In his research Mathias Fiedler illuminates the situation of refugees and migrants in the, so called, transit country Turkey. He did several in-depth interviews in Istanbul – some as a follow-up to his research he did for the project “Bordermonitoring Bulgaria“. Latest informations were collected afterwards via telephone and social media.


As I walked through the streets of downtown Istanbul, I saw a young man with a child sitting on the curb, begging for money. In the proximity of the big shopping street İstiklal Caddesi as well as in other parts of Beyoğlu, I noticed more people doing the same. As I could read on self-made signs positioned on front of them, many of them were refugees.

Often, children and other family members were begging for money 1. As refugees told me, some of them slept in the street, in parks or in abandoned buildings. After the outburst of the Syrian civil war, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey reached to 1.7 Million in April 2015 2 –one year before, the NGO Mazlum Der had already registered around 300.000 Syrian refugees in Istanbul 3.

For a long time, there has been no guaranteed refugee-status in Turkey for people coming from non-European countries due to the so-called “geographical limitation“ 4. In April 2013, a new “law on foreigners and international protection” 5 was passed by Turkey’s Grand National Assembly with the geographical limitation remaining in effect. Nevertheless, there are many people in Turkey who, having fled (civil) war or searching for a better life, are awaiting resettlement. Others transit the country in search for a way into the European Union.

Migrants in Turkey who want to apply for asylum have to register at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) office in Ankara or – since 2013 – at the Association of Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) 6. The registration constitutes the precondition to being resettled into another country. After registration, most migrants are not allowed to work. The state decides where they are permitted to live; often, it is in small satellite cities. As few migrants want to stay there, there is a constant flow towards the bigger cities. Syrians were seen as ‘guests’ until 2014 7, not as ‘refugees’ according to Turkish law. They cannot register at the UNHCR for resettlement. Until today, their status is unclear and seen as temporary 8.

From time to time, protests against refugees in Istanbul arose. A bigger protest took place in August 2014, when around 300 Turkish citizens clashed with the police and windows were broken in the suburb of İkitelli, Küçükçekmece 9. This was not the first agitation against Syrian refugees in Turkey. In July 2014, similar incidents took place in the cities of Kahramanmaraş, Adana and Gaziantep. In Antalya, the Governor’s office asked more than 1.500 Syrian refugees to leave the city. The office justified the issued notifications with accusations of “social and economic tension” as well as damaging the tourism industry 10. Hüseyin Avni Mutlu, mayor of Istanbul, came up with the idea of deporting the begging refugees back to camps in south of the country 11. There, the situation is problematic for many refugees. As I was told by people that had visited or lived in these camps themselves, one can find the inhabitants of whole villages that fled from war together in a camp.

We met François, 12 a long-term refugee activist from Ruanda, who has been living in Istanbul for many years. As he tried to explain the protests against Syrian refugees, he stated:

“Of course Syrian people are getting such kind of small jobs, then they get small money, and then maybe Turkish people, they will not, you know. Turkish people when they get salary, they need big salary. But Syrians, because they want to survive, they will take all kind of small jobs and then young Turkish people think that Syrians are stealing jobs from them, such kind of things.”


  1. 1 For more information see Sauter, Dieter: Syrische Flüchtlinge in der Türkei – Betteln, Teller waschen, Müll sammeln, in: WOZ 49 (2014). (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 European Commission. Humanitarian Aid for Civil and Protection: Eco Fact Sheet: Syria Crisis, April 2015, (last accessed July 2015)
  3. 3 Kirişci, Kemal: Syrian refugees and Turkey’s challenges: Going beyond hospitality, Washington/D.C.: Brookings Institution 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  4. 4 Kaya, Ibrahim: Reform in the Turkish Asylum Law: Adopting the EU acquis? CARIM Research Reports (2009) 16, European University Institute, Robert Schuhmann Centre for Advances Studies, pp. 2-4, (last accessed July 2015).
  5. 5 The whole law is accessible via the Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Interior, Directorate General of Migration Management: Law No. 6458 on 2013 on Foreigners and International Protection, April, 4 2013, available at: (last accessed July 2015).
  6. 6 Ibid., p. 9.
  7. 7 Schläfli, Samuel (2016): Interview with Şenay Özden: (last accessed May 2016).
  8. 8 Ibid., p. 14.
  9. 9 For more information, see “Turkey protest in Istanbul over Syrian refugees”, BBC News August 25, 2014, (last accessed July 2015); N.N.: Tension rises as Turks allegedly beaten up by Syrians, Today’s Zaman, August 25, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  10. 10 Baş, Kenan: Antalya Governor’s Office orders Syrian refugees to leave province, Today’s Zaman, December 24, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  11. 11 Istanbul may place Syrian refugees in camps, Al Jazeera July 16, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  12. 12 I have changed the name of every interview partner in this article.

