Precarious Hope
Migration and the Limits of Belonging in Turkey
Ayse Parla



Shielding Hope

NEFIYE, AN ADMINISTRATIVE WORKER in her native Ruse, Bulgaria, first migrated to Istanbul, Turkey, in 2003 and took a job as a nanny. Slim and agile, she had a sprightly gait that made it hard for others to keep up, and she dressed in the latest fashions, even while having to pinch pennies. When I first met her, in 2008, she was nearly fifty years old and still working as a nanny. By then, she was fed up with her uncertain legal status, which involved crossing the Bulgarian-Turkish border on a tourist visa that granted a three-month stay; after the visa expired she would typically lapse into illegality until the government issued another amnesty, which forgave overstay but granted only another temporary residence for a few more months. Despite making multiple trips across the border to maintain her visa and taking advantage of every amnesty, she still often ended up working without a permit.

Nefiye thrived on order and clarity, whether it was maintenance of her employer’s sweaters and shirts in color-coordinated, nifty piles or the meticulous categorization of files that she set up for her own legal documents. Thus the structural ambiguities of bureaucracy and the unpredictable promises and disappointments of the legalization process that she encountered in Turkey frayed her nerves. She had to navigate a complex bureaucracy that imposed opaque and ever-shifting application criteria. She also worked for unpredictable and exploitative employers who might demand that she iron a dress after midnight or prohibit her from using the shower after five o’clock in the afternoon. But none of these difficulties dampened Nefiye’s hope of success in her quest for citizenship, or kimlik—literally “identity”—as citizenship is colloquially called among migrants.

Over the course of four years, from 2008 to 2012, I stood in various queues with Nefiye. These queues typically involved filing a petition at one of the Balkan migrant associations, which advocate on behalf of ethnically Turkish migrants, getting one more document translated and authorized by a notary, rushing to make the deadline at the police station for an amnesty that would allow for another temporary stay, or waiting at the Foreigners’ Department of Istanbul Police Headquarters to have “days counted” to see if she had accumulated the two years required for a citizenship application.

On a scorching day in July 2011, Nefiye and I stood in yet another line at the Foreigners’ Branch to inquire about what appeared to be an exceptional amnesty. Like the previous short-term amnesties, this one too was available only to those who were from Bulgaria and who, like Nefiye, could claim Turkish ethnicity. But this amnesty promised to be different from the others because it offered more than temporary residence status. Instead, it promised a fast track to citizenship for currently undocumented migrants from Bulgaria who had overstayed their visas.1

Sorting through the documents she had accumulated over the years, Nefiye turned to me and said, “I have hope that finally this time, this citizenship matter will be resolved. Don’t you think?”

By now, I had learned that Nefiye’s questions regarding hope were not just queries but also claims. The reassurance she sought was less about whether she had done things right—she was always confident in her way of going about things and rarely asked for guidance. Rather, she wanted to confirm my participation in her hopeful stance. I was anxious, however, about what appeared to be too good a promise on the part of the government. Since the late 1990s, the policy pattern had been implicit but consistent: tolerate irregular migration from Bulgaria through the practice of granting intermittent, temporary amnesties, but discourage citizenship. The current offer seemed like an aberration, and I found myself turning into a killjoy. “Let’s not get too hopeful—who ever knows in this country? Who knows what excuse they might come up with to reject your application after all this trouble?” Nefiye was displeased and, being the straightforward person that she is, took no pains to hide it. “Do not kill my hope,” she admonished me. Yes, she agreed, of course something might go wrong. “But,” she added pointedly, “if I persist, I will eventually get this identity. I am, after all, soydaş [racial kin].” I will shortly elaborate on the significance of Nefiye’s identification as “racial kin.” For now, let me conclude this vignette by noting that Nefiye’s hope proved well founded. She ended up receiving citizenship through this last application.

The path would prove to be far more tortured for İsmigül and her family, whose quest for citizenship lasted longer than a decade. İsmigül had worked as a chemist in the city of Razgrad in Bulgaria. Now, in Istanbul, she was employed as a domestic worker six days a week. By the time I met her, she was forty-eight years old and had already made several attempts to gain citizenship on behalf of herself, her husband, and their two children, ages twelve and fifteen. So far, she and her husband had managed to avoid undocumented status by obtaining “companion permits.” These were residence permits that ethnically Turkish migrants received by enrolling their children in school. Those who could prove Turkish origins were allowed to apply for citizenship after two years of continuous residence rather than five years, which is the minimum for all other migrants. İsmigül and her husband hoped that they had accumulated enough days to be eligible. However, companion permits came with complications. Because they were granted through children, who do not go to school during the summer holidays, there would always be an interruption in the residence record.

