What Role Does Race Play in the Experience of Migration? 

Illustration: ‘Journeys’ by Pardafash

Doğuş Şimşek

“Some people are racist. They are not treating me like a human being because of my skin color. I earn less than other workers. I often do not feel safe when walking on the street. I had a lot of bad experiences. I don’t want to tell, because I might cry…” These are the words used by a Ugandan migrant in Istanbul to describe the challenges she has been facing in everyday life. With tears in her eyes, she explained the difficulties of being a black migrant woman in Turkey through her experiences, which include working long hours with very little money, lack of access to rights and more importantly racism. In explaining her experiences as a refugee in Turkey, a Syrian woman also referred to racism as one the main struggles in building a new life: “ I have experienced racism in both cities in Turkey. Turkish people treat Syrians like animals. I do not feel safe here. I do not understand why they treat us like animals. We are human although we are refugees.”

The experiences of undocumented African migrants and Syrian refugees are very much related to race that shapes social systems (Bonilla-Silva 2001) leading to racism that is “conceptualized as a material structure of inequality, involving the unequal distribution of societal resources across the racial hierarchy” (Meghji, 2020: 3). Racism is the key to understanding structural and social inequalities affecting the lives of migrants and refugees, and it has been a real struggle for many migrants during their journey, settlement and adaptation processes, even in some cases it is the reason for return migration. However, race has not received enough attention as an analytical category to understand experiences of migrants and refugees among many scholars in the field of migration studies. What role does race play in the experience of migration? This is the main question that leads me to write this piece.

Migration studies has often addressed issues of global mobilities focusing on questions of integration, settlement of migrants, social cohesion, national identity, culture and economics, and aims to answer the questions of why people migrate; how they migrate; what are the public attitudes towards migration; how nation-states can manage migration and control their borders. The methodological whiteness of migration studies ignoring race as an analytical concept has, therefore, caused the rejection of racism which overlooks the main struggles many migrants and refugees experience. W.E.B. Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk, referring to the question of race relations, stated that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” (1903). The colour line of the twentieth century is so much visible in the twenty-first century as the presence of race in migration is at the centre of migrants and refugees’ experiences, however the concepts of race and racism have yet to inform our understanding of migration. The crisis of the European border regime- exposing refugees and migrants to a greater risks at sea, disembarking refugees and migrants back in Libya where they face detention, torture and rape (Amnesty International, 2017: 5)-; neoliberal migration policies that clearly segregate migrants by wealth and commodify citizenship; racism against migrants and refugees; criminalising refugees and migrants; exclusion of undocumented migrants and refugees from the labour market; the exclusion of undocumented migrants from health care and exploitation of undocumented migrant workers are very much related to race rather than ethnicity or culture as evidenced through the experiences of many migrants and refugees.

Racism against refugees at the border, camps, in the labour market are visible in the everyday domain. With the recent increase in migration into Europe since 2015, racism has become a dominant feature of both political and social discourse. A Syrian male who was attacked by Turkish workers in the workplace emphasized that “many Syrian refugees experience racism in Turkey because we often hear from Turkish people that ‘you (Syrians) are taking our jobs’; ‘you all are criminals’; ‘go back to your country’”. These sentences reflect the whites’ fear of losing their power in reproducing the racial structure. Likewise, in the inner sections Kumkapı neighbourhood of Istanbul, restaurants serving African food patronized only by African migrants; hair salons and barbershops; international money transfer shops; shops for making international phone calls; and cafes that are hidden in the inner areas are subject to racism. Nearly every African migrant I spoke to in Istanbul stated that racism they were exposed to by the receiving society negatively impacted their daily lives. They expressed that they did not feel safe or secure. Walking outside during night time is dangerous for them, especially in Kumkapı district of Istanbul. They are often subjected to robberies and racist attacks in this area; even some of them lost their lives. African migrants grow concerned about their individual safety because racism turn into a violent event. The picture of a murdered African friend, due to racist attack, hangs on the window of a Nigerian restaurant in Kumkapı. Festus Okey, a Nigerian asylum seeker living in Istanbul, was arrested and later shot by a police officer under detention at the police station. He lost his life in the hospital. Race, criminality and migrant background are not mutually exclusive categories as experienced by a Ugandan migrant in Istanbul. He stated that “when there is a fight between Turks, black people do not involve in it. But police automatically take black people without asking the reason, because they are Black. They think that all black people are criminal.” Similar experiences are also mentioned by Syrian refugees who were criminalised because of their refugee status. Race as a lived experience of migrants and refugees who are stranded in detention centres, left to death in the Meditterenean, criminalized, exploited in the labour markets affect their lives.  

Referring back to the experiences of a Ugandan migrant and a Syrian refugee, stated in the beginning of this piece, of not being treated as human beings can better be understood through a long-standing patterns of power- the continuity of colonialism. The field of migration studies very much needs to focus on critical race theory to understand the effects of migration policies, racialized citizenship, racial borders have on many migrants and refugees.

Dr Doğuş Şimşek is a Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at Kingston University London. Her research interests revolve around sociology of migration, race and ethnicity, and class. Her research addresses global problems such as, colonialism, neoliberalism and structural inequalities; and attempts to examine how power is materialized in processes of exclusion and inclusion, and organized around class, race, ethnicity, gender and migratory status. Twitter: @dogussimsek


Amnesty International (2017). “Libya’s dark web of collusion: abuses against Europe-cound refugees and migrants”. https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/MDE1975612017ENGLISH.PDF

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2001). White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-civil Rights Era. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903). The souls of black folk. A.C.McClurg: Chicago.

Meghji, A. (2020). “Towards a theoretical synergy: critical race theory and decolonial though in Trumpamerica and Brexit Britain”. Current Sociology. ttps://doi.org/10.1177/0011392120969764

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