Tarlabaşı: Safe haven for migrants or an example of their social marginalisation?

By Katarzyna Rybarczyk*

In the words of May Hobbs, ‘one person’s slum is another person’s community.’ This phrase finds its reflection in the case study of Tarlabaşı, often referred to as Istanbul’s oldest slum. What in minds of many is a no-go area, has become home for thousands of new arrivals in Turkey who hoped for a better life but instead became victims of social exclusion.

Historically, Tarlabaşı was a place where minorities, such as Armenians, Jews, and Greeks, fleeing political instability and dire economic conditions would find shelter. Since the 19th century, Tarlabaşı has been a residential area for the low-income class where predominantly non-Muslims live. Today it is one of Istanbul’s most impoverished areas, a ghetto integrated into the urban landscape of the city.

The contrast between Tarlabaşı and the neighbourhoods adjacent to it is striking. Tarlabaşı is just a few minutes away from Taksim square, the heart of Istanbul, and Istiklal Avenue boasting some of the city’s most luxurious restaurants and boutiques. But the atmosphere in Tarlabaşı does not remotely resemble the one of nearby buzzing spots that attract thousands of tourists each day.

Tarlabaşı feels lonely, isolated, and somewhat hostile as the communities who live there appear wearied of the marginalisation that other residents of the city condemn them to each day.

Only one street separates Tarlabaşı from the Beyoglu district, home to cultural centres, museums, and trendy art galleries. Looking over to the other side of the Tarlabaşı Boulevard, one can think that Tarlabaşı does not differ much from its neighbour. But, as the famous saying goes, first impressions can be deceiving.

Thanks to the gentrification project that the government introduced a few years ago, buildings on the edges of the neighbourhood have been renovated. And yet, behind the few modern buildings located right on the Tarlabaşı Boulevard, is a labyrinth of ageing, once-colourful but now washed out houses.

The project was supposed to promote economic change and transform the landscape of Tarlabaşı but it seems like all it did is hide the run-down neighbourhood from view.

Transforming Tarlabaşı requires more than carrying out urban regeneration, especially if it concerns only a few buildings. It should first and foremost involve making sure that begging in nearby tourist areas is not the only way for the neighbourhood’s residents to get money.

One thing that Tarlabaşı is known for is its diversity. Here, Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Afghans, and Africans coexist. As rent in Tarlabaşı is significantly lower than in other parts of Istanbul, the neighbourhood is often the first stop of new immigrants in Turkey. Many hope to spend some time there and after a while move to wealthier, more-developed districts or even to continue their journey to the European Union. With the harsh reality of demanding refugee integration and numerous challenges to finding stable employment, however, Tarlabaşı is often not only the first stop but also their final destination.

Tarlabaşı has become home not only to migrants but also to the stigmatised transgender community. Both transgenderism and homosexuality are taboo subjects in widely conservative Turkey. For LGBTQ individuals Tarlabaşı is a safe haven where they do not have to hide who they are.

What brings all of these communities together is the fact that they have been pushed to the margin of Istanbul’s society. The cultural differences sometimes turn out to be difficult to reconcile, however, and disagreements frequently take a violent turn. Besides, driven by poverty and desperate to put food on the table, many resort to crime. These people do not wish to be wrongdoers but as Pearl S. Buck once wrote ‘Hunger makes a thief of any man.’

‘You shouldn’t go there alone, it’s dangerous’, a friend I made in Istanbul told me. I must admit that walking around the narrow streets of Tarlabaşı, navigating between piles of garbage and people asking for money, I did not see much happiness.

And yet, having gotten the chance to observe the daily life there, Tarlabaşı did not strike me as one of the toughest areas in Istanbul. Central to the neighbourhood is a market where Tarlabaşı’s residents sell fruits, vegetables, fish, and clothes.

When I was walking around the market browsing various products I was under the impression that people were distrustful and slightly suspicious of me. After all, there are not many Westerners entering the area. Having said that, as soon as I would smile and show genuine interest in getting to know them, their attitude would change and I would receive a warm welcome.

‘Do you like living in Tarlabaşı?’, I asked a man who sold me a hoodie at the local market. ‘No, it isn’t a good life here. I hope one day I will be able to leave’, he replied.

Even though many have settled down in Tarlabaşı, with limited employment opportunities, worsening living conditions, and increasing social alienation, they dream of being able to go somewhere else. Sadly, due to environmental constraints, the majority of them finds themselves stuck there for years.

Tarlabaşı has become a place where migrants feel like they belong and that is a good thing as it gives them a sense of acceptance. However, the fundamental problem with this state of affairs is that Tarlabaşı is the only such setting in Istanbul. The moment the neighbourhood’s residents step out of Tarlabaşı, they have to deal with segregation and resentment.

It appears, therefore, that Tarlabaşı being a space of safety for migrants and disadvantaged communities is merely a façade covering inequalities that persist in Turkey’s capital.

About the author: Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a Political Correspondent for Immigration Advice Service, an immigration law firm based in the UK but operating globally. Through her articles, she aims to raise awareness about security threats worldwide and the challenges facing communities living in low and middle-income countries

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