Migration in its “Voluntary” and “Involuntary” Incarnations

“What type of experience, do you think, would make an individual consider leaving the country they were born and brought up in? Whose language they spoke? Where they had friends and knew every corner by heart?”

I was reminded of this question I would ask my students in the first class of my Migration course on the occasion of a book written by a former student. In the preface of his book Leaving One’s Comfort Zone: The Story of a Move to Italy (Turkish original, 2019), Gökhan Kutluer writes that he was taken aback by this question, that it moved him to reflect on his life and future, eventually leading to a decision to pursue the life of an itinerant writer, which he achieved (brought to pass) in Italy. In this same period, the 2010s, another student taking this course told me that they had enrolled in my class to learn about how to emigrate to the USA couple of weeks into the course, I found out that a very close friend of these students had been caught being smuggled across the Mexican border by human smugglers and was in an American prison near the border. I had strictly told my student that this wasn’t the purpose of the class, that they should contact the US Consulate for information and steer clear of human traffickers under all circumstances! What they did after this, I don’t know… These examples may, at first sight, appear somewhat “whimsical” – but it is evident that they reflect some part of the diverse array of human conditions created by the phenomenon of migration. To me, seeing these “young fellows” from middle-class urban backgrounds go to such lengths as to consider resorting to human smugglers in order to set foot in other countries had felt quite sobering at the time. I had felt the same way while speaking with Iranian and Nigerian women I met in a migration forum in Isparta a couple of years ago. One of these women who had taken asylum in Turkey, only barely meriting attention from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and waiting for resettlement in a Western country, was a painter; and perhaps if she could have painted freely back home, she would have stayed in Iran.

The social sciences call it “voluntary migration” when an individual chooses to migrate out of their own free will. The wish to migrate voluntarily as an individual is indeed a fundamentally humane desire that has emerged in the modern era, but there is still a long way to go in practice. Also known as the freedom of movement and residence, this desire has long been inhibited both by states and social pressures. Until recently, human mobility was strictly controlled by the state and other traditional forces. It was only after the formation of the capitalist labour market that we saw a relative relaxation of state control over internal migration. The notion of the individual being “free” to choose, on the other hand, had to wait for the breakdown of traditional community ties.

As Turkey was rapidly transitioning to capitalist market-based social relations, internal migration was enabled through the dissolution of the peasantry. The individual decision to migrate, however, is still not something that is available to conservative/community-based social classes. Since those accustomed to conservative/community-based life define themselves by the household they belong to rather than as individuals, they leave the decision to migrate to their household heads. Research on internal migration in Turkey shows that rural-urban migration has a chain character, by which young men are first to move, followed by women, then the rest of the dependants, and eventually other relatives or fellow townspeople. Let me give two examples to illustrate this type of migration: A 12-13-year-old weary-looking young boy I interviewed during a study on apprenticeship in one of the small industrial areas in Ümraniye told me that three of his elder brothers had come to the city to try their luck before him, but they had failed, so now he was his family’s last hope. In another study on migrants from Turkey in Sweden, I observed that the move started with young men, followed by women, children, and then other relatives. During this study, an unexpected opportunity falling into the hands of girls growing up in Sweden caught my attention. A twist of fate had turned the passports belonging to women who had grown up here into “golden passports” that would allow men entry into the country via marriage, relatively strengthening women’s position. In view of such examples, I leave it to you to answer the question of whether chain migration is indeed individual or voluntary.

In our world of increasingly globalized capitalism, we witness the rapid circulation of money, goods, and images, as well growing interdependencies between countries. The only exception to this constant flow is human mobility, which is still not relinquished entirely to the “hand of the market” and is kept under strict control by nation-states. Human rights defenders work hard to gain widespread recognition for the freedom of movement and residence without much success. In fact, to the contrary, the recent rise in xenophobia has led governments in advanced capitalist countries that “uphold the rule of law” to further tighten their borders. Not only are Western countries formulating immigration policy in their own political and economic interests, but they are also adopting increasingly narrower interpretations of conventional refugee policy. In the face of a changing world, “conventional” refugee law that is currently in effect has proven to be unsuited to today’s circumstances and inadequate in practice due to heavy and slow-moving bureaucracy. As refugees fleeing war in our present-day risk death to seek asylum in “countries governed by the rule of law”, achieving this is now much harder than it used to be. When it comes to the freedom of movement, the current wave of “liberalization” only applies to the “Golden Passport” holders of the capitalist world, while national and international regulations render inhabitants of non-Western countries even more incapable of travelling – let alone immigrating – to countries that rank better in terms of respect for the rule of law and are relatively more democratic in comparison to their own.

