Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Once displaced, always on the move? Life aspirations of refugees in Turkey

Migrants are known for their movement, but most are usually looking for a place to stop moving.

Eda Kirişçioğlu Ayşen Üstübici
6 July 2020, 10.11pm
A Syrian woman now living in Gaziantep, Turkey.
Tayfun Dalkılıç/UN Women/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc)

Our daily sense of what it means to be a refugee is dominated by images of attempted movement – people undertaking difficult journeys, being stuck at borders and camps, or being victimised by border controls. Yet not all displaced people want to move. Some wish to stay put and grow roots where they currently are.

For most displaced people this is surprisingly difficult to do. Countries like Turkey, which hosts a large number of refugees, are far from providing protection to displaced people, let alone a life where one can realise their aspirations for the future. Most also do not officially recognise the refugees within their borders. Turkey accomplishes this through a geographical limitation it placed on the 1951 Refugee Convention, which allows it to refuse refugee status to people originating from non-European countries.

Displaced Syrians are mostly registered under temporary protection, which allows them to stay in Turkey without specifying for how long. Afghans in the country are, generally speaking, even more precarious. Most are unregistered and deprived of any legal status, while a minority are given conditional refugee status for as long as it takes them to be resettled to third countries. They are often made to wait years for an opportunity to do so.

Refugees’ unclear legal status in Turkey makes them vulnerable, and within this context it is interesting to ask why some aspire to move on while others do not. Focusing on aspirations helps us debunk two of the narratives currently dominating migration policy-making: first, that all migrants are on their way to Europe, and second, that strict border policies will convince migrants not to attempt the journey.

“Their life is different from us, and here is safe.”

Many Syrian refugees say they would rather stay in Turkey, as it is a Muslim country. They do not see themselves as fitting into a European country. “Europe is hard for us because of the tradition and cultural differences, especially since we have five daughters” said Amal, a mother of six living in Istanbul. “Europe would be difficult for the girls to adapt in. But here, Turkey is an Islamic country, so it is much better for them.” Amal and her family came to Turkey in 2014. For the first eighteen months they lived together with other family members in a camp near the border – fifteen people in a single room.

Her husband went to Istanbul to work in a factory in Istanbul, and after 1.5 years he had saved enough for his family to be able to join him. They rely on social assistance to pay their rent and make a living. They barely make ends meet. Amal said that her feelings of safety and familiarity in Istanbul would keep her in Turkey even if the borders to Europe were to open.

“I do not want to start from zero.”

For others leaving Turkey without documents was out of the question. This wasn’t because they feared a high-risk border crossing or because they lacked the necessary social and financial capital. It was because they did not want to go through the stigma of being a refugee all over again. They often said, “I do not want to start from zero.” By this, they meant that they had already invested considerable time and resources into bettering their current circumstances. They did not want to go to a new country where they will be treated like new refugees – put into camps, told to learn the language, and be forced to re-start their education. Especially among Syrian youth, those who had found room for self-improvement were more likely to aspire to stay in Turkey. They had achieved stability to a certain extent and developed a sense of belonging in Turkey – either through work or education or Turkish citizenship – and saw no need to jeopardise that.

While these young people do not want to become a refugee again, they were content to keep other mobility options – such as for tourism, employment, or study – on the table. They were open to secondary movement in general, but not as refugees. For example, many Syrian university students, like their Turkish peers, dreamt of spending a semester abroad through the Erasmus programme. Their aspirations are built upon what they have already accumulated rather than a fresh start. In the process, they began to aspire to mobility rather than migration. This insight highlights the need to look beyond the actual physical movement when seeking to make sense of refugees’ aspirations. We need take into account that other critical transitions in life, like continuing education or starting a family or new business, play a role in their decision-making as well.

Those who had found room for self-improvement were more likely to aspire to stay in Turkey.

