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Asylum and the Right to the City: Lessons from Turkey’s Syrian Guests and Other Urban Refugees

[A Syrian refugee center on the Turkish border. Image from Wikimedia Commons.] [A Syrian refugee center on the Turkish border. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

The mass movement of Syrians fleeing civil war to neighboring countries has become called the “Syrian refugee crisis.” The sheer volume of refugees brings up questions not only regarding these countries’ financial means and organizational capabilities but also, more importantly, regarding national identity and regional belonging. For example, reports on Jordan point to national concerns about the possible changes in the country’s demographic balance, while refugee rights activists critique Turkey’s open door policy on the grounds that it represents less a humanitarian response than a foreign policy maneuver made to increase Turkey’s influence in the region. The Turkish government’s direct involvement in the conflict as well as its (mis)treatment of earlier arrivals of refugees from countries other than Syria, such as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Somalia supports this latter interpretation.[1]

As Syrian refugee camps fill up in all neighboring countries, either more refugees either move out of camps to live in cities, or the camps become integrated with the towns surrounding them. The increasing presence of Syrian refugees in cities forces us to reconsider the “crisis” from an urban point of view. This, certainly, does not mean that we ought to confine ourselves to a bounded scale, since the reception of refugees in cities is a case-in-point for how the urban is assembled by forces that exceed it. I am not only referring to objective conditions that structure such reception, (e.g. national asylum policies and the roles certain cities have come to play in the global asylum regime), but also to the subjective perceptions of urban publics which are intertwined with these conditions.[2] It is such multiplicity that complicates refugees’ claim to a right to the city. While the right to the city is theoretically inclusive of migrants, refugees and other non-citizens (especially in its strictly Lefebvrian sense where it is coupled with a right to difference),[3] in practice these populations’ claim to a right to the city is not straightforward at all.[4] The reception of refugees in Turkish cities illustrates three factors that affect refugees’ ability to claim a right to the city. The first is the kind of protection provided by the national state and its interpellative[5] effects on urban publics. The second is a territorial understanding of the urban. And, the third is an understanding of time in the city that prioritizes permanent inhabitance over transience.

State Protection: How State Recognition Guides Urban Recognition

Turkey’s experience with urban refugees did not begin with the recent refugee flows from Syria. Forced into developing a national framework for refugee governance in the aftermath of flows from Iraqi Kurdistan during the first Gulf War, Turkey has been hosting refugees in particular, government-selected cities. Refugees live by their own means, without being able to leave the cities to which they are assigned. Presently, there are 40,058 refugees and asylum-seekers, officially spread around about sixty cities, but actually concentrated within a dozen.[6] Yet, the urban presence of refugees has rarely been visible within the local and national press, and has hardly been a topic of public discussion, until the arrival of Syrians. How can we account for this difference? One reason may be that Syrian refugees are much higher in number: officially more than 600,000 are registered. But, a more important difference is found in the protection the state is providing them with. Until the arrival of Syrian refugees, the state had refrained from delivering meaningful services to any refugee, i.e. it appeared to be indiscriminant to all refugees in its distance and neglect. A lack of discursive depth about refugees at the state level was evident while a clear and strong national public opinion was relatedly absent.[7] Thus, the state offered protection to its non-Syrian refugees only arbitrarily. Yet, openly taking sides in the Syrian civil war and supporting certain factions of the opposition, the government welcomed Syrian refugees as “guests” and proudly spent two billion dollars for their camps. As the war continued, it became clear that Syrian refugees could not all stay within the camps and needed to move into cities. The government allowed them hence free movement within the country, a right it denied to other refugees. Moreover, while other refugees had only been able to access free healthcare in emergency situations until very recently, a special government agency, AFAD (The Directorate for Natural Disaster and Emergency Coordination), provided Syrian refugees with healthcare coverage.[8] Thus, the state offered preferential protection to its Syrian refugees.

Because the government’s refugee policy was linked to its broader agendas vis-à-vis the Syrian civil war, public encounters with refugees became irrevocably entangled with opinions about these broader agendas. What publics encountered was not only the refugee, but the government over the body of the refugee. While this was true at the level of a national public, it took a special form in cities where ethnic and religious cleavages among Syrian refugees (Arab vs. Kurd, Alawite vs. Sunni) corresponded to similar local cleavages. The placement of Sunni refugees in Alevi-populated towns[9], and the constant flow of news that accused the government of discriminating between Syrian refugees in its service provision, mainly along the Sunni-Alawite axis, only strengthened the perceptions that the government uses Syrian refugees to further antagonize Sunnis against Alevis and suppress the latter.[10] The attempts to build a wall along the Kurdish section of the Syrian border have also indicated that the government is less concerned about refugees than about Kurdish autonomy in Rojava. Thus, when tensions arose between Syrian refugees and certain urban inhabitants, it was less because mutual cleavages aggravated each other, than because urban inhabitants perceived the government’s actions to be explicitly or implicitly favoring one side.

