Home » Research » Migrant space and claiming rights in Istanbul: a barrier to fighting human trafficking?

Migrant space and claiming rights in Istanbul: a barrier to fighting human trafficking?

It is our pleasure to have Stephanie Nawyn contribute as this week’s guest. Dr. Nawyn is an assistant professor of Sociology at Michigan State University. Her areas of expertise are migration and gender, and she focuses specifically on mechanisms of exclusion of migrants and their consequences. During the 2013-14 academic year she is a Fulbright Scholar at the Women’s Research Center at Istanbul University.

I came to Istanbul in September 2013 to learn more about human trafficking and the conditions of immigrants’ lives in the city. In my conversations with immigrants and immigrant advocates in Istanbul, one thing has become undeniably apparent; Istanbul seriously lacks space for immigrants. I am not referring to a lack of physical space, although that is part of the problem. I am referring more generally to a space to BE, as in both a physical and socio-cultural space to exist and flourish and live dignified lives.

I see this as a particular problem for immigrants who are trafficked into and within Turkey. People doing empirical research on human trafficking increasingly find that many of the common narratives about the kinds of force traffickers use are false. Individuals are rarely kidnapped off the streets, held in chains and forced into labor. More often, they are enticed by promises of improving their economic circumstances, are mislead by how much improvement they might experience, and their mobility is hindered by debt peonage and other types of labor exploitation. Immigrants may even wish to continue working in situations of extreme exploitation because their other options are worse. In other words, the metaphor of “modern-day slavery” can be very misleading. More often, trafficking is a situation of extreme labor exploitation. And in order for trafficked people to be free of extreme labor exploitation, they need to have rights as laborers that are enforceable.

I argue in this essay that the lack of space for immigrants makes them more vulnerable to human trafficking because it limits the opportunities for immigrants to claim rights, and creates problems for those trying to combat trafficking. Labor rights, even those codified into laws and policies like those from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, are rarely granted simply because they exist on paper. They most often need to be claimed, sometimes through organized struggle. And that struggle cannot happen when there is no social space for vulnerable people to claim their rights.

The following argument is based on preliminary findings of my research on migrant labor exploitation and migrant rights in Istanbul. Many of the problems I will describe here are not unique to Istanbul, or to Turkey. In fact, it is the generalizability of the problems I see here that make this issue so dire.

Space for Claimsmaking

A critical element to having rights is being able to claim them. Some of my scholarly writing has been devoted to the problems migrants have in claiming rights. The general public tends to think that rights are something granted to us without us having to do anything to get them (maybe granted to us by a government or by a higher power in the case of “divine rights”). But I have found in my empirical research that for people who are socially marginalized through poverty, racial and gender stratification, or immigrant status, rights are more often things you have to demand, fight for, or in some way get on your own. This process is sometimes referred to as making claims for rights, or claimsmaking.

To be able to successfully claim rights, one needs a social space in which to make those claims. Having a social space to claim rights means that one is allowed the opportunity to identify oneself publicly as a migrant without fear of violence, and that one can legally organize with allies (some of whom will also be migrants). In order to successfully claim rights, one also must have a compelling rationale for why one is deserving of the rights one is claiming. Referencing laws or official policies can be part of that rationale, but I have found that addressing the culture of rights is critical.

For example, refugees that are resettled in the United States are officially entitled to certain social services as part of their resettlement. In order to consistently receive those services though, refugees and their allies usually have to refer to the social, cultural, and economic benefits that refugees bring to the U.S. Having the policy is not enough; they must show that the U.S. benefits from refugees in order to justify U.S. assistance to those refugees. Making that justification is not a legal requirement, but a political necessity to shore up support for the continued resettlement of new refugees. And while those claims will always encounter some hostility on the part of the host society (as there is always some nativist hostility in even the most open societies), there needs to be a certain threshold of sympathy for those claims in order for the claimsmaking to be effective. Otherwise, alternative claims that refugees are a burden and unwanted will gain traction, and public support for refugee resettlement and refugee rights will dwindle.

What I have found so far in my research in Istanbul is that the space for immigrant claimsmaking is extremely limited, for the reasons I will detail below. This limited space for claimsmaking by immigrants is a problem for realizing the civil and human rights of immigrants in Turkey, which in turn presents real barriers to addressing the problem of human trafficking.

Lack of Engagement in Civil Society

Civil society in Turkey is still nascent, as reports from organizations like the Third Sector Foundation of Turkey (TUSEV) will attest. But what does exist does not often involve immigrants. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that advocate for immigrant rights are often organized by non-immigrants, with immigrants frequently playing a limited role in the actions of those NGOs. This is not by design; the NGO actors that I speak with would like to have immigrants more involved. But they find themselves unsuccessful in bringing immigrants to the table. This is especially true for NGOs that focus specifically on the most marginalized migrants, such as those without authorization to be in the country. Why many immigrant NGOs are unsuccessful in fully involving immigrants themselves is a question I have yet to adequately answer, but some of the other barriers that I describe below are likely part of the problem.

