The Bottom Rung of Migrant Hierarchy: Afghans in Istanbul

The Bottom Rung of Migrant Hierarchy: Afghans in Istanbul
ZEYTINBURNU DISTRICT in Istanbul is undergoing construction. The drills and chipping of hammer on marble set a rhythmic soundtrack. Farsi shop fronts intermingle with Turkish. Zeytinburnu was traditionally home to the leather workshops that serviced the luxury boutiques lining the streets down toward the Bosporus, along the tracks of the disused train line to Greece. Today the demand for cheap textiles has overtaken the leather industry. If you sit silently, you can hear the faint tapping of machines under the concrete ground.

The Afghans who populate the district eat rice classed as “bird food” to evade the import tax usually reserved for humans. They import yellow sugar crystals from Iran, tea from India, cricket bats from Pakistan. Without legal status, employment rights, basic health care, or education, they exist in caged circumstances. Service provision is strictly utilitarian — call centers, money transfer shops, restaurants. The public spaces are for men, while the women stay largely behind closed doors. Services are advertised through secret channels.

Yet such utilitarianism is exactly what many Afghans claim to want. “We didn’t come to Istanbul to have a social life,” one casual laborer says. “We came to work.” Life is stripped of any expense that wastes precious money that can be sent home — the expense of transport, electricity, internet, socializing. “When we are not working, we sleep. There is nothing else to do.”

Zeytinburnu has been home to a substantial Afghan population since 1983, when the Turkish government invited in a few hundred people during the conflict with the Soviet Union, mainly the Turkmen and Uzbek Afghans Turkey considers ethnic brothers. They first settled in the mountains of Van, in the far east of the country on the border with Iran, before migrating west toward Istanbul. Over the next three decades they have fled continuous cycles of violence committed under the Taliban, Da’esh, and various other militant groups, as well as economic destitution, famine, and social injustice.

Their welcome in Turkey is very restricted. The Turkish government does not recognize them — or any national who is not a member of the Council of Europe — as legal refugees. They must therefore apply to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to seek internationally recognized refugee status, which obliges them to be resettled in a third country. But today the UNHCR is only providing limited resettlement options, hindered in part by the American government’s restricted quota for Afghans, thus leaving a sizable population with no durable solution. Those who are granted asylum in Turkey while they wait for resettlement must live in a satellite city, with few jobs or support networks. Many Afghans choose not to apply in the first place, forgoing legal status in order to live in cities with more employment opportunities.

The hierarchy among migrants in the country shifted with the arrival of the Syrians, who are prioritized legally, politically, economically, and socially. Afghans are on the bottom rung of that hierarchy. The racism is not as obvious as in Iran, where “Afghani” is a common insult and police violence against Afghans is routine, but it is more insidious. Without legal status, refugees have no access to health care or education. Private hospitals charge more because they know they can exploit legal vulnerabilities; employers pay less, or not at all, for the same reason.

Afghans are also being caught up in the increasingly common counter-terror raids. Police randomly pluck individuals off the street, holding them in deportation centers before sending them back to Afghanistan. In some cases, people have a choice to stay if they pay a heavy fine. In early November 2017, Zeytinburnu streets were emptied after police arrested and deported 290 unregistered Afghans. In February, 280 were arrested and 180 deported. In November, an estimated 100 Afghans were voluntarily returning home every day, a marked increase from the previous month. Some return because life in Turkey is not what they had expected. Others plan to marry in their homeland, then return to Turkey for more work. Others have no other options.

The middle classes gravitate to the jagged white skyscrapers that dominate the outer districts of the city. In Beylikdüzü, there are 25 Afghan real-estate shops (the government legalized the selling of homes to Afghans in 2013). But Zeytinburnu district remains the heart of the community. It is a place caught between mobility and stagnation. Life happens at a fast pace. Those on the streets may have been in Kabul or Tehran yesterday, tomorrow they will be in Greece or Bulgaria. Most have been smuggled from Afghanistan via Iran, spending days on foot: young single men cut off from their families or couples with small children and new lives on the way. Afghan women recently arrived from Iran wear their headscarves slighter further back, revealing some hair. Soon they’ll become accustomed to the more conservative Turkish style. Old men cycle wares between shops. Smugglers own the streets; networks of exchange crop up on street corners or in coffee shops. “We are in the business of selling hope,” says one young smuggler with a charming smile.


