Stuck in Istanbul, African migrants suffer mistreatment

The sprawling Turkish metropolis of Istanbul has been host to a growing community of African migrants in recent years, most of whom arrive hoping to travel to western Europe, but find themselves trapped and forced to find desperate ways to survive.

Turkey already hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, along with large communities of Afghans, Pakistanis and Iraqis, but there are others from a string of African nations who have ended up in the country as an alternative to the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean.

Some 286,000 irregular immigrants, referring to those who arrive without proper documentation, landed in Turkey in 2018, according to immigration authority figures. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said Turkey planned to send 50,000 back to their home countries this year, 10 times more than the number sent back last year.

“There are advantages to this,” said Soylu. “First of all, it will eliminate the feeling that one can wander in Istanbul illegally as he/she wants. Secondly, it will ensure that other immigrants will follow the rules.”

According to the Immigration Authority, Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis top the list of irregular migrants. The number from African countries is uncertain, as some have resident permits, some stay in Turkey with tourist visas, and some are irregular arrivals. Estimates of the number of Africans living in Istanbul varies between 50,000 and 200,000.

Doğuş Şimşek, head of Koç University’s Migration Research Centre, noted that while there have been numerous studies on Syrians in Turkey, none have focused on African immigrants.

With veteran Turkish photographer Yusuf Sayman, she published a book on African immigrants in Istanbul last year was based on in-depth interviews. The book was called “Hurry Up, Hurry Up,” as, according to Africans in Istanbul, that is the first Turkish phrase they learn.

“When we asked African immigrants, particularly women, how they made their living, they told us ‘they were working in the hurry up, hurry up jobs’. When we tried to make sense of what this ‘hurry up, hurry up’ job is, we understood that they were talking about working in textile workshops,” she said, adding that this was the word Africans heard most from their employers.  

“Most of the African immigrants I interviewed told me that in the beginning they saw Turkey as a country of transit to Europe. When they started their journey, they intended to go to Europe or North America,” she said.

Şimşek said the African migrants, once they had arrived in Turkey, realised that their onward journey was very expensive and dangerous and they would have to live for years in Istanbul in order to make enough money to move on.

According to the Association of Researchers on Africa, an Islamist think tank in Turkey, religion is the main reason Africans choose to come to Turkey. “While our country has been deepening its activities toward Africa in recent years, it is also known that it has been establishing a framework by starting in countries in the continent which have Muslim populations,” Hasan Aydın, a researcher, said in a 2017 article for the association.

Şimşek disagrees. “What makes Turkey a centre of attraction is neither democracy nor religion. They think that it is easier to go to Europe from Turkey,” she said.

African immigrants usually live around Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district, staying four or five people in one-room flats.

They mostly work in textile workshops in the Bayrampaşa, Esenler, Bağcılar and Esenyurt districts with no insurance in 10 to 15-hour shifts. Some others try to make a living by selling watches, wallets, or belts. Those working in textile workshops earn around 1,100 lira ($188) a month and usually send a part of their income to their families back home.

Most of the African migrants who spoke to Ahval were timid and reserved. They said they had not faced discrimination in Turkey and did not have problems with local people.

But Şimşek’s in-depth interviews tell another story. “In our workplaces, Turks eat their meals first and we eat what is left. I was once sexually harassed by my employer. This hurry up, hurry up job means slavery to me,” said one of her female interviewees from Uganda. The migrants said many Turks seemed to believe all African women were sex workers.

Syrians in Turkey are under temporary protection status, which prevents them from applying for asylum or being granted refugee status, but allows them to access to health care and some social support. But African migrants, classed as medical tourists, pay higher fees than Turks when they go to hospital.

“In public hospitals, the price of medical controls is 50 lira ($8.50) for Turkish nationals, but is between 200 to 250 lira ($34-43) for migrant patients. The prices for medical analysis are too high; immigrant patients cannot pay them. We pay their costs as a foundation” said  Zeki Kılıçaslan, the head of Dr. Hafız Cemal Lokmanhekim Foundation, which works with immigrants in Turkey.