Dutch Chopy Fatah sings for PKK guerrillas

QANDIL – As soon as Chopy Fatah leaves the backstage tent, it starts: girls in guerrilla outfits or in traditional Kurdish glitter dresses want to give her a kiss, journalists want a quote and PKK members can’t wait to get a picture taken with her.

Dutch-Kurdish singer Chopy – living in the city of Amersfoort – was born in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk and moved to the Netherlands with her family when she was just a toddler. She can’t turn down all the requests, and doesn’t want to either: ‘These people love me, they are my fans. Look at these adorable girls, how could I possibly say that kisses would mess up my make up?’

Chopy Fatah performing in Qandil. (pic by me, click to enlarge)
Chopy Fatah performing in Qandil. (pic by me, click to enlarge)

It’s Newroz, 21 March. The first day of spring when Kurds (and many other nations in the region) celebrate the beginning of the new year. Location of the celebrations: a green meadow between the rugged ridges of the Qandil mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan on the Turkish border, an area that has been under the military control of the Kurdish armed movement the PKK for years. A few hundred guerrillas have come down from their camps to this meadow, just like thousands of their followers from Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. On stage there is Kurdish music and speeches by politicians and high PKK members. By the fence between the stage and the public five guerrillas are standing guard, two men and three women. On the meadow people are dancing and picnicking in groups.

Chopy Fatah (30), who is usually dressed in wide dashing glitter dresses, is performing today in guerrilla outfit: wide green trousers, coat, keel. ‘It was made especially for me and I love it’, she says. But the fact that she is here, does that also mean that she supports the PKK, considered a terrorist organization by the EU and US? ‘I support the Kurds’, she says. ‘I don’t speak out about politics. I prefer to contribute via culture and music.’

But in Qandil everything breaths politics. And even more so during Newroz, a centuries old celebration that was brought back to life over the last couple of decades in Turkey, instigated by the PKK. It’s for a reason that PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan picked Newroz as the day to announce a ceasefire and a withdrawal of PKK forces from Turkey, now exactly a year ago.

The AKP government, lead by Prime Minister Erdogan, was supposed to carry out democratic reforms, but nothing much happened apart from a few half-hearted measures. One of the most important problems, the constitution that breaths Turkish nationalism, remained untouched.

The PKK is becoming impatient. The withdrawal of the troops has already been put on hold last fall, and this month a PKK leader said the peace process would be over if the government doesn’t start reforms soon after the local elections of 30 March. The threat wasn’t made more concrete.

Several guerrillas express their disappointment in the peace process,which started so promisingly. But they prefer not to talk about it too much today. Today there are celebrations. While Dutch Chopy is getting ready to go on stage, a guerrilla says: ‘It’s important that Chopy is here. She represents Kurdish unity for me. Because she makes pure Kurdish music, and also because she doesn’t speak about politics. She is very popular in our camps, did you know that?’

Goodbye to an idol in Dersim

DERSIM/TUNCELI – ‘Our heart cries blood’, laments Kurdish politician Aysel Tugluk into the microphone. With long sustained tones she speaks to the thousands of people attending the funeral of Sakine Cansiz, one of the founders of the armed Kurdish movement, the PKK. Cansiz was murdered in Paris two weeks ago.

Aysel Tugluk is one of the women carrying the coffin to the graveyard.
Aysel Tugluk is one of the women carrying the coffin to the graveyard.

Shortly after Tugluk is one of the women who carries the coffin, covered in a PKK flag, to the graveyard. The procession goes from the cemevi (the Alevi house of worship) through the small city centre and then to Sakine’s last resting place, just outside the town. The route through the snowy mountain landscape is magical.

A day earlier, Thursday last week, tens of thousands of Kurds said goodbye to Sakine Cansiz and the two other female activists who were assassinated in Paris, Fidan Dogan and Leyla Söylemez. That gathering in the biggest city in the Kurdish southeast of Turkey, Diyarbakir, was not just a communal mourning but also a protest against the ongoing lack of a political solution to the Kurdish question. A cry for peace.

The funeral on Cansiz’ home ground,which she left as a young woman in the seventies to fight for her people, is also political. But it is in primarily a modest goodbye to a woman who meant a lot for the Kurdish struggle and for the freedom of Kurdish women. Or, as Selahattin Demirtas, Kurdish MP, expressed it in Diyarbakir: ‘There used to be not even a place for women of this land at the dinner table. But that we are here now, is also thanks to the struggle of Kurdish women for their people’.