As İsmigül, her husband, and I waited in line for what İsmigül hoped would be the final stage in the application process, she was basking in the affirmation she had received at our previous stop, the Ministry of National Education’s community center. There, applicants are usually tested for proficiency in Turkish, but İsmigül was gratified to have been recognized for “who she was.” She had already recounted her triumphant moment to me and her husband, although we had both been present at the event. Now, she addressed another ethnically Turkish migrant who had just joined us in the line, as if to include her in this hopeful state of anticipation: “See, the clerk did not make us take language exam. He waived the language exam for us. He could tell who we are the moment we came through that door, let me tell you. They understand it from the way we walk and carry ourselves, the way we dress, our expressions. I have this hope inside me that everything else will go just as well.”

I nodded my assent and, in this instance, kept my reservations to myself, lest any comments from me might “kill hope.” However, things did not go well, at least not right away. The clerk who reviewed İsmigül’s file became visibly impatient as she examined each document. Finally, when she reached the critical soy belgesi, a document of origins that is required for proof of Turkishness, she threw up her arms in exasperation and said, “There are too many different spellings here. One spelling in the Turkish translation, another in the Bulgarian document. I can’t process this file. Every single name on every single document has to match.”

On the ferry back to the Asian side of Istanbul, İsmigül was frustrated by the weight of an entire workday gone to waste, not to mention the money spent on the documents, most of which had to be notarized both in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, and then again in İstanbul. She protested, “Even if we figure out the money, when will I have time to go back to Bulgaria again to start all over? We wait and wait. There is no way these children are going back. But still . . . no citizenship, no work permit. We, too, have Turkish blood in our veins.”

The swift move into racial identification as the grounds for claiming belonging was not unique to İsmigül. It was a strategy that Bulgaristanlı migrants often used in their appeals to officials to mark their distinction from other undocumented migrants. “Once, I confronted them,” İsmigül said. “‘Those Filipino are getting work permits now,’ I said to the clerk at the Foreigners’ Branch. “Why not us? And we are Turks,” she protested, voicing her resentment this time for my benefit. “But you cannot question things too much. Because if you overdo it, they [the police] can always say, ‘That’s it! We are deporting you.’

Within three months, İsmigül had redone all of the documents and sorted out the discrepancies. But when she submitted the revised application, she and her family were again refused. They were told, at the very end of the process, that the companion permit was no longer a valid basis for the residence requirement. The unexpected (and unannounced) shift in the regulation was particularly frustrating because it coincided with another major change in Citizenship Law No. 403/1964: whereas until 2009, those of Turkish descent had had a reduced residence requirement, the revised Citizenship Law (No. 5901/2009), passed in 2009, sought to eliminate overtly ethnicist biases in the law in part by equalizing the terms for citizenship. This meant that like non-Turkish migrants, İsmigül and her family would now have to fulfill five years of uninterrupted residence instead of the two that they had previously been striving for. Still, as we were having a picnic with all the children—and for once not waiting in line—İsmigül declared that she was not about to lose hope: “You know me, I am not one to give up. Also, I could see it, the chief, he felt bad for us, I could see it. He said to my cousin, you know the doctor, who tried to help, ‘Of course I, too, would prefer citizens like these.’” İsmigül went on, “Naturally, he does not want all those people coming from here and there; of course he wants us instead.”

It took another three years and several more amnesties for İsmigül’s family to eventually obtain citizenship, that object of desire that had governed their lives for so long. But it is not just the uncertainty and the arduousness of the bureaucratic processes that render the hope of İsmigül and other migrants precarious. It is also whether citizenship, which the majority of my interlocutors eventually obtain, delivers on its promises.

*   *   *

This book explores the degrees and limits of migrant privilege and the terms of belonging in contemporary Turkey by tracking the constant fluctuations that İsmigül, Nefiye, and other migrants from Bulgaria experience between expectation and uncertainty, entitlement and refusal. The vacillations that characterize the precarious hope I depict are not only “waverings of the mind that increase or diminish one’s capacity to act,” as Spinoza ([1677] 2000) famously described emotions. The hope for legalization that circulates among Bulgaristanlı migrants is also a “collective structure of feeling,” in the felicitous phrasing of the Marxist cultural theorist Raymond Williams (1977), one that varies according to social class and is shaped by migration bureaucracies, laws, and their criteria of differentiation.