François told us about sub-Saharan asylum seekers in Istanbul as well asylum seekers in general. When I asked if skin color played a role, he referred to the following episode as a typical experience of black people in Istanbul:

“If you go to Osmanbey, or somewhere else, you will find so many Iranians, Syrians, who are working really without working permit, because they are white, Muslims sometimes, no problem. But because black people…oh police when they make, you know, control they will see black people working. What happens? They will arrest them and then they will even fine the employers. And then the employers, to pay the fine, how do you think? They will use the way that they supposed to pay you, they will give to police. And then they will tell you: You see, we give your money to the police because they don’t want you to work. So we can work two month, three month, three month and then still ain’t getting a new salary. Or they give you half-half. Half-half, the other half is kept in case if the police come to fine them. And then your wage is used to pay the police.” 1

This is not the only mention of ‘white Iranians and Syrians’ not having so many problems with the police that came to my attention. According to Koray Özdil, sub-Saharan migrants in Istanbul face racial profiling, physical violence, stigmatization and having to live in fear. 2

When asked about the employment opportunities for recent migrants in Istanbul, François told us that men work mostly at construction sites or in the textile sector while women work as cleaners, babysitters and in textile production as well. He added that as a black man, you can work for merchants and lead customers from African countries to them. Black people in Istanbul try to organize themselves in specific locations, for example churches. With François, we visited a prayer service at one of those churches, “The Winners Divine Chapel“. These evangelical churches can be seen as “subaltern (sacred) counterspaces” serving as places of prayer, as transnational meeting points, and business hubs 3


Camera: Svetlana Stojanovic; Editing: Mathias Fiedler


François described “The Winners Divine Community” as follows:

“So, like this church we are going to visit is just a community, Ghanaian community church, but created by Ghanaian and some Nigerian people. Maybe some Philippine are inside.”

„God is at work here“ or „2014 our year of breakthroughs and victory“ were two of the slogans written on the walls in the church. During the service, the pastor talked about „examinations“ members of the parish had to pass. He compared the members to products or goods that have to be tested. According to him, every commodity has to pass examinations before it is admitted to the market. I had the impression that everybody in the church was listening very carefully. However, later, when music was played, the situation got more relaxed and almost everybody in the church started to dance.


Camera: Svetlana Stojanovic; Editing: Mathias Fiedler


François tried to explain the importance of the churches for the community:

“People will not feel comfortable, because some people, they don’t know what to do. They ah, when they go to church, they meet their own people. People from the community, or they meet, have a bit spare time, they socialize. Ah, they get more information about how to be here. And there they, you know, they feel relaxed.”



  1. 1 Talk with François on the May 25, 2014.
  2. 2 For further information about sub-Saharan migrants in Istanbul see the study of Özdil, Koray: To get a paper, to get a job’–The Quite Struggles of African Foreigners in Istanbul, Turkey (2008), Master’s Th., Central European University Budapest, Dept. of Sociology and Cultural Anthropology, Online: (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Heck, Gerda: Worshipping at the Golden Age Hotel: Transnational Networks, Economy, Religion, and Migration of the Congolese in Istanbul, in: Becker, Jochen/Klingan, Katrin/Lanz, Stephan /Wildner, Kathrin (eds.): Global prayers: contemporary manifestations of the religious in the city, Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers 2014, pp. 274-289.

As I was further reflecting on the situation of Syrian refugees in Istanbul, I wanted to see Ismail again, whom I had first gotten in touch with on May, 1 2014 in Edirne. We had met in one of the city’s hotels in the evening after the big 1 May demonstration that had taken place in the city center. During our first conversation, Ismail told me that he had already tried to reach both Greece and Bulgaria with his family a couple of times. In Greece, the border police pushed them back 1. The family could not enter Bulgaria because the Border Police was in position on Turkish territory, blocking the way. For many years, Ismail had been a wholesale trader in Germany. During that time, he had a visa for Germany, where he often moved from place to place. He escaped the war in Syria and got stuck in Turkey after he and his family had had to leave Egypt, where they had lived for a while. In a near-perfect German, he told me:

“What really bothers me is that I was in Germany and I know Europe very well and I cannot enter. Why, because I have a family. With a family, it is hard to enter. If I would have been alone, I would have made it a long time ago. And I don’t need help, I go alone. […] But because of my family, I cannot. I have to, somehow, watch out for my family. I have my children in a Syrian school in Istanbul and I wait until the school is finished and then I will travel on to Germany, if I can.” 2

But as Ismail failed to cross the border a third time, the family did not see any chance in Edirne and decided to go back to Istanbul. I met Ismail once more in Aksaray 3 in the end of May 2014. He told me on the phone that we would meet each other at the underground station next to a parked police car. He was accompanied by his son. We hugged and looked for a coffee bar.

After a little while, he started telling us how he had been doing since we last met. He spoke about how hard life was for the family in the Global City and that he was constantly running out of money. Ismail applied for the Humanitarian Admission Program (HAP) 4 in Germany like thousands of Syrian refugees. He did not know about the progress of his application. He told me that he planned to send his child to Germany alone because he hoped this strategy would allow the whole family to follow. “I will try it at the border again,” he told me.

Some months later, I chatted with Ismail once more. He told me that he was planning to sell one of his kidneys because the family had no money left. “I am an old man already“, Ismail wrote in a short message. He had had to spend a lot of money due to several hospital stays of his wife and one of his children. Ismail’s new ‘idea’, to be quite honest, made me sad and depressed. He sounded more and more depressed himself when I spoke to him through social media. Finally, in the beginning of February 2015, Ismail arrived in Germany with one son. After crossing several EU-countries, they applied for asylum in Germany. They are currently awaiting a decision on their status.


