Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Earth & Environmental Sciences


Monica Varsanyi

Committee Members

Jean Carmalt

Ruth Wilson Gilmore

Anne McNevin

Subject Categories

Human Geography | Migration Studies | Near and Middle Eastern Studies


Borders, bordering, forced migration, human mobility, refugees, Turkey


How do the function, the location, and the form of contemporary borders change in the face of large-scale refugee mobilities? My dissertation project addresses this question in the unique political-geographic context of Turkey. I examine border construction at different geographic scales and its functions in everyday life. In contrast to the conventional understanding of the border as a line separating countries from each other, I approach it as a multi- and cross-scalar regime which encompasses national and transnational places, people, documents, and practices. As such, the border transcends state contours and exists at multiple simultaneous scales, ranging from transnational and national, down to the regional, urban and the body of the refugee. My dissertation draws a map of this multi-scalar border regime that highlights the ever-changing, dispersed and intermittent nature of contemporary borders.

Turkey is a globally relevant and theoretically significant case study area. Geopolitically situated between Europe and the Middle East and sharing its longest border with war-torn Syria, it is at the center of the current European refugee reception crisis, hosting the highest number of refugees and asylum-seekers in the world, 4.1 million. Since 2015, 1.2 million refugees have crossed from Turkey into Greece, while an additional 1.3 million have been apprehended at and within the Turkish borders. These numbers, the long war in Syria, and the policy priorities of the European Union have prompted a complex reconfiguration and reconstruction of the border as Turkey changes how it governs refugee and migrant mobility.

The Turkish example provides an off-center perspective which destabilizes the dominant theoretical debates focused on the US, Canada, and the EU. I argue that global refugee mobilities are actually governed from what is often called “the periphery” of the West. It is from this inside-but-outside space that I examine how borders are reconfigured, enforced, experienced, and contested. Rather than seeing Turkey as only a “buffer zone” responding to European migration control policies, I maintain that the current Turkish border regime is a product of its unique history of migration management and citizenship policies traceable back to the Ottoman Empire and Early Republic. It is a result of both domestic and international geopolitical considerations.

My dissertation is based on long-term ethnographic research primarily in the Turkish city of Izmir, on the Aegean coast, as well as in Manisa, Ankara, and Istanbul. Between June 2018 and August 2019, I interviewed around eighty individuals, including Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi refugees, immigration attorneys, NGO workers, transportation employees, coast guards, military officials, and officers of the UNHCR, the EU Delegation to Turkey, and the IOM. Ethnographic fieldwork research was complemented by analysis of Turkish immigration and asylum legislation, presidential decrees, and governorship decisions.

The dissertation is organized around two interconnected themes: (1) the legal and political construction of borders and (2) the everyday workings of the border regime in Turkey. I explore two related processes that construct the border at the national and urban scales. First, I discuss the development of the Turkish asylum regime, identifying three key moments: Turkey’s decision to retain the geographical limitation clause of the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention that confers refugee status only on those coming from a European country, the mass arrival of Syrian refugees since 2011, and the negotiations resulting in the EU-Turkey deal of March 2016. I evaluate how contemporary and historical local, national, and international policies shape the legal-geographic architecture of the Turkish asylum and border regime. Next, I examine how the boundaries of Turkish cities become internal borders for refugees as Turkish migration control policies and asylum legislation redefine international protection at an urban rather than a national scale of valid refugee status. I analyze continuous residency and reporting requirements, travel permit regulations for domestic travel, and the “mandatory dispersal policy” which forces refugees to stay in so-called “satellite cities,” limiting refugee mobility and access to rights and benefits to the scale of specific cities. These policies create a legally precarious group of refugees who constantly move between legality and illegality merely by traveling within the country. From a broader geopolitical perspective, this restrictive system of asylum and refugee mobility works as both deterrent to and an impetus for refugee movement to Europe.

The second theme of the dissertation is the practices of bordering in everyday life in the context of proliferating border spaces in Turkey. Beyond the conventional line on the map, I identify new spaces of bordering where people ranging from taxi drivers to local residents become involved in the border regime, and I evaluate the impacts of these practices on people’s definition of inclusion/exclusion through two case studies. First, I interrogate Turkey’s strict control over the internal mobility of refugees. As refugees are confined to certain cities and their internal mobility is restricted, the border moves inward and pops up in dispersed and intermittent new locations such as roads, vehicles, and bus stations. Thus, the border moves into the daily lives of refugees and the transportation employees who are now legally obliged to police their domestic travel, negotiating their positions in the changing border regime. Next, I consider the complex response of small Aegean coastal towns to refugee crossings. The Aegean region, an overlapping border zone between Turkey, Europe, and the Middle East, is formed through the interplay of multiple actors, from tourism-dependent coastal municipalities to international organizations such as the IOM, which has donated fifteen boats to the Turkish Coast Guard for rescue/apprehension operations. Aegean towns do not merely play the frontline border enforcement role assigned to them by Turkey and the EU; they also challenge and negotiate the border. A study of locals’ everyday encounters with the border and refugees in these towns allows us to understand the tensions between humanitarian responses and exclusionary border practices on the ground.

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