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Over, Under, and Around the State: Accessing Social Services in Turkey

Panel III-16, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Turkey’s welfare state is marked by tensions that are not easily reconciled. On one hand, the state has undertaken inclusionary expansions of social rights in some policy domains. These have included the establishment of universal primary healthcare and the expansion of cash aid for poverty relief. On the other hand, neoliberal pressures to streamline state budgets have pushed social protection schemes toward privatization and hollowed out government coffers. Moreover, the state under the leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) continues to prioritize conservative cultural ideologies in social protection while selectively curtailing the rights of minorities and immigrants. In doing so, state produces new lines of inequalities and deservingness, favoring some forms of needs, rights, and citizens over others. Yet the state is just one purveyor of social services in Turkey. Populations in Turkey continue to provide and access services through solidarity networks, civil society organizations, and informal organizations that can forge alternate pathways to incorporation in the interstices of state services. This panel examines both configurations and implementation of state social policies as well as access to services in the spaces over, under, and around the state at a moment when Turkey is increasingly defined as an authoritarian and populist regime. Panelists explore a range of populations’ social rights claims across service domains in the urban context of Turkey. Topics include LGBTQI+ refugee-run organizations’ attempts to ensure basic legal rights and housing for beneficiaries; the creation and utilization of informal Islamic pre-schools; and the institutionalization of informal healthcare services created by and for refugee populations. Across the papers, panelists empirically explore key theoretical questions in scholarship on the politics of social policy, migration, education, gender, and informality. Together, the papers help elucidate how marginalized populations make claims to social rights both by defying exclusionary policies by leveraging existing local and global networks and ideologies of social protection.
Political Science
  • Ms. Nihal Kayali
    Since the start of the conflict in Syria in 2011, Turkey has granted temporary protection status to over 3.6 million Syrian refugees. The legal status provides access to basic social rights, including free access to state healthcare. Despite this right to state care, Syrian-run healthcare providers have emerged, persisted, and formalized in urban centers over time. Why do refugee-run providers persist even as the state expands free Arabic-language healthcare services for refugees? Drawing on interviews with Syrian doctors, clinic managers, and patients, this paper explains how and why Syrian refugee-run healthcare providers continued to operate, first as humanitarian organizations and later, in some cases, as private clinics. It finds that Syrian patients that perceive state services as inadequate or hostile to migrants continue to seek out alternative providers. At the same time, many Syrian doctors eschew what they see as low pay, low dignity employment in state Migrant Health Centers and instead undertake lengthy equivalency processes to work as private providers. Finally, informal organizations that emerged to meet Syrian refugees’ healthcare demands formalize over time by privatizing, subsequently marketing their services to a broader swath of patients. These patients include a variety of migrant groups as well as medical tourists from around the world seeking low-cost care. Providers that once targeted the most vulnerable refugees gradually start serving a broader but wealthier patient base. I argue that as precarious migrant organizations institutionalize, they increasingly serve professional interests. This exacerbates inequality in access to care among local refugees while integrating professional classes into transnational economic exchange that bolsters the host state economy.
  • Merve Erdilmen
    This article explores manifold manifestations of queer refugee activism at various co-constitutive levels of governance and emphasizes LGBTQI+ refugee-led organizations’ role in providing protection for refugees in Turkey. It does so by adopting a novel approach to studying informal queer refugee organizing strategies through local and transnational networks: First, empirically, instead of focusing on organizations led by queer refugees from a single country of origin, this article investigates organizations led by Syrian, Iranian, and Afghan LGBTIQ+ refugees who fall under different legal frameworks and navigate different protection mechanisms in Turkey. Enshrined in the temporary protection and international protection frameworks, the scope of rights and services offered to refugees from various nationalities is different. However, this paper shows that LGBTQI+ refugee communities develop various everyday informal strategies to have access to social services in Turkey. Second and theoretically, introducing a multi-scale approach to queer refugee activism, the paper elucidates how LGBTQI+ refugee-led organizations operate at local and international levels in tandem, which in turn shape informal strategies available to these networks in Turkey. Drawing on multi-sited ethnography and more than 50 interviews with members of queer refugee organizations that operate in Turkey, the paper argues that when local refugee and gender policies are not conducive to overt queer organizing, LGBTQI+ refugee organizations turn to their diverse transnational networks which in turn facilitate Turkey-based refugees’ access to immediate protection needs.
  • I explore low-income citizens’ access to early education centers in the urban poverty setting in Istanbul to understand why Islamic preschools (sibyan mektebi) emerged and prevailed in Turkey. A decade ago, these informal preschools for three to six-year-old children became popular in disadvantaged neighborhoods as women started preschools in their apartments to serve their communities. The state and the local government later created their versions of Islamic preschools. Furthermore, policymakers strategically enabled different versions of these preschools’ accreditation by utilizing the UNICEF discourse on community-based education models. The preschools’ naming also parallels the current Neo-Ottomanist conservative politics: it alludes to the traditional schools that were shut down during the 1920s modernization, secularization, and nationalization reforms that brought about the Republic of Turkey. Through an analysis of fifty interviews that include mothers of children attending these preschools, the teachers of the preschools, policymakers at the local and national level, and NGO representatives, I shed light on how low-income citizens tackle urban inequalities to access early education within the context of cultural conservatism, and market-oriented education policy. In addition, I scrutinize policy documents, laws, regulations, and statistics on access to early education and SES in different neighborhoods of Istanbul. I conclude that what seems like a locally empowering solution to structural inequality causes further deeply ingrained inequalities. These preschools create a necessary, important, yet limited space for the needs of mothers and children for early education and socialization. Even though previous research on early education emphasizes its emancipatory potential for women, in the case of Islamic preschools, the culturally conservative framework shapes gender roles within and beyond these institutions. My research highlights the constraints faced by women who get together because of Islamic preschools in their neighborhoods in contrast to the literature that emphasizes women’s agency in religious spaces in the Middle East. Moreover, as these institutions serve Sunni Muslim populations, they endanger the rights of religious minorities at the neighborhood level. Even in the cases when sibyan mektebi is the only form of early education available, because of the quality of facilities and the credentials of the staff, the benefits children may receive from these forms of early education are arguable, too. Overall, my findings point out the potential and pitfalls of a community-based early education model when access to education and state capacity are limited.