The Bottom Rung of Migrant Hierarchy: Afghans in Istanbul

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. The remaining four must wait their turn. The six men find a van to get into on the other side of the road, but only two of them can fit. Today the demand for cheap textiles has overtaken the leather industry. They import yellow sugar crystals from Iran, tea from India, cricket bats from Pakistan. The strictures of capitalism and competition give way to the boundless emptiness of non-belonging. Without legal status, refugees have no access to health care or education. Soon they’ll become accustomed to the more conservative Turkish style. 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. Others plan to marry in their homeland, then return to Turkey for more work. Fattah Lemar Rabiei has been working with Afghan and other refugees for different NGOs in Istanbul since 2009. The middle classes gravitate to the jagged white skyscrapers that dominate the outer districts of the city. On the 50TL days, he is obliged to give half to his boss for rent. A mosque sits on the corner of a busy roundabout, squashed between two green spaces, a few kebab joints strung along either side. If you’re a migrant or refugee or other stateless outsider, time moves in strange patterns in an amorphous choreography. Working in a plastics factory in Bayrampaşa, he caught a piece of molten plastic in his left eye, which risked his vision. They line up, rucksacks on backs, ready for a day of labor in an unknown place. If you sit silently, you can hear the faint tapping of machines under the concrete ground. There’s another four on the bridge over the narrow stream that gives the area its name (“small water”). “I myself don’t like to interfere with what god gave us,” he tells us. He is effectively a slave. 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. 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. There are cars, vans, buses rammed with commuters. 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. We talk with Tariq about Afghan hairstyle trends, the burnt orange comb-over that seems popular among young men. 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. More Afghan restaurants have opened since Syrian establishments became popular and exposed opportunities for easy entrepreneurship. The drills and chipping of hammer on marble set a rhythmic soundtrack. 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. Aarash, 20 years old, was injured in a workplace accident a few weeks ago. On Sundays, people walk around in a daze, unsure how to spend their precious freedom. 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). For most Afghans in Istanbul, life is a game of hide and seek and forced decisions. You can pray in an Afghan-designed mosque. “If they see something on the street they like, they tend to follow it,” he says. His turn will come, if not today then tomorrow or the next day. More men are beginning to walk around in traditional dress. Labor rights don’t exist because the workers don’t exist legally. 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. They are Mahmoud Darwish’s Dice Players, reeds punctured by wind to become a flute. Life happens at a fast pace. “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. In November, an estimated 100 Afghans were voluntarily returning home every day, a marked increase from the previous month. “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. But Zeytinburnu district remains the heart of the community. Those who are granted asylum in Turkey while they wait for resettlement must live in a satellite city, with few jobs or support networks. In early November 2017, Zeytinburnu streets were emptied after police arrested and deported 290 unregistered Afghans. It is a lonely space of gathering; clusters form and fragment, groups of convenience, but each man is alone. In Beylikdüzü, there are 25 Afghan real-estate shops (the government legalized the selling of homes to Afghans in 2013). 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 Afghans who populate the district eat rice classed as “bird food” to evade the import tax usually reserved for humans. Private hospitals charge more because they know they can exploit legal vulnerabilities; employers pay less, or not at all, for the same reason. “We are in the business of selling hope,” says one young smuggler with a charming smile. Their expenses are greater: most have families to support and are not living in cramped dormitories. An old Turkish man complains about the Afghans: they’re thieves, he says. 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. “They steal fruits from my garden. And they’re terrorists.” But he spends his time hanging around with the subjects of his antagonism. He joined an Afghan family traveling through Turkey to Europe but was abandoned by them in Istanbul. ¤
Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books, based in Istanbul. He found his job by chance. In some cases, people have a choice to stay if they pay a heavy fine. “When we are not working, we sleep. Some days he earns five Turkish lira per day (about $1.37), some days 50, some days nothing. Service provision is strictly utilitarian — call centers, money transfer shops, restaurants. 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. Old men cycle wares between shops. He is entirely alone. Others have no other options. Groups of young men parade the streets in leather jackets, or sit squashed in cars circling the same junction. Most of the men are young, a mix of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Pashtuns, and Turkmen. But it goes on. He doesn’t smile. 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. Küçüksu is a new development, a middle-class district. Some return because life in Turkey is not what they had expected. ¤
