Theories of “margins” understand this topic in numerous different senses. From margin as insignificance, to law as defining its own outside, to the periphery of states, to the temporal logic of nations, to the limits of the self, margins come in a number of physical and conceptual forms. This essay explores how different senses of “margin” overlap in Europe's relationship with Turkey during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. Focusing specifically on Brexit and a 2016 agreement between the European Union and Turkey regarding Syrian refugees, the essay maps the fluid construction of Turkey as a variety of margins.

Marginality takes a number of overlapping forms. For Jacques Derrida, what is jettisoned to the margin typically constitutes the center, what is characterized as supplement marks the original as incomplete.1 For Giorgio Agamben, law builds into itself exceptions to itself, its own margins and limits, and it is from these exceptions, margins, and limits that law derives its authority.2 Since Max Weber, the state has been the entity reserving for itself the only legal use of violence, but the margins of the state take a variety of forms: places that state power has yet to penetrate and pacify, spaces where the state is undone from its own illegibility, the location where connections between bodies, law, and discipline become most visible.3 If the state has a monopoly on violence, then the state is frequently most palpable at its margins through violence. For Benedict Anderson, the nation inaugurates and is constituted by a linear chronology, what he terms “homogeneous, empty time.”4 The nation becomes an abstract form only through the concomitant abstraction of an independent realm of calendrical time, which can track the steady forward movement of the nation as a “sociological organism.”5 But as Homi K. Bhabha argues, nations also require their own circular time of reiteration, and the contingent particularity of this repetition becomes the effaced margin of a nation striving to appear in the form of a pure abstraction with a linear chronology.6 Finally, for Sara Ahmed, the borders of subjects and objects are premised on rather than prior to their interaction with one another, and the circulation of emotions creates the boundaries of surfaces that allow us to distinguish their insides and outsides.7 The margin of the subject may be where it merges with the object. The margin may be where the subject internalizes its own limit, extends beyond it, and looks back to view itself as bounded.

Margin as supplement. Margin as exception. Violence at state margins. Time and national margins. The self as margin. This list is incomplete, and as we know from it, what is left out is certainly not central (if irony is permissible here). In many ways these senses of margin say the same thing about the individual, the nation, the state, law, and meaning. Margins constitute these entities in similar ways, but these entities are not all places, and the sense of “margin” here still fluctuates. Physical margins may correspond to physical places, or the very sense of margin may need to fluctuate for the margin to play its constitutive part. A logic or economy of marginality may remain where the form and content of margins shift.

In this essay, I dwell on a confluence of margins within or adjacent to the idea/place “Europe.” The exponential increase in Syrian refugees moving to Europe between 2013 and 2015 corresponded to a variety of xenophobias and border-defining and -policing efforts seeking to circumscribe Europe as a whole.8 One prominent instance of these xenophobias was the “Leave” campaign during the 2016 Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, which frequently repeated a desire to “take back control of our borders” from European Union (EU) bureaucrats who were letting in “floods” of migrants. Beyond, or perhaps supplementary to, an emphasis on Syrians in Europe, the Leave campaign frequently referenced Turkey, both as the space Syrians traversed on their way to Europe and as a potential future member of the EU itself. The Leave campaign constituted Turkey as both a spatial and cultural-ideological margin of Europe. Independent from the campaign, in early 2016, the EU initiated its own border-policing strategy in a deal with Turkey that sought to prevent refugees from crossing the Aegean from Turkey to Greece (an EU member state). The agreement establishes Turkey as a type of margin to Europe, one necessary to the smooth operation and security of Europe. The EU agreement and the Leave campaign discourse constitute Turkey as fluctuating, overlapping types of margin necessary to the state-nation-place-self called “Europe.”


Campaigns for and against the Brexit referendum corresponded to the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis. Syrian refugee asylum applications to EU countries reached 1.2 million in 2015, and numerous highly-publicized images of death and disaster in the Aegean Sea made the crisis extremely visible in Europe.9 Tabloids in the United Kingdom perfected a hysterical tone, making refugees into a “flood,” “terrorists,” and even “cockroaches,” and this combination of xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia translated easily into a campaign to leave the EU.10 The specifics of this xenophobia could also easily be directed toward Turkey, combining anti-EU sentiment with bigotry toward an EU Accession candidate state. Prior to official Brexit campaigning, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) produced and circulated a video that uniquely consolidates Islamophobia, xenophobia directed at Turkey, and anti-EU arguments. The short video efficiently articulates nearly every anti-Turkish theme used throughout the Leave campaign, constituting Turkey as marginal to the values, geography, and modernity presumed to constitute Britain.

