It is business as usual in İstanbul for many, including an irregular African immigrant standing outside a stone building, waiting for a friend. “I have to meet a customer, I don’t have time right now,” he tells me in flawless Turkish. He calls himself Zekeriya, although it is not his real name. In his early 30s, he is fluent in French, Arabic and English in addition to Turkish. The client he will meet is seeking translation services as well as know-how on finding goods for trade at cheap prices. He is what you could call a consultant for immigrants. He came to Kumkapı in İstanbul six years ago and has not been caught. Before disappearing into the busy streets of Kumkapı, this illegal but successful businessman dealing in legitimate goods tells me, “I buy business suits in Osmanbey and ship to every corner of Africa.”
Hundreds like Zekeriya drop the dream of moving to Europe and decide to settle in İstanbul, keeping pace with the city’s dynamic commercial life. Osman from Senegal, an energetic 28-year-old, is just one of them. He makes good use of the tourist season and performs in nightly shows for guests at Antalya hotels. “I take to the stage at night. The managers adore me, but not every hotel accepts me because I am illegal. Some employ me just to help out, because I am in need.” He spends the winter and spring in İstanbul, trading goods. He earns between 10 to 20 percent on commission from the goods he ships between Senegal, France and Congo. “I can get anything my clients want,” he says.
In a sense, these people are helping some Africans and Europeans develop economic ties with Turkey. Osman makes nearly TL 2,000 a month. He came here in 2003, dreaming of moving on to France. He illegally traveled by boat to Greece, where he was caught by police. He was released rather than deported, but he could not make it in Greece due to the financial turmoil and, unable to find employment, returned to Turkey. “I like Turkey better, I am used to being here. I also speak the language and there are business possibilities here. Like, I wouldn’t want to go to the US after this. I can’t deal with learning about a new culture at my age, but we can’t be illegal forever. Prime Minister Erdoğan should help us, grant us residence permits,” he says.
Many others have the same problem, as Turkey, traditionally a transit country for irregular immigrants, becomes a target country. The biggest role in this new situation is undoubtedly the ever stronger wave of nationalism sweeping across Europe and the stricter anti-immigration laws that come with it. Many immigrants who became refugees, leaving their famine and war-stricken motherlands, find what they are looking for in İstanbul. Many return after going to Greece and eke out a living of their own in İstanbul. Most European countries offer some sort of financial assistance to immigrants but Turkey does not. This is why they have to find a way to make a living. Most of them go with trading, but a small percentage are pushed toward illegal activities such as drug trafficking, prostitution or theft.
Field research on irregular immigrants also confirms that Turkey is increasingly becoming a last stop for many. Researches who met at a symposium in Antalya shared the data they have gathered so far as part of ongoing academic studies into the routes of irregular immigrants. Oğuzhan Ömer Demir, a doctor of criminal justice who leads the team of researchers investigating human smuggling patterns, says that about 8 percent of the immigrants who make it to Turkey try to stay. “Africans mostly say they want to stay in İstanbul. We have seen many examples of those who have been able to carve out a life and a business for themselves and take Turkish names.”
In addition to Africa, where hunger and brutal warfare between local tribes plague the land, people from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan also migrate toward the West. Most people from Iran flee the country for political reasons, while Iraq has political refugees and those who leave because of the violence. Many of them still dream of going to Europe but are restricted to Greece because of strict border control in Italy and other coastal countries. Turkey also has strict border control, and it takes many years for the country to process refugees. This has caused a major reduction in the number of irregular immigrants using Turkey as a transit point. In the early 2000s, about 100,000 irregular immigrants would be captured trying to move on to Europe. This figure had fallen to 30,000 by 2010. According to data from the National Police Department, in the past 15 years, a total of 822,000 irregular immigrants have been caught in Turkey.” He says that, based on country, the highest number of irregular immigrants appear to be from Palestine, followed by Burma, Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan, but calls for caution as immigrants tend to lie about their country of origin when captured.
One such person was S., who was extremely cautious and timid when talking to us. She was caught by police once and told them she was from Somalia, although she is from Kenya. She came to Turkey after her father, who served in Kenya’s national police force, died. Her mother has a job cooking at a hotel, but the salary is not enough to take care of S.’ four siblings. At 23, she is both despairing and hopeful of her future. “I want Turkish citizenship. I want to be legal so I can find a job. I want to stay in Turkey. I speak foreign languages and stores want to hire me, but they are intimidated because I am an illegal alien. We just want to live.” She wants Erdoğan, whom she calls “the good prime minister,” to ease restrictions on irregular immigrants from places east of Turkey.
She first flew to Syria four years ago in what she hoped would be a journey to Europe. “With about 50 others, we crossed the border at Antakya on foot. I paid $500 to cross. I wanted to go to Greece and tried eight times, through Edirne and Çanakkale, but it never worked out. I gave up on that two years ago,” she says, nothing that people smugglers charge $1,500 to take immigrants to Greece by boat, while the alternative, taking a bus to Edirne and crossing the border on foot, costs $2,000. Every time she tried, she got caught by the border police patrolling the area, mostly because of a noisy kid in the group giving the immigrants away or overweight people who cannot hide by lying in fields. She currently pays TL 250 for rent. A friend of hers who acquired Turkish citizenship through marriage sublets the apartment to her. She says nobody rents apartments to immigrants.
