Denise Tan, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology - University of Vienna
Izmir, close to several Greek islands in the Aegean, has become a refugee hotspot, with hundreds of thousands of forced migrants arriving in the last few years. I went to Izmir to conduct fieldwork on civil society organizations for my MA thesis in autumn 2015, when the UNHCR noted the highest number of refugees arriving in Greece so far. Several local NGOs were established in Izmir in reaction to the high influx of forced migrants especially since the Syrian war. I focused on these organizations from the perspective of civic society, not from a classic forced migration and refugee studies point of view. As Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh recently stated, international humanitarian organizations have been studied from a forced migration perspective but “South-South humanitarianism” or “refugee-refugee humanitarianism”[i] have mostly been ignored. Humanitarian activities from local organizations in the South were discredited as faith-based or ideological and therefore hardly studied. However, Ms Fiddian-Qasmiyeh sees the need to take these local organizations into consideration. Hence I hope focussing on local NGOs and civil society organizations will contribute not only to the literature on civil society, but also to the study of forced migration and refugees.
The term ‘civil society’ is hardly ever defined, but implicitly understood within a liberal approach to politics. This broadly defines civil society as voluntary, self-governing organisations which operate between the spheres of the individual and the state[ii]. These organisations work for the ‘good of society’ and boost liberal qualities like freedom, cooperation, democracy, tolerance and trust. Within academia, the concept of ‘civil society’ civil society is more ambiguous. Most articles start by outlining imprecise, elusive and highly ideologized character of this idea[iii]. However, an anthropological concept of civil society can be useful for studying social organization and structure.
The new NGOs in Izmir have different profiles and ideological backgrounds: Islamic, secular, leftist or human-rights based; professional or voluntary; office based or with a field outreach outreach; “refugee-specialized” or generally working with marginalized people; privately or internationally funded. Despite these differences, most offer similar humanitarian services. In that context, two local NGOs that provide legal assistance and medical support are exceptional. Besides these activities directed towards refugees themselves, local NGOs play a crucial role as intermediaries for international bodies, journalists, and academics. International organizations, and social scientists (including myself) depend on NGOs to gain access to the field and get in touch with refugees. During the time of my fieldwork, organizations like WASA or International Medical Corps tried to establish a foothold in Izmir. The first thing they did was to look for local, groups, observe their activities, and analyze how and with whom they could mingle. Thus, the ethnographic material suggests that international organisations depend on associations on the ground in order to establish themselves within a new field. The same may be true for social scientists and researchers. Also, journalists as well as representatives of the European Union ask NGOs for information on the current situation[iv].
Forced migrants often cannot identify who they received what aid from and have little knowledge about who is behind this aid. Urban migrants in Turkey face difficulties on several levels, especially in relation to housing, work, legal conditions, health and education. It is clear local NGOs can only reach a small part of the large number of refugees in Izmir, who are of course very grateful for their help. The ethnographic material revealed that informal networks and groups support refugees in finding work and housing (which are refugee priorities). Neighbours (often refugees but also others), Facebook groups and Syrian solidarity networks help organising and managing their new life conditions. They help with translations at work or in hospitals – and even more importantly – link refugees with local NGOs. Information concerning different NGO services is spread among these networks and leads refugees directly to NGO offices or places. NGOs benefit from this word of mouth communication, as they would otherwise have to put resources into communicating with migrants spread among the 4 million people in the Izmir province. Thus, these different social groupings – informal associations, local institutions and international organisations – are connected and interdependent.
Because of the “NGOization” of liberal political approaches to civil society, international and local NGOs are in the focus whereas informal networks receive less attention[v]. Additionally, these approaches define civil society as a normative concept bound to Western liberal values. Anthropologists criticised this Eurocentric dimension of civil society in the 1990s[vi], when the concept started to become popular again. Robert Layton offers a definition of civil society, which detaches it from this normative dimension: “One cannot include in the definition a moral requirement that civil society function to support or oppose the state, nor that it should exclusively promote individual liberty or group cohesion”[vii]. He understands civil society as a generic term for all kinds of organizations that operate between the household and the state and enable individuals to coordinate and manage resources and collective activities. Thus, both economic and non-economic activities belong to civil society such as associations, NGOs, churches, clubs, ethnic or kinship groups and (as I emphasise) informal networks.
One might argue in anthropological circles that the term social organisation theoretically already includes these associations and institutions. However, the focus remains mostly on local levels of the household, kinship, village or a defined urban environment in interaction with larger levels such as the state, transnational networks and connections[viii]. Explicitly naming civil society and emphasizing its role in addition to these well-known and established forms of social organisation helps to incorporate NGOs, neighbourhood networks, virtual groups, initiatives, clubs and other forms of informal bodies within the study of organization at local level.. These networks and groups not only work transnationally; they are much more innovative and fluid in that they arise spontaneously in reaction to specific situations. Refugee NGOs and associations developed as forced migrants settled in Izmir’s central district of Basmane. A group of Syrian immigrant friends, became active, when they saw Syrian refugees couldn’t communicate with doctors due to the language barrier.
This approach seems appealing for the study of forced migration and refugee as forced migrants are (partly) disconnected from their accustomed forms of local organisation when they are forced to stay in another country. In Turkey, the state hardly supports refugees in managing their new living conditions, let alone helping them to integrate into Turkish society. Instead, different forms of society - formal and informal, local and transnational - become relevant. In Austria, where asylum procedures strictly regulate forced migrants’ lives, formal bodies in civic society, mainly Christian NGOs, take care of asylum seekers and refugees. It would be interesting to study these organizations; see for example Pia Jolliffe’s blog entry (http://www.ror-n.org/-blog/the-integration-of-syrian-asylum-seekers-in-austria-in-the-light-of-catholic-social-teaching). At the same time, we shouldn’t forget other informal groups within civil society, which may not be obvious at first sight, but which play important roles within forced migrants’ social organisation.
[i] Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2016). Repressentations of Displacement from the Middle East and North Africa. Public Culture, 28 (3 80), 457-473. p.463
[ii] Ishkanian, A. (2007). Democracy promotion and civil society. In M. Albrow, M. Glasius, H. K. Anheier, & M. Kaldor (Eds.), Global Civil Society 2007/8: Communicative Power and Democracy (pp. 58–85). London: SAGE.p.60
[iii] Edwards, M. (2011). Introduction: Civil Society and the Geometry of Human Relations. In: M. Edwards (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook of Civil Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 7
[v] Akkaya, G. (2012). Nichtregierungsorganisationen als Akteure der Zivilgesellschaft: Eine Fallstudie über die Nachkriegsgesellschaft im Kosovo. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften. p. 59
[vi] See Hann, C., & Dunn, E. (Eds.). (1996). Civil Society - Challenging western models. London: Routledge.; Comaroff, J. L., & Comaroff, J. (Eds.). (1999). Civil Society and the Political Imagination in Africa: Critical Perspectives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.; or Fisher, W. F. (1997). Doing Good? The Politics and Antipolitics of NGO Practices. Annual Review of Anthropology, 26, 439–464.
[vii] Layton, R. (2004). Civil Society and Social Cohesion - A reassessment. Working papers/Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, 63. p. 4
[viii]Eriksen, T. H. (2010). Small Places, Large Issues : An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (Vol. 3rd ed). London: Pluto Press. p.63ff
Denise Tan is an MA student at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna. Her MA thesis discusses NGOs and non-camp refugees in Izmir/Turkey from a civil society perspective. The thesis is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted during autumn 2015 in Izmir, which was funded by the short-term grant abroad (KWA) from the University of Vienna.