Afghans have been incorporated into capitalism’s increasing accumulation. Their national identity has been commoditized, just as the market is exploiting their cheap labor. More Afghan restaurants have opened since Syrian establishments became popular and exposed opportunities for easy entrepreneurship. You can eat Afghan ice cream in front of painted or neon hills of the Afghan east, eat Afghan rice next to faded wall-sized images of the fortress in Herat, trade money in sight of small ceramic models of the Blue Mosque at Mazar-i-Sharif. You can pray in an Afghan-designed mosque. More men are beginning to walk around in traditional dress. The men can get their hair cut in Afghan-style Kuaförs, spending their days slumped in the leather seats, talking of missing family and home.

If you’re a migrant or refugee or other stateless outsider, time moves in strange patterns in an amorphous choreography. The strictures of capitalism and competition give way to the boundless emptiness of non-belonging. Standard working shifts are 12 hours a day, six days a week. On Sundays, people walk around in a daze, unsure how to spend their precious freedom. Groups of young men parade the streets in leather jackets, or sit squashed in cars circling the same junction. People collect like flies along the walkways or cluster on corners to exchange information and then disperse into the crowds of babies and balloon sellers. The frenzied mobility is punctuated by periods of stagnation. Hundreds of Afghans slept for months in the park alongside the Bosporus in 2015, blocked by the recently closed border with Europe.

One boy, Tariq, lives above a Kuaför shop, working as a smartphone technical assistant. Nineteen years old, he fled to Tajikistan with his parents after his two siblings were killed in Afghanistan, and was then deported from there. He joined an Afghan family traveling through Turkey to Europe but was abandoned by them in Istanbul. He is entirely alone. He found his job by chance. Some days he earns five Turkish lira per day (about $1.37), some days 50, some days nothing. On the 50TL days, he is obliged to give half to his boss for rent. He is effectively a slave. Last week, due to a nervous condition, he damaged the screen of an iPhone he was fixing; now he is in debt to his boss for the replacement.

We talk with Tariq about Afghan hairstyle trends, the burnt orange comb-over that seems popular among young men. “If they see something on the street they like, they tend to follow it,” he says. “Maybe this is the weakness with Afghans — they think that if they copy someone’s style, they can occupy their life, their emotions.”

The same pattern could apply to the ubiquitous stories of their journeys here (through Iran, maybe via Pakistan, and then on to Turkey in trucks or cars or on foot), their living conditions, the anxiety and depression many suffer from, the burdens most feel to send money back home. According to one worker, out of the 900TL — $230 — he earns per month, he sends 600TL back home, takes 200TL for rent and 100TL for living costs.

“I myself don’t like to interfere with what god gave us,” he tells us. He speaks with a dead weight in his voice. He doesn’t smile. He is serious and measured, with lowered eyes.

He shows us infected scabs on his hands and leg — his home is infested with bugs (he only knows the Russian word for them, “clappy,” from his time in Tajikistan). A few months ago, most of the Afghan population in Zeytinburnu were afflicted by similar infestations — they spread from one dank, overcrowded dormitory to another. He tries to pay for the çay we’ve drunk, despite the cost probably equalling a few “good” days of work.

The economic burden of subsistence often falls on young women, who can find low-paid work easier than their fathers. Mariam and Laila, aged 14 and 16, are laboring 12 hours a day, six days a week, in cramped textile factories because their fathers cannot work owing to health reasons. Miriam wears a bright bandana, her face full of laughter and the beauty of hope. But she has started having migraines as a result of the work. Her mother is 41 and has the face of a weary 60-year-old. “She only dreams of going to school,” she says of her daughter.