In Küçüksu, up the Asian coast of the Bosporus, six men stand around a car, negotiating. ¤
Afghans have been incorporated into capitalism’s increasing accumulation. Many Afghans choose not to apply in the first place, forgoing legal status in order to live in cities with more employment opportunities. Another young worker broke his chin when the spring on a metal-cutting machine snapped. Without legal status, employment rights, basic health care, or education, they exist in caged circumstances. Every day is a day of trust and luck, and trust in luck. 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. “We didn’t come to Istanbul to have a social life,” one casual laborer says. He speaks with a dead weight in his voice. The economic burden of subsistence often falls on young women, who can find low-paid work easier than their fathers. But she has started having migraines as a result of the work. Competition between the Kurdish and Afghan workers erupts into physical violence at least once a week. 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. It is a cycle of precariousness and instability, of looking over one’s shoulder, of accruing debts that cannot be repaid. There’s not much to do here except pray, seek work, and fight over work. Maybe he enjoys their company. Maybe he enjoys a sense of superiority. “She only dreams of going to school,” she says of her daughter. 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. They must therefore apply to the U.N. One boy, Tariq, lives above a Kuaför shop, working as a smartphone technical assistant. He is serious and measured, with lowered eyes. There was no choice in the matter — he could not receive treatment in Turkey as an undocumented migrant. Their national identity has been commoditized, just as the market is exploiting their cheap labor. The public spaces are for men, while the women stay largely behind closed doors. The frenzied mobility is punctuated by periods of stagnation. Those on the streets may have been in Kabul or Tehran yesterday, tomorrow they will be in Greece or Bulgaria. Afghans are also being caught up in the increasingly common counter-terror raids. Hundreds of Afghans slept for months in the park alongside the Bosporus in 2015, blocked by the recently closed border with Europe. “And they [the Afghans] are right — they have to work, they have to survive — but they shouldn’t lower the price. Some of the names have been changed to protect the identities of individuals. Afghan women recently arrived from Iran wear their headscarves slighter further back, revealing some hair. Standard working shifts are 12 hours a day, six days a week. ¤
Anıl Olcan and Hassan Reza Mirzaie contributed reporting to this piece. JANUARY 30, 2018

ZEYTINBURNU DISTRICT in Istanbul is undergoing construction. Afghans are ready to work for 60–80TL ($15–$20), while the Kurdish workers ask for 100–120TL ($25–$30). He tries to pay for the çay we’ve drunk, despite the cost probably equalling a few “good” days of work. Yet such utilitarianism is exactly what many Afghans claim to want. 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. 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. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to seek internationally recognized refugee status, which obliges them to be resettled in a third country. “The Turkish government is not assisting them,” an older Kurdish man calmly explains to us. The 6000TL demanded by a Turkish hospital was too much, so he “chose” to return home for surgery instead. Miriam wears a bright bandana, her face full of laughter and the beauty of hope. Her mother is 41 and has the face of a weary 60-year-old. Afghans are on the bottom rung of that hierarchy. Another man is left alone on his concrete traffic island. Their welcome in Turkey is very restricted. In February, 280 were arrested and 180 deported. 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. Police randomly pluck individuals off the street, holding them in deportation centers before sending them back to Afghanistan. The Turkish government does not recognize them — or any national who is not a member of the Council of Europe — as legal refugees. His boss sacked him, and he returned to Afghanistan for surgery. It is a place caught between mobility and stagnation. Services are advertised through secret channels. The men line up every morning to be picked up for a day of casual labor, in bitter competition with Kurdish day laborers. Farsi shop fronts intermingle with Turkish. Nineteen years old, he fled to Tajikistan with his parents after his two siblings were killed in Afghanistan, and was then deported from there. 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. The hierarchy among migrants in the country shifted with the arrival of the Syrians, who are prioritized legally, politically, economically, and socially. Smugglers own the streets; networks of exchange crop up on street corners or in coffee shops.