The waves splashing the shores of Berlin: Elections in Turkey, queer migration and memorised repetition

This article was first published on our Turkish page on 7 July 2023; it was translated into English by Efe Levent.

On the evening of May 28th, I left my house and walked to Südblock with mixed feelings. The front of the place was as crowded as I expected but surprisingly quiet. It didn’t take long before I noticed familiar faces among those sitting in the garden. Some were crestfallen, others were saying that we shouldn’t abandon hope just yet. Südblock is one of those places in Berlin that remind me of Turkey. A place in the heart of Kreuzberg for queers, immigrants, but most of all those who belong to both of these groups, to come to drink tea or beer, to flirt dance or to share their grief with old friends and new acquaintances alike. When spring comes and the trees surrounding it begin to blossom, it turns into an oasis amidst the ugly and cold buildings. In this hideous corner of Kreuzberg, a festival breeze blows on nights when the patrons dance halay with rainbow flags. But on this night, no one was in the mood for celebration. I caught a glimpse of Halk TV projected on the wall, as I went to the bar to get something to drink. Südblock turns into a movie theatre whenever there is an election in Turkey. People watch election results on their feet with beers in hand. It was yet another election night but most people had given up watching the results, they had preferred instead to sit in the garden and console each other. 


I got my beer and sat next to my friends. I crossed paths  with most of them at Lambdaistanbul years ago. When I left Istanbul in 2010, I imagined coming back one day and becoming a part of the movement once again. Because back then nobody felt like leaving Istanbul. Nowadays people talk of those days as the golden years of Istanbul.  They are not wrong, the city was on the cover of international magazines, being praised for everything from its nightlife, to its cuisine, cultural landscape, and architecture. Years have gone by (13 of them to be precise), but I still couldn’t return to Istanbul. At some point, I stopped even dreaming of going back. This was largely due to Turkey’s ominous destination and the developments in the life I was trying to establish in Berlin. During this period, many of my friends either migrated to Berlin or were forced to migrate. Some were hoping to return to Turkey after this election. Unfortunately, all the hopes that were tied to the ballot box have now sunk to the bottom of the sea. 


A lot of ink has been spilt both about migration from Turkey to Germany and about migration policies in general. The ongoing debates have a tendency to erase the identity of the migrants and turn them into quantifiable statistics. The voice of those who migrate can’t be heard through the charts and numbers. Usually, the migrants whose faces and voices can’t be heard are purposefully or -I’ll be generous- accidentally dehumanised. They are turned into a natural phenomena or an object. For instance, the slogan “Stop the Boats” is often repeated in the anti-immigrant discourse of the UK. We never hear the names or the stories of refugees who migrate from France to the UK with small boats and big dreams. In these narratives, those who migrate cease to be human and transform into boats. Similarly the migration from Turkey to Germany is likened to “waves”. A timeline for migration is charted by separating it into waves. The first wave refers to the 1960s, while the new wave represents the period following the Gezi protests. The story of the majority of my friends who were watching the elections at Südblock coincides with this “new” wave of migration. While different “waves” of immigration washed the shores of Germany, the dominant discourse in the 90s was that this ship is now full. It was being said that this ship, meaning Germany could not support any more migration. Borders close down when countries are likened to overflowing ships, , boats that are truly overflowing with refugees crossing the Mediterranean are forcefully sunk.

But -as fate would have it- when it comes to queer immigrants, German media sings a different tune. Then and only then, Germany ceases to be an overcrowded ship and becomes instead, a port of refuge. The stories of queer people who migrate here are flaunted as a one way street leading out of dark lands full of oppression and persecution. Those fleeing homophobic and transphobic persecution attain their liberty upon reaching Europe. They turn their backs to the past and to the lands they left behind and open “a fresh page as clean as the hearts of Europeans.” But the LGBTQI+ migrants, refugees and asylum seekers whose stories I have been listening to as a researcher since 2016, paint a different picture. While some really return to the places they left behind, others keep struggling for the people and countries they have left behind. They raise their voices against injustices both in Germany and the countries they have left behind. Others -or to be more specific- queer people from Turkey, find themselves watching the elections on a May evening at Südblock, even though they want to forget the country and stop following news from Turkey to this end. 


On the other hand, queer migration studies, which have increased in recent years, and the rights movements are rightfully trying to document the injustices encountered by migrants. All these valuable studies reveal that migrants don’t just face discrimination in their country of origin but also in their newly relocated countries. There are even new additions to the forms of discrimination they face or are forced to face, like racism, Islamophobia, and class discrimination. 

Although I find these studies extremely valuable, as a researcher, I avoid focusing my attention only on the wounds inflicted on queer migrants by border policies and LGBTQI+phobic persecution. Usually, migrants are visible in the media and the mainstream discourse in proportion  to their pain. They are rarely taken seriously as political subjects who produce acts of speech. Partially because of the irritation I feel for this situation, I turn my attention away from anti-migrant border policies to discourses created by migrants against the society they are living in. But what does this focus shift accomplish? For instance, it reveals the diversity with which queer migrants in Berlin struggle against the discrimination they face in everyday life: Some wage a struggle against the oppression and violence against the LGBTQI+ community in Egypt through online activism, others sue against the transphobia in German immigration offices. The new forms of solidarity in queer diaspora following the earthquake in Turkey, Kurdistan, and Syria forge new ideas about political organisation beyond identity politics.


Queer migration is always conceptualised as a situation/act with a singular direction everywhere in the world. But as I have stated above, not every migration story happens to stay forever in the country of destination. Some migration stories bring back the dreams of returning to the country that had to be left behind. Syrians who hope to return to their country in a more secure future, Afghans who eagerly await a future without Taliban, those who tie their hope to return to Turkey to an election result… so the list goes on.

As the hours passed, those among the crowd in Südblock who had dreams of returning started to express that anti-LGBTQI+ sentiment in Turkey was set to increase in the coming years. The evening that started with the expectation of having a celebration, turned into a sour night where speculations about a new wave of migration and the fate of the country ran amok. Then, as if to blow away the cloud of desperation created by the election results, a queer person who recently moved to Berlin I had just met, exuberantly announced: “This means lots more wonderful people will migrate from Turkey to Berlin.” While smiling at them, my thoughts were of what wave the Germans would imprison them in and what statistics they would transform them into.

Sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung with funds of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of the Federal Republic of Germany. The content of the publication is the sole responsibility of Velvele and does not necessarily reflect the position of RLS”.