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ALMA Reviews Blog: “Europe” from “Here”: Syrian Migrants/Refugees in Istanbul and Imagined Migrations into and within “Europe”

Souad Osseiran; Migration Research Center at Koç University, Turkey

Published in 2017 by Duke University Press

Available at: https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822372660-008

In this book chapter, Souad Osseiran explores the processes of constructing specific understandings and perceptions of Europe and the EU by Syrian “migrants/refugees” located in Istanbul, Turkey in 2012 and 2013. Osseiran, who is an anthropologist and migration researcher at the Migration Research Center at Koç University, shows how these understandings and perceptions are “discrepant” (pp. 185, 187) from the officially “established political boundaries” (p. 185) of Europe and the EU, and how they are fundamentally shaped by the knowledge shared over social networks and as a reaction to the heterogeneous and fragmented asylum policies of the EU and its member states.

Osseiran clearly states in the beginning that no objective meaning of Europe or the EU exists (p. 185). Rather, she takes the official presentation of Europe and the EU – as spaces with clear external borders – and contrasts this with the imaginings of these two entities by Syrian migrants/refugees in Istanbul. She explains this differentiation by relying on a critical engagement with the concept of transit. While a transit country for the official Europe and EU is the space beyond their external borders, countries like Italy, France, Greece and Bulgaria are rendered de facto transit countries by Syrian migrants/refugees, since they engage with them as places not of permanency, but of temporariness, and hence transition. These countries are never labelled as transit countries by the EU and its member states “despite the significant [migration] flows through [them]” (Düvell 2010, p. 418). In other words, what is not a transit country for the official EU and its member states is actually dealt with very much as a transit country by the migrants and refugees. Osseiran, therefore, rightly proposes the application of the term “transit zones”, as developed by Sabine Hess (2010), as an analytical tool in this context instead of “transit country”. For Hess and Osseiran, transit zones are spaces both within and outside the borders of the EU which are connected by the “discourse and practical trajectories” of migrants’ journeys. In this sense, both Turkey and France, for example, are regarded as transit zones for the Syrian migrants/refugees who are intending to reach another country, such as Sweden. 

When planning their journeys from Istanbul through Europe towards the intended destination, Syrian migrants/refugees are relying very much on the information and anecdotes provided by their predecessors who are already on their journeys or have reached their intended destinations. This accumulated knowledge, which is shared via personal connections and social media platforms, forms what Osseiran calls a “common fund of information” (p. 193). Osseiran also tells us that in most of the cases, only recent and up-to-date information is relevant for Syrian migrants/refugees, because of the different and continuously changing bordering techniques and asylum policies of the different European states. The journey trajectories and destination countries are decided upon by the migrants/refugees in response to the general asylum policies (and their actual application) of fingerprinting, family reunification, length and type of residency permits, and the processing time of asylum applications. For some migrants/refugees whom Osseiran interviewed, France and Italy are temporary places because of low asylum recognition rates. In another very specific example, if a refugee was fingerprinted in Hungary, then Austria could no longer be considered a destination country, because the refugee would be returned to Hungary.

Though she briefly engages with the debate about the refugee/migrant divide (p. 188), Osseiran uses the two terms together, because in her consideration, a person on the move could be a migrant and a refugee simultaneously. At the same time, Osseiran decides against using the generic term “migrant” as an umbrella term that also includes refugees. She thus adopts the expression “Syrian migrants/refugees”, which fits very well with her topic, and uses it around sixty times in her 25-page chapter without concern about any tediousness this might create, nor any attempt to abbreviate the expression. What makes the chapter even more interesting is Osseiran’s high level of awareness of different aspects of a complex topic. The information she chooses to share with the readers about and produced by her interlocutors implies deep and close interpersonal interactions. One step forward from this chapter could be looking at how migrants/refugees see Europe today in terms of temporariness and/or permanence (individual security). From my standpoint in Germany, I see a mixed picture that includes rhetorical expressions such as “Europe is a blessing” and “Europe is a lie” – with a wealth of interpretations between and beyond them.          

Reviewed by: Dilshad Muhammad


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