  1. 1 More information about Push-Backs from Greece to Turkey can be found in the report by the human rights organization Pro Asyl: Pushed Back. Systematic human rights violations against refugees in the aegean sea and at the greek-turkish land border, November 7, 2013, (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 Talk with Ismail in Edirne on May 1, 2014.
  3. 3 For further information about Aksaray see the multimedia project Der Zaun by Dietmar Telser, Benjamin Stoess and Thorsten Schneiders (December 2014, updated April 2015), (last accessed July 2015).
  4. 4 Bundesministerium des Inneren, Humanitäre Aufnahmeprogramme des Bundes, December 12, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).

Kumkapı is a place that already has a migrant history 1Many people that have migrated live and work there. Suitcase or bag sellers as well as many textile shops are very visible in the streetscape. The whole area was full of shopping tourists looking for cheap offers. As one becomes aware of in Kumkapı, not every refugee or migrant has the chance to go to the European Union or be resettled. No small number of them decides to stay in Istanbul instead of going back to their country of origin.

The reasons for people not being able cross the borders to the European Union are manifold. In 2013, fences of 10 and 30 kilometers length were erected along the borders to Greece and Bulgaria. In 2014, Push-Back case numbers inclined 2. Turkey and Bulgaria signed a readmission-agreement on sending migrants back to Turkey 3, an agreement with the European Union had already been signed in 2012 4. Additionally, it is much harder to make a living as a refugee or a migrant in many European countries due to the economic crisis. 5 In the context of the European border and migration regime, Turkey and the UNHCR  take on major roles as instruments of migration control, externalizing and managing the migration flow to the European Union 6.

Many migrants in Turkey know about the difficult situation in some European countries. In our talk, François summarized:

“And then there is this factor also with Greece, ah being or having some economical problems also many people they don’t want to go. […] Because they say: Oh, we go to Greece anyway, we fall into the same problem, we don’t get work, we don’t get money, so its better we stay here in Turkey.”

Currently, there are 16 “Removal Centers“ in Turkey 7. We wanted to visit the Kumkapı Detention Center and find out to what extent the so called “refugee crisis” is affecting this institution. After a while, we found the building which was until recently officially called “Foreigners Guesthouse” (Yabancılar Misafirhanesi).

People could be seen standing at the windows. Walking to the front of the jail, we asked police officers whether we could talk to somebody inside the police station. After our letter of accreditation had been examined, we were led to the head of the Detention Center who referred us to one female and one male police officer. With them, we talked a lot about the daily routines in the building. According these two young officers, the building was constantly crowded. 400 people were inside the group cells with about 30 people coming and going every day. This fact illustrates Istanbul’s position at the intersection of and its function as a hub of different migration routes. A psychologist we spoke to at the center told us that due to the pressure from the European Union, he himself as well as female colleagues were installed in the Detention Center. When discussing “Turkey’s gatekeeper function“ for Europe, we were told that Turkey probably has no interest in being the ‘good gatekeeper’ anymore. Many of the refugees and migrant workers in the jail facing deportation were coming from eastern or former Soviet countries.


  1. 1 See as well the article of Kristen Biehl: Exploring migration, diversification and urban transformation in contemporary Istanbul – the case of Kumkapi. (2014), MMG Working Paper 14-11, (last accessed July 2015). 
  2. 2 For information on Push-Backs from Bulgaria to Turkey see the following reports: reports: Amnesty International: The True Cost of Fortress Europe. Human Rights Violations Against Migrants and Refugees at Europe’s Borders (2014), (last accessed July 2015); Human Rights Watch: Containment Plan. Bulgaria’s Pushbacks and Detention of Syrian and Other Asylum Seekers and Migrants (2014), (last accessed July 2015); Hristova, Tsvetelina/Apostolova, Raia/Deneva, Neda/Fiedler, Mathias: Trapped in Europe’s Quagmire: The Situation of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Bulgaria, (2014), (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Cf. EU-Turkey readmission agreement benefits Bulgaria, BNR. Radio Bulgaria May 3, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  4. 4 Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network: An EU-Turkey Readmission Agreement – Undermining the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers?, p. 2,és%20des%20institutions%20européennes/En_TurkeyReadmis_Pb_web.pdf (last accessed July 2015).
  5. 5 For further information, see Gerda Heck’s interesting article on the integration of sub-Saharan migrants in Istanbul: “Ankommen, ohne bleiben zu wollen. Zu Lebensbedingungen und Alltagsstrategien kongolesischer Migrant_innen in der Türkei“, in: Heimeshoff, Lisa-Marie (eds.): Grenzregime II – Migration – Kontrolle – Wissen. Transnationale Perspektiven, Berlin: Assoziation A 2014; p. 98-111.
  6. 6 Ratfisch, Philipp/Scheel, Stephan: „Die Rolle des UNHCR bei der Externalisierung des EU-Migrationsregimes“, in: Hess, Sabine/ Kasparek, Bernd (eds.): Grenzregime – Diskurse, Praktiken, Institutionen in Europa, Berlin: Assoziation A 2010, p. 89-110, here p. 96.
  7. 7 Grange, Mariette/ Flynn, Michael: Immigration Detention in Turkey, Global Detention Project April 2014, (last accessed July 2015).

