In addition, some 12,000 soldiers, 4,000 cavalrymen, and 20,000 former soldiers and their families stayed in Cyprus.

The Ottoman Empire allowed its non-Muslim ethnic communities (or millets, from the Arabic word for religion, millah) a degree of autonomy if they paid their taxes and were obedient subjects. The millet system permitted Greek Cypriots to remain in their villages and maintain their traditional institutions. The Turkish immigrants often lived by themselves in new settlements, but many lived in the same villages as Greek Cypriots. For the next four centuries, the two communities lived side by side throughout the island. Despite this physical proximity, each ethnic community had its own culture and there was little intermingling. Both communities, for example, considered interethnic marriage taboo, although it did sometimes occur. Also, in spite of relations that were often cordial, there was little possibility of serious intimacy between the two communities. In fact, according to the American psychologist, Vamik Volkan, the two groups seemed to have a psychological need to remain separate from each other.

Until the island came under British administration in 1878, there were only rough estimates of Cyprus's population and its ethnic breakdown. In more recent times, population figures became highly controversial after it was agreed that the government established in 1960 was to be staffed at a 70-to-30 ratio of Greek and Turkish Cypriots, although the latter made up only 18 to 20 percent of the island's population. For this reason, the population figures were a vital issue in the island's government, likely to affect any far-reaching political settlements in the 1990s.

About 40,000 to 60,000 Turks lived on Cyprus in the late sixteenth century, according to Ottoman migration figures. In the eighteenth century, the British consul in Syria, De Vezin, believed that the Turkish population on the island outnumbered the Greek population by a ratio of two to one. According to his estimates, the Greek Cypriots numbered between 20,000 to 30,000 and the Turkish population around 60,000. Not all historians accept his estimate, however. If there was a Turkish majority, it did not last. By the time of the first British census of the island in 1881, Greek Cypriots numbered 140,000 and Turkish Cypriots 42,638. One reason suggested for the small number of Turkish Cypriots was that many of them sold their property and migrated to mainland Turkey when the island was placed under British administration according to the Cyprus Convention of 1878.

There was a significant Turkish Cypriot exodus from the island between 1950 and 1974 when thousands left the island, mainly for Britain and Australia. The migration had two phases. The first lasted from 1950 to 1960, when Turkish Cypriots benefited from liberal British immigration policies as the island gained its independence, and many Turkish Cypriots settled in London. Emigration would have been higher in this period, had there not been pressure from the Turkish Cypriot leadership to remain in Cyprus and participate in building the new republic.

The second and more intense phase of Turkish Cypriot emigration began after inter-communal strife increased in late 1963. Living conditions for Turkish Cypriots worsened as about 25,000 of them, faced with Greek Cypriot violence, gathered in several enclaves around the island. In addition, all Turkish Cypriots working for the government of the Republic of Cyprus lost their civil service positions. Aid from Turkey allowed those in the enclaves to survive, but life at a subsistence level and the constant threat of violence caused numerous Turkish Cypriots to leave for a better life abroad. As before, most emigrants left for Australia and Britain, but some settled in Turkey. By 1972 the Turkish Cypriot population had declined to around 78,000, and prospects for the community's survival on the island looked bleak.

After the de facto partition of the island in 1974, Turkish Cypriots began to return to Cyprus, and the decline was reversed. In addition, some 20,000 Turkish guest workers moved to the island to revive the Turkish Cypriot economy. Many of these workers eventually decided to remain permanently and take TRNC citizenship. Some immigration from Turkey continued in subsequent years. Largely as a result of this dual immigration, the Turkish Cypriot population totaled 167,256 in 1988, according to the TRNC State Planning Organisation.

The average annual rate of population increase during the period 1978-87 was 1.3 percent. In 1987 the rate was 1.5 percent. Despite the smallness of most age cohorts (that is those born in a particular year) born in the 1970s (a probable reflection of the decade's turbulence), more than half the population was less that twenty-five years of age (see fig. 6). The age-sex distribution matched standard patterns, with males in the majority in the first few decades, and women in the majority thereafter.

Data as of January 1991


  • Based on information from "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus," State Planning Organisation, Statistics and Research Department, Statistical Yearbook, 1988, Nicosia, 1989.
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