The video is titled The Risks of Staying in the EU: No 1 – Turkey Joins in 2020? and UKIP tweeted a link to it on 3 February 2016.11 It is a nearly-four-minute list of supposedly objective facts and figures about Turkey meant to imply its difference from Europe, its permanent marginality. For instance, the opening lines of narration succinctly situate Turkey as both border and margin, with the narrator explaining:

Behind me is the Bosporus, the ancient waterway that historically separates East from West. 97 percent of Turkey is actually in Asia, only 3 percent is in Europe. But what if the whole country were to become a member state of the European Union? Well, that would extend the borders of what would then be known as Europe all the way to Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

In the first few seconds of the video, Turkey's function for Europe is clear: It contains the geographic border of Europe (the Bosporus Strait), the cultural border between East and West, but the country also exists on both sides of this border, making Turkey itself a margin around the border. The function to Europe of Turkey as a margin or buffer around the border is emphasized further in the imagined future EU borders touching Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Turkey is the element of Europe framed as (mostly, 97 percent) outside of Europe. It is the object of contact that enables Europe to view its own boundaries. Turkey's dual function as border and margin secures the identity of Europe as “far from” the Middle East (and Turkey).

The video goes on to make statements about gender inequality in Turkey, income disparity between Turkey and the United Kingdom, and the lack of Christians, press freedoms, and security in Turkey. In each case, Turkey becomes a measure against which British progress or modernity should be implied. If, as Bhabha has argued, the nation presents itself in the abstract form of linear progression while effacing repetition of its particularity, then Turkey becomes the face of particularity that effaces the United Kingdom's own. When the narrator states, “It's estimated there's one honor killing every single week in Istanbul alone,” or, “On a list of press freedoms, Turkey ranks 149th out of 180 countries,” she marks the violence and legal injustices at the margins of Europe.12 As if the sheer number of topics threatened to obscure the connection between Islam, Turkey, Syria, and “threat,” the video ends with reference to a suicide attack in Istanbul that killed “ten tourists” (presumably the January 2016 attack), stating that the attacker had “entered as a migrant” from Syria. The problems at the margin become imaginable as threats to the center. The density and breadth of the video borders on non sequitur, efficiently constructing a margin so complexly rife with violence, injustice, backwardness, and Islam that it must remain “outside” through a vote to Leave the EU.13 

The image of Turkey constructed in the Leave campaign is one of overlapping senses of margin, constituting Britain as Leave campaigners wish to see it. The violence, lack of security, and proximity to war on this margin produce a self-reflection of the British state as peaceful and orderly. Similarly, the British nation exists in a temporal space of consistent progress against the backwardness of the margin. Perhaps most importantly, Turkey serves as both physical and sociocultural margin, a margin as an abstraction, a margin as a place, even a margin that contains a border (between East and West). The logic of marginality vacillates through this British image of Turkey so that the totality of either is always just out of sight, creating “boundary, fixity, and surface” that define both subject (the United Kingdom) and object (Turkey) through and beyond their interaction.14 The senses of margin converge and depart from one another, such that a challenge to any one fact in the video or any one idea of Turkey as margin will not undermine the logic of marginality.


On 18 March 2016, three months before the Brexit vote, the EU signed an agreement with Turkey intended to stop Syrian refugees from crossing into the EU using the Aegean Sea route from Turkey to Greece. In 2015 alone, over 800,000 people arrived in the EU using this sea route, with tens of thousands more crossing on land from Turkey.15 After the deal took effect, Syrian migrants crossing into the EU illegally through Turkey would be sent back to Turkey. In exchange, Turkey would receive 6 billion euros (cash and aid) and Turks would be eligible for visa-free travel to the EU as early as June 2016 (the same month as the Brexit vote), but only after Turkey fulfilled a number of security stipulations.16 The deal produced immediate results: By May 2016 the monthly number of migrants crossing the Aegean had dropped by 90 percent.17 For supporters of the deal, numeric measures of plummeting asylum applications and “irregular crossings” demonstrated the deal's success.18 

In order for the EU to return migrants to Turkey legally, however, the deal presumed Turkey to constitute a “safe third country” or “safe first country of asylum,” designations immediately challenged by numerous human rights groups, including the Council of Europe.19 Criticisms of the deal include insufficient legal protections and opportunities for refugees in the language of the deal, as well as woefully inadequate material conditions of refugees arriving to face poor treatment (by the EU and Turkey), a lack of housing, unsafe living conditions, and significant safety problems.20 Additionally, in April 2016, Amnesty International reported that Turkey was illegally returning Syrian refugees to Syria, and the EU itself has withheld most of the money stipulated in the deal over worries that the funds aren't being used to support refugees.21 The most frequently repeated criticism of the deal, however, focused on the way that the EU “commodified, outsourced, and deflected” the protection of refugees, tarnishing its own moral authority.22 Not only do human rights organizations present evidence of practical and legal failures in Europe's effort to help Syrian refugees, but they also reproduce standard arguments about states' self-interest and the superiority of Western ideals.23 These criticisms mark Europe's legal, practical, and moral failures in addressing the refugee crisis while simultaneously implicating Turkey in these failures.