A reception center for unaccompanied minors is located in Kadıköy. We went there with a young volunteer student also active in the Don Kişot squat. At the center, he held language classes. With one of the young refugees, an Afghani named Sirus, we held a longer conversation. Having already lived in the house in Kadıköy for several years, he recently received the admission for resettlement to the United States. He seemed to be a little bit nervous while probably also glad about the chance to begin a new life. He was told that he would get an UNHCR plastic bag in order for the responsible people to recognize him at the airport.

Sirus told us that he lived in the accommodation with about 120 children and teenagers and that not everybody would find a place for resettlement. As an unaccompanied minor, you are allowed to live in the facility, but as you turn 18, you immediately have to leave the building. He told us that when this occurs, the young adults very often become homeless because they cannot afford the rent for housing. He said that life is very difficult without a working permit or other kinds of help. Many people have to ask their relatives in other countries to provide money for them. If that does not work out, people are without a home, again 1.

Resettlement is not easy to achieve in Turkey. During my stay in Turkey, a hunger strike of dozens of Afghans took place in Ankara: They were protesting in front of the UNHCR in order to attain working permits (for Turkey), resettlement and non-discrimination of Afghan refugees. Some of them decided to sew up their mouths 2.

Like François mentioned to us:

“Because I can say that UNHCR system is overcrowded. Now I am talking about refugees and asylum seekers. The system in UNHCR is crazy. I think that they don’t process the files very quickly. So you see people staying and waiting. You go to UNHCR, you apply. You have your free interview. And to hear from them, you have to wait maybe from six month to one year and then when you are like you get accepted and then you have then to wait for an embassy or a country that will host you. That will take another six [months] or one year again. So, you will see that the length of awaiting here will take from one sometimes to four to five years.”

Later, it turned out that François himself had already been in Turkey waiting for his resettlement to another country for many years:

“Ya, so we have so many cases also who, ah you know, ten years, ya. Over ten years.”


  1. 1 For more information on the situation of young refugees in Turkey, see Trimikliniotis, Nicos/Parsanoglou, Dimitris/Tsianos, Vassilis: Mobile Commons, Migrant Digitalities and the Right to the City, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillian 2014.
  2. 2 For further information on the strike in Ankara, see Speri, Alice: Afghan Asylum Seekers in Turkey Are Sewing Their Lips Together in Protest, Vice News May 9, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).

I met up with Jawad and Jasir at the “Sea of Marmara” in a suburb called Küçükçekmece a place where „many Kurdish people live “, as I was later told by my interview partners.

In the past, Jawad had been a lawyer in Syria. I knew Jawad from earlier research  1 I conducted for Bordermonitoring Bulgaria 2. A friend gave me Jawad’s number and when I called, he told me his story. At the end of 2013, he had already tried to get into Europe via Bulgaria. He made it, but he had to stay in Lyubimets Detention Center for three months and several more months in the so called “Transitcenter“ in Pastrogor. At that point, the camp was completely overcrowded and the State Agency for Refugees (SAR) was unable to tell him whether he would be accepted as a refugee or not. After a few months, he could not endure the wait any longer and he decided to go back to Syria.

“I went to Syria and stayed in Syria about 4 month. I can’t stay in Syria, everything is bad in Syria, too. Therefore, now I am in Turkey.” 3

While having tea, Jawad told me that he was prepared to take a boat across the Aegean Sea to Greece. He said that he does not see any other way to go to Europe. During our conversation, Jawad’s mother called him on the phone and told him to take care of himself. After the call, Jasir assured me that his mother had forbidden him to take the route via boat. Instead, he hoped for a false passport enabling him to travel by plane, although this option would cost him a lot more money.

At the end of the afternoon, Jawad and Jasir accompanied me to a bus station nearby. Jawad and I hugged and I was close to tears when we separated and the bus drove away. I really cannot name the feeling I had, but if I try, it can only be described as a mixture of misery and anger. Some weeks later, Jawad contacted me from Sweden. He lives now in Växjö.


  1. 1 The following chapter includes field notes from May 29, 2014 as well as notes taken during my participation in the research project Bordermonitoring Bulgaria.
  2. 2 For further information see the project’s blog: (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Recorded phone call (April 2014).

In the district of Tarlabaşı, one may find the Mutfak 1 (kitchen), a meeting space were one can partake in cooking for the poor of the neighborhood or organize counsel, language courses or other support for migrants and asylum seekers. The project was founded by people close to the Migrant Solidarity Group (Göçmen Dayanışma Ağı) Istanbul. Due to the gentrification process in that area which has been taking place for the last few years 2, more people able to pay higher rents are entering the housing market. The area has two faces with run-down houses, drug sellers and prostitution on the one hand and, on the other hand, renovated or newly built houses, nice and clean people to be seen in the street as well as on the signs adorning the construction sites. For people with no or low income who used to live there before, the situation is getting more and more difficult. It seems that a social space – like the Mutfak – is really needed in this area to support marginalized people and people in precarious situations. The solidarity kitchen tries to bring together different people from various backgrounds. It is well known in the quarter of Tarlabaşı and visited not exclusively by refugees and asylum seekers.