Lack of Legal Protections

Until recently, the lack of legal protections for foreigners in Turkey has been a sticking point in Turkey-EU relations, and presented problems for immigrants coming to Turkey as refugees or asylum seekers. Additionally, for victims of human trafficking, there was little incentive to bring their exploitation to the attention of the police. At best, foreign trafficking victims who cooperated with prosecutors could stay in the country while the criminal investigation carried on; but upon completion of the investigation (and hopefully successful prosecution of the perpetrators), the victims were summarily deported.

The new Law on Foreigners and International Protection, which was implemented in April 2013, has made some improvements. The law has primarily improved the conditions for refugees and asylum seekers by creating a regularized pathway for them to enter and stay in the country. Trafficking victims also now have an avenue for receiving residency, but only briefly. Residence permits for trafficking victims can only be extended in six-month intervals, and cannot be extended beyond three years.

This is a problem for trafficking victims, as it does not provide them adequate incentive to report the trafficking. Instead it presents them with the decision to either be exploited, but earn more income than they could in their home country (or the potential to earn a better income in the future) or report their traffickers and be returned to the economic situation that caused them to leave their home country in the first place. If they paid recruitment or smuggling fees to enter Turkey, they would lose that investment by reporting their trafficker (and may face serious repercussions if they are unable to pay off loans). Effective protection of trafficking victims would give them the option to work legally in the country as an incentive for reporting the trafficking.

Nativist and Nationalist Hostility

Turkey has historically been both a migrant-receiving and migrant-sending country. It has also been embroiled over the past several decades in what I think would be fair to call “nationalist struggles,” primarily the Kurdish question and the rise of Islamic nationalism. (Jenny White, an anthropologist from Boston University, has written about some of the manifestations of these struggles, and Ayse Soysal, former president of Boğaziçi University, also has astute comments on Islamic nationalism). The country is also currently undergoing a massive influx of refugees from neighboring Syria. All these upheavals are challenging the idea of what it means to be Turkish, and leading to the brightening of boundaries between those who are authentically Turkish and the “outsiders.”

The result is a host society that is lukewarm (at best) to international migrants, with a lack of sympathy or concern for their integration. The struggles of Kurds and religious minorities to claim their place in Turkey are long-standing, and the social infrastructure (in terms of organizations, political representation, etc.) is becoming more established. But the social infrastructure supporting the rights of immigrants is less developed, and the ability of immigrants to insert themselves positively into the national discourses of Turkey is extremely limited. One migration scholar here in Istanbul compared the status of unauthorized migrants in Turkey to those in the United States, pointing out that the act of proclaiming oneself an illegal immigrant and risking deportation has become a strategy for rights claiming in the U.S., while in Turkey such actions would be futile because that migrant would likely be deported without fanfare or concern from the general public. This is especially true for immigrants who engage in sex work. Turkish government officials largely treat such immigrants as the source of problems in particularly neighborhoods, not people working to support themselves or potential victims of labor exploitation. Hence, counter-trafficking efforts by police in Istanbul focus on closing brothels as a strategy of neighborhood gentrification and pushing sex workers further to the margins, rather than assessing whether or not sex workers are coerced, defrauded, or kept in debt peonage by traffickers.

I have written about this type of treatment with regards to Tarlabasi, a neighborhood in Istanbul, where the residents (most of whom are displaced Kurds or unauthorized immigrants) are summarily dismissed as just part of the “squalor” of the neighborhood that needs cleaned up through redevelopment. Displacement of poor residents in areas of urban redevelopment is nothing new, but rarely have I seen the victims of that displacement so blatantly constructed as part of the problem. To me, the redevelopment of Tarlabasi is emblematic of the larger disregard of, and even hostility towards, immigrants and other “outsiders” in Istanbul.


There are no easy solutions to these problems, but with some shifting of the focus of counter-trafficking efforts, we can at least begin to address them. Neil Howard, a fellow at the European University Institute, recently wrote an article in The Guardian about the problems with the Global Slavery Index and other widely cited sources of human trafficking statistics. He points out that there is too little empirical data on trafficking, and where good data exists it tends to debunk the common tropes about what human trafficking is, where it is happening, and to whom. Notably, his own research suggests that the populations of people he studies that are thought to be kidnapped and enslaved are really working under conditions of exploitation by their own choice, because their choices are extremely limited. Further, he argues that the prevailing approach in the anti-trafficking movement produces sensationalism rather than workable solutions to worker exploitation. At the end of his article he asks, “…[W]ho wants to discuss agricultural policy, when it’s far sexier to think about evil slavers, and failing African governments?”

I argue that we need to have a similar conversation about the less “sexy” but important topic of how the rights of marginalized people and cultures of exclusion like I have seen in Istanbul are contributing to human trafficking. Rather than shutting down brothels, we need to create cultural, physical, and legal spaces that are safe for migrants (and all people vulnerable to labor exploitation) to stand up and claim their right to a life of dignity.


  1. snawyn says:

    Reblogged this on A Year Without Bacon: Our Expat Life in Turkey and commented:
    My preliminary findings from my research here in Istanbul is now available on the blog, The Trafficking Research Project. Please do check out their website; they do a great job summarizing research for a general audience, and the articles I have read are interesting and evidence-based (as opposed to the hyperbole and misuse of statistics that you will often find in other places).

  2. […] commonalities experienced on the slippery slope to exploitation, such as the (in)ability to collectively claim rights, the impact of standardized labor practices and the responsibilities of governments to protect […]

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