Turkey is most commonly known for being home to 3.5 million Syrian refugees who stay there under its Temporary Protection regime, as well as being a country of transit for refugees who are hoping to eventually reach Europe. However, it is also home to migrants from Africa.
Although there are no exact figures on how many Africans are living in Turkey, the state-run Anadolu News Agency puts the number of Africans in Turkey at around 1.5 million as of 2017, with one in four of these preferring to live in Istanbul. While Tarlabaşı was once heavily populated by African migrants, urban renewal projects have forced many of them to leave. Aksaray and Kumkapi are two districts in Istanbul that have currently a sizable population of African migrants.
Many of them live in a sort of “permanent-temporariness” in Turkey; either they are waiting for legal resettlement, working temporarily while sending remittances back home, or trying to save up enough money to cross into Europe. Others decide to settle in Turkey, with or without legal status. There are also thousands of sub-Saharan African students in universities across Turkey; YOK (Turkey’s higher education board) statistics put their number at around 9,500. Somalians make up the largest group of registered African protection seekers in the country- numbering at 3,568 as of March, 2018. Protection seekers from other African countries are so small in number that they don’t even register as a blip on the available population statistics.
The majority of African migrants in Turkey are living there irregularly. For some, this is because they have come solely as economic migrants. Others may have a legitimate need for protection, but are either unaware of how to seek international protection status in Turkey, or have had their cases closed due to not meeting the criteria or violating rules for international protection seekers such as staying in one’s assigned satellite city. The Turkish government has taken some steps to address the question of irregular African migrants in Turkey, one example being the regularization of 1,444 Senegalese migrants in October of 2017. Turkey’s deepening partnerships with African nations may bring about more efforts of this kind.
Irregular African migrants face many challenges in Turkey regarding housing, employment, and exploitation. Many of them work as street vendors or domestic workers. As the pay is low, many work 12 hours days, six to seven days a week, in order to make ends meet. Women are a high risk of entering the sex trade, or being forced into it by traffickers who demand they work as prostitutes in order to pay off exorbitant debts. This being said, some Africans in Turkey compare it favorably to Europe, citing fewer administrative barriers and a lower cost of living.
Charles is from Nigeria, a country that is struggling with many conflicts, including those stemming from Boko Haram, an influential terrorist group in the region. Charles has been on the road for one year. He is 25 years old and while studying economics at university in Nigeria, he realized that he had no choice but to leave in order to survive. He passed through other African countries; Eritrea and Sudan respectively, working to at each stop to fund his voyage. Once he saved enough money to get away, he made a deal with smugglers in Sudan. Through this interview, we hoped to shed some light on the experiences of young people who migrate to Turkey from Africa, as well as their hopes for the future.
*How are you Charles? How is everything going in İstanbul now?
– I am fine thank you. I’ve been through a lot. I was in Aşkale Camp in Erzurum for one month before I arrived in İstanbul. They kept us there. It is a deportation camp. When I was released, I was very happy. I was the only one who only spent a month there. The rest have been in Aşkale Camp for five or more months. You know, I thought I could take a taxi but I do not understand Turkish. He took my money and left me on the road in the night. Now, I thank God I am in İstanbul. Inşallah. That camp is a very difficult place to live. I need to get my documents first, so I do not have problem with the police.
*Could you please describe yourself and your background?
– My name is Charles and I am from Africa. My father is from Nigeria and my mother is from Eritrea. So, life in our countries is very difficult to live in. We were six boys with my mother and my father. Some in Nigeria, some in Eritrea and one was in Turkey but now in Italy. I am the fifth child. Everybody is struggling with their life. And my father died on an attack by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Life was very difficult for me. There is no work and I have to come to Europe. I had to leave the country to go to Eritrea and then I lived in Sudan for two years.
*What was the condition of your mother and father in Nigeria?
– My father was a farmer and my mother was a business woman. She was selling clothes in Nigeria. Then my father died in the attack by Boko Haram, which is a terrorist group. It happened in Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria. When the attack happened in the market area in 2010, my father was working there. So many people died in the attack. Everybody is struggling with their life. Those terrorist groups are bad people.
*How long has Boko Haram existed in Nigeria?
– It has been a long time. They kidnap girls and a lot of students. They are bad people. I do not know what they are against. They just came to the school and packed up all the girls for no reason. They raped the girls a lot.
*Who fights against Boko Haram in Nigeria?
– The government says that they are fighting against the Boko Haram, but we do not see it. They are all corrupt. This group is getting bigger. They create bad things in the country. There was a day that they went in a church and killed everyone inside of the church.