Outside, I met with Hassan, a Syrian refugee I later brought in touch with people from the Mutfak. I knew him from a hotel in Edirne where he had told me that he and his friends had almost drowned while trying to cross the Evros on a boat. The group of 5 young men lost the boat in the water. Afterwards, they tried to survive in the middle of the Evros on a little island consisting of trash and wood onto which they could luckily save themselves until they were rescued by a fisherman. Many people have drowned trying to cross the Evros River. In 2010, for example, the UNHCR reported three people drowning in May and 16 people drowning in June 3.

Hassan concluded his and his comrades’ situation as follows:

“We thought that we will arrive fast, but things were turning against us.” 4

Finally, they were rescued by a man with a little boat that brought them to the Turkish Border Police. With a friend, he was taken to Edirne Detention Center. Afterwards, the police decided to take them to Istanbul in a bus convoy along with many other refugees, but Hassan and his friend Ahmed managed to escape from the bus.

“They brought us with these buses. They said, yeah that actually you will have to be back to Istanbul. And actually when we arrived here, the signal. You know my friend, he is my friend, he just pushed the the the, you know, there’s a button there in this bus. He pushed the button and the doors opened and we start to run out.”

Later, Hassan told me the reason why he and his friend wanted to escape:

“Actually we don’t want to go back to Istanbul, because you know, we don’t have anything to do even in Istanbul.”

Although their escape was successful, a few days later, Hassan and Ahmed decided to go back to Istanbul because they were not able to make it to Europe.

Refugees using the boat and trying to cross the sea or a huge and dangerous river must be seen as a consequence of operations undertaken in cooperation with the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union (FRONTEX). These “joint operations” of border guards from different European countries take place at the border between Greece and Turkey 5 as well as the border between Bulgaria and Turkey. In both cases, the governments decided to install fences. In Bulgaria, a big part of the Integrated Border Surveillance System (IBSS), financed by the EU, is almost complete. Therefore it is, for the most part, not possible to cross the border on land. People escaping war try to cross over the European borders nevertheless. Several weeks after my visit in Istanbul, FRONTEX reported that the poll of detected Syrian refugees trying to cross from Turkey to Bulgaria or Greece had increased again 6. In August 2014, the Bulgarian police detained 63 refugees in a boat in the Black Sea and in the beginning of November 2014, a boat with refugees sank in the Black Sea near the Bosporus 7. At least 24 people died 8.

When I met Hassan in Istanbul at the end of May 2014, he had already been working illegally in a bar to earn some money. But again, things changed to the worse for him. He told me that he had been working the whole month of May without getting paid. Hassan recounted that, when asking the owner of the bar about his pay, the owner asked him whether he was “for or against Assad”. Hassan immediately answered the question with: “Of course I am against Assad“, whereupon the owner replied: “Then I cannot pay you.“

I went to a bar with a friend of Hassan’s who used to be a Stuart for Saudi Airlines. The friend told me he lost his work permit for Saudi Arabia with the start of the Syrian crisis. Hassan described his own life as a life of crazy ups and downs. He and his friend still thought about going to Europe. After some weeks, Hassan decided to move to Bursa and, after that, to a little town in the mountains in order to work there.


  1. 1 For video impressions, visit the Mutfak’s website (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 Bourque, Yessica: Poor but Proud Istanbul Neighborhood Faces Gentrification, The New York Times July 4, 2012, (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Cf. the press release: Sixteen people drowned attempting to cross the Evros River border between Turkey and Greece, UNHCR, July 1, 2010, (last accessed July 2015).
  4. 4 Interview with Hassan on May 2, 2014.
  5. 5 For more information, see Booth, Katherine et al.: FRONTEX. Between Greece and Turkey: At the border of denial, FIDH/Migreurop/EMHRN May 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  6. 6 FRONTEX: FRAN Quarterly. Quarter 3, July-September 2014, Warshaw 2015, p. 23, (last accessed July 2015).
  7. 7 Leviev-Sawyer, Clive: (2014): Bulgaria Detains 63 Refugees on Boat in Black Sea, Independent Balkan News Agency, August 18, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  8. 8 Cf. Migrant boat traversed entire Bosphorus without being detected before disaster, Hurriyet Daily News, November 4, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).

All in all, it seems like Syrian refugees in Turkey, alike other migrants and refugees, have to be highly flexible 1. As stated in an Amnesty International report published in 2014, refugees in Istanbul and other parts of the country have to work for low wages 2. In Istanbul, not one of the Syrian refugees I met had stayed in the same place for more than 3 months. They were constantly moving in search for a way to earn a living. At times, it was very difficult to use the contacts I had received from people helping me with my research because the person had already moved outside of Turkey, or at least outside of Istanbul. Others returned to Istanbul to find work or a possibility to somehow get into Europe.