The number one method immigrants use to avoid getting deported is lying about their country of origin. If they name a country with which Turkey has no official ties, such as Somalia, they cannot be shipped back under Turkish law. Although this law is problematic in the treatment of refugees from distant countries, it also serves as a loophole allowing them to stay here.
They are given a temporary permit, which basically means that they have just two months to leave the country however they can. They are settled by the authorities in cities like Sivas and Eskişehir, but most irregular immigrants move to Kumkapı and Tarlabaşı, near others from their countries. These districts of İstanbul are slowly turning into African ghettos. The Afghan neighborhood in Yeşiltepe, Zeytinburnu is a similar area. Thousands of immigrants from Armenia and Georgia can be found in Gedikpaşa, where they can find employment at shoe manufacturers or similar jobs.
Mustafa, another irregular immigrant from Africa, says “Hoş geldiniz” in perfect Turkish when we enter his store. He brought his seven-month-pregnant wife to Turkey to give birth. His brother is in France, but he says, “I don’t want to have anything to do with Europe.” A local storekeeper praises Mustafa’s aptitude for commerce. He makes a living by selling medical equipment to Africa. He also makes about TL 2,000 a month. The number of immigrants who set out for the immigration journey alone but create new lives for themselves here after finding jobs and getting married is increasing every day.
Points of entry for irregular immigrants
There are three methods irregular immigrants resort to when entering Turkey. One is getting a legal visa, and the second involves using international highways. Those who set out from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan drive to the Van border, which they cross on foot. These people become temporary refugees, filing for asylum with the UN. There are currently about 1,750 foreigners with this status in Van. Most immigrants from Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and other East African countries rely on human smugglers who bring people into Hatay through Syria. The third route relies on sea transportation, which is preferred by Western and Central Africans. Citizens of Nigeria, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Congo first reach Libya and are brought by human smugglers to Turkish shores by ship.
The Turkish-Greek transit area is the most popular route for entry into Greece, causing measures at the border to be tightened. Stricter and more frequent patrolling in the Aegean in recent years has reduced the number of people using this route. Another route to Greece is through Edirne, crossing the border on foot. About 11,000 people were captured last year trying to walk to Greece, up from 7,500 the previous year. According to estimates, no more than 10,000 make it to Greece in a year. Greece says about 300 people cross the border from Turkey each day, but official data do not seem to confirm this. Under a readmission agreement signed by Turkey and Greece, immigrants found to have entered from Turkey are sent back to Turkey. In 2010, Greece listed 4,000 people for readmission. Turkey agreed that 400 of these had actually crossed the Turkish border and took them back. Greece gets 80 euros from the EU for each migrant, while Turkey currently has no financial support. Most European countries send their irregular immigrants back to Greece. When Turkey signs a readmission agreement with the EU, most of this burden may fall on the shoulders of Turkey.
A journey of hope or tragic ending
Yalçın Büyük, deputy chairman of the Council of Forensic Medicine, has witnessed the plight of immigrants on their way to a new life too many times. He shared cases of immigrants who have been referred to the council, saying: “Millions of people every year resort to illegal methods, hoping for a new life. Criminal groups make enormous amounts of money every year from [trafficking in] irregular immigrants. It is a global sector now. Turkey, which has long been a transit country, particularly to Europe, is becoming a target country for the peoples of the Middle East, Africa and Asia due to its relatively stable economy compared to the struggling European countries, along with its developing democracy and cultural similarities. The journey of hope involves a large number of risks, such as immigrants falling victim to human trafficking, suffocating from being stuffed inside a truck or drowning in a ship overturned at sea. Three of the latest cases referred to the Council of Forensic Medicine serve as a poignant indicator of this. In one case, 138 migrants were found inside a truck in Küçükçekmece and 13, all young Pakistani men, had died of suffocation. In Malkara, 43 migrants were inside a truck overturned on the side of the road, killing 18, all of them from Bangladesh. The cause of death was again suffocation. In Gelibolu, 11 people drowned when the tiny fishing boat they were trying to cross the Aegean in capsized. They were aged between 4 and 41. In a globalizing world, it is impossible for a single country to deal with this alone. It is very important that there is international cooperation and effective information sharing.”
Convincing the United Nations
Immigrants who get involved in crime are kept at refugee centers in Kırklareli and Edirne. The center for İstanbul is in Kumkapı, where most of the irregular immigrants reside. Dozens of migrants come and go at the center, which can accommodate 450 people. All of the irregular immigrants captured in Turkey, about 11,000 annually, are brought here. The majority of residents are those captured for entering Turkey illegally or visa violations. About one-third of them have been apprehended for crimes such as dealing drugs, prostitution and theft. Those who file for asylum are not kept here but are put in hotel rooms where they wait for admission by a third country.