The Exodus of Erdogan’s Persecuted
Following the political unrest in Turkey which generated a wave of persecution against critics of Erdogan's government, thousands of Turkish citizens are now seeking asylum in Greece.
Following an attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a witch hunt against citizens who criticize his government. Since then, the number of Turks claiming asylum in Greece has risen.
From only 42 people in 2015, the number of political refugees rose to 1,827 in 2017 and to 4,834 in 2018. The same trend is expected for 2019, as by April, 1,682 people had already arrived in Greece, according to the current statistics.
The cause of this exodus is persecution by the Erdogan government. The list of people detained as terrorists is long. It includes journalists, Kurds, leftists, activists but also writers, civil servants, military personnel and teachers. The regime considers that all of these people either have connections to Kurdish organizations or belong to the organization of Fethullah Gülen, the self-exiled imam who resides in the US, who is regarded by Erdogan as the instigator of the failed coup.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey wins the prize for the imprisonment of journalists. With 67 journalists in jail, Turkey is even ahead of China, which has 47 imprisoned journalists.
Among those jailed is 45-year-old Turgut Kaya, a well-known Turkish journalist and opponent of the Erdogan government. Kaya crossed the Evros River in 2018 and applied for asylum in Greece, but after his first and second-degree appeals were rejected, he found himself in Greece’s Korydallos prison, waiting to be deported.
Kaya had already spent 10 years in Turkey’s notorious high security prisons for his political actions. “In Turkey, the prisons are better,” Kaya tells Solomon MAG, laughing. “In Greece the buildings are very old, they’re overpopulated, and you are not separated from the criminal detainees. In Turkey they’ve built brand new prisons for political dissidents. But at least in Greece they don’t use torture.”
In August 2018, following a European-wide show of support, former Justice Minister Stavros Kontonis annulled the Supreme Court’s decision to extradite Kaya, and in the meantime the Asylum Service granted him political asylum.
“As far as my case is concerned, I do not know exactly what Erdogan was negotiating with the Greek government. Such ‘deals’ between governments are routine, as long as people of the opposition are not used as ‘bargaining chips.’ Nevertheless, the EU is to blame for Erdogan. The EU gave him €6 billion for the refugee crisis and no one knows how he’s using these funds.”
A few years ago, Kaya was vindicated at the European Court of Human Rights in his case against Turkey when he was detained for six years without a trail, as maximum lawful detention in Turkey is five years.
“But it’s not just me,” says Kaya, referring to the people he left behind. “Erdogan also attacks students, academics, teachers. Even people that have nothing to do with any organizations but he simply considers them enemies. These persecutions happen without any evidence or legal procedures, since the judges themselves are either in jail or in exile.”
Human Rights Watch, in a report published in February, states that “the Turkish authorities have extended the already-broad and vague definition of what is considered terrorism (…) Lawyers are often forbidden even to have access to case files or to their own clients, and suddenly they both may find themselves suspected of participating in some organization.”
The state of emergency may have officially ended in July 2018, but it was replaced by new counter-terrorism laws in August of the same year. Thus, more than 130,000 civil servants have been accused of being members of Kurdish organizations or members of the Fethullah Gülen organization. Since early 2019, 36,000 cases had been finalized, but only 2,300 of those accused have returned to their jobs.
“Of course, it’s a kind of witch hunt,” says Spyros Sofos, research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Lund, Sweden. “Anyone can be considered suspicious. Someone who has a personal grudge against you can simply denounce you for being a member of Gülen’s movement or a Kurdish organization and because no one is interested in investigating it, you’re simply added to the list of guilty people.”
Some of the asylum applications have caused tension between the two countries. Besides Kaya’s case, the case of the eight soldiers who arrived in Alexandroupolis by helicopter on the evening of the coup sparked a lot of reactions.
Last August, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said that “Greece must respect good-neighbor policies and follow international rules. The extradition of Turgut Kaya, for which Interpol has issued a red alert, was rejected by the Greek Minister of Justice despite the decision of the (Greek) court in favor of extradition to Turkey. This reveals once again that the traditional feelings of the Greek political forces towards Turkey have not changed.”
Spyros Sofos explains that with cases such as Turgut Kaya and the eight soldiers, which have been widely publicized, Turkey is trying to prove that Greece is supporting enemies of Turkey. “Erdogan is trying to convince his world that there are forces in the West and in Greece that are fighting for the destabilization of the country,” explains Sofos. “He is even using the current economic crisis in Turkey to confirm his narrative that the country is being attacked. Meanwhile, he has allowed the easy and unchecked exodus of thousands of political dissidents. It is, in some ways, the continuation of the disbanding of dissidents by other means.”
Dozens of Turkish citizens have moved to Greece either for work or study, and more than 1,400 have invested the required €250,000 in real estate in order to obtain the golden visa that allows them to stay in Greece and to move freely among Schengen Area countries.
For those who have not yet moved to Greece, but love it here, a Greek vacation also serves as a good break from the suffocating regime.
For 38-year-old Serkan Zichli, who, until four years ago, was a co-owner of a public relations firm in Istanbul that employed 10 people, his life has changed drastically. Zichli realized early on that Erdogan would take his revenge against those who, in 2013, resisted and protested his plans to destroy Gezi central park in Istanbul and build yet another mall like the hundreds that already exist in the city.
Protests for the protection of Gezi quickly spread across Turkey, and millions of people – leftists, conservatives, Kurds, Alevis, LGBTQ – participated in over 5,000 cities. Mass demonstrations reflected the citizens’ general dissatisfaction with the government.
Zichli was one of the first to reach Gezi park and the demonstration. The interviews he gave to Turkish media were widely shared on social media. Thus, shortly after the protests ended, the lawsuits against him, (for insulting the President via Twitter), began. Visits from the tax office to his business followed, resulting in multiple fines. As attacks on gays, women, and trans people increased, Zichli decided to leave Turkey.
Indeed, for Zichli, his move to Greece is a sort of return to his roots. Two of his grandparents originated from Crete and Lesvos before the exchange of populations. So, a few months ago, Zichli visited Hania, Crete and saw the neighborhood where his grandfather was born and raised and he also intends to visit Molivos, Lesvos to see his grandmother’s home.
While Kaya believes that “where there are multitudes of people, there is hope,” Zichli is pessimistic about Turkey. “People have been divided into those who are conservative-religious and to those who are secular-modern,” he explains. “The two sides are no longer in contact. The neighborhoods have been separated and even the shops have been divided for one side or the other.”
For the past three years Zichli has been working at a customer service company in Athens. “This is the only job I can do here, because they gave me a visa,” he explains bitterly. “Thanks to Erdogan, I have a very low position in comparison to my skills and abilities. But at least I’m free.”
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