Gecekondus and sites of refugee homelessness: Two tales of contested spaces in Izmir [photos + map]

Prior to Ataturk’s ambitious plan to unite Turkey, there was a city named Amed. In an attempt to uproot regional histories and tame cultural divergences, it simply appears as Diyarbakir on modern maps of Turkey. Diyarbakir was, and arguably still is, the city at the heartland of Turkey’s Kurdish region. Serkan, a neighbourhood baker on Izmir’s busiest street – Kibris Sehitleri – was given a choice in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s: stay and fight in one of Turkey’s most brutal civil wars, or flee westward to safety. He chose the ladder and for the last 20 years has been running what he claims is “the bakery that makes the best gevrek in all of Izmir”. Yet, his fate is currently facing uncertainty, as his habitual place of residence in Izmir’s predominantly Kurdish area of Kadifekale is being transformed: “the cranes arrived years ago and never left (…) slowly our community is being fractured as people are moved to new buildings in Uzundere (…) God willing I will be able to avoid this because if I get moved as well, this will add hours to my commute every day (…) sometimes I wish I would have stayed in Amed”.

Mahmoud, another character in this story, is a 58 year old Syrian man. He has a long white beard, beautifully balanced with his dark complexion and bright green eye. Poor dental care has rendered his speech devoid of eloquence and shrapnel in his left leg has impaired his ability to walk without a cane. Unlike the thousands of transient refugees that have passed through Izmir as a stop off point before crossing the Aegean Sea onwards to the EU, greeted by smugglers and other shady opportunistic personalities, Mahmoud is part of the over 70,000 refugees currently residing in Izmir. He recalls the summer months of 2015: “There were thousands of my Syrian brothers coming and going in Izmir (…) sometimes for two days, one week at most, waiting for the smugglers to call them to inform them about the status of their crossing”. Those of which had disposable income stayed in cheap hotels, but most stayed homeless in public parks. “At first they stayed in Fuar, then Aziziye Parkı, and after the police evacuated both areas and gathered many of them, most camped out uneasily on Kordon”, Mahmoud explained. They had reasons to be nervous, as Atatürk Stadium in Izmir’s Halkapınar neighborhood became a transit location where refugees collected by police forces in Izmir were then sent to camps across Turkey, undoing their efforts toward transiting to Europe (Hürriyet Daily News, 2015).

Serkan and Mahmoud come from very different backgrounds, but both their stories lay the foundations of this article. The circumstances they describe have a great deal of overlap when considering that space is indeed not free or devoid of interests, that contests emerge at various sites in one given city.

1.1 – Contested spaces

To think of the city as neutral, where residents, workers of all walks of life, business owners, transient visitors, officials and planners cohabit peacefully, is nothing short of fantastical thought. The city is charged with interests held by individuals and groups – some of which lead the way for creativity, others that constrain it. These contests, between those who successfully attain the loudest voice and those in resentful bondage, embody the spirit of contested spaces. Reyes (2016) describes contested spaces as the condition where there is “(…) an arena of struggle for social control – the authority to impose what is and what is properly public – between one side, the private managers and, on the other, the public users” (Reyes, 2016: 201). Morrissey and Gaffikin’s (2006) description of what constitutes contested spaces is not confined to public spaces, outlining two forms of contested spaces:

“The first is where the contest relates to issues of pluralism, and centres on disputes about imbalances in power, welfare and status between distinctive rival groups (…) the other kind is about sovereignty, where there are similar pluralistic disputes about equity and access, but [that] these are interlocked with an ethno-nationalist conflict about the legitimacy of the state itself” (Morrissey and Gaffikin, 2006: 874)

In short, spaces face contests between actors representing various interest groups. Cities, densely populated and likely the areas of most cultural diversity, are thus naturally the breeding grounds of contested spaces. Some identities thrive while others are silenced, making cities the breaking point where spatial inequalities become most evident. Reyes (2016) explains that there has been a rise in such contests, as there has been a “(…) sharp decline of democratic public spaces brought about by the phenomenal rise of highly regulated private built environments [that] do not embody a public space (…)”(Reyes, 2016: 201).