*How do you evaluate Boko Haram?
– I do not know how to describe them, because they are the devil. Since 2005 and onwards you can see their attacks. Before Boko Haram, life in Nigeria was good, after they came, so many evil things happened. They want to divide the country. They are mostly in Nigeria besides the other African countries. They want to fight. If they are fighting against the government, why are they killing so many civilians, I do not know.
*How is life and society in Nigeria?
– We have more than 26 languages, but English is the general language. You take your mother’s and father’s language. My own language is “Edo”. When Nigeria was colonized by the British, technology and education came, and that’s how we started to learn English. Knowing English is good because you can communicate with anybody.
We have both Muslıms and Christians. We eat and live together. Normally, when I came back from school, we went out to watch football on the television because as you know, everyone here is black and we see different people. We do not have the constant electricity that you have. Most people live in darkness and do not have lights. There are some areas in my country; they have no access to light for one month or one year.
There is a lot of heat. The weather is very hot. There is no electricity and everywhere is very hot. You cannot go out in the daytime. We have a lot of animals, rivers and a beach. There are many beautiful things but the roads are very bad.
*How do you see the situation of youth?
– Lagos is the safest city in Nigeria, one of brother lives there. But most people cannot afford to live there. There is no work. Many of our youth died in Libya or the Mediterranean Sea while trying to go to Europe for survival.
To have work, you have to have the money to get a job. They use connections, and are not truthful. Somebody in a high place can put you in a job. Even though you do not have education, you can have work. There a lot of young people that need to work in the country. Although the country is very rich, the youth do not have work, so they travel and go to Europe.
*How did you decide to leave Nigeria?
– I had to leave my country after my father died. One of my brothers is in Eritrea and I went there. I stayed in Sudan two years to earn money.
*What happened to your education under these circumstances?
– I went to a school called“Light of Hope” for primary school, after high school I went to “Abrose Ahi University” in Edo State in 2013. I was studying economics. I have been learning English since primary school, but in the family, we use our own language. I stopped university in my second year, but it takes four years to finish.
*How was the university life?
– To go to university, you need money but we do not have enough. There is no sponsor and the weather is very hot. There is no scholarship or anything like that. My mother was trying to take care of me, but I am not the only son. So, I had to step down to work. Once I am able to be okay financially, I can go and finish my education.
*You left the university and went to Eritrea. What were the main reasons besides financial and political issues?
– The number one reason is money. Number two; young guys kick each other in the university if you do not join them. They call each other by “secret codes”. The groups have connections and fight with other groups. There are many groups in the university, and if you don’t join with one of them, they can kill you. I told my family I want to live. I do not want to lose my life. A lot of young people die in the university. They cut each other’s head and put it at the gate of the school. University administration cannot do anythıng because they do not know who does it. They make these conflicts at nights. In the morning, you see it. It is a very dangerous university. Then I said I need to leave and fight for my life. Once I get earn money, I can go to the university. I have to work hard for it.
*How long did you stay in Eritrea and Sudan? What did you do?
– I stayed in Eritrea seven months. I became a waiter. Eritrea also has terrorist groups and conflicts. Then, I passed to Sudan because it was at the border. To make money and sponsor myself, I had to work to go to Europe. I stayed in Sudan two years and I waited four months to find a job. I worked in a small store. Life in Sudan is also hard because it is very hot. I communicated my family sometimes but I had to work and fight for myself. I do not want to have a future like my father’s future. The wages were very low in Sudan. It was like 30 euro for a month. It is not easy, little by little.
*After Sudan, what was your route and how did you communicate with a smuggler?
– After Sudan, I started my journey. It was not easy. I had to look for an agent, a smuggler. I had enough money to go to Europe. In Sudan, there are also many Turkish agents. All the agents communicate with each other. There was someone whose brother crossed over to Europe at my work. I called him and took the number. I paid 1200 dollars to get to Turkey.
They hide people inside of a car and take you to the borders. We went from agent house to agent house. There were only around 10 of us in Sudan. In Iran I think, we met many new people; Iranıan, Syria, Iraq, Bangladeshi, Pakistan, and Afghan. They all wanted to go Europe. It took ten days to go from Sudan to Iran because of many delays. Iran is a country where all the smugglers gather. They never get caught and move at night. They come and go in İran. The agents give us rubbish for food but we had to eat. I went through so many difficulties.
For up to ten hours, they keep people inside of the car. You have to do your best to reach the final destination.
*Where is the smugglers’ house in Turkey?