We do observe, on the other hand, that developments in information and communications technologies have triggered an upsurge in the desire to travel. Those living in non-Western countries governed by authoritarian regimes, particularly young people, have gained an extensive understanding of life in the West through images circulated by the media, social media, films, and the popular music and entertainment sector. They began thinking that life over there is freer in terms of gender, cultural and ethnic identity, and social (and other) rights. Recently, we have seen a rise in the desire to migrate in countries where although there is no immediate armed conflict, the human rights track record is quite poor, in fact verging on tyranny. A similar trend has been found in studies on Turkey’s educated youth. In a certain sense, globalization has at once increased polarization among countries and simultaneously led to an awareness of these inequalities. For this reason, the recent increase in the desire to migrate has its source not only in poverty, political pressure or armed conflict, but also in the search for democracy and individual rights.

Migration studies show that long distance moves and “undocumented immigration” in particular are quite arduous and costly. The poor are therefore only able to afford short distance moves. This is also known to be the case for those fleeing war. Indeed, data on refugees and asylum-seekers displaced by war across the world demonstrates that a large majority of these victims of “conventional” forced migration are concentrated in non-Western countries close to the zone of conflict – just like the Syrian population in Turkey.  

Neither conventional refugees fleeing war nor the “new” type of refugees looking to enjoy better human rights find easy entry into Western countries these days. People end up risking their lives and paying extortionate sums to human smugglers in order to overcome the ever higher physical and bureaucratic walls erected by the West. Those who are eventually able to reach the West at the end of this perilous journey face differing challenges based on their class and identity. The rise of anti-migrant sentiment and xenophobia in this period, where even the once liberal demand for an “Open Border” policy is no longer on the table, has made life increasingly difficult for “irregular” immigrants. An “undesirable” consequence of this situation is the entrenchment of human trafficking as a new and lucrative line of business, and the further incorporation of migration into the growing illicit economy. Though states paradoxically claim to be combating this illicit economy, their migration policy is unfortunately precisely one of the elements that sustains it.

As a country bordering Fortress Europe, Turkey is among the most affected by this anti-immigration stance of the West. Regional conflicts taking place near our borders have caused a growing influx of asylum seekers. The UNHCR had intervened with asylum seekers coming in after Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the Iraq War, but when it came to Syrians and other asylum seekers arriving later, Turkey was mostly left to its own devices – particularly in light of the Readmission Agreement signed with the EU in 2013. Today, Turkey has become a “waiting room” of sorts where migrants in-transit meet with human smugglers, while the EU attempts to pay off its debt to Turkey for playing watch dog in this waiting room through grants without proper spending monitoring. These unethical payments, however, positively influence neither the lives of migrants nor those of locals. Turkey, as today’s “waiting room”, could indeed serve as a perfect case study of how the high walls erected bring suffering to migrants and societies living on the other side, as well as the impacts of human smuggling and human trafficking, the new actors of the black money market and their social and political influence. The fact that the “Waiting Room” is now full beyond capacity has both left migrants in a tight spot and unfortunately fuelled anti-immigrant sentiment, racism and nationalism in Turkey, enabling greater traction for the ill-intentioned in society.

Here I would like to take a moment to remark that a different kind of border politics is also possible. I believe that “circular migration”, which is a historical iteration of the “Open Border” policy is a kind of migration that requires attention and discussion. This long-standing form of migration has become more prevalent in Turkey ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc, creating more of an important impact. Those who allegedly qualify as “tourists” within the framework of population movements cross borders in ways that comply with the law. “Circular” migrants who make a living working in short-term jobs or shuttle trading have been condoned by the authorities as they are not permanent and maintain lively commercial relations. This type of migration has come under fire in Turkey for expanding the informal labour market, increasing the number of unrecorded transactions in money and goods and boosting untaxed income on a previously unprecedented scale. However, discussing this form of migration through its impacts on migrants and societies instead may perhaps lead to the development of more benign and peaceful policies. It should not be forgotten that the darkest aspect of this migration is the “trafficking of women”, which targets women migrants. We also know that modern day advancements in the fields of transportation and communication have not only boosted human mobility but also the flow of black money.

The building of walls by the West is tantamount to submitting the rest of the world and migrants to the darkness of dirty money and banality. These walls also feed racism and populism in the West, thus shaking confidence in the values of human rights promoted by Western intellectuals. I am well aware that it would be too naïve to think that preventing a new wave of migration could be possible by means of ensuring peace, acknowledgement of the universality of individual freedoms, or Western governments’ giving up on their support to authoritarian regimes across the world. Today, the common mission before us as the research community is to undertake novel and innovative studies to demonstrate that migration itself does not constitute a “crime” and that with the exception of a rather small minority migrants are not “criminals”.

Sema Erder

Translated by Feride Eralp

Issue 6 – Editor’s note

Red Thread Editorial Board, Erden Kosova

Two Names, A Thousand Places

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