Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

OPINION: Migration is a fact of life: we need to build safe cities for everyone

Tuesday, 30 March 2021 08:27 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Migrants walk to the Turkey's Pazarkule border crossing with Greece's Kastanies, in Pazarkule, Turkey, February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Cities cannot be left to simply withstand the impact of the next migration wave but must be made capable of embracing it with open arms

By Elizabeth Cunningham, a Canadian architect and carpenter lending her skills to small building projects for Syrian residents of İzmir, Turkey.

Human history is a story of migration: people moving from one place to another in search of sanctuary and opportunities. Approximately 1 in 30 people are living outside their country of birth today and their chosen destinations are usually cities where 55% of the world's population currently resides

Those who are compelled to migrate without means often gravitate to “arrival cities”, ignored and under-managed urban areas, where there are fewer barriers and less interference as they settle. By their very nature these districts make their residents vulnerable to unsafe housing, exploitative labour markets and intense competition for both. 

As home to 174,000 registered Syrian refugees, Turkey's third largest city İzmir, is no exception to these customs. A metropolis of the Roman Empire and an important intersection on the Silk Road, it has a long history as a magnate for immigration. In 2011, at the beginning of the Syrian war, the pattern intensified explosively as the first of millions fled across the border in search of safety. 

Halil, a 33-year-old Syrian man with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature and a teaching diploma from Aleppo University, came to Turkey in 2013 when civil war and looming conscription made remaining in his homeland untenable. After three years in the small western city of Balıkesir, where he supported his family by working in construction, Halil moved to İzmir believing its more cosmopolitan nature would offer his family greater opportunities. 

However, because of his status as a Refugee Under Temporary Protection, essentially a “guest” in Turkey, and despite being a gifted trilingual interpreter, it is nearly impossible for him work legally. He struggles to support his family by working informally as a translator and language teacher and is forced by economic circumstances to live in a dilapidated and dangerous area. 

His wife and children are afraid to go outside due to conflicts with their Turkish-Romani neighbours, who view Syrians as interlopers and the cause of increased rents. Their Turkish landlord is well aware that new tenants are easily found so flagrantly ignores their complaints about rodents, water damage, unpredictable electricity and the smell of sewage emanating from the service shaft. When asked why he does not look for a better place to live Halil answers, “A devil you know is better than one you don't.” 

Turkey is home to the world's largest refugee population, officially 3.97 million people, many of whom have been here for almost 10 years. To treat this decade-long situation as a short-lived emergency is a nonhistorical illusion. Mass migration is neither a crisis nor temporary: it is a human condition. In his book Arrival Cities: The Final Migration and Our Next World, Doug Saunders warns, “Arrival cities are the places where the next great economic and cultural boom will be born, or where the next great explosion of violence will occur. The difference depends on our ability to notice, and our willingness to engage.” 

The multi-disciplinary, international research project WHIT: Well-being, Housing and Infrastructure in Turkey is collaborating both with members of vulnerable communities and policymakers in and around İzmir, to develop solutions to the issues faced by people like Halil. 

Within the scope of the project, architecture students from Umeå University (Sweden) and Yaşar University (İzmir) are participating in a year-long studio using transitional districts in and around İzmir as their sites of inquiry. The goal is to create ethical architectural interventions that contribute to the welfare and meaningful integration of both new and established inhabitants. 

This month, their work will be exhibited in TIAFI, a community centre in an impoverished İzmir neighbourhood, to be discussed and critiqued by Turkish and Syrian residents, humanitarian workers and local officials. 

Working together in projects such as this, architects, planners, social scientists, writers and politicians must change the narrative around migration. By asking how newcomers can and do benefit their host communities, we can create systems, cities and spaces within them that support the answers. Cities cannot be left to simply withstand the impact of the next migration wave but must be made capable of embracing it with open arms.