The debate regarding the EU–Turkey migrant deal also obscures an underlying general agreement about the relationship of Turkey to Europe. When European critics of the deal argue that it undermines the moral authority of Europe, this criticism quite directly reinforces the presumed superiority of “European values.” Europe, here, looks back at itself from beyond itself worrying for itself, only knowing its limits because it internalizes them. The self as margin. Furthermore, the deal's structure formally (re)states specific conditions that define Turkey's role as the margin of Europe, a kind of limit to European law that gives European law authority. Prior to the deal there were around 2.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, and by the end of 2018 this number was at 3.6 million.24 Before and after the deal, then, the burden of housing Syrian refugees squarely falls on/in Turkey, and the deal only formalizes the de facto role of Turkey in the refugee crisis. As the Médecins Sans Frontières Humanitarian Adviser on Displacement, Aurélie Ponthieu, argued, “EU humanitarian aid is becoming a tool for Europe to ‘contain’ refugees and migrants away from its shores.”25 The migrant deal formally defines Turkey as the space of this containment, the margin to which Europe's Syrian refugee crisis will be (and already had been) relegated, now as part of the law.

Again, Turkey serves as a margin in numerous senses. First, and most literally, it is a physical margin, the space into which crises should be pushed to be forgotten. The physical margin differentiates the inside from the outside of Europe. Turkey is not an absence of Europe, here, but neither is it identical with it. Second, Turkey serves as the kind of margin that is the foundation of the authority of Europe. Turkey's presumed and actual failure at adequately housing and caring for its 3.6 million Syrian refugees helps obscure similar major failures “within” Europe, such as those in Calais, France, in 2015, those in detention centers on Greek islands since 2014, and Hungary's and Bulgaria's border fences built in 2015 to reroute migrants. The migrant deal constitutes Turkey as both physical border and marginal part of European geography, as an object in contact with Europe, but an object subsumed in order to view Europe as itself enclosed.


State and violence, nation and time, self, supplement, law. Margins are physical and abstract, they can contain the border but also imply a border beyond themselves. In the discussion here, Turkey becomes a kind of authorizing signifier, the element within and outside Europe on which Europe's authority is premised. It is the exception to the state or rule of Europe. As I have treated it here, Turkey is a fiction constituted in Europe nearly independent of the real place in the world.26 This image of Turkey gestures toward the margin as a pure abstraction, one with a variety of theoretical senses that might exist in the empty time of the nation. As Asad has argued, the historical development of “the state” as an abstraction “is what enables [the state] to define and maintain the margin as a margin.”27 If the margin migrates away from its particularity to brush against formal abstraction as well, what becomes of the center, the state, Europe? Perhaps the fluidity of marginality inhabited by Turkey returns attention to the unavoidable contamination of the universal by the particular, to the ways that abstraction at the center also requires its own particularity.28 The Turkey treated in this essay is Europe's Turkey, a kind of Orientalized margin. This Turkey produces and responds to a network of interests and authority for Europe, becoming a variety of marginalities that establish Europe as center, law, self. By incorporating or encountering this Turkey, Europe establishes its own fixity and surface, presuming to view itself from outside itself, and taking no real note of Turkey's own sense of itself. But from where do I view both?