Labor rights don’t exist because the workers don’t exist legally. Aarash, 20 years old, was injured in a workplace accident a few weeks ago. Working in a plastics factory in Bayrampaşa, he caught a piece of molten plastic in his left eye, which risked his vision. His boss sacked him, and he returned to Afghanistan for surgery. There was no choice in the matter — he could not receive treatment in Turkey as an undocumented migrant. Another young worker broke his chin when the spring on a metal-cutting machine snapped. The 6000TL demanded by a Turkish hospital was too much, so he “chose” to return home for surgery instead.


In Küçüksu, up the Asian coast of the Bosporus, six men stand around a car, negotiating. There’s another four on the bridge over the narrow stream that gives the area its name (“small water”). They line up, rucksacks on backs, ready for a day of labor in an unknown place.

Küçüksu is a new development, a middle-class district. A mosque sits on the corner of a busy roundabout, squashed between two green spaces, a few kebab joints strung along either side. There are cars, vans, buses rammed with commuters. The men line up every morning to be picked up for a day of casual labor, in bitter competition with Kurdish day laborers. There’s not much to do here except pray, seek work, and fight over work. According to the workers, Kurdish men have been job-hunting around here for roughly eight years, the tensions with Afghans high for the last two of those.

One man is carrying a plastic Marks & Spencers bag containing his work clothes, ready for a day of cleaning or gardening, construction, repairs, or carrying. Most of the men are young, a mix of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Pashtuns, and Turkmen. The six men find a van to get into on the other side of the road, but only two of them can fit. The remaining four must wait their turn. Another man is left alone on his concrete traffic island. His turn will come, if not today then tomorrow or the next day.

Competition between the Kurdish and Afghan workers erupts into physical violence at least once a week. Afghans are ready to work for 60–80TL ($15–$20), while the Kurdish workers ask for 100–120TL ($25–$30). Their expenses are greater: most have families to support and are not living in cramped dormitories. “The Turkish government is not assisting them,” an older Kurdish man calmly explains to us. “And they [the Afghans] are right — they have to work, they have to survive — but they shouldn’t lower the price. Of course, some of them are integrating with us, but if there are around fifty Afghans waiting here, thirty to forty of them are working with our price and the others are taking whatever price they can get.”

Other attitudes are less respectful — it is shameful, dishonorable, for them to leave their women in a country mired in conflict, another Kurdish worker says. An old Turkish man complains about the Afghans: they’re thieves, he says. “They steal fruits from my garden. And they’re terrorists.” But he spends his time hanging around with the subjects of his antagonism. Maybe he enjoys their company. Maybe he enjoys a sense of superiority.

Every day is a day of trust and luck, and trust in luck. They are Mahmoud Darwish’s Dice Players, reeds punctured by wind to become a flute. The exchange between Afghan migrant laborers and Turkish informal employers is bounded by fundamental human emotions of instinct and good faith, but it is trapped within the wider global system of supply and demand that brought many of the Afghans here in the first place. It is a lonely space of gathering; clusters form and fragment, groups of convenience, but each man is alone.

For most Afghans in Istanbul, life is a game of hide and seek and forced decisions. It is a cycle of precariousness and instability, of looking over one’s shoulder, of accruing debts that cannot be repaid. Caught between closed borders and increasing deportations in Europe, sustained injustices in Afghanistan and securitization and ostracism in Istanbul, the texture of life is full of holes. But it goes on.


Anıl Olcan and Hassan Reza Mirzaie contributed reporting to this piece. Some of the names have been changed to protect the identities of individuals.


Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books, based in Istanbul.

Fattah Lemar Rabiei has been working with Afghan and other refugees for different NGOs in Istanbul since 2009.

LARB Contributors

Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books based in Istanbul, previously in Beirut and the West Bank. She is currently researching issues relating to Syrian refugee governance in Turkey.

Fattah Lemar Rabiei has been working with Afghan and other refugees for different NGOs in Istanbul since 2009.


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