Of course, not all displaced people in Turkey have found it welcoming. Many have found the living conditions unbearable and aspire to move on. Most Afghan refugees consider their lives in Turkey ‘on hold’ and dream of being resettled to a third country so they can start living again. Despite its very low acceptance rate, Canada is at the top of the wish list for many Afghan refugees in Turkey.

Jamilah is one of those Afghan refugees dreaming of being resettled to Canada. She is married, a mother of four, and has lived below the poverty line in Adana, in southern Turkey, since 2018. Jamilah describes her life in Turkey as a “compelled life”. She believes that her children have no future in Turkey and they deserve a better life than a life full of uncertainties. Yet, right now they have no alternative to living in Turkey, and Jamilah and her family have been reluctant to make the clandestine journey. She says they’d rather wait for resettlement to a country where they can enjoy the benefits of being a refugee, even though the process will likely take years.

Europe at all costs?

Europe’s strict migration control measures aim to immobilise refugees where they are, and are indifferent to finding permanent solutions for refugees’ lives. In Turkey these interventions include financial aid as well as increasing securitisation. Tightening external and internal border controls does not only increase the individual risk for people trying to enter Europe, but it also twists our perspectives by concentrating blame on smugglers while drawing attention away from other forms of structural violence. Most refugees whom we interviewed were aware of the potential risks involved in attempting to migrate to Europe, and formed their mobility aspirations with these in mind.

That does not mean all are necessarily dissuaded. For some refugees, the risks of violent borders and inhospitable receptions outweigh the risks of continuing life where they are. When we met in spring 2019, Qasim, a Syrian refugee living in Turkey, had access to financial aid provided by EU-funds and had legal recognition in Turkey. Yet he was not satisfied with the course of his new life, which he perceived as downwardly mobile. He said he would try to move on even if he acquired Turkish citizenship. “A risk/bad experience for a few days in illegal ways is better than risks and a difficult life forever here,” he said. As Qasim demonstrates, no matter how generous the development interventions are or how strict the border policies, some people will still aspire to move on. For these determined people, all these interventions are able to do is make their journeys more difficult and dangerous.

For some refugees, the risks of violent borders and inhospitable receptions outweigh the risks of continuing life where they are.

On 28 February 2020, the Turkish government suddenly opened its western borders for undocumented border crossings. Thousands of migrants moved towards the Aegean coast and the land border between Turkey and Greece, creating various forms of ‘border spectacles’ as migrants clashed with guards on the other side. The underreported side of this story, however, was that not everybody jumped at the chance. Indeed, most did not.

Our own field observations found that Syrians, especially, remained where they were already settled. This was for several reasons. First, the news that Greece was not opening its border spread very fast. Furthermore, many said they would prefer to stay in Turkey rather than be stranded in Greece. Even Jamilah, who lives in poverty and dreams of being elsewhere, stated that they would rather wait for resettlement than be stranded at the border. Similar to Jamilah, most Afghan and Syrian refugees that we interviewed in March 2020 stated that they do not believe any European country would welcome them. The did not think the journey would be worth it, as it was unlikely to get them to where they aspired to go.

Our interviews with Syrian and Afghan refugees over the years have taught us the importance of taking aspirations seriously and of recognising their dynamic nature. A better understanding of their characteristics as well as the effects of interventions upon them would allow critical scholars to launch a sustained, evidence-based critique of ‘refugee containment’ policies alongside already-existing normative and ethical critiques. Western-centric externalisation policies are constructed on the assumption that all displaced populations eventually aspire to settle in the developed world. This is as egocentric as it is false, a fact that must be made clear to European policymakers as part of arguing for more humane policies.

Our ongoing research project Advancing Alternative Migration Governance seeks to provide further evidence to back up that assertion. It also asks whether violent borders deter migrants from making their journey to Europe and whether development interventions can motivate people to settle. We also question whether the short-term, surprise opening of routes – as Turkey did in February – provides sufficient motivation for migrants to move on.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 822625.

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