Journal of Refugee Studies, Published:10 June 2023.
This study contributes to discussions on the politics of (non-)deportability by focusing on the case of Afghans, the largest migrant community without a right to protection in Turkey, itself the country hosting the most refugees. This article examines how the politics of (non-)deportation is shaped and practiced for Afghans and the types of everyday strategies they employ to deal with deportability. We first argue that the politics of deportation in Turkey is predominantly shaped by the needs of the informal labour market, which accounts for one-third of the total labour force. Our findings suggest that forced labour and the hypermobility of Afghans is both tolerated and hidden by the state, while Afghans’ fear of deportability operates as a disciplining apparatus. Second, we argue that, when spectacles of deportation are performed, three crucial factors help Afghans avoid deportation, namely their qawm-based (ethnic or kinship) background, the involvement of Afghan associations, and street-level negotiations with the authorities.
Afghan mobility, which represents one of the world’s largest protracted migratory movements of people without a right to protection, has transformed a wide area, including Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Europe. Despite decades of increasing violence in Afghanistan, the international community has failed to provide a long-term protection and asylum regime capable of responding to the issue. This study investigates the governance of (non-)deportation in Turkey through an in-depth analysis of its Afghan population, primarily focusing on the interconnection between the politics of (non-)deportation and the interests of Turkey’s large informal labour market.
The literature on the politics of deportation and return reflects the varied characteristics of post-arrival enforcement regimes, although it primarily studies Europe and North America, with state practices in the Global South remaining largely unexplored. Turkey is a significant case that deserves deeper analysis to extend the spatial focus beyond the Global North. In particular, this would enable understanding of the politics of (non-)deportability in a country that currently hosts the world’s largest refugee population as well as many undocumented migrants (over five million displaced people including registered Syrians and non-Syrians, and an unknown number of undocumented people).1 Regarding immigration, Turkey has a multi-layered legal system in which persons originating from non-European geographies are not provided with refugee status (referring to Convention refugees) but are instead subjected to varied temporary statuses.2 Within this broad temporal design, Syrians are provided with Temporary Protection Status (TPS), whereas registered non-Syrians (predominantly those from Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq) are under International Protection Status (IPS) seeking third country resettlement. Apart from these non-European asylum seekers in Turkey, who have precarious temporary legal statuses, there are also many irregularized migrants,3 who lack any legal status and whose exact number is unknown although likely still expanding due to cracks in the registration system that not only allows, but sometimes also such irregularity.
According to official figures, there are 170,000 registered Afghans (under IPS) awaiting resettlement to a third country.4 However, the macro-level statistics indicate that the largest proportion of Turkey’s Afghan population is those without legal status (Mixed Migration Centre 2020). For example, on 15 September 2021, the Migration Board Meeting of the Ministry of Interior (MoI) announced that 1,293,662 irregular migrants had been ‘apprehended’ in Turkey between 2016 and September 2021,5 while 283,790 had been returned to their countries of origin during the same period. Afghans were the largest group within this figure.6 Thus, even if we only consider official figures of ‘apprehended but not-deported’ persons, the number has already reached one million.
Given this background, our analysis is driven by the following two questions: (1) How are the politics of (non-)deportation shaped and implemented for irregularized Afghans in Turkey, and what constitutes the grounds for non-deportability in practice and lived experiences? (2) What kinds of strategies do Afghans adopt in their everyday practices to cope with deportability? The study adopts a bottom-up approach that critically analyzes the politics of (non-)deportation by focusing on practices on the ground. Studying post-arrival migration policies in countries like Turkey is challenging insofar as the country hosts thousands of irregularized migrants while its immigration system has manifestly arbitrary and informal characteristics due to the lack of official information. Through this analysis, the study can make a notable contribution to the literature by producing knowledge based on the hidden experiences and actual practices regarding deportation in Turkey.
Our field research indicates that although deportations are increasing in Turkey, echoing the existing literature on ‘deportation regimes’ (Peutz and De Genova 2010) and the ‘deportation turn’ (Gibney 2008), the government also tolerates the widespread presence and mobility of irregularized Afghans. Some scholars explain this deportation gap in terms of limited state capacity or difficulties with managing deportation procedures (Gibney and Hansen 2003; Ellermann 2008, 2009; Anderson et al. 2011; Leerkes and Van Houte 2020). Others, however, point to the symbolic role of detainability and deportability as a ‘spectacle’ of state enforcement, bolstering the power of the state in the eyes of the public (Mainwaring and Silverman 2016; Kaytaz 2021).
In order to contribute to this literature, we first argue that the politics of (non-)deportation in Turkey are closely linked to the needs of the informal labour market, which constitutes one-third of the total labour market7 and predominantly employs the millions of displaced people living in the country. Thus, we propose that state capacity and symbolic power can only partly explain how Turkey’s large Afghan population is able to work in the informal sector, albeit in a highly mobile and irregularized manner, without being apprehended. As the testimonies we provide demonstrate, deportability serves as a disciplinary apparatus that (re)produces compliant bodies in accordance with the extremely cruel conditions of Turkey’s informal labour market, which ultimately constitute the grounds for non-deportability. This parallels what Peutz and De Genova (2010) argue in terms of how deportability reproduces docility, which in the case of Afghans in Turkey, reaches the extremes of precarity whereby 12- to 14-h working days, forced labour, and unpaid labour in the most dangerous sectors, in which injury or death is frequent, become common experiences. Although irregularized migrants are supposedly restricted from inter-city travel, the authorities tolerate their hypermobility in line with the needs of Turkey’s informal labour market. Likewise, the absence of identity checks experienced by Afghans in informal-sector workplaces makes clear the state’s intentions.
Our second main argument is that, under this general veneer of informal tolerance of irregularized migrants, large-scale deportations are performed whenever the authorities wish to show that they are regulating migration or that they are responding to political concerns (such as during election campaigns or following anti-refugee protests from opposition parties). During these deportation performances, our interlocutors’ testimonies indicate the key roles of qawm-based8 associations and, relatedly, Turkish language proficiency, especially for Uzbeks and Turkmens, who have acquired a relatively privileged status among the Afghan community in Turkey. That is, qawm-based belonging, Afghan associations (founded by Uzbeks or Turkmens), and everyday street-level negotiations enable Afghans to generate various temporary solutions to prevent deportations.
This article is structured as follows: the first section explains the primary data collection process; the second presents the empirical findings in terms of the ways in which the politics of (non-)deportability operates as a disciplining apparatus for irregularized Afghans in Turkey’s informal labour market; the final section discusses the hierarchies within the Afghan community based on qawn-based belonging and their daily solutions for evading deportation.