Strauss and Liebenberg (2014) describe that as cities have “(…) become the loci of contested spaces, (…) legal norms and institutions are invoked to effect the eviction of impoverished communities from heavily populated areas (…)” (Strauss and Liebenberg, 2014: 429). These forceful evictions, they claim, have been “(…) motivated by the assertion of ownership rights against unlawful occupiers (…)” (Strauss and Liebenberg, 2014: 429), as has been seen in different squatter scenarios in North America and Europe (Frances Street squat, Vancouver; Seven Year squat, Ottawa; Pope squat, Toronto;  Kunsthaus Tacheles, Berlin; East London squat, UK) (Freeman, 2004; Jones, 2012; De Peyer, 2015), “(…) the gentrification of inner-city areas” (Strauss and Liebenberg, 2014: 429), exemplified in Neil Smith’s comprehensive study on New York’s Tompkins Square Park in The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (1996), “(…) or the upgrading of informal settlements” (Strauss and Liebenberg, 2014: 429), as experienced by slum dwellers in Nairobi (Society for Threatened Peoples, 2004; Syagga, 2011). These are only a slim number of examples where contests of space result in eviction and displacement. The following sections focus on two tales with such a resolve, exploring the urban contests surrounding both gecekondu neighbourhoods and sites of transient refugee homelessness in Izmir, Turkey.

 2.1 – Two Tales

What follows are two case studies – two tales – about contested spaces in Izmir. They have a great deal of overlap. The first at hand, those living in gecekondu’s – informal settlements comparable to Brazil’s favela’s – are predominantly of Kurdish ethnicity. On the other, those squatting in parks (particularly in the summer months of 2015) were refugees of various Arab ethnic groups. Transcending from historical divisions, both Kurds and those holding Arab ethnicities continue to be marginalised within the borders of Turkey. Saraçoğlu (2011), for instance, describes the reality that “(…) where Kurdish migrants live are typically the poorest gecekondu zones of the city with the worst living and housing condition” (Saraçoğlu, 2011: 119) as nothing short of “spatial separation” (Saraçoğlu, 2011: 119). Sabli (2015), in her article on Turkish identity, illustrates the divide between Turks and Arabs. These divisions that have been drawn up culturally, politically or linguistically translate to spatial divisions. As with any marginalized group, those living in gecekondu’s or squatting in public parks have difficulty asserting their voice in spatial contests. This is further exacerbated by the fact that both communities in this story are comprised primarily of migrants, of which – historically and at present time – are usually a target of local discontent. Map 1 identifies key areas of contested spaces in Izmir, specifically relating to this story. As with all cities, many other contests for space exist within Izmir, but those are not the primary foci of this article and have thus been omitted.

gecekondurefugeemap copy 

2.2 – Gecekondu’s, neoliberalism and displacement

 Since the early years of Turkish leadership by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a strong move towards neoliberalism has taken place across Turkey’s largest cities. This has been part of AKP’s vision of “New Turkey” (Yavuz, 2006), a state built upon the two strong pillars of neoliberalism and Islam (Moudouros, 2014). Within this context, both private and public spaces have been transformed by intensification, adaptive reuse, redevelopment and development. One such transformation did not sit well with the Turkish public – that of Gezi Park in Istanbul’s Taksim district – leading to mass mobilisation of over 3.5 million across the country in 2013 (De Ballaigue, 2013). However, prior to the Gezi Park movement and after its dissolution up to our present time, various contests for space under the umbrella of neoliberalism have thrived. One such project is the Konak Urban Transformation Project in Izmir, of which incorporated the Kadifefale Urban Transformation Project into its framework in 2005 (Demirli et al., 2015).

For context, Kadifekale is a hill looking directly onto Izmir’s central Konak district. On top sits a castle originally conceived by Lysimachos, as part of New Smyrna, but its current walls date back to the medieval era. The surrounding hill of Kadifekale is covered by gecekondu neighbourhoods. Gecekondu’s, a word combining “(…) gece, ‘night’ in Turkish, plus kondurmak, meaning ‘to happen’ or ‘appear’” (Neuwirth, 2006: 144), are informal settlements built by (mostly migrant) squatters. Throughout Turkey’s history, multiple laws have been put in place in order to protect and legalise these settlements, for instance, Law no. 775 of 1966 that “(…) legalised the existing illegal settlements and required public institutions whose land was squatted to transfer these areas to the municipalities [and] provided a fund for the provision of land for cheap housing” (Duyar-Kienast, 2005: 34).

However, in 1983, as an increasing number of urban areas were becoming occupied by gecekondu settlements, Law no. 2805 regularised gecekondu neighbourhoods to consider them as “(…) regular parts of urban areas” (Duyar-Kienast, 2005: 34) and introduced the Improvement Plan where a redevelopement fund was established to renovate gecekondu areas. This was the early beginning of resettlement of gecekondu dwellers to make way for new urban projects. In compensation for forfeiting land rights, the squatters were provided financial rewards and housing in newly developed areas. In 2003, with the establishment of Toplu Konut Idaresi (TOKI), a new approach that is still standing today was devised in order to accelerate redevelopment. In this model, municipalities identify determine target gecekondu areas and sign an agreement with TOKI for site analysis (feasibility, real estate value, etc.) and to begin the drafting of a redevelopment plan. Then, “the slum owners proving their ownerships in the project area earn the rights of having house/houses based on the value of their real estate and costs of the project. The slum owners signs contracts with TOKI, and declare that they pay the difference between the values of the newly constructed house and the slum in a 15 year-period” (Uzun et al., 2010: 207).

