Istanbul: New home or layover?

The situation of refugees in Istanbul and the EU-pact with Turkey

This article has been written in the follow-up of the Tegenlicht Meet Up ‘Halte Istanbul’ in Pakhuis de Zwijger on Wednesday the 23th of March.


About 60% of all refugees are currently living in cities. The newcomers are especially noticeable in the Turkish city of Istanbul, where at the moment more refugees are staying than in the whole of Europe combined. The refugee camps on the border area of Turkey are full, which forces many to seek refuge in the cities. What is the situation in Istanbul like for refugees? And what consequences does the EU-pact with Turkey have? 

The situation in Istanbul

Istanbul grew in a shockingly short period of time to a mega city of 14 million citizens. This huge increase has partly been caused by the enormous migrant influx of the past decades, which resulted in the creation of a very diverse and multicultural city. According to photographer Halil Özpamuk, this might be one of the reasons why Istanbul is such a hard city for newcomers to settle; nobody can claim Istanbul as their city and everyone has to put a lot of effort into being a part of the city.

At the moment an estimated number of 2 million refugees are living in Turkey, of which 330.000 (Syrian) refugees are situated in Istanbul. The city of Istanbul houses so many refugees because the Turkish refugee camps are completely full. This is problematic for a city like Istanbul because it can hardly cope with the high refugee influx, many of them being Syrians. Reports show that refugees have a tough time in the mega city; many of them have to work long hours for low pay, which causes tension amongst the city’s population because there already is a considerate unemployment rate. Syrian women are forced into prostitution and child labour is becoming increasingly more common amongst refugee groups. The Tegenlicht documentary Halte Istanbul (in Dutch) shows the story of 13-year old Jowan, who was forced to quit school and works at least 13 hours per day in a Turkish phone store.

Kati Piri, member of the European Parliament and Turkey reporter, argues that the integration of refugees in Turkey is a huge problem, since most of the money is being spent merely on emergency shelters. Although Syrian refugees have a special protected status in Turkey, which gives them the right to work within months, they still feel like they are not part of the population of Istanbul. This leads, according to architect Arman Akdogan, to the growth of certain ethnic neighbourhoods, like the already existing Russian neighbourhoods. Even though  the situation of Syrian refugees can already be considered inhumane, Iraqi and Afghan refugees do not possess any rights in Turkey.

The EU – Turkey pact

The situation above portrays a very negative overview of the situation of refugees in Istanbul, but who is to blame for this is hard to tell. Turkey has increasingly been the centre of attention for many news agencies because of the recent terrorist attacks and its threatened freedom of speech. But then again, Europe seems to be unwilling to take in more refugees. We should ask ourselves what the are consequences of the EU – Turkey deal for the refugees that are being sent back. What the deal exactly entails will be explained below.

A deal has been closed between the countries of the EU and Turkey, whereby refugees are being ‘exchanged’. Refugees that have arrived in Greece, but did not request a visa or have been denied one, are being sent back to Turkey. For every refugee that is being sent back, one refugee from Turkey will be placed somewhere in Europe. The most voiced reason for the closing of the deal is that it might decrease the number of refugees risking their lives at sea. Refugees will be discouraged by this deal to cross the sea, because they now know that they will be sent back to Turkey anyways. Secondly, smugglers will not be able to earn money on this dangerous journey any more.

The pitfalls of this deal

For Turkey this deal is advantageous because as part of the deal, it will receive a total sum of 6 billion Euros from the EU countries to spend on refugee shelters. Next to that, the visa requirements for Turkish citizens will be loosened in the EU countries and the debate on Turkey as a new EU member state will be given more importance. For the EU, the most important advantage of this deal will be that the refugee influx will most likely decrease.

There are however a couple of pitfalls to the deal. Specifically, how can the EU send refugees back to a country that has reached its capacity a long time ago? The living conditions of many refugees in Turkey are not up to the international human rights standards. Secondly, we could ask ourselves how is it possible that Istanbul is taking in more refugees than all of the EU countries combined. Canada is taking in a number of refugees as high as 1% of their population according to Kati Piri. Should Europe perhaps see this as an example? Thirdly, refugees are being forced to start a new life in Turkey. This could be seen as a form of imprisonment.

What now?

If the EU – Turkey deal is going to prove useful in the future, it has yet to be seen. Architect Arman Akdogan proposes a different solution: to transform refugee camps into cities. Refugee camps are currently places of stagnation, a waiting spot. The only thing there is to do is wait for a permanent status. Arman suggests that a change of perception is needed. Keeping in mind that refugees have spent on average 17 years (!) in a refugee camp, he proposes to restructure these refugee camps into permanent settlements. Although this solution might not be ideal, and this will most probably lead to segregation, it might be a first step in the right direction. Why don’t EU-countries follow this example to make it directly possible for refugees to start building their new lives? Why are there still settlements like the Jungle of Calais in Europe? The time for change has arrived.

Curious about the other Tegenlicht Meet Ups?

Check our Pakhuis de Zwijger website for upcoming Meet Ups, some of them will be in English!

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