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El lenguaje espacial de la migración: Muchos términos, ¿cuántas presencias?

Burcu Ates - Van 2021.jpg

The city of Van in 2021. Courtesy of the author.

As probably for almost anyone communicating in a context ‘foreign’ to their native language, writing in a second language has always been challenging for me. Given that I am unfortunately unable to know my mother tongue Kirmanckî, which is itself a refugee language forcefully replaced by the governmentally approved one, contributing to a debate on migration by focusing on its ‘language’ becomes even more interesting for me. When considering various controversialities surrounding the use of the language of migration in various contexts, from everyday life to bureaucracy, it is indeed not so easy to discuss it via a foreign one. I therefore critically prefer to approach the language of migration along with the spatial embodiment of concepts, which sort of allows me to attempt a spatial inscription of migration.


With just a glance at the International Organisation of Migration’s ‘Glossary on Migration’, one may realise that the very subjects of (forced) migration, whom I would always call ‘refugees’, are referred to in numerous ways, addressing the social and legal status of these displaced persons. The words such as ‘alien’, ‘asylum-seeker’, ‘displaced person’, ‘foreigner’, ‘immigrant’, ‘migrant’, ‘non-national’ and ‘third-country national’, amongst many others, are the ones I frequently hear or read about in various media and academia. Even when defining the term refugee, four different cases are referred to in the Glossary: refugee (1951 Convention), refugee (mandate), refugee (prima facie) and refugee sur place.


Being aware that these particular namings stem from different legal, political, sociological, economic, and cultural perspectives, I am curious about one question: one single person, many attributions, but how many appearances? This inquiry encourages me to conceptualise a spatial language of migration, where bodies speak through the way they are ‘being’. In this short essay, inspired largely by my ongoing doctoral research in the city of Van, I am eager to initiate a discussion on how migrant bodies appear in the city; how they define their appearance and communicate, not necessarily through the language they use, but mostly through their spatial practice in the arrival city. I argue that in the cities where we evidently encounter the dichotomy of being ‘local’ and ‘foreigner’ in everyday life, there emerges a variety of spaces of (dis)appearance harbouring various positions and situations of inclusion and exclusion. Following the traces and stories of such spaces may result in attempting spatial – as well as embodied – inscription of migration based on refugees’ experiences.


My doctoral research includes ethnographic fieldwork in the city of Van, a city located on the eastern border of Turkey, neighbouring cities in Iran. The borderline between Turkey and Iran, and particularly the border that crosses the city of Van, has been the entry location for many refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh, Syria, Somalia, and Georgia for decades. The socio-demographic structure of Van shows a great heterogeneity, considering the different settled ethnic communities such as Kurds, Turks, Persians and Armenians (there is, unfortunately, no sizable Armenian population now, but we know that there are Armenian people who still live there and have had to hide their identity for generations); internal migrants who arrived following the forceful evacuation of Kurdish villages and for vocational reasons (governmental officers, security forces, investors, and national and international humanitarian aid workers); and transnational migrants from the aforementioned countries.


Such a variety in Van excites me when reconsidering the question I posed above. Being a researcher trained as an architect, I tried to find the current and retrospective spatial traces of different cultures during my fieldwork. However, it was not as easy as I had predicted. The survival tactics of such diverse groups in the face of changing power relations pushed them to create their own ways of being in the city, inviting a deeper exploration of groups and spaces. I realise that even for the ‘locals’, there are various urban myths spreading diverse narratives about who the ‘real’ locals of the city are. The people I met reacted ambivalently to the question of ‘locality’. I received opposite responses from people of the same culture and ethnicity; while one person defines themselves as a local of Van as a consequence of coming from one particular authentic culture, another person categorically rejects even the idea of it. This, therefore, reminded me that not only ‘foreigners’ but also the so-called ‘locals’ of the city developed their own tactics of appropriation of and engagement with the city in response to the changing power dynamics and the resulting oppression.


Throughout my fieldwork, I had the opportunity to meet people who define themselves as Kurdish, Turkish, Iranian (or Persian), Afghan, and Syrian. When thinking of all these national/cultural titles, on the one hand, and the numerous titles and references listed in IOM’s glossary, on the other hand, I observe that in the everyday life of Van, not all these categories exist. The spatial positioning of the groups is a way to balance the dichotomies of being a local and a foreigner, with each group manifesting the extent to which they appear and disappear in the city. For instance, I have noticed that members of a certain refugee group explicitly participate in the everyday life of Van, from the individual to the community level. One may see several shops, cafes, and leisure spaces appealing particularly to their community. This also eases their individual appearance in the city by means of using and appropriating its spaces, not only through physical interventions but also via written and oral language, together with cultural motives: the music played, the food served, or the scents smelled. By contrast, I talked to another group of refugees whose appearance in the everyday life of the city is restricted to meeting certain basic needs – shopping, picking up kids from school, or arranging legal issues such as regular visits to the Directorate General of Migration Management or police offices. The changing spatial appropriation dynamics of different communities shows how they position themselves in the city and how ‘locals’ understand their being.


This short piece allows me to critically reflect on the two different languages of migration: the language of bureaucratic definitions and the language of everyday life. Considering both language as it is and its spatial reflection, I argue that the multifaceted dynamics of everyday life unsettle and even dissolve the meanings attributed to a ‘refugee’. The interplay of cultures, nations, religions, and ideologies somehow define the rules of everyday life, which might be totally opposite to the rules expected from laws or policies. My days in Van and the people I encountered there showed and reminded me how networks of solidarity among people – no matter where they come from or which language they speak – subvert the dichotomies between a local and a foreigner, and therefore cross the borders of bureaucracy, easing the living conditions of refugees. 


Further reading and resources:


  • Hovannisian, Richard G. (ed). 2016. Van: Tarihi Kentler ve Ermeniler. İstanbul: Aras Yayıncılık.


Burcu Ates.jpg

Burcu Ateş

I am an urban researcher trained as an architect and a doctoral candidate at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Urban Culture and Public Space at TU Wien and the Department of Architecture at METU. My practice positions itself among architecture, urbanism, landscape, and politics blended with research, advocacy, and activism. I am interested in bridging links between research areas such as everyday life, co-production, community building and empowerment, critical spatial practices, cultural landscapes and social and spatial marginality connected with gender studies and refugee studies. Through interdisciplinary and transnational projects, I have curated collaborative processes and dialogical formats among various stakeholders, aiming to enable sustainable and socially just environments. Amongst others, I have practised in Berlin, Vienna, İstanbul and Ankara. I currently hold the Nature & Culture Programme Officer position at Yolda Initiative. For any collaboration, please contact me via

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