As construction sites in Istanbul are booming, a lot of cheap labor is needed. Many areas are gentrified and changed, often due to the fact that people are working for such low wages. In the construction projects of big companies or the textile sector, the exploitation of the ‘human capital’ is not likely to end anytime soon. Syrian Refugees are working in clothing factories, the farming sector or restaurants, often illegally 3. A lot of poor Turkish people already work for cheap wages and, of course, the refugees and migrants – having nothing left to give except the ‘commodity’ of their manpower.

The Global City Istanbul is pulsing and it seems that it will tremendously extend its capitalistic economical reach. One can say that even with the statutory minimum wage guaranteed by the state, there is a highly unregulated labor market supported by an enormous ‘reserve army of labor’ 4 fueled by poor people trying to maintain their existence. Those who are neither needed nor wanted are pushed back by society’s racism and classism or – eventually – leave the city or the country voluntarily.


  1. 1 For working opportunities of Syrian refugees, see the study of Kirişci, Kemal: Syrian refugees and Turkey’s challenges: Going beyond hospitality, Washington/D.C.: Brookings Institution 2014, (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 Amnesty International: Struggling to survive: Refugees from Syria in Turkey (2014), p. 25-27, (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Özden Şenay: Syrian Refugees in Turkey, MPC Research Report May 2013, (last accessed July 2015).
  4. 4 This Marxian concept was first articulated in Marx, Karl: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, German: Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Berlin: Franz Duncker 1859.

Lisa Szepan‘s text evolved as a result of the seminar “Global City Istanbul” and is based on interviews with Syrian students, who had fled the war in their home country to survive and continue their education abroad. During the field trip in May 2014, the young men talked to the researcher personally and kept communicating through digital media afterwards.

On my first visit to Sehir University, I started having a chat with two female students in the West Campus cafeteria randomly asking them where to find the next public park. While chatting, I told them about the student research group I was part of. When we came to discuss the issue of refugees in Istanbul, they mentioned that there were a number of Syrian students that had recently arrived at their university and sent me to the International Relations Office to find out more. 1

We found ourselves in Üsküdar, a middle-class neighborhood on the Asian side of the city that had been described as religious and conservative by the Turkish students I interviewed – naturally, such categorizations of whole districts only tell a part of the story. In the 2014 mayoral elections, 40.5% gave their vote to the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) candidate and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won with only a slight majority of 42.2%. Regarding political choices, the district appears to be a lot more diverse than initially expected, although the successful CHP candidate in Üsküdar was described as rather conservative when compared to the secular and left-wing social-democratic CHP. 2 For many Syrian students, Üsküdar is first and foremost a new home they arrive at after fleeing a war – the war in their home country. In the International Relations Office, I met three young Syrian men who shared crucial parts of their biographies with me. We talked about paths that had led them to Sehir University, the situation in Syria, the hardships as well as the positive experiences of their daily lives in the city of Istanbul.


  1. 1 This article was developed in the year-long seminar “Global City Istanbul“ at the University Göttingen under supervision of Sabine Hess and Gerda Heck. My research was partly conducted during a one week-long excursion to Istanbul partly through follow-up Skype interviews with some of the interlocutors I met there.
  2. 2 Cf. Cagaptay, Soner: “Turkey’s Presidential Prospects – Assessing recent trends”, in: Research Notes 18 (2014), The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, pp. 1-8.

For the three young men I spoke to, the ability to finance their studies and lives in Istanbul was the key issue for their decision to move there – as they had to leave Damascus and Homs, they could have also gone to another country. Personal contacts, either to family members or friends, made them find out about the work of the internationally working Syrian charity organization Homs League Abroad (HLA). Although they transport a clear regional identity through the organization’s name, paid membership is open to all Syrians, as well as those living in diasporas and all over the world. Moreover, the scholarships they provide young Syrians with also target those from other cities such as Damascus, as was the case for Isan and Maroun.


Students at Sehir West Campus

Students at Sehir West Campus © Lisa Szepan 2014


 According to their spokesperson Dr. Yaser Al Hamwe in the Head Office in Münster, Germany, HLA’s educational unit started working with two Istanbul universities in summer 2012, the Istanbul Şehir University and the Istanbul Aydın University located in Küçükçekmece. 1 In 2013, the organization counted 120 university students they supported in Turkey, 95 of these in Istanbul, while planning to support more students from autumn 2014 onwards. To introduce their work in Turkey, they built a connection to IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation Turkey as well as the Turkish governmental scholarship program  turkiyeburslari to provide them with their expertise. IHH, founded in 1992 in Istanbul 2, has undergone severe criticism due to their contacts to a number of right leaning Islamist institutions and individuals. Yet, it has been a major humanitarian institution in Turkish society ever since as well as the most important foundation providing support for Syrian refugees outside of camps since March 2011. 3 Homs League Abroad’s work in Turkey was presented to me as a success and, at the time of our interview, HLA also awaited help from the German Academic Exchange Service and was organized within a broader network of German-Syrian charity organizations. 4


  1. 1 Email-interview answered on August 15, 2014.
  2. 2 Official Website of IHH, “Corporate“, “Brief History“, (last accessed July 2015).
  3. 3 Özden, Senay: Syrian Refugees in Turkey, Migration Policy Center Reports at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, San Domenico die Fiesole 2013, p. 9.
  4. 4 For further information, see the network’s website: (last accessed July 2015).

