Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Migrant rights advocates fear for safety ahead of Turkish elections

Organisations supporting migrants in Turkey say they face increasing hostility in the run up to 2023 elections

Melissa Pawson
6 December 2022, 6.00am

Demonstrators protest the Turkish government's refugee policies in Istanbul


Murad Sezer/Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Natalie Gruber, the Austrian founder of Josoor, a grassroots organisation which supported refugees and pushback survivors in Turkey, has been accused by Greece of espionage and violating state secrets. The charges, laid on her and numerous others in three separate cases, have been described by Human Rights Watch as a way for Greece to “intimidate their critics”.

Just one of these criminal cases could have brought her and her organisation to their knees, Gruber said. But they were not the principal reason for Josoor’s closure in October. It was Turkey.

“In Turkey, it’s been made very clear since early this year by the ruling government, that foreigners are no longer welcome,” Gruber said.

A hostile environment

Josoor began operating in Turkey in March 2020, after Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announced he would open the borders for migrants to enter the EU. The situation soon escalated, to violent effect. Since then, the political climate in Turkey has grown ever more hostile to migrants and their supporters, with an uptick in racialised attacks, and large-scale arrests and deportations of Syrians and Afghans.

Josoor had felt the effects of this increasing hostility in almost every aspect of its operations. It had shown up in funding issues, rejected residence permits and concerns over the physical and mental health of its team members – caused by both the trauma of the work itself and the fear of anti-immigrant attacks. According to Gruber, their project had not just become unviable. It had become too dangerous to continue.

Describing the changes she had witnessed over the past two years, Gruber recalled a conversation she had had with a Syrian activist in February. “She said, we used to be afraid of being deported. Now we are afraid of being killed.”

Several migrants – many of them Syrians – have been killed in knife and gun attacks in Turkey this year. Activists fear such attacks will only become more frequent as the campaigns heat up for the 2023 presidential elections, which are scheduled for next June. “Everybody’s frightened,” Gruber said.

Thousands of districts, including much of Istanbul, were “closed to foreigners” this year.

Didem Danış, Associate Professor at Galatasaray University and Chair of the Association for Migration Research in Turkey, echoed Gruber’s comments. “All the [political] parties are advocating for anti-refugee issues,” Danış said. “The Syrians, especially right now, are feeling very nervous, very concerned about their safety.”

Turkey’s leading opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has vowed to send all Syrians home within two years if elected. President Erdoğan has denounced that promise, despite his own Justice and Development Party (AKP) pledging a somewhat similar 'resettlement' project in May. The government’s draft plans would see one million Syrians returned “voluntarily” to an expanded buffer zone in northern Syria. A smaller version of the envisioned zone already exists. It was established during 2019, just months before Turkey carried out a military offensive against Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria.

The Turkish government has also taken steps to restrict migrants’ movements within Turkey. For example, thousands of districts, including much of Istanbul, were “closed to foreigners” this year. Danış said that such political signals, whether they come from the government or the opposition, embolden the far-right and fuel xenophobic attacks.

“[CHP’s supporters] know very well that it is not possible to send them [Syrians] all home,” Danış said. “What is really frightening is […] that this discourse is exacerbating the anti-refugee climate in the country. This is the problem.”

Pawns in domestic politics

CHP is part of the Table of Six, an alliance of opposition parties attempting to unseat Erdoğan in the upcoming elections. The party has always had a nationalist vein, said Gülay Türkmen, a senior researcher at WZB Berlin Social Science Centre. But other parties in the alliance, especially the İyi Party, have pushed CHP to harden its nationalist stance. “Sometimes it feels that CHP is trying to prove that it is as nationalist as these parties to its voter base,” she said.

Türkmen added that CHP’s rhetoric is more “anti-Arab” than anti-migrant, an approach influenced by the western orientation of the founding figures of the republic. “In CHP’s attitude towards Syrians and Afghans, we see the influence of this kind of thinking because it still runs strong in their voter base,” Türkmen said.

In contrast, the AKP’s initial welcome of Syrian refugees during the first days of the war has sometimes been equated with a pro-migrant stance. Türkmen said that’s a misreading of the situation, and stressed that it had more to do with the role of religion for the AKP than with a general concern for refugees. “It is not necessarily from a rights-based approach that [AKP] are accepting Syrian refugees,” she said, “but more that these are our Muslim brothers and sisters, and we are opening our arms to them.”

Turkmen added that this welcome has cooled in recent years, with both the ruling and opposition parties spreading anti-immigrant sentiments. Their security-focused campaigns were given new fuel last month when a bomb detonated in a busy shopping district of Istanbul, killing six and injuring at least 80. The attack has since been attributed to a Syrian woman, who is alleged to have links to Kurdish separatist groups.

“If there is a migrant behind [the attack], allegedly, then it becomes a tool to increase anti-immigrant attitudes and xenophobia,” Türkman said.

Crackdown on refugees

Jasim* is a foreign national who fled war in his country and is now resident in Turkey. He runs an underground, activist and refugee-led grassroots organisation in Turkey focussing on LGBTQ+ refugees. The organisation is not legally registered, and team members’ identities are kept secret.