For instance, Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakrovarty Spivak, corrected ed. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997 [1967]), 144–45.
Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
Veena Das and Deborah Poole, eds., “State and Its Margins: Comparative Ethnographies,” in Anthropology in the Margins of the State (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 2004), 9–10.
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (New York: Verso, 1991 [1983]), 26.
Anderson, Imagined Communities, 26.
Homi K. Bhabha, “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation,” in The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 2008 [1994]), 199–244. For a further critique of Anderson and time, see Lisa Wedeen, Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 10. See also Denise Riley, “Your Name Which Isn't Yours,” in Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 115–28; Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).
During this time period, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs recorded 3.6 million new Syrian refugees of the current 5.7 million. UNOCHA, “Key Figures: Registered Syrian Refugees in the Region,”
Pew Research Center, “Number of Refugees to Europe Surges to Record 1.3 Million in 2015,” 2 August 2016,; Katy Fallon, “Three Years on from Alan [sic] Kurdi's Death and Life Is No Better for Child Refugees in Europe,” Independent, 2 September 2018,
Lizzie Dearden, “The Sun and Daily Mail Accused of ‘Fuelling Prejudice’ in Report on Rising Racist Violence and Hate Speech in UK,” Independent, 8 October 2016,
United Kingdom Independence Party (@UKIP), “Watch Our Latest Broadcast Here,” Twitter post, 3 February 2016, 10:27 a.m.,; UKIP Official Channel, The Risks of Staying in the EU: No 1 – Turkey Joins in 2020? YouTube video, 3:40, posted 3 February 2016, The video had a relatively small circulation, and I discuss it here for the breadth of its anti-Turkish arguments rather than for its viewership or discussion in media.
My purpose in quoting these claims is to indicate their function for British self-understanding rather than to evaluate their veracity or imply a defense of Turkey. As Lila Abu-Lughod has shown, the term “honor killing” transforms foreign domestic violence into a unified cultural-religious epidemic, making it appear as different from the Western conception of “disconnected” instances of domestic violence (“Seductions of the ‘Honor Crime,’” in Do Muslim Women Need Saving? [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013], 113–42). After the video was produced and following the coup attempt in July 2016 in Turkey, press and political freedoms in Turkey declined significantly.
This brief analysis does not account for the video's music, sped-up market scenes, claustrophobic crowd images, or images of women in hijab, all of which help create disorientation mixed with foreignness for the viewer.
Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 12, quoting Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (London: Routledge, 1993), 9.
Jonathan Clayton and Hereward Holland, “Over One Million Sea Arrivals Reach Europe in 2015,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 30 December 2015,
Anthony Faiola and Griff Witte, “EU Strikes Deal to Return New Migrants to Turkey,” The Washington Post, 18 March 2016, As of January 2019, Turkey had received only a small fraction of the promised aid and visa-free travel had not begun. These factors threaten to formally undermine the deal where it has already informally collapsed (as measured by rapidly increasing numbers of Syrians transiting Turkey to the EU since 2017).
Rachael Pells, “Refugees and Migrants Arriving in Greece from Turkey Down 90 Per Cent, Says Border Agency,” Independent, 13 May 2016,
See Stephanie Nebehay, “Half as Many Migrants Landed in Europe in 2017 as 2016: IOM,” Reuters, 5 January 2018,
Human Rights Watch, “Q&A: Why the EU–Turkey Migration Deal Is No Blueprint,” 14 November 2016, See also Jennifer Rankin, “Council of Europe Condemns EU's Refugee Deal with Turkey,” The Guardian, 20 April 2016,; Kondylia Gogou, “The EU–Turkey Deal: Europe's Year of Shame,” Amnesty International, 20 March 2017,
Human Rights Watch, “Q&A: Why the EU–Turkey Migration Deal Is No Blueprint”; Matt Broomfield, “Pictures of Life for Turkey's 2.5 Million Syrian Refugees,” Independent, 5 April 2016,
Amnesty International, “Turkey: Illegal Mass Returns of Syrian Refugees Expose Fatal Flaws in EU–Turkey Deal,” 1 April 2016,
Human Rights Watch, “Q&A: Why the EU–Turkey Migration Deal Is No Blueprint;” Rankin, “Council of Europe Condemns EU's Refugee Deal with Turkey.”
The controversy surrounding the deal also operates as an efficient synecdoche for the history of human rights, which contaminates a concern for the welfare of individuals with states' self-interest in status, sovereignty, and security. See Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, new ed. (New York: Harcourt, 1973 [1951]), 290–302.
The deal also proposes a zero-sum, one-for-one exchange of “irregular” refugees in the EU for legal asylum-seekers in Turkey, with a maximum exchange of 72,000 Syrian refugees. Rankin, “Council of Europe Condemns EU's Refugee Deal with Turkey.”
Médecins Sans Frontières, “Why the EU's Deal with Turkey Is No Solution to the ‘Crisis’ Affecting Europe,” interview with Aurélie Ponthieu, MSF Humanitarian Adviser on Displacement, 18 March 2016,
See also Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1994).
Talal Asad, “Where Are the Margins of the State?” in Anthropology in the Margins of the State, ed. Veena Das and Deborah Poole (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 2004), 281.
See Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (New York: Verso, 2000), 37.