“So, I had to get out. And well, the obvious option is Istanbul.” (Isan, May 29, 2014) With the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis, the Turkish government introduced the so-called Temporary Protection Regime in October 2011 allowing every Syrian refugee to enter Turkey legally and be provided with accommodation in camps as well as basic services outside of camps. 1 Talking about mobility and migration strategies, one should acknowledge the fact that many of the routes from Syria are taken out of despair and lack of alternatives, thereby representing variants of forced migration 2. However, this forced migration led my interview partners into environments described by them as relatively promising:

“I did not choose this university, I did not choose this country. I did not choose this city to study in. Or this university. It was the only and the one choice for me, to go, to run from the war and to complete my studies, so that is why. Let’s say it was the only and the one option, but it was not that bad, yeah, it is great.” (Nadim, May 30, 2014)

Istanbul’s academic landscape and Sehir University in particular was described as the only but a “great” option – they expressed a certain pragmatism and determination to work hard for a good and prestigious education, for example when Nadim told me about his and Maroun’s dream to study at MIT University (Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge) one day. In addition to being a place to learn and grow, to move further abroad, Istanbul was appreciated for its cultural richness and the degree of freedom it provided:

“You know it is an open society. And you are free to get whatever you want, you can, you can see they have lots of mosques, lots of them actually, and they have night clubs and they have all of this.” (Nadim, May 30, 2014)

However, my interviewees all preferred the Asian side of the city, to which they ascribed a generally calmer and more authentic atmosphere. For Nadim, it was the area close to the so-called Maiden’s Tower Kiz Kulesi in the southern part of the Bosporus strait that he chose for relaxation and reflection. Maroun expressed a certain fascination with the city as a whole when he said:

“Jane [Arabic expletive], I remember I read a sentence, I think, like ‘the world connects with its history in Istanbul’.” (Maroun, May 29, 2014)

However, he also experienced the European side as disturbingly crowded. Isan spoke similarly about Taksim, which he described as a place with unpleasant expats as well as a dubious nightlife characterized by drug dealing and prostitution.

A lot of the student’s everyday life is organized around the campus facilities. For example, Isan, who is employed as a translator by a call center with its office situated in Mecidiyeköy, Şişli, often works from the university to avoid the daily journey by public transport. To earn his living, he is active in a second job: Partly paid and partly volunteering, he supports the work of the NGO Watan Syria, which is part of set of seven institutions focusing on humanitarian and educational work, as well as research and business opportunities for Syria’s future. 3 At Watan, he tries to realize his ideas of charity work for Syrian people affected by the war.


  1. 1 UNHCR, “2015 UNHCR country operations profile – Turkey”, (last accessed July 2015).
  2. 2 According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the category of forced migration applies to those migratory movements “in which an element of coercion exists, including threats to life and livelihood, whether arising from natural or man-made causes”, including, for example the groups of refugees and asylum seekers, Internally Displaced Persons, environmental and disaster-induced displaced as well as development project induced displaced persons. Cf. (last accessed December 2014, no longer online).
  3. 3 Official Website of Watan Syria, “About Watan”, (last accessed July 2005).

“I am actually more active here in Istanbul than I was in Damascus, because you have like, more freedom now. There is no intelligence following us [laughs].” (Isan, May 29, 2014)

Whilst talking to Isan, he started telling me about his role in the Syrian revolution, where he was taking part in neighborhood coordination and the organization of strikes. He was also seeking to spread information about the incidents in Syria on English facebook pages to a broader international audience. In 2012, however, it was no longer safe for him to stay in his neighborhood due to the threat posed by Syrian intelligence. A few months after arriving in Turkey, he became involved in Watan, to which he referred to as a mainly charitable organization aiming to follow and provide analysis of the situation in Syria. Alongside other offices all over the world, mainly in the Middle East and the USA, there is a bigger team in Gaziantep, a Southern Turkish city close to the Syrian border and the area around Aleppo. Isan is one of the continuously active members in a team of about 20 people in Istanbul. In autumn 2014, they were working on the establishment of a sub-unit concentrating fully on scholarship provision. Their biggest problem is the allocation of funds that can guarantee students reliable long-term support in contrast to experiences made with the Homs League Abroad’s scholarship program:

“They have fallen in troubles of providing more funds for the students they already have leading actually to me being suspended from my scholarship, and trying to look for other sources of funds. And this is one of the troubles. The other troubles are actually, what you may call the ideological forcing, forcing some ideas upon students just because they have, they are supporting them. And well, at Watan we will never do such a thing.” (Isan, October 20, 2014)

Isan’s statement indicated the ambiguities of being financially supported by an organization with an ideological agenda and opacities in the selection and suspension processes of students. At this point, the transnational network established by HLA appears to be fragile for the individuals involved in it. In Isan’s case, the suspension from the scholarship program resulted in an increased mistrust in the organization’s integrity on the one hand and in a determination of building up alternative structures of – first and foremost – financial support on the other hand. When I told him about the scholarship package for 100 Syrian students recently announced by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in reaction to a public appeal initiated by German academics, Isan was enthusiastic and ready to carry the information into Watan. 1


  1. 1 Federal Foreign Office: “Press Release: Foreign Minister Steinmeier: Germany launches new scholarship package for Syrian students”, September 22, 2014, (last accessed July 2015).