Jasim said refugees are being used as a “campaign issue” in the run up to elections. “Turkish people are struggling a lot. They’re becoming frustrated, and instead of blaming the government, they’re frustrated at refugees,” Jasim said. “The government is trying to suck some of that frustration [out] by cracking down on refugees.”

This has resulted in widespread fear among both documented and undocumented migrants. “I know some registered refugees who are afraid to leave their homes because they’re afraid they might get arrested by mistake,” Jasim said. He described deportations of Syrians and Afghans as “constant”, and added that he too fears for his safety, since he is registered in another city and is therefore not allowed to live in Istanbul.

It’s no longer possible for any actor that does not have an international mandate to do anything.

“My movement is limited, I cannot walk anywhere,” Jasim said, explaining that police often check for identity documents in his area. “It’s affecting everyday life. It’s a constant stress for us. Not just for us – for activists – but for all refugees.”

Jasim said that he has come to fear racist violence from members of the public as well as the state. “I don’t feel safe speaking Arabic in public anywhere. If I’m on the bus, I don’t pick up the phone if it’s someone who speaks Arabic.”

Tariq*, 32, from Tunisia, is all too familiar with this fear. He said that, last year, his friend was stabbed mid-conversation after a group of men heard them speaking Arabic in public. “They started yelling and they surrounded us,” he said. “Then a guy pulled out a knife and stabbed [my friend] in the stomach.”

Tariq was in Edirne, a city on the border to Greece, working for Josoor at the time. Edirne frequently sees high numbers of refugees passing through – either on their way to the Greece or Bulgaria borders, or after having been illegally pushed back from those countries. He said his friend survived the attack, but has since left Turkey for Europe.

Tariq, meanwhile, returned to Tunisia in July after his residence permit was rejected three times without a reason given. On leaving Turkey, he was banned from re-entering the country for one year. Tariq believes that his work with Josoor is likely to be the reason for the ban.

Closing space for solidarity

According to Danış, the professor and migration researcher, there is currently no political party or major civil society group advocating for refugee rights in Turkey. Some organisations do, but they tend to be grassroots groups with limited funding. And, she said, the space in which they operate is becoming increasingly narrow. “Staff are feeling pressurised,” Danış said. “They try to be invisible, low profile in the public sphere.”

Danış explained that “technical controls”, such as inspections of paperwork, are used by the government to pressure Syrian and Turkish NGOs not close to the ruling party. Some organisations have received hefty fines for simple errors, heavily restricting their operations or even forcing them to close. Danış added that an overall lack of funds is also squeezing grassroots groups, since pro-government NGOs tend to be awarded the lion’s share of international and national funding.

“The rising anti-refugee climate is very sad, because Turkey actually did quite well,” Danış said. “Turkish society actually received almost four million Syrians. In certain cities like Gaziantep, Hatay, it’s maybe 25% of the current urban population. A European person can never imagine what this means.”

Violence at the border

While the situation within Turkey has become increasingly dangerous for migrants, Gruber said that she fears even more for those in the border areas. Josoor was regularly monitoring rights violations at the EU-Turkey border before their closure, and collected testimonies from pushback survivors for the Border Violence Monitoring Network.

“It’s definitely going [in that direction], that people will just openly be killed,” she said, referring to a case in August where a five-year-old girl died when 38 people were left stranded for a month on a disputed islet between Greece and Turkey.

“Things are getting too dangerous here. It’s no longer possible for any actor that does not have an international mandate to do anything,” she said. “Both sides are preventing us from doing the work that we were doing, and all sides just want to prevent support for people on the move.”

Tariq, the team member from Tunisia, said he agrees with Josoor’s decision to close, but is worried about what will happen to people arriving in Turkey after being illegally pushed back from Greece. Since Josoor’s closure, no one else has stepped up to offer support.

“They need help,” said Tariq. “I know what they’ve been through. Some of them got pushed back naked, they’ve been beaten – imagine someone, he’s beaten, he doesn’t have money or a place to crash, and it’s getting cold, and there are children.”

He speaks from experience. Tariq said that, before he decided to stay and support others in Turkey in 2020, he was pushed back from Greece to Turkey four times in two months. Tariq said he was violently beaten by Greek police during those pushbacks, and on one occasion, was left stranded on an islet in the middle of the Evros river, which marks the border between Greece and Turkey.

Both sides profess their innocence, and are usually quick to blame the other for human rights violations when reports emerge. Greece has long denied carrying out pushbacks, which are illegal under international and EU law. However, a leaked report from the EU anti-fraud watchdog has detailed serious allegations of human rights violations and pushbacks carried out by Greece and then covered up by Frontex, the EU border agency. Turkey, meanwhile, has reportedly subjected hundreds of refugees to arbitrary arrest, detention and deportation this year.

For the few remaining organisations which monitor those rights violations on this highly politicised border, there is simply no longer enough space to operate in.

“We cannot do this safely anymore,” Gruber said. “There is no security anymore for people who speak out against human rights violations at the hand of European authorities […] [And] the situation in Turkey itself, it’s very frightening.”

* Refugees’ names have been changed to protect identities.

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