Although some individuals may be of a more hopeful disposition than others, my approach to hope as an emotion is not one that examines emotions as inner states that reside in the individual. Rather, I follow the classic scholarship on the anthropology of emotions to attend to hope’s historical, political, and legal production (Abu-Lughod 1986; Briggs 1971; Lutz 1988; Myers 1986).2 Within the wide semantic range of hope, which covers a vast spectrum from fear to doubt to anticipation, the hope for legalization that I discuss here veers closer to expectation. In that sense, my analysis partially aligns with the rationalist thinking on hope.3 My focus, however, is not just on propositional attitudes by single individuals regarding the probability of things they hope for to be realized. Rather, I am most interested in explicating what feminist legal scholar Patricia Williams (1991) has called a “structured expectation,” in which members of a certain group, class, or race can take hope for granted in their encounters with the law.4

The hope described in this book is not hope against the odds. Nor is it a “radical hope” that is cultivated regardless of what is structurally possible.5 Compared to the majority of other undocumented migrants living in Turkey, my interlocutors were not among the most vulnerable. They had a reasonable expectation that they would fare better than other migrants, even though they were still subject to the whims of opaque and ever-changing legal regulations, as well as to the exploitative labor market.

The ethnographic challenge I pose, then, is this: What happens to hope as a category of analysis and experience when we shift the lens away from the increasingly visible figure of the downtrodden migrant or the suffering refugee who risks potentially fatal journeys across borders in inflatable boats or airless containers and who hopes against hope? What happens when we instead attend to those migrants whose hope oscillates between a sense of entitlement and the threat of instability, a hope that holds ethnic privilege in tension with economic and legal vulnerability? The theoretical question I ask, in turn, is this: What happens when we read hope in relation to structures of privilege, while also exploring how structures of privilege are not immune to states of precariousness?

“I am soydaş.” This is the plea to which Nefiye and İsmigül resort in cultivating their hope of legalization and in shielding it from possible assault, whether from migrants they deemed less worthy or from the ethnographer. This plea also constitutes the historical and structural conditions of possibility on which their hope rests. A cultural identification with legal ramifications, soydaş indexes those who are considered to be “of Turkish origin.” Translated in the scholarship most frequently as “ethnic kin,” soydaş is an agglutinated word that derives from the root soy, which covers a range of meanings, from race, ethnicity, lineage, and blood to family, ancestry, kin, and descent, and the suffix -daş, meaning having something in common or being a fellow. But there is an emotional component of belonging inherent in the suffix -daş as well, which functions as a crucial landing point for the structures of feeling that are associated with this word for Turkish speakers. It also covers a range of affiliations, such as “sharing,” as in kardeş (sibling), “having in common,” as in dindaş (of the same religion), or “fellowship,” as in yoldaş (comrade) or vatandaş (citizen). Depending on which meaning of the root one selects, the term soydaş may be translated variously as “of the same ancestry,” “of the same blood,” “of the same lineage,” and so on. “Ethnic kin” is a frequently deployed translation in the migration scholarship on Turkey. However, I prefer the term “racial kin,” for two reasons. One, the root of the earlier iteration of soydaş, namely ırkdaş, corresponds strictly to the word for “race.”6 Two, the term “racial kin” captures the nationalist preoccupation with sharing the same blood and thus better delineates the ethnoracial underpinnings of Turkey’s citizenship and migration regime that I explore in this book.7

In addition to indexing a collective structure of feeling, soydaş has legal underpinnings. As stipulated by the successive Settlement Laws (No. 885/1926; No. 2510/1934; No. 5543/2006), which constitute the key body of legislation that has regulated migration since the founding of the Turkish nation-state, Turkey accepts as a migrant only an individual who is of “Turkish race/lineage and who has ties to Turkish culture.” Article 4 of Settlement Law No. 5543/2006 explicitly prohibits the migration of those who are not of Turkish origin. Since the original Settlement Law formulation in 1926, and through each iteration, the law has retained this racial definition of who qualifies as a migrant.8 The claim to being soydaş, then, is both a cultural and a legal appeal that upholds migrants’ insistence on hope and is validated by history, particularly among those from Bulgaria. Indeed, even as migrants of Turkish origin from other regions in the Middle East or Central Asia have occasionally been granted citizenship, those from the Balkans constitute by far the greatest number of immigrants who have succeeded in becoming Turkish citizens, both during the founding years of the republic and throughout the twentieth century.9


1. While some of the amnesties were made available to the general public, others circulated only among migrant networks and through the handful of active migrant associations established by earlier migrants from Bulgaria. The full informal regularity of the amnesties was thus discernible only through the proximity provided by ethnographic fieldwork. I was able to discern the informal regularity of the amnesties only because I was constantly present in the field. The lack of official visibility and transparency surrounding them also probably accounts for the fact that they have gone unmentioned in overviews of migration policy in Turkey penned by less ethnographically inclined observers.