– I think it was in Doğubeyazıt. They brought us to a smuggler’s house to wait and go to İstanbul. They cut us with knives and threatened to kill us. Because my agent did not pay my money that he was supposed to. I paid my agent, but my agent did not pay. Nobody knows where they are, they only bring you at night. There are many Pakistani and Afghan people in the smuggler’s house. I spent three weeks in there. It was very bad. We stayed in the cold, no windows and the house was dirty. At nights, they come and take people. Since I didn’t pay, they held me there, they took the ones with money.. They feed us with rubbish. There is no toilet. Everywhere is full of shit. This house is where they cook, eat, sleep and shit.
*How did you managed to reach Ağrı from Doğubeyazıt?
– I had 200 dollars left that I had hidden inside my shoes. Police came to the house; one of the smugglers ran away. They were looking for the person in charge. They saw us there and left. Four days later, the police came again and arrested another person, but then released him- he was not the boss. The boss only comes at night.
*What happened after police came?
– After the police left us, smugglers said I should go. Before one of the police officers came back, the smugglers set us all free. We were on the street. We were looking for how to get to Turkey. I met someone and he took me to another smuggler house. There are many smugglers in Doğubeyazıt. I had to go from there, but I was caught inside Ağrı and they arrested me. Two weeks later, I received a document that said I could stay in Ağrı. In order to go to Istanbul, I spent two weeks in the Ağrı bus terminal searching for a ticket, but they were too expensive. Finally, I made the decision to take a taxi to Erzurum and try to go to Istanbul from there. In the meantime, my brother was trying to send me money. I tried to go Erzurum with a taxi but he left me in the middle of the road. While walking, I was arrested again, and taken to the Aşkale Deportation Camp.
*Can you give a little information about Aşkale Camp?
– Life in Aşkale is very hard. It is a prison. At 9 o’clock, you go for breakfast- they gave us tea, bread and half of a tomato. For lunch, they brought different food but I couldn’t understand what it was. After that, they go for a cigarette but I do not smoke. Some people at the camp knew that I was a Christian, and threatened to make me Muslim. I have my own bible like a Qur’an. For this reason, they wanted to kill me in the camp. They came to my room and threatened me. I had to keep quiet. I was crying all day long. I thought that one day, they would find a way to kill me, because they were always threatening me. But I was in prison- there wasn’t anywhere else for me to go. The official who had prepared my release papers and the police brought me along with many other people to the terminal. I was the only African, the rest were Pakistanis and Afghans who had been in the camp for over five months. All of them were young men.
*Was there anyone to help you?
– My brother was no longer in İstanbul, he went to Italy. There was nobody to call in Turkey. I was all alone and did not know what to do or what was going on outside. I had been on the road for over three months. I started this journey last year. Thank God, I was finally able to reach Istanbul. In Erzurum, they also gave me the same document as in Ağrı (T6). It says that I am in the country.
*Why did you choose Turkey?
– Because I had seen Turkey on Youtube and liked it a lot. I watched the President’s speeches and everything else. It was a very beautiful country, and I wanted to be there. I watch Turkish movies and football games; Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray. I am very good at playing football. But to come to Turkey legally, it is very expensive, you need around 15,000 dollars. Coming here illegally is a huge risk because by legal routes, it takes six hours to come here. I had to take a lot of risks to come to Turkey.
*What other countries do smugglers take people in Africa to?
– Italy, but it is very dangerous because of the sea. In Lıbya, smugglers load people onto inflatable boats to go to Europe, on average 300 people per boat. When the boats sink, many people die.
*How was the attitude of police and people in Ağrı and Erzurum?
-They were very nice to me. They took me to the deportation camp, I thought they were taking me to İstanbul. They said, “Do not worry, we will take you to İstanbul” They took my photos and performed a blood test to make sure I was healthy.
So many people helped me. In Erzurum, two men gave me 100 lira after my release. We spent time together drinking tea. They gave me free bread and juice. Most of them were shop owners. They took selfies with me and took care of me.
*How did you end up in Istanbul?
-They brought me to the terminal in İstanbul. I got in touch with my brother’s friends. One of them is Nigerian. He does shipping work at the docks.
I am illegal here. They gave me documents in Erzurum and Ağrı. They know me. I want to stay here. I am new to İstanbul. I love football but I never had a chance to play.
I want to learn Turkish and I can do any job. But I want to play football. I don’t do anything for now. I need to get to know the city better. I cannot go out because of being illegal.
*How do you feel in this neighborhood?
– It is a nice place. Everybody is smiling. They are straightforward. There are people who give me free food. If people want to talk to me when they see me, I will talk to them and tell them about myself.