Immigrants: Jumping out of the frying pan into the fire in Turkey

This text was published in Turkish on on June 29, 2023; translated into English by Mertcan Karakuş.

I doubt that correcting the false facts about immigrants and refugees actually works. Because even if immigrants and refugees work miracles, they cannot change what people think about them, they are simply not given the chance. Although we break our backs criticizing the media and the politicians’ hostility and hate speech targeting immigrants, and explaining that very few of the Syrians are granted citizenships, not all of them support the ruling parties, and their healthcare is not paid by your taxes again and again; I think that our voices remain inside our echo chambers. The government and political leaders utilize and demonize immigrants and refugees, and this strikes a chord in the society. This reaction is not based on facts and arguments, it is based on a much more primitive condition that scares people and makes them see the other as a threat. This is the actual, scary thing. In this context, when they get even a tiny splinter in their fingers, they blame immigrants. 

During the election process, the Table of Six’s presidential candidate declared very clearly that they would send the immigrants and refugees back to their countries, just to create an alternative policy to the AKP government; as a matter of fact the candidate came to terms with the Zafer Party’s leader, who is the leader of a party that has been carrying the hostility towards immigrants to ultra-racist peaks. Being obliged to vote for such a candidate must have felt heavy not only for people like us who are concerned for refugee rights, but also for everyone with basic empathy. At least, it should have felt heavy. When we chose the lesser evil for ourselves, we didn’t keep in mind the future that we should build for people who live in this country with us, but don’t have the privilege of citizenship. We said ‘‘let us get rid of the president first, we will object the migration policies of the new government later’’ just like leftists who have been saying for a long time to us, feminists and LGBTQI+ people, ‘‘let the revolution begin first, we will consider your situation later.’’ If the government had changed, could they do what they promised, and if they fulfilled their promises, could we interfere, I don’t know. 

Despite the unsafe conditions, it looks like the Syrians’ protection statuses in Turkey will be kept intact for now. This is good news. But we should differentiate between political asylum and refugee policies from irregular migration and border policies. Serious violations of basic rights are still being committed on Turkey’s eastern and western borders . We recently witnessed that the Hellenic Coast Guard and Frontex just watched a boat with 750 immigrants onboard sink; meanwhile the U.S. Coast Guard pulled all of its resources together for the lost submarine Titan. We get so used to the images of sinking boats in Aegean Sea that we do not come across with that tragedy except some on social media posts, and it is not even newsworthy anymore. Moreover, there are thousands of house laborers from Central Asia, and Afghan youths working at factories, farms, and fields without legal status. Although we live with them in the same cities, walk on the same streets together, we don’t even talk about their increasing number of deportations.  

As a researcher who has been working with immigrants for a long time, I believe that I developed a thick skin to these issues and became emotionally numb. This alienation is another saddening discussion topic. Listening to all kinds of violence and knowing that we will not be able to make a significant difference is especially difficult for researchers who study migration from a gender perspective. Unfortunately, one gets used to that as well. But sometimes, you develop a strong connection with someone; their words touch you in a way that breaks down all of your walls. Last year, I experienced something like this when I met a couple, who, after the Taliban captured Kabul, got their visas with great difficulty by pulling some strings and got their residence permit by buying a house in Beylikdüzü with all the money they could liquidate. A doctor and a banker, they are both middle aged people who used to be at the top of their careers. In order to practice medicine in Turkey, you should go through a very difficult equivalency process and it takes years to get the medical license. Because of this, the husband was working in a sweatshop in Zeytinburnu and the wife was looking after their children  at home. She said ‘‘When we were living in Kabul, the children had a nanny, we had our family, and I was working comfortably. But now I can’t work, I can’t even find a job that I could work from home.’’ Their children, who were having the best education at private schools of their country, were not even admitted to the public school because of the school’s‘‘No Afghans’’ policy. Schools must accept every child by law, but the final decision belongs to the principles. She asked me: ‘‘If I can enroll the children in a school, maybe I can find a part-time job in finance. Do you know any such openings?’’ I didn’t know anything. Later, I talked to her doctor husband about how it feels to leave their lives in Kabul in an instant, not being able to lay claim to their properties there, not being able to go to a third country, and having their families socio-economic class suddenly change. I joked around saying ‘‘Doctors have skilled hands, I am sure that you are successful at the sweatsho.” He said ‘‘No offense taken.’’ He added: “Instead of being a rich doctor serving the Taliban and raising my children in that country, I would rather work at a sweatshop with my honor. I would do anything as long as I work with my pride.’’ I remembered Aydın Engin’s similar words and his photograph taken with his cab. This saddening repetition of history, which occurred a million times, hurt me. You run away to your ‘‘West’’, they run away to their ‘‘West,’’ but the world is round, no one reaches the ‘‘West’’ we are looking for. After that interview I checked my phone, my mother had texted me that Aydın (Engin) had died. ‘‘Here they are,’’ I said. These are the ones who everybody complains about day and night. People say ‘‘They come, buy houses from Beylikdüzü, then they are granted residence permit and citizenship.’’ They sacrifice everything in order to live with their pride; despite of this, on the streets, they are yelled at ‘‘Go home!’’ As if they have a country to go back to. I have heard these words from too many immigrants who came from different places: ‘‘We do not have a country to go back.’’ I think that too many people, who left Turkey in order to live abroad, have felt the same for a long time, too. 