2. Three key moves undertaken by this groundbreaking scholarship on anthropology of emotions inform my analysis of hope in this book. First, against much of Western political thought that considers emotions to be inner states of being that reside in the individual and against nineteenth-century psychologists’ view of emotions as psychophysiological in nature, anthropological work on emotions reclaimed the crucial significance of culture—understood in its broad sense as a set of norms and practices that include the legal and the political—for how emotions are experienced, articulated, and performed. Second, it underscored the interpersonal nature of emotions, focusing less on how emotions indicate personal states and more on how they are indices of social relationships. Finally, this pioneering body of work in the anthropology of emotions emphasized the relationship between the distribution of power in society and the ideological structuring of emotion (see Lutz 1988).

3. Philosopher Joseph Patrick Day, in a lucid defense of the rationalist and empiricist analysis of hope (1991), locates the kernel of this approach in the Hobbes-Locke-Hume tradition. Hope always involves both a conative aspect (the desire for something) and a cognitive aspect (a subjective belief in the attainability of the desired object that is based on estimations of probability). The advantage of this approach, as elaborated by Nicholas Smith (2008), is that it offers a scheme for tracking and assessing degrees of intensity (conative level) as well as degrees of likelihood and probability, and by implication, an assessment of whether particular hopes will be realistic, compromised, or irresponsible, etc. (cognitive level).

4. While Patricia Williams’s (1992) approach resonates with that of Raymond Williams (1977) in emphasizing the collective and differentiated nature of feelings, Patricia Williams additionally foregrounds the racialized hierarchies that constitute the institutional underpinnings of hope: in the United States there are certain hopes, Patricia Williams writes, that whites can take for granted in their daily, mundane encounters with the law, but blacks cannot exercise that same expectation.

5. As an interpretive exercise in what he calls philosophical anthropology, Jonathan Lear (2006) pondered the possibilities that may exist for maintaining hope under conditions of cultural devastation. Lear reconstructs the predicament faced by a Native American tribe whose chief aligns with the U.S. government to accept reservation life in exchange for basic securities and at the expense of land, tradition, and the tools for making sense of existence. He argues that this predicament gives rise to radical hope, a future-oriented stance for survival in the face of material and conceptual loss.

6. One comes upon this earlier variant of the term ırkdaş in publications and parliament discussions during the early years of the nation-state. The root word ırk instead of soy leaves no leeway for interpretation, as ırk exclusively means “race.” But even without such evidence of deployment of the literal term for race, I would still insist on thinking about soy/ırk (ethnicity/race) together, given that the former often becomes a euphemism for the latter, as Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein (1991) have argued. My approach is also similar to the integrative approach advanced by Andreas Wimmer (2008), who consciously rejects a definitional ontology of ethnicity. One might argue that in refusing the ontological primacy of race, Wimmer takes the more radical step of proposing that we view race and racial identification as a subset of ethnicity and expose how ethnicity gets variously and contingently operationalized.

7. Azat Zana Gündoğan (2018) has recently translated soydaş as “consanguines.” Gündoğan’s excellent rendition of the term is in the same spirit as my own emphasis on the importance placed on blood. I have opted for “racial kin,” however, in order to preserve the sentiments evoked through explicit references to kinship made by both officials and migrants themselves.

8. Following Kirişçi’s pioneering article (2000) on the links between immigration law and Turkey’s citizenship regime, migration scholars refer to the Settlement Law as a key legal text regulating both migration and settlement, including the displacement and resettlement during the early years of the republic of ethnic groups deemed to be difficult to assimilate. In a very important overview of migration and settlement policies in Turkey’s changing political landscape (2014), Sema Erder calls the Settlement Law a foundational and understudied text, one that gives critical indication of the content and scope of how citizenship is defined in Turkey. Through meticulous analysis of the range of regulations that fall under its rubric, from the right to use land to the distribution of property, Erder suggests that the Settlement Law reflects the general fear of “the foreigner” in Turkey’s political culture and the concomitant instinct to close inward. It is also important to note that veteran sociologist İsmail Beşikçi, imprisoned for years for his research and writing on Kurds in Turkey, called the Settlement Law “a racist Exile Law” (Beşikçi 1977) in a book that was instantly banned and described it as a law that was primarily used to colonize what was deemed an unruly and threatening Kurdish population (see Martin van Bruinessen 2005 for an excellent discussion of the significance of this work within Beşikçi’s larger work as a persecuted scholar).

9. See Kadirbeyoğlu’s 2010 Country Report: Turkey for EUDO Citizenship Observatory. For a more detailed breakdown of migrations since the nineteenth century according to country of origin, the two most precise and reliable sources I have come across are Ferhunde Özbay and Banu Yücel (2001) and İlhan Tekeli (2002).