War, violence, and poverty have uprooted millions of Africans in recent years. Driven from their places of birth, like nomads, they wander around the world, cross multiple borders, and search for a place they can settle and escape their dire conditions at home. Attracted by the possibility of a better life in the West, many enter a long and deadly journey; they risk their lives, cross the desert, and navigate the sea in small boats or at the bottom of ships, all in the hope of finding cracks in the borders of their imagined Eden. And some find themselves in Turkey, a country with long sea and land borders with the European Union, and a new candidate for joining the EU.
A bridge between Asia and Europe , Turkey , for nearly two decades, has been a prime transit country for migrants from countries on its Eastern frontiers. Turkey’s long borders with Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran made it the favorite and convenient first stop on the transit route to West for a growing number of Iranians, Kurds, Afghans, Iraqis, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. In the 1990s, a new group of transit migrants arrived: the Africans.
When I first visited Turkey in the summer of 1989 there were hardly any Africans on the streets of Istanbul . An entirely different situation had emerged in my next visit in September 2002. There were Africans idly walking up and down the city’s busy streets.
Their arrival caused confusion for the Turks and a seemingly irresolvable problem for the government . The Turks had only seen Africans in Hollywood films or television shows. Seeing Africans among them was unsettling.
“Seventy five percent of them are drug dealers and pimps,” a professor of economics at a prestigious university told me.
“They are mostly drug dealers,” a student of political economy said.
“Petty drug dealers,” a human rights activist declared.
The Turkish authorities faced a crisis they could not resolve. The Africans were uninvited guests from afar. Deporting them to Africa was not feasible. The continent was too far, deportation too costly . Though wishing them to leave, Turkey could not have allowed the Africans and other illegal migrants to cross its frontiers with Greece and illegally enter the European Union.
As a part of the negotiations for joining the European Union, Turkey had to appease the EU and show its worthiness. Safeguarding the EU’s southern borders was an important test for Turkey. Like other candidate states and those negotiating for possible future accession, Turkey had to prove its ability to protect the EU borders. “Some progress has been made with regard to visa policyNevertheless, the Commission has asked Turkey to adopt a strategy to control and manage borders,” a 2002 European Commission document stated.
Frustrated by the situation, in different times, the Turkish government resorted to desperate measures to deal with its “African problem.” The first was in the mid 1990s.
In 1995, the government rounded up the Africans on the streets of Istanbul , and transferred them to a camp in Silopi, a town at the border between Turkey and Iraq. Originally built to house the Kurdish refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein’s bombs at the end of the first Gulf war, the camp was left unused. The Africans were its unintended guests.
But, in 1995, Silopi and the area around it were ravaged by another war, the war between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The war ended in 1999 with the arrest of the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. By then, the government forces had destroyed more than 200,000 villages. A million and half Kurds became displaced. Many became internally displaced. Some left the southeast. Others relocated to towns like Van and became internal refugees.
Fleeing war and poverty in Africa, the African migrants were sent, once again, to a war zone.
“The year 1995 was the worst year for the blacks in Turkey ,” Julius, a thirty-year old Tanzanian told me in May 2005. He was among the detained Africans in Silopi.
“The police stopped people on the streets, put them in their cars, and took them away. That is how I was arrested. We were kept in the police station until our numbers reached thirty, enough to fill up a bus. Then, they put us on the bus and sent us to the camp. We did not know where we were going and why we were taken away.
“There was a war around the camp. There were soldiers, tanks, and armored vehicles everywhere. We heard constant shooting. People were dying everywhere.
“Our situation was very difficult. Our tents were very cold. Everything was wet and muddy. We were freezing. Many got sick. They did not give us much food. Some Africans died in the camp. Even the soldiers guarding the camp were feeling sorry for us.
“After one year, they freed us and allowed us to return to Istanbul . I was back to where I started. I was in the camp for one year, but that lasted like ten long years.”
An abrupt policy came to an abrupt end. The authorities opened the gates of the camp, turned the other way, and ignored the Africans leaving the camp and venturing into the unknown world around Silopi. In groups and alone, the Africans returned to Istanbul and the authorities did not stop them.
While Julius and others found their way back to Istanbul , more Africans arrived from across the continent. Many found a way to leave Turkey for Greece or Bulgaria soon after. Unable to come up to pay human smugglers, others remained behind. The number of Africans on the streets of Istanbul increased, and once again, in July 2001 the Turkish authorities acted in desperation. This time, they wished the Africans to disappear from Turkey. Violating Turkey ‘s international agreements, the police rounded up the Africans on the streets and secretly deported them to Greece.
“During the first two weeks of July there was a sizeable roundup of foreigners in Istanbul, and possibly in Ankara. The group is said to include more than two hundred fifty Africans, of various nationalities. [They] were separated from other nationalities such as Afghans, Iranians and Iraqis,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported on July 27, 2001.
The Africans were picked up in their homes or on the streets, and transferred by buses to the border with Greece. Groups of forty men, women, and children were boarded in small ten-person boats, and sent off to the Greek side of the Meriç River, a natural border between Turkey and Greece. The Greek authorities arrested the Africans, detained them and kept them in jail overnight. Next evening, they secretly took them to the border, placed them on small boats, and returned them to the Turkish side. Once in Turkey, the Turkish authorities arrested the Africans again. Some spent nearly a week in prison near the border before deported to Greece. The Greek authorities sent the unwanted Africans back to Turkey again. The Turks returned them to Greece. The Greeks dropped them off in Turkey.
“Some people died. We were left with nothing, no food, nothing. We spent many nights in a police bus. We were not prepared for the journey,” Ron, an African who was among those deported, told me in October 2002. Ron was picked up from his home in an Istanbul Ghetto. “This was like a movie,” Donald, a Nigerian survivor in his early twenties told me in July 2005.
Today the Turkish government is engaged in planning yet another solution to its African problem. A plan is under consideration to remove all the Africans from Istanbul and locate them in “satellite cities”, smaller provincial towns across the country, or house some in a camp originally built for the refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo near the border with Bulgaria.
BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN is the author of Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West ( Delacorte Press, 2005). He is a professor of economics at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Visit Yaghmaian’s website. He could be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.