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The refugee question, or how Erdoğan gets away with nearly everything – a weekly news review


Sarah Glynn

Yesterday, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paraded through the Kurdish ‘capital’ of Amed (Diyarbakir) as though he were a conqueror. Accompanied by massive security and a plethora of banners, he traversed the old city where the Turkish government has eradicated both the historic buildings and the community that lived there, and in a speech whose inversion of the truth made Trump’s lies look amateur, he informed his audience that the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) had sabotaged his attempts to bring peace to the Kurds, and that if the government hadn’t removed the elected HDP mayors it would have amounted to “treason” against the people.  The man who presides over a regime where the smallest criticism can land you in prison – especially if you are a Kurd – and where reports of the ill-treatment of prisoners are legion, announced that the notorious Diyarbakir prison, where so many Kurds were subjected to brutal torture in the 1980s, would be turned into a museum. Chutzpah doesn’t begin to describe it.

This nauseating display is symptomatic of the way that Erdoğan rides roughshod over every basic decency, both at home and abroad. But, although his actions are widely condemned and run counter to the stated values of the European institutions that Turkey would see itself as part of, those institutions have done little to put a break on Erdoğan’s excesses. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t people in the institutions working hard to maintain values. It is the power structures that are against them.

This week has brought two examples of critical responses to the Turkish government from the ‘international community’. The problem comes in turning these into effective action.

The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which advises on constitutional matters, has published its opinion on the impact on human rights of a much-criticised piece of Turkish legislation.  Under the guise of preventing the financing of terrorism, this recently-passed law places debilitating restrictions and controls on civil society. The Commission was predictably damning, and recommended a full and thorough re-examination. But the Turkish government has shown no inclination to respond to earlier criticisms of this law – or of their many other infringements of human rights – and there is nothing to force them to act now.

On Thursday, Members of the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly that, “apart from improvements in foreign policy issues, progress on any positive agenda that could be offered to Turkey should also be dependent on improvements in the civil and human rights and rule of law situation in the country, including women’s rights, such as those guaranteed by the Istanbul Convention, religious freedom, and the rights of ethnic minorities and LGBTI community”.  Before reaching this conclusion, the resolution outlined the parliament’s condemnation for a litany of “repression of the opposition in Turkey, specifically the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)”, which has undermined democracy and violated the Copenhagen criteria (the basic requirements for eligibility for EU membership). The list includes: the case for closing down the HDP and for banning hundreds of its leading members from politics; the murder of HDP member and worker, Deniz Poyraz (for which they urge thorough investigation); the fuelling of incitement against the HDP; the lack of legal independence in the “Kobanê” trial and the misuse of broad anti-terrorism legislation; the stripping of MPs’ immunities and the arrests of MPs; the continued detention of the HDP’s former co-chairs and the disregard of European Court of Human Rights rulings; the increasing pressure on the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and other opposition parliamentarians; and the removal of elected HDP mayors, plus measures to restrict the actions of mayors from the CHP.

The resolution instructs the President of the European Parliament to forward the decision to “the President of the European Council, the Council, the Commission, the Vice-President of the Commission / High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and the Government and Parliament of the Republic of Turkey.” But there is a big gulf between the views taken by MEPs in the European Parliament, and the European Council and European Commission, where real power lies. The Council, which is made up of national heads of state, sets the EU’s overall priorities, while the Commission, made up of commissioners from each country, proposes EU laws. In their meetings with the Turkish government, the presidents of the Council (Charles Michel) and the Commission (Ursula von de Leyen) have demonstrated a determination to rebuild the EU’s relations with Turkey, paying little more than lip-service to issues of human rights and democracy.

Of the various self-interested reasons dictating EU-Turkey relations, the one that most strongly holds the EU hostage is the agreement, made in March 2016, that effectively outsourced EU migration control, making Turkey the border guards of Fortress Europe.  Having played their part in the destabilisation of the Middle East, European governments were balking at the number of refugees coming to the continent to escape the deadly chaos. Led by Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, who had initially given the refugees a sympathetic welcome but soon found that this was costing her popularity, they were looking for a way to shut the gates against future arrivals.

One of the most well-used routes into the European Union was through Turkey, including the relatively short crossing to the island of Lesbos. The agreement made with Turkey, which has been accused of violating international law, was designed to stop people entering the EU through the Turkish routes. Turkey agreed to take any necessary measures to prevent refugees crossing the border. In addition, to discourage people from attempting to enter the EU, refugees who reached Greece illegally could be sent back to Turkey, and for each person sent back, the EU agreed to accept a refugee from within Turkey. The numbers sent back from Greece and sent to the EU from Turkey have been relatively small; however, the total number crossing the border has been massively reduced. With the launch of the agreement, the transit camps on Lesbos were converted to detention centres where people have been stuck for years and where appalling conditions are seen as an additional deterrent to further arrivals.

