Interview with Ayşe Parla
Photo Courtesy of Andrea Kane/Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ USA.

Interview with Ayşe Parla

Ayşe Parla discusses her research and contemporary immigration in Turkey.

“What I do in my migration work is to think beyond those easy dichotomies between economic migrants versus political migrants or between ethnic migrants versus labor migrants.”

By Molly Fee, Graduate Assistant, Center for the Study of International Migration

Ayşe Parla, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University and Department of Anthropology Sabancı University, Istanbul, visited UCLA on November 17, 2017 for a talk on “Labor Migration, Degrees of Privilege, and the Politics of Hope in Turkey.” During her time at UCLA, we sat down with Professor Parla to discuss her research and contemporary immigration in Turkey.

Parla first became interested in immigration through a fortuitous series of events. As she explains, “I happened upon migration because migration happened upon me.” As a PhD student in Sociocultural Anthropology at New York University, Parla began her fieldwork for a dissertation on the surveillance of young women in Turkish orphanages, motivated by questions of gender, states, and modes of governmentality. The staff assisting her in the Turkish library where she was conducting archival research were ethnically Turkish migrants from Bulgaria who had undergone a highly politicized migration to Turkey in 1989. While at the library, “they started sharing their stories with me as we went through the stacks for a different project.”

In these stories of migration, Parla heard a common refrain, “in Bulgaria we were persecuted for being Turkish, here we are marginalized for being Bulgarian.” Parla felt she had stumbled upon a rich archive of this historically contextualized migration, which spoke to “Turkey’s relation to Bulgaria and Cold War dynamics.” Consequently, she shifted her dissertation to focus on these migrants who were “escaping communisms as the narrative goes.” However, Parla notes, “in reality it was more complicated. There were political and economic reasons.”

Migration and Relative Privilege in Turkey

Her subsequent work also explores the complexities of migration narratives. Parla explains, “what I do in my migration work is to think beyond those easy dichotomies between economic migrants versus political migrants or between ethnic migrants versus labor migrants.” Her forthcoming book, Precarious Hope: Migrants, Law And Relative Privilege, examines post-1990s Bulgarian-Turkish labor migration. While these migrants are also ethnically Turkish, their migration is “different from previous migrant waves from Bulgaria in the sense that the political and legal conditions of their acceptance has changed.” These Bulgaristanlı migrants are not guaranteed Turkish citizenship like their predecessors, and therefore they enter the labor market as undocumented migrants. Moreover, the Bulgaristanlı’s departure from Bulgaria was not purely economic. “On paper the persecution ended. In reality they say it still makes for a life of discrimination to different degrees if you are a minority in Bulgaria.” Though undocumented, these migrants also have the possibility of gaining Turkish citizenship based on their ethnic belonging, a privilege not shared by other undocumented groups.

Parla’s book focuses on their legalization process in Turkey, and “in particular how the hope for legalization is produced and circulates among this group of migrants as a collective structure of feeling.” Parla finds that much of the migration literature examines “people who hope against the odds. This group allows me to explore a case of migration that’s hoping with the odds. There is a hope for them of eventual legalization.” The particularities of the predicament of the Bulgaristanlı migrants produce what Parla calls “relative privilege.” She explains, “they’re relatively privileged vis-à-vis the majority of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers who have little hope of citizenship in Turkey. The Bulgaristanlı migrants have this anchor to citizenship, it is structurally promised but not guaranteed.”

Border Crossing from Bulgaria into Turkey, 2006. Photo courtesy of Peanut99 via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0

Parla’s book also pushes back against “an over expansive use of the term precarity, where it refers to all sorts of groups under all sorts of circumstances.” It is problematic when the term becomes too general, because it “eludes the specificity of certain cases.” Rather, some migrant groups, such as refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey, “are better characterized by vulnerability.” Through her research, Parla finds that Bulgaristanlı migrants are “precarious because their employment is not guaranteed,” as they work under “flexible, uncertain, and unpredictable labor conditions.” Nonetheless, these migrants have access to resources unavailable to other migrants in Turkey. “They can ask for favors from employers, from border police, from officials, and it will often work because they’ll sympathize with this ethnic kinship idiom. That is not to say that then they have it easy. Precarity and relative privilege go together. One doesn’t exclude the other, and that’s what I’m trying to show.” In doing so, Parla’s book interrogates “the coexistence of precarity and relative privilege, or privilege in precarity.”

Precarious Refuge in Turkey

In general, Parla posits that the migration context in Turkey has only grown more precarious. “Turkey didn’t see itself as a country of immigration, and it changed rapidly into one.” Increased pressure from Europe has transformed Turkey’s previously laissez-faire approach into a more regulated system, “which means cracking down more on undocumented migration.” This increased order has resulted in Syrian refugees receiving a temporary protected status, which may look better on paper than in practice. Parla explains, “controls are tightening, which then has effects on how things are going inside the country.” The intensified authoritarianism of Turkish politics has also made life more difficult for migrants whose potential to become targets of hate gets only exacerbated under a tense political and cultural climate, as is the case elsewhere in the world.

More specifically to the Turkish context, non-European refugees have no long-term prospects for staying in Turkey because of the geographical limitation Turkey holds to the Geneva Convention. For those applying for refugee status though the UNHCR in Turkey, they must apply for resettlement elsewhere, which draws out the time they spend waiting in limbo. “A lot of asylum seekers have really extended terms of stay as they wait for these decisions. And sometimes they don’t get accepted and they just stay anyway, without papers and with no prospects of legalization in Turkey.” Because Turkish immigration laws favor those “with Turkish origins and with ties to Turkish culture,” refugees, such as Syrians, “are already at a huge legal disadvantage because the very understanding of what constitutes a migrant is already delimited by an ethnicist, and I actually call it racial, understanding of belonging.” While Turkey “can no longer just position itself as a transit country,” there has yet to be a clear vision on social policy toward refugees.

Looking ahead, Parla’s next project will address necropolitics in Turkey by examining “how sovereign power targets the dead among Armenian citizens in Turkey – the corpse, the graveyard, rituals of burial and mourning.” This research will combine both historical and ethnographic perspectives. Parla will trace the confiscation and destruction of Armenian cemeteries across the Anatolian landscape and throughout Republican history. Also a political ethnography of funerals, the project will interrogate “the ways in which Christian burial takes place in a Muslim-majority country, the appropriation of certain bodies by state actors for their own political agendas” and what the compromised conditions under which mourning takes place reveal about differentiated citizenship. This work also touches upon questions of migration, as Parla is interested in “how these responses to necropolitics travel in the diaspora and the relationship of various Armenian communities to cemeteries in the genocidal homeland from which their ancestors fled.”