Despite the active interest in the Syrian war, my interviewee’s reactions towards the recent Gezi-park protests were rather cautious, expressing the will to distance themselves from the events:

“Actually I did not come out, because I do not want to have any problem here, we are, we came from the war and we do not want to get more trouble here.” (Nadim, May 30, 2014)

On the other hand, a lack of understanding was expressed towards the notion of Turkish society feeling oppressed by the current government:

“Well, coming from a country such as Syria, I cannot see that how Turkish people oppressed. I don’t know, maybe from someone from Germany you can see it [laughs].” (Isan, May 29, 2014)

A similar perspective was taken on police violence during the 2013 upheavals:

“They said that the police was, was brutal. In what way was the police brutal [laughs]? Yeah, it’s funny for us, because they were shooting water at people? Oh come on, this is like very luxurious for us to shoot water at people. We get bullets, normally.” (Isan, May 29, 2014)

Against the background of still having family members in Syria living under life-threatening conditions, Gezi protests appeared to be an issue for the Turkish natives to my interview partners. There was a clear hierarchy of relevance with a focus on changing the situation in Syria and not in Turkey, which was mainly appreciated for its function as a loyal host. However, my interviewees expressed some skepticism towards the reasons the Turkish government had had for opening up its borders for Syrians so seemingly unconditionally.

In Aksaray, where many Syrians live, there are currently more than ten Syrian restaurants, Isan told me. Whenever he missed Syrian food, such as bean dishes and humus, he went there. The further broadening of Istanbul’s already global culinary infrastructure is one side effect of the Syrians’ active presence in the city. Outside Isan’s university and work life, he also occasionally had contact to Syrian people living at the outskirts of Istanbul, in areas like Sutanbeyli – there, he said, it is possible to rent a house at around 300 lira per month.

“It’s a, as if it is a village – not exactly a city, but it is still inside Istanbul. It is still considered inside of Istanbul, but it is a poor place, it is a very poor place.” (Isan, October 20,2014)

Far relatives of his stay in the area close to the city’s second airport, Sabiha Gökçen. According to Isan, they received support by the municipality, the Sultanbeyli belediyesi, for furnishings.

For describing the current relationship between Turkish and Syrian people, Isan found plain words when I asked him whether he had noticed the recent protests against Syrian migrants, for example in Ikitelli, Istanbul:

“Right now, you can obviously see that the Turkish people have lost their patience towards the Syrian issue.” (Isan, October 20, 2014)

He explained that the protests have been reactions to criminal acts of poor Syrian refugees, mostly theft, and that he understood both the Turkish people’s anger and the desperation of many of his compatriots.

“[…] as you can expect, people coming from a country that is broken, some of them are going to be broken also.” (Isan, May 29, 2014)

While showing his understanding for the Turkish people’s reaction towards social ‘misbehavior’ of refugees, he nevertheless referred to the protesters as lower educated and “not the most civilized Turkish people”, thereby implying that it is not the whole of Turkish society building up against Syrians. However, in official AKP government statements towards the Syrian issue until the end of 2012, the prevailing discourse was one of Turkey’s grandeur reflected in its selfless and conscientious support of the Syrian population in- and outside the war-shattered country. 1


  1. 1 Demirtas-Bagdonas, Özlem: “Reading Turkey’s Foreign Policy on Syria: The AKP’s Construction of a Great Power Identity and the Politics of Grandeur”, in: Turkish Studies 15 (2014) 1, pp. 139-155.

Reviewing the experiences of Isan, Maroun, Nadim and their families, their situation seems to reflect the almost desperate situation in Syria on the one hand and the fragmentation of Syrian civil society organizations abroad on the other. Chances to flee the war are mostly springing up from personal contacts leading to organizational affiliations and are, even in the most opportune cases, such as that of scholarship holders, accompanied by huge efforts and uncertainties. The fact that scholarship programs often require young people to leave their family members behind in an area of armed conflict and to migrate on their own to take the chance for academic training is just the most obvious hardship. Invoking the widespread pictures of Syrian refugees in Turkey inhabiting large camps or the streets of Istanbul or Gaziantep, the label of privileged refugees popped up in my head and I asked Isan what he thought about it. He hesitated and then replied:

“Probably you can say that. I suppose you can say that, because I mean me being at a private university –  to be honest, I had to work really really hard during the summer. Really hard meaning almost 20 hours a day to be able to gather enough money to pay for this semester and the coming one.” (Isan, October 20, 2014)

His answer made it plain to me that his and the other students’ privileges were fragile and that they were all struggling to pursue their education in Turkey. Their examples show that, once having fled from a war, people need much more than shelter, but rather long-term perspectives, and higher education is one part of it. Despite the activities of transnational organizations, universities and individuals, the Turkish government continues to play a key role in setting the benchmarks for the treatment of Syrians in the country. It remains to be seen how it is going to cope with the rising tensions against Syrian refugees and whether actors like Watan will be able to build alliances with the least fortunate Syrians inhabiting Turkey.