The agreement left Turkey hosting around 3 million refugees – now risen to 4 million of whom around 3.6 million are from Syria. The EU agreed to contribute to the cost of this, setting aside six billion Euros over five years – which averages at just 300 Euros per refugee per year. They also agreed political concessions – revival of Turkey’s EU accession process, reform of the customs union, and visa-free travel for Turkish nationals visiting the EU. These depended on other benchmarks being met, and have all been put on hold; but the deal has given Turkey the leverage to defy all attempts at effective sanctions.

In February 2020 Turkey ‘weaponised’ the refugees in an attempt to force the EU to provide more help and to force NATO to support them in Idlib. l They not only removed the restrictions on their side, but bused refugees to the border. They were brutally pushed back by Greek border guards equipped with teargas, water cannons and stun grenades – earning Greece the gratitude of the European Commission President. This was a shot across the EU’s bow. Despite Turkey’s continued departure from purported European values of freedom and democracy, the European Commission continues to pursue improved relations and has recently agreed to prolong the agreement with the allocation of a further 3.5 billion Euros.

The EU panicked when 1.3 million people applied for asylum in 2015, but they have left Turkey with three times that number – equivalent to 5% of the Turkish population. (A border wall now prevents further arrivals from Syria.) For these refugees, life is hard. Most rely on the informal economy, where they have to compete for limited work in increasingly straitened economic conditions, and this has encouraged growing resentment from Turkish neighbours. As in the EU, refugees have been exploited as a focus for discontent, and reducing refugee numbers is a popular vote winner. The Turkish government has been doing this by sending people back to where they came from. They claim that hundreds of thousands have ‘voluntarily’ returned to Syria, but human rights organisations have reported many cases of people being returned under coercion.

Turkey’s plan to move refugees into the areas they occupy in Syria kills two birds with one stone from their point of view. As well as getting rid of refugees, it uses them to enforce demographic change, replacing Kurds with Arabs. They have even tried to persuade the EU to help fund this.

Of course, Turkey’s invasions into Syria have resulted in even bigger numbers of refugees and displaced persons. And, as well as making more refugees directly, their military interventions around the world are playing a significant part in creating the unstable situations that will lead to more conflict and more refugees in the future.

There are also growing numbers of refugees from Turkey itself, and last week saw two disturbing pieces of news concerning refugees from Turkey coming to EU countries.

We learnt how, on 29 June, the Kurdish writer, Meral Șimșek, attempted to escape to Greece across the Evres River, only to be brutally detained and deported back to Turkey, where she faces charges of ‘terror propaganda’ and ‘organisation membership’. The Greek police stripped her naked and carried out an intimate body search, they battered her, they took her possessions, and they threw her into the water. Forced back to the Turkish side, she was immediately imprisoned for eight days, following another strip search. This is far from the only example of abuse by Greek police and border guards.

On Wednesday, exiled newspaper columnist, Erk Acarer, was set upon by three attackers using fists and knives in the courtyard of his Berlin apartment. In a Twitter video he said that he knew who the perpetrators were, and commented “This is proof that everything we say about the Islamist, fascist AKP-MHP government is true”. y The attack demonstrates that, even outwith Turkey, people cannot feel safe – a point that the Turkish government is keen to have understood.

While the EU pursues better relations with Turkey, Turkey is continuing its campaign of destruction and occupation in Syria and Iraq. Despite the official ceasefire, the Rojava Information Centre has been recording a growing proliferation of military equipment and bases by the Turkish army and its allied militias.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)’s statement for the first six months of 2021 reports: ‘The Turkish forces and the affiliated armed factions bombed the countryside of Ain Issa and Tel Tamr 206 times, in addition to launching dozens of barbaric attacks. However, the pro-Turkish factions failed to advance, and more than 50 members of them were killed and 25 others were injured in the clashes… 14 of our comrades were killed during their resistance to the attacks of the Turkish occupation and its mercenaries.” At the same time, the SDF have had to continue to seek out and capture ISIS fighters.

When it comes to bringing much-needed aid into North and East Syria, effective international action is being blocked by Russia, who want to force the Autonomous Administration back into the fold of the Assad regime. Yesterday, at the eleventh hour, Russia agreed to allow humanitarian aid into North-West Syria from Turkey, but the Tel Kocher crossing that allowed the UN to deliver aid to North and East Syria from Iraq has been closed by Russian and Chinese veto for over two years.

The failure of international institutions is manifold. But when we look at the national governments that make up those institutions, we shouldn’t be surprised. (This week also saw the UK government vote for a bill that would outlaw whole areas of public protest.) Almost everywhere, progressive politics is on the defensive, however the need for action is urgent, and that action can be stronger if different struggles act together – including across international borders.

In a rare bit of good news, this week saw the release of HDP MP, Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, who had been deprived of his parliamentary immunity and sent to prison for sharing an article that called for peace and quoted the PKK. Last week, the Constitutional Court unanimously supported his appeal. Gergerlioglu told the press conference following his release: “like a warm rain, love and support came from all over the world.” He never stopped his resistance, and when he was freed, he signalled his intent to continue the struggle, tweeting “where were we?”

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