Leyla Atac (37) walks along in the cortege. She was, just like Sakine Cansiz, born and raised in what the Kurds still call Dersim – the Kurdish name of the city that was replaced with Tunceli as part of the ‘Turkification process’ in the nineteen thirties. She calls the funeral the most important event in the city for years: ‘Sakine is my idol. She resisted, as a Kurd and as a woman.’ She joins in shouting the slogan of the day: Jin, Jiyan, Azadî! Woman, Life, Freedom!

The Parisian police have arrested two men in connection with the murders and released one of them. Who is behind the murder remains speculation. The early peace talks between the Turkish government and the imprisoned PKK leader Öcalan don’t seem to be affected by the triple murder. In her speech, Aysel Tugluk has a message for the killers: ‘Know that you can never stop our struggle for freedom’.

Fréderike Geerdink, Diyarbakir

A paper of four pages

He’s being looked at as he turns into the street, leaning on his hand cart laden with sunflower seeds. Bandage around his head, unsteady on his feet. He coughs. The people in the street laugh. Damn, there he is again!

Diyarbakir, capital of the Kurds, south-eastern Turkey. Don’t ask what year it is, it could be 1992, 1995,or even 1998. For newspaper boy, or more precisely newspaper man, Yakut Yilmaz, the years are totally interchangeable. The number of times he takes out his hand cart and hides his real merchandise under a pile of sunflower seeds, uncountable. Sometimes he hits the road with a head injury, sometimes with damaged arms or legs, for years even with only half his teeth. For him only one thing counts: deliver the paper to whoever wants to read it.


Tuesday 20 December 2011.

‘Ah, there you are. Come, let me open the door, and then we can start the investigation.’ It’s not a daily routine that an army of policemen gathers in front of the office of Özgür Gündem in Ankara. Nevertheless, editor in chief Hüseyin Aykol isn’t surprised at all: from the paper’s very beginning in May 1992, nineteen years ago, there hasn’t been a quiet moment. Court cases, fines, journalists and distributors arrested, murders, bombs even. So a search of the editorial office – what can he do?

The policemen obviously expected something other than a cooperative editor in chief. After the policeman in charge has checked Aykol’s identity, the editor in chief gets handed the keys to the new lock. It has just been installed, replacing the old one broken when the anonymous-looking steel door was forced open.
Behind that steel door on the first floor in the right-hand back corner Ozgür Gündem’s Ankara editorial office is situated. Editor in chief Aykol works alone there: the central office is in Istanbul. To the left of the hallway a bigger space: the office of Dicle Haber Ajans, DIHA in short, a Kurdish news agency named after the Dicle, the river Tigris in English. Their room too is being searched, and their books, papers and computers are being taken away.

Nine of his journalists are in custody

In the meantime, the phone starts to ring again and again. Izmir is calling, Diyarbakir, Istanbul, Urfa. Aykol hears that all over the country in the early morning journalists of Kurdish media are being dragged from their beds, and offices and houses are being searched. While Aykol sees the equipment he needs to publish tomorrow’s paper disappear off to the police station, he hears that part of his team is no longer available: nine of his journalists are in custody. They work for the daily paper and for some magazines of the same publisher.

A total of 44 journalists are taken into custody that day. Most of them work for DIHA, Özgür Gündem (Free Agenda) and the only Kurdish language paper in Turkey, Azadiya Welat (Free Country), others for smaller Kurdish media. Among the arrested are also a few people of the distribution agency used by Kurdish media.

They were detained as part of the so-called ‘KCK operation’. KCK is the union of communities in Kurdistan, an umbrella organisation of Kurdish organizations in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. PKK leader Öcalan, who is serving a life sentence on the prison island of Imrali, leads the KCK, and Murat Karayilan, PKK commander in the mountains on the Turkey-Iraq border, is on the board. Since 2009 thousands of politically active Kurds have been detained for ‘being a member of an illegal organization’. Among them mayors and civil servants of municipalities that are governed by the BDP, students, academics and human rights activists. The journalists allegedly formed the ‘press group’ of the KCK.

Why did you attend that press conference?

There is no evidence against the thousands of KCK suspects. Indictments are full of (illegally) wiretapped phone conversations the subject of which might be the time a meeting starts and who determines its agenda, or somebody not being able to come because of illness, or that somebody will have to bring some food to the meeting. All secret language, according to the prosecutor, in which ‘tomatoes’ are really ‘explosives’. As well, books found at the suspects’ homes or offices are used as evidence.

Legal activities are brought forward as evidence of ‘membership of the KCK’, the reports of interrogations show. Why did you visit wounded protesters in the hospital? Why did you attend that press conference? Why did you shout that slogan?