While the Turkish state’s preferential protection of Syrian refugees across axes of ethnicity and religious sect continues to irritate certain urban publics, its withholding of protection with regards to labor and gender relations enables the same urban publics to turn a blind eye to refugee exploitation. Many Syrian refugees work informally in cities across Turkey, and are forced to endure working conditions that resemble indentured labor. It is also not uncommon that Turkish men buy young Syrian girls as second wives. According to recent research, their value on the market has gone down from ten thousand Turkish liras (approximately 4,500 dollars), two years ago, to a current low of between one thousand and two thousands Turkish liras (approximately four fifty to nine hundred dollars). All refugees, everywhere, arrive into existing conditions of inequality, and systems of exploitation, but state protection increases or decreases their vulnerability to these. It makes certain actions vis-à-vis refugees thinkable and acceptable, endowing them with a tint of legitimacy. Urban publics pick up such signals in their encounters with, and recognition of, refugees.

Imaginations of the Global Reflect Imaginations of the Urban

The above discussion points out how state recognition interacts closely with urban recognition. Yet, this does not mean the former determines the latter. How urban publics understand the global asylum regime and its main actors play as big a part in how refugees are framed. In a country like Turkey, where suspicion towards anything beyond the national is pervasive, the general thrust of the perceptions of the global asylum regime is probably unsurprising. The range is wide: some locals fear that refugees are international spies, some are convinced that the United Nations fully subsidize them, some think they have “sold out” their homelands just to appeal to Western states, and some are worried that the European Union is trying to “undermine our [Turkey’s and/or the city’s] unity” by meddling with the urban refugees in Turkey.[11] Such distrust towards the global asylum regime is bound up with a particular understanding of the urban: a territorial understanding—parallel to a territorial understanding of the nation-state. Once the urban is imagined as a closed entity, boundaries of which are penetrated by uncontrollable networks and under attack by strange flows, the global asylum regime becomes a threat. Such an imagination readily leads to portrayals of urban refugees as uninvited outsiders, and even as violators. Under these circumstances, any refugee claim to a right to the city would, at best, fall on deaf ears, and, at worst, lack legitimacy. Urban inhabitants would tend to dismiss any benefits refugees may bring to the city, and see any benefits provided to refugees as diverted from the city’s own deserving needy. The grounding, or emplacement, of abstract refugee rights in the city cannot thus be taken for granted.

Permanence and Transience: Right to the City in Transit?

While reactions to the different types of state protection of refugees, distrust towards the global asylum regime, and a territorial understanding of the urban all present barriers to refugee claims to a right to the city, time poses yet another obstacle, especially in transit countries like Turkey. Because Turkey does not grant permanent asylum to refugees from outside of Europe, all refugees residing there are expected to eventually leave for other countries. Therefore, Turkey does not have an available history that urban publics can draw upon to make sense of refugees’ inclusion in urban life. Yet, even if Turkey did grant permanent asylum, most refugees would still be unwilling to take it. This realization causes an added frustration (or additional excuse) for many urban inhabitants who plainly declare: “They don’t want us anyway,” followed by the implicit conclusion that “we” are not obligated to provide anything in return. After all, these “guests” do not come to visit “us,” they are just forced to stop while passing by, and that is not enough to compel “us” to be good “hosts.” Just like a territorial understanding of the urban proves resistant to the recognition of urban refugees, an understanding of time that prioritizes permanence over transience renders refugees’ right to the city inconceivable. But, does the right to the city assume permanent inhabitance? How can a right to the “transit” city be recognized—by what sort of an imagination of the urban, if not by a territorial one?[12]

Embracing the Urban in its Relations: Sanctuary Cities?

What can simultaneously delink urban recognition from state policies as well as dispel the power of a territorial understanding of the urban, and a permanence-based understanding of time in the city? Perhaps a relational understanding of the urban: the realization that the city cannot close onto itself, but is always distributed across connections. Both the refugees and the cities they find themselves in are equally parts of larger networks of power and injustice, and it is exactly this quality of the urban that all its inhabitants, permanent and transient, share. After all, it is such a relational understanding of the urban that motivated the formation of sanctuary cities.

When sanctuary cities emerged in the U.S. in the 1980s, they were meant to counter U.S. involvement in conflicts in Central America and simultaneous denial of refugee status to those fleeing from these conflicts. Some U.S. cities that did not support these federal policies took it upon themselves to formulate a different relation both to the conflicts in and to refugees from Central America, by preventing the use of municipal, human, and material resources for refugee hunting.[13] Similarly, when the City of Sanctuary movement started in the UK in 2005, in response to the UK government’s policy of dispersal of asylum-seekers to particular cities, it enabled such cities to welcome the arrivals instead of turning a blind eye to them. Cities of Sanctuary showed, like their American counterparts, that their relation to global asylum flows, and governmental decisions could be conceived, and practiced differently.[14] In both movements, imagining cities as sanctuaries came about by simultaneously acknowledging their immersion in global as well as national connections, and by acting on these connections. Sanctuary cities thus highlight the transformative power of a relational understanding of the urban. But, such an understanding has the potential to take us even further. Embracing the urban in its relations can not only avoid a lopsided focus on the inter-subjective encounter between the refugee and the non-refugee, but also enable alliances over what both refugees and non-refugees encounter in the city.


