The Right to the City and Refugees in the Neoliberal Era

The last decade of the neoliberal era, with its destructive economic policies created broad and deep social and spatial inequalities. In recent years, people from different cities around the world raised their voices against the neoliberal attack on public spaces that showed itself as state-led privatization and commodification of the daily life. The voices grew into urban social movements, as the public spaces became the sites of resistance. Gezi Park Protests in Istanbul started as resistance against government’s decision to demolish the public park to turn the area into a combination of shopping mall and a replica of historical Military Barracks. Syntagma Square occupation in Athens and occupation of Puerta del Sol in Madrid had their roots directly in discontent with financial capitalism. These opposition movements, among other demands, underlined the demand for improved access to public resources.

Decades ago, Henri Lefebvre observed the relationship between the process of commodification of the urban space and transformation of social relations within that space. With this process, land is defined through its exchange value and this necessitates the exclusion of the relationships outside the market realm from that space. Lefebvre’s conception of the right to the city advocates the production of space in a way that puts use value at the center as opposed to the exchange value, it gives the inhabitants of the city from all segments of the society the right to access urban resources and further than that, the right to appropriate and transform space. It stands against exclusion and displacement and puts forth an ideal city that is more inclusive, changed collectively by the ones who inhabit it: social and spatial are hand in hand in Lefebvre’s definition. Lefebvre concisely says that the right to the city is a “cry and demand” for “a transformed and renewed urban life”* (1967, p.158) by the excluded, the disadvantaged and the oppressed. In the neoliberal era, when exclusion of people from places based on their socio-economic status is at its peak, it is not difficult to see why the concept of the right to the city appeals to many who are somehow among “the excluded” to a certain extent.

Given that the right to the city is for all, would it be possible to configure the right to the city of the refugees, which comprises one of the most vulnerable groups in the cities? Theoretically, the right to the city has a great potential as a departing point in the process of improving living conditions for refugees in the cities, based on their status as inhabitants. The right to the city is differentiated from the concepts and ideals of human rights and democracy, as it doesn’t have the prerequisite of citizenship, the liberal-democratic idea of being entitled to rights that come from belonging to a nation-state. It is not based on an exclusive definition of equality as such. One becomes entitled to it just by living at some place, by becoming “citoyen” that signifies inhabitance, rather than “citizen” that points to the connection with a nation-state. Yet the question remains if the right to the city as a framework can make a difference for the refugees on the ground. To what extent can we talk about refugees’ social and spatial inclusion in the society despite their status as non-citizens?

Syrian refugees arriving in Turkey in the last three years are permitted to leave the camps and settle in the cities, and there are more than 2,400,000 refugees living in the cities now.[1] Getting work permits, however, is still not that easy for them. Refugees living in the Turkish cities have to sell their labor for a very low price and are exploited due to their vulnerable position being in the informal labor market. As cheap and flexible labor force, they are obliged to work in precarious conditions, mostly in the labor-intensive industries such as construction sector and agriculture. It is recorded that in the first nine months of 2016, 76 migrant workers (though the numbers are not only refugee populations, it is predicted that they are an important part) died due to a work accident.[2] 62% of them are Syrian, who were allowed to go into make up a life for themselves in the cities in Istanbul, Adana, Hatay or Gaziantep and numerous other cities but ended up dying. The ones who survive are struggling with the similar conditions on a daily basis. The exploitative working conditions that the refugees face determine and restrict their spatial opportunities, in relation to access to proper housing and the opportunity to be a part of the wider city life, as most of the refugees live in overcrowded housing but at the same time continue their lives in isolation from the rest of the society due to very material limitations. Their material deficiencies are directly connected to the spatial reality they are condemned to. Refugees’ vulnerable position in the labor market also largely shapes their social relations. The refugees are, from the eyes of the many, the job-stealers and undeserving outsiders in the Turkish cities and these perceptions aggravate refugees’ spatial isolation, as they tend to stick to homogenized neighborhoods to protect themselves from the hostile gaze and reactions. Would refugees ever be able to appropriate, inhabit or collectively transform places in any meaningful way while they are in the middle of a life and death struggle in a very material sense and socially excluded with hostile reactions they get from the Turkish community? Given this, is there a “collectivity” that we can talk about? In such conditions, there cannot exist an encounter between Syrian refugees and the Turkish people as taking place between “equals”. It is not difficult to see that the right to difference, which goes hand in hand with the right to the city, cannot be realized in that context.

One thing needs to be remembered: Lefebvre talks about the working class as the primary social force that will realize the right to the city. The right to the city, therefore, offers a possibility to reconnect the material and social relations that are completely masked by the neoliberal system. The original idea of the right to the city has the potential to challenge labor relations in neoliberalism with its emphasis on the use value and social production of space. Leftist thinkers should be alert to discuss the refugees’ right to the city by mentioning refugees’ part in the labor market and making the connections between socio-spatial exclusion and economic exclusion. Making their exploitation visible should be added to their embodiment in the urban places and building on that their demands would be sought to be reconciled with that of Turkish citizens. Only this can carry the potentials for discussing the proper right to the city.

Bengi Süllü

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*Lefebvre, H. (1996 [1967]) ‘The Right to the City’, in E. Kofman and E. Lebas (eds) Writings on Cities, pp. 63–184. London: Blackwell.


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