By both those involved as well as independent international and Turkish human rights organizations the KCK trials are considered some of the biggest show trials in Turkish history.


Saturday, 3 December 1994.

The fire is almost out. This time, thinks Aykol as he approaches the Istanbul editorial office of Özgür Gündem on foot and sees the smoke coming out of the building, they have succeeded. Our work will stop. The paper survived arrests, killings, publication bans and fines, but bombs, let off simultaneously at the offices in Ankara and Istanbul, that is too much for the resilience of the paper. He walks around numb among the curious crowd gathered to watch the flames. He doesn’t recognize anybody he knows. Aykol is, just like anybody else, kept at a distance.

Hüseyin Aykol in his office in Ankara. The painting was made by one of his journalists in prison and sent to him. Click to enlarge.

The magazine Hedef (Goal), owned by the same publisher as Özgür Ülke, is being printed that same day, 3 December 1994. If he’s quick, he suddenly thinks, he can get the news about the bombing of Özgür Ülke into it before it’s printed. After that’s being done, he doesn’t know what to do. A few hours later his colleague Gültan Kisanak finds him. She gives Aykol an address on the phone: ‘get there, we are setting up the paper’.

The afternoon passes in a sort of blur. Without thinking almost. They work hard. And the next day, there is a paper. A paper of four pages. The leading banner: This fire will burn you too! The report:

Our newspaper, which the most authoritative representatives of the state targeted and sought any excuse to close down, was one of the most important items on the agenda of the National Security Council gathered on Wednesday. The things that were said during this meeting where the decision was taken to close down our newspaper appeared in the press without mentioning the name of our newspaper. National Security Council’s decision as to what was to happen to our newspaper had become apparent 3 days later and Ozgur Ulke was bombed.

It’s indescribable what Aykol feels when he sees that paper on sale at the kiosk.


Saturday, 3 December 1994.

Yakut Yilmaz lets himself down onto the red tiled pavement, right in front of the distribution office of Özgür Ülke in Diyarbakir. His legs can no longer carry him. It’s icy cold this early December morning but he doesn’t feel it. He is crying. The paper. The paper has been bombed. One question keeps running through his mind in a panic: how on earth are people going to find out the truth now?

To him, the truth is Özgür Gündem. The paper, which has had fourteen different names over the years because of publication bans and fines and is now being published again under its original name, started in 1992 as the first one to report on the Kurdish issue. Kurds officially don’t exist in Turkey, their language is forbidden, like any expression of Kurdish culture. In the Turkish media nationalism reigns supreme, problems in the south-east of the country, mainly inhabited by Kurds (‘mountain Turks’), don’t get any attention.

With division, you won’t win the war

The coming into existence of papers like Özgür Gündem and several weekly and monthly magazines of the same publisher, is directly connected to the establishment of the PKK in 1978 and the first attack by the group in 1984. The PKK was a Marxist-based separatist group in those days. The goal was to be reached with violence, but also with a growing Kurdish conscience. The last Kurdish uprising in Turkey was in 1938 in the province of Dersim and was brutally suppressed, the assimilation of the Kurdish people is in full swing and many Kurds are not even aware of their identity, let alone of the marginal position of their segment of society.

The PKK is changing that. The organisation doesn’t hide in its training and base camps in Syria and Lebanon, but sends representatives to Kurdish regions to win support and recruit new fighters. In that way it manages to get into the veins of Kurdish society – and become the leading Kurdish power. Whoever wants to turn the newly won Kurdish identity into, for example, political or journalistic action, can do that only with implicit support of the PKK. Division among Kurds is forbidden. With division, you won’t win the war.

And the war is intense. The state approaches the violence of the PKK purely as a terrorism problem – a Kurdish issue after all doesn’t exist. It’s hard against hard. And not only between the PKK and the Turkish army. The army burns down hundreds of Kurdish villages, forests and agricultural lands in an effort to rob the PKK of its hide-outs -and supply points. The villagers can choose: leave, or become ‘village guards’, in other words help fight the PKK with arms supplied by the state.

Özgür Gündem reports from the Kurdish perspective

A stream of refugees to the cities – Diyarbakir, Istanbul, Adana, Izmir – starts. The Yakut family flees from the hamlet of Kulboga to Baglar, a district in the heart of Diyarbakir. Within a few years Baglar becomes over-populated, the unemployment and poverty are overwhelming.

Anyone who is politically active in those years and supports the PKK or is suspected of supporting it, will inevitably end up in trouble. Jitem, the secret death squads of the army, carries out hundreds of extra-judicial executions and dump the bodies in wells, rivers and valleys. Thousands of Kurds are being locked up – the prison of Diyarbakir, where the torture is so severe it often leads to death – is one of the most notorious in the world. The PKK is killing too: it doesn’t only fire on military targets, but also civilian ones and gets rid of opponents within its own ranks.