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[1] I am using the term “refugee” to loosely denote those people who have fled their countries because their lives are in danger. Yet, as a governmental category, the term is a misnomer in the Turkish context. For one thing, Turkey does not grant permanent asylum to refugees from outside Europe due to a limitation it put on the 1951 Refugee Convention (Turkey was one of four countries to institute such a geographical limitation, along with Congo, Madagascar, and Monaco). Rather, it grants temporary asylum until refugees are relocated to a third country. Up until recently, temporary asylum used to entail very limited rights and insufficient and haphazard services, although the conditions are expected to improve with the coming into effect of the new Foreigners and International Protection Law. Secondly, the government has officially refrained from referring to Syrians as refugees and instead calls them "guests”—a category without any legal basis, be it national or international—and claims to welcome them under "temporary protection," another legally under-specified category.

[2] I use the word "publics" not in the sense of a Habermasian, ideal public sphere where dutiful citizens negotiate matters of common concern as part of a democratic civil society but in the sense of multiple social spaces where discourses, emotions and tendencies circulate, closer to a Warnerian understanding. See Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2002).

[3] See Liette Gilbert & Mustafa Dikeç, “Right to the City: Politics of Citizenship” in Kanishka Goonewardena et. al. (eds) Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre (London: Routledge, 2008): 250-263.

[4] See, for example, Monica Varsanyi, “Immigration Policing through the Backdoor: City Ordinances, the “Right to the City”, and the Exclusion of Undocumented Day Laborers,” Urban Geography 29, no.1 (2008), 29-52. In this piece, the author discusses the impact legal status has on capacities of, and willingness for, mobilization around a right to the city.

[5] French philosopher Louis Althusser has first introduced the term “interpellation” in an essay titled “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” in order to explain the process that folds individuals into ideology. Interpellation describes how individuals internalize the values and truths offered by ideology, and thereby become constituted as subjects. Interpellative, the adjective form of interpellation, indicates that something has a capacity of interpellation and/or is in the process of interpellating.

[6] The Department of Foreigners, Borders, and Asylum of the Turkish National Police manage refugees and asylum-seekers in these cities. The numbers fluctuate under the Department's direction and the data is not publicly available. I am referring to registered refugees, although there are many more undocumented migrants, especially in İstanbul, who could be recognized as refugees but have not claimed asylum, or have dropped their claims.

[7] For various minor discourses that circulated until the arrival of Syrian refugees, see Juliette Tolay, “Türkiye’de Mültecilere Yönelik Söylemler ve Söylemlerin Politikalara Etkis”’ in Özlem Çelebi, Saime. Özçürümez & Şirin Türkay (eds.) İltica, Ulusararası Göç ve Vatansızlık: Kuram, Gözlem ve Politika (Ankara: UNHCR, 2011): 201-213. Prominent refugee rights activist and lawyer Taner Kılıç contends that Turkey's asylum policies took place in a 'neutral' field until the arrival of Syrian refugees politicized them.

[8] This does not imply in any way that Syrian refugees are doing well. On the contrary, all major Turkish cities are now theatres of misery where Syrian refugees struggle to find shelter, decent income, and means to a basic standard of living. I am just trying to underline a discrepancy that attests to the state’s differential treatment of refugees. On another note, since January 2014, under the new Foreigners and International Protection Law, the public health insurance system also covers non-Syrian refugees.

[9] As a reminder, Alevi and Alawite are not the same. Though both religious sects are offshoots of Shiism, there are significant differences in their respective faiths. Alevis in Turkey and Alawites in Syria are not ethnically kin, either. However, both share a sense of historical persecution by Sunnis in the region. It is likely that some Alevis, especially in the city of Antakya, are closer to the Alawite faith in their practice, yet not all of them would openly accept or embrace such possible lines of similarity.

[10] The bombing of a Sunni town, Reyhanlı, not only sparked reactions against Syrian refugees in general, but also fanned Sunni-Alevi tensions, especially when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan commented that "fifty-three Sunni citizens were martyred."

[11] As the recently signed readmission agreement between the EU and Turkey goes into effect, the relatively less common perception that the world is dumping unwanted refugees to Turkey will unsurprisingly get stronger.

[12] Surely, expectations of temporariness are becoming ever more unrealistic. In October 2013, the French President, François Hollande, called to provide aid to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan so that Syrian refugee flows into Europe could be prevented.

[13] See Jennifer Ridgley, “Cities of Refuge: Immigration Enforcement, Police, and the Insurgent Genealogies of Citizenship in U.S. Sanctuary Cities,” Urban Geography 29, no. 1 (2008), 53-77.

[14] See Jonathan Darling, “A City of Sanctuary: The Relational Re-Imagining of Sheffield’s Asylum Politics,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 35 (2010), 125-140.

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