17th Mar 2018


'I have heard about EU austerity, but still I would like to go'

  • Some African migrants in Istanbul's Kumkapi neighbourhood look to Europe for a better future (Photo: Meg Chang)

The sharp pin of hammers striking on metal can be heard through the noise of a speeding scooter.

Above, hidden away in back alleys and crumbling buildings in the maze of streets in the Kumkapi district in Istanbul, workers toil away for meagre pay.

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Others are carrying or pushing heavy loads of cloth and textiles down the road.

Many of them are Turks. But some come from as far as way French speaking Africa. Young men from Cameroon, Senegal, Ghana and the Ivory Coast have come looking for jobs and, possibly, for a path to Europe.

"I'm 35 years old. I've got to feed my family," says Mohamed Nkatoue Mantouim, a recent arrival from Cameroon.

He explained that the lack of work at home forced him to seek his fortune in Istanbul, where he said he has been treated with scorn and outright racism.

"I have to get up very early in the morning and start looking for job. It is only God who decides," he says.

If he is lucky, he can earn up to 200 Turkish liras (€85) a week.

But it is a daily struggle. Christantus Njoku, a 30-year-old from Cameroon, has yet to be paid for carrying heavy loads of concrete up a nine-floor building for the past three days.

Their friend, 23-year-old Ngoult Abdel, also from Cameroon, said they live in a cramped two-bedroom apartment shared by 40 young African men.

EUobserver visited the apartment.

Located off a side street in the Istanbul neighbourhood, it is set in a basement with little natural light. The conditions are deplorable.

Most of the migrants have no steady work. Some have overstayed their visas and all are trying to send home money to the families who spent a small fortune to get them to Istanbul in the first place.

"One head costs €1,300 from Cameroon to Istanbul. We cannot go back empty-handed, but God is in control," says Mantouim.

Mantouim, Abdel and Njoku, whether rightly or wrongly, see Europe as a beacon of hope where they believe human rights are uniformly respected.

"It's good to go to Europe but I have no visa and no means. I have heard about austerity, but still I would like to go," Mantouim said.

Njoku noted that some people try their luck with smugglers. Two of his friends left on a boat from Izmir in Turkey but he never heard from them again. "It is too dangerous," he said.

In once incident, over 60 people perished when their boat sank off the coast in Izmir in September. Most were women and children.

Istanbul's allure

In the streets of Kumkapi, new arrivals can be seen pulling their luggage to their destination - perhaps another squalid apartment or one of the hundreds of workshops.

Passport holders from Iran, Iraq, Georgia, Pakistan and others can enter Turkey without a visa.

For Cameronians, Turkey requires a one-month single entry visa that can be purchased for a small fee at Istanbul Ataturk Airport on the condition that you travel with Turkish Airlines.

The same is true for Somalia. In March, Turkish Airlines started flying twice a week to its capital city, Mogadishu.

Of all those who arrive in Istanbul, around half want to leave as soon as possible to Europe, says Professor Ahmet Icduygu, who drafted a report on smuggling and trafficking in Turkey for the International Organisation for Migration.

"Around a third find work in Istanbul and others find jobs to help pay smugglers," he told EUobserver.

With an 11,000-km-long border and its extensive visa-free regime, Turkey has become a prime transit country for anyone seeking a better life in Europe. Over half a million documented and undocumented migrants currently live in the country.

In Kumkapi, the police are generally relaxed and seldom, if ever, ask for papers.

"It's the only good thing here," says Mantouim.

Researchers at the Migration Research Institute at Koc University in Turkey have described the country's migration policy as "highly fragmented."

It lacks a clear asylum or migration law.

Migrant rights are instead supposed to be respected through a set of complex directives and regulations, which are "applied in highly arbitrary manner," according to the university.

Turkey is introducing legislation to improve its migration policies.

In June, its parliament approved a draft new law on foreigners and international protection.

The law aims to regulate the entry, exit and stay of foreigners in Turkey and to establish the procedures and guidelines for those seeking protection.

An international aid agency working in Istanbul said the legislation, if enacted and implemented, would adhere to EU norms and extends rights on health services, education and legal access to refugees and asylum seekers.

Frontex chief looks beyond EU borders

EU border control agency Frontex is looking to buy drones and satellite images to monitor migrant behaviour beyond the Union's borders.

Fortress Europe

EUobserver's Nikolaj Nielsen visited the Greek-Turkish border in November to see what 'Fortress Europe' means in practice for refugees and people smugglers trying to get into the Union.

About Nikolaj Nielsen

Nikolaj Nielsen is a Danish-American journalist working for EUobserver in Brussels. He won a King Baudouin Foundation grant for investigative journalism in 2010.

EUobserver investigative reports

EUobserver's 'Fortress Europe' series looks at refugee and immigration networks operating on the edge of Europe, focusing on the 12.5-km Greek 'wall' completed late last year.

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