When you have gained access to rumors going around in Beylikdüzü and Esenyurt, you witness that there are different actors who are involved in ‘‘buying’’ the residence permit or the citizenship; and the situation is not as innocent as it is in this example. Citizenship is especially crucial, because it is a status that grants not only social and economic rights but also political ones. However, in countries where citizenship is being sold, there is no point in putting the blame on immigrants. Who else is responsible for all this? I started this essay by stating my doubts about the efficiency of correcting the false facts about immigrants and refugees, but I would like to correct myself at this point, because during the election process, the Syrian vote was a popular discussion topic. Of course, only the Syrians who are granted citizenship can vote. Thus, ‘‘10 million refugees live in Turkey’’ phrase does not reflect any political reality or has an impact on the elections. Because the temporary protection status, which Syrian refugees  are granted, does not allow them to apply for citizenship status any time, only the Syrians, who the government considers qualified and with potential to contribute to the country, are granted citizenship. Considering all the Syrians who took refuge, this ratio is ridiculously low. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees data, 3.6 million Syrians with temporary protection status live in Turkey and only the 126.000 of them have citizenship and are of voting age. We know that even if their relocation to a third country is granted, the government does not allow them to leave the country. So, if they are not Syrians, who are those immigrants buying citizenship? I think that this is a question the government should answer with providing explanations based on data. In addition, numbers of the Ukrainian and Russian immigrants in Turkey have been rising for the last two years. Their right to stay, residency permit, future citizenship… We do not even talk about that issue. We are just sad that they jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. They probably think that the dictator of another country is better than their own.

Last but not least, let’s discuss this “security” issue. As you know ‘‘Borders are our honor.’’ It is impossible to live a safe and free life in this country for women and LGBTQI+ people; we live in a spiral of violence and impunity for the criminals. The situation is far worse for immigrants and refugees who are legally more fragile than us. Even the foreign students, who have the most privileged status among immigrants, are in grave danger. We recently witnessed that Dina from Gabon, who was a student in Karabük, had been raped and murdered. What happened to Dina is very common among African women. If we faced this truth, we would have to shut down the whole country. Then again the queer immigrants fight against extreme poverty and violence, in most cases they do not even have the social network and the solidarity that help queer people from Turkey survive. For instance, most immigrants hide their gender identity and sexual orientation when they look for jobs at factories, sweatshops or in the service industry. For these reasons, the conditions of people, who left their country but still live in the same circle of psychological and physical violence, makes us question the migration itself and its promises of living a better and freer life.  

At this point, we can’t separate the demonization and the criminalization of the LGBTQI+ people, which was a secondary agenda of the ruling parties during the elections, from the anti-refugee discourse. Even if they are introduced from different sides, the marginalization and the scapegoating processes are the same. Actually the queer immigrants, whose rights are defended by no one, are the most fragile group. This responsibility was subcontracted to the non-governmental organizations. Unfortunately, the ongoing pressure on the non-governmental organizations, especially on the ones working in this field, does not allow them to continue their rights advocacy. Despite all this, Turkey is still considered as a ‘‘safe country’’ for women and LGBTQI+ refugees in the international arena. For this reason, even if women and LGBTQI+ refugees have the priority of being sent to a third country, they still spend long, long years in Turkey. Going to a third country looks like an empty promise, but hope of it helps people cling to life. Considering the ‘‘should we stay or should we go’’ discussions after the elections, we ought to keep in mind that even leaving the country is a privilege.

It is a custom to finish this kind of essays with words like ‘‘At least we have our solidarity.’’ We have our feminist solidarity and queer solidarity and they are precious, for sure. After the earthquake, we realized once again that nobody but us will help come to our help. However, the challenge is how we will talk and meet the foreigners, how we will enforce solidarity bridges between us. While everybody has been worried deeply about their lives, we certainly will achieve nothing until these bridges are built. As an observer of a ballot box which contained more votes for the Zafer Party than the total votes of the Yeşil Sol Party and the Türkiye İşçi Party, I can state that we should seriously consider new forms of solidarity in order to fight against the unpredictably rising racism, nationalism, and anti-gender movements both in Turkey and in world.

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