Many negative implications, however, have been identified within this new model. Although TOKI is identified as a non-profit organization, it has yielded massive capital gains in the last years, mostly due to the sale of newly built apartment and commercial complexes. Its governing structure justifies these profits as a means to reinvest in social housing, albeit multiple sources of criticism. In Ekümenopolis: City Without Limits (2012), a documentary extensively following redevelopment of gecekondu neighbourhoods in Istanbul, multiple urban planning experts criticise the agreement signing process between gecekondu dwellers and TOKI. For instance, for squatters that refuse to sign the agreement with TOKI, their land can be forcefully (and legally) expropriated (Uzun et al., 2010: 207). However, squatters that do not know about land value and accept TOKI’s terms often receive lower compensation than what is legally acceptable. Furthermore, when they are moved to modern housing and asked to share costs with TOKI, they discover that what is asked of them is far above their financial means. Social repercussions also take place, where squatters that have developed gecekondu communities with a high degree of social cohesion over many decades are left in isolated neighbourhoods at the urban periphery (Demirli et al., 2015). Whether all of this has been intentional or not – a question of collateral damage versus unintended consequences – academics (see Saraçoğlu, 2014 and Demirtas-Milz, 2013) have drawn parallels between this model of reckless redevelopment with pervasive neoliberal narratives currently operating and driving contemporary urban environments. Furthermore, for areas such as Kadifekale, of which have mostly been occupied by ethnic Kurds, questions about institutionalised discrimination have effectively surfaced (Saraçoğlu, 2011).

The following photograph shows a contrast between a current gecekondu area (right) and a section that has been cleared within the scope of the Kadifefale Urban Transformation Project.


The following photographs show a small section of Bayraklı, another area of Izmir where redevelopment is currently thriving in a gecekondu-rich area. This is part of another project named Izmir Manhattan Projesi (Internet Haber, 2015; Capital, 2011).


2.3 – Homelessness of transient refugees and displacement

Last summer, Izmir surfaced in world news as “the main smuggling hub on the Turkish coast” (Kingsley, 2015). It is one of Turkey’s largest transportation hubs, with regular buses to auxiliary coastal cities to the North and South – many of which are only a few kilometers away from Greek islands. Although very little data has been officially collected in respects to the number of transient refugees that passed through Izmir in order to make their way across the Aegean Sea and towards Europe, it is widely accepted by local NGO workers that many of the hundreds of thousands that successfully crossed onto the Greek islands did so.

Whilst stopping over in Izmir, many of the refugees stayed in cheap hotels, but as availability of cheap accommodations were limited, many squatted in public areas. Notably, they stayed in Fuar, Aziziye Park and on the Kordon (amongst others) – central locations near the Basmane neighbourhood where many of the smugglers operated. However, as international attention rose vis-à-vis the increasing influx of refugees onto European territory via the Aegean Sea, many of these areas became hot spots for police raids aimed at collecting refugees to send them back to camps.

These areas, effectively, became contested spaces. On one side, transient refugees seeking a place to rest before a stressful journey. On the other, State interests based on maintaining good diplomatic relations with the EU and a desire to reduce visual pollution at home. Effectively, this was a good manifestation of Michel Agier’s (2011) portrait of humanity’s relationship with refugees as “(…) two great world categories that are increasingly reified: on the one hand, a clean, healthy and visible world; on the other, the world’s residual ‘remnants’, dark, diseased and invisible” (Agier, 2011: 4).

The following photographs show the above-stated areas (Fuar, Aziziye Parı and Kordon) where transient refugees temporarily squatted before making their journey across the Aegean and towards Europe.






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 Recommended related resources

The Beat of Frances Street (1990), film, Vancouver: Eleven Foot Productions; available online at:; accessed 18 March, 2016.

Ekümenopolis: City Without Limits (2012), film, Istanbul: Kibrit Film; available online at:; accessed 18 March, 2016.

Brosseau, M. (2015-2016) “GEG2108 Contested Spaces” [EN] and “GEG2508 Espaces sous tensions” [FR], university courses, Ottawa: University of Ottawa ; course listing available online at:; accessed 18 March, 2016.