Between Legal and Economic Instability: How Syrian Doctors Work in Turkey

Nihal Kayali, UCLA

Temporary protection regimes have become increasingly prevalent as an interim response to humanitarian crises. Migration studies often focus on how temporary legal statuses produce uncertainties in the lives of status beneficiaries. Less attention is paid to the ways that these policies shape host country institutions, such that co-nationals with other legal statuses are also affected. This paper analyzes the case of Turkey, which has extended temporary protection to over 3.6 million Syrians. While most Syrians have temporary protection status, many healthcare professionals have received citizenship by now. How have Syrian health professionals sought to stabilize their livelihoods in a temporary policy context? This paper draws on 60 interviews with Syrian health professionals conducted in Istanbul between 2017 and 2022. It finds that doctors are caught between legal stability through the formalization of work and economic stability through informal but relatively lucrative work. In order to attain legal stability, doctors have two options: they may take on low-paid, high workload jobs in EU-funded Migrant Health Centers, or they can attempt a lengthy equivalency process. In contrast, in order to attain economic stability, doctors often work informally as specialists. They attempt to legitimize this informal work by situating themselves as critical providers at both a local and a global scale. They provide care not just to Syrians, but also to other Arabic-speaking refugees and migrants who live in the city, as well as Arabic-speaking medical tourists. The paper argues that when stability through formal legal pathways are circumscribed—even for citizens—immigrants attempt to stabilize their livelihoods through appeals to alternative legitimating logics. In this case, the persistent market niche for Arabic-language care becomes a source of legitimation. The paper demonstrates how participation in local and global economic niches can provide an alternate path of stabilization when state legal options fall short.

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 Presented in Session 193. Migrant Instability and the Politics of Uncertainty