Özgür Gündem reports these matters from the Kurdish perspective. From the PKK perspective. The PKK doesn’t directly interfere with the content of the newspaper, but the paper always gives consideration to its message. And very directly too: if the PKK has something to share with the world, then they deliver their statements to the paper and like-minded magazines, which often publish them in their entirety.

So the term ‘mouthpiece for the PKK’, as Kurdish media are often described by the Turkish state, is somewhat justified. At the same time the term reduces the papers to nothing more than that. Unfairly, because Özgür Gündem surely engages journalism, brings news and backgrounds that can’t be read anywhere else and gives the Kurds the voice they never had in Turkey.

If only he had been healthy

For Yilmaz, Özgür Gündem is the truth. But it’s not only for that reason that he keeps on distributing the paper. They can arrest and torture him hundreds of times, but they can’t stop him. And if he is in pain, if he has an attack of epilepsy, worsened by the beatings, occurs and he just falls down on the street, if he doesn’t succeed in escaping from the police in the small backstreets of his city and he is flogged again, he thinks of the fighters in the mountains. He reads about them in the paper. They are having a hard time. He isn’t.

If only he could have joined the PKK. If only he had been healthy. Then they wouldn’t have rejected him when he stepped forward to fight. A PKK fighter with epilepsy, he knows it can never be, but still… They urged him to keep supporting the Kurdish struggle in the city. He takes that task seriously and won’t disavow it under any circumstances.

One of the PKK fighters he often thinks of is his brother and fellow newspaper distributor, Nihat. He swapped his job in the city for a life as a guerrilla in the mountains, just like nine other young men from the Yakut family.


Mevlude quarelled with her sons sometimes. Nihat, her oldest, distributed papers and dragged his younger brother Yilmaz along with him. What was wrong with Yilmaz’ job at a leather company? Why did he, an epileptic, have to deliver newspapers too? More often than not they came home damaged, if they came home at all, but rather spent the night in a police cell. And what were the piles of newspapers doing in her house? What were they doing that was apparently bothering the police so much that they entered the house by force every now and then, turned everything upside down and banged her sons with their heads against the wall until they bled?

Nihat has told her about what’s in the paper. She can’t read herself, especially not Turkish, since she speaks only Kurdish. The backgrounds, the history, the uprising, the politics, she doesn’t really understand. But Nihat convinced her that he is doing it all for the freedom of their people. That he will continue doing that and that nobody, not even his mother, can change his mind.
So now Mevlude supports her sons. When they leave the house in the morning to distribute the papers, she throws water after them. It protects them against misfortune.


Yilmaz Yakut. Behind him portraits of Kurdish journalists who were killed. Click to enlarge.

Yilmaz is still alive. There have been a few close shaves. The police threatened so often to kill him if he didn’t stop distributing the paper, but they didn’t succeed.

Also in March 2006 Yilmaz had a narrow escape. There are clashes lasting for days between the police and the inhabitants of Baglar. It’s one of the areas where Yilmaz distributes papers, and clashes or no clashes, he delivers them. He gets arrested and his family only sees him again four days later, when he faces a judge. He is in a worse state than ever before. His jaw is broken and dislocated, his head is bleeding, there is blood coming out of his ear. His clothes are drenched in blood.

Yilmaz is set free. Mevlude and her sons take him to hospital. When he has recovered enough, they take him home. She feeds him with yoghurt and crushed biscuits.

Nihat is dead. They only heard ten months after he lost his life in a battle with the army, in November 1998. His remains were never buried, just left in the mountains. Another eight members of the Yakut family who joined the PKK didn’t survive. Of them, only Hikmet and Ihsan have an official final resting place. The tenth Yakut that fought with the PKK, Beyazit, was arrested and is serving a long prison sentence.


10 September 2012.

Nine months after the mass arrests, the trial against 44 Kurdish journalists starts. The biggest trial against press freedom in the history of the Turkish republic.
For Hüseyin Aykol, December 1994 and December 2011 are indissolubly connected to each other: both the bombs and the trial are meant to silence the Kurdish press. In the bombing one colleague died, but over the years 76 people working for the paper either as a journalist or distributor were murdered. Özgür Gündem had many publication bans, the last in March this year. Also the millions of liras of fines sometimes forced the paper to close down temporarily.

To ‘eliminate’ Özgür Ülke

The ones that tried to silence him and his colleagues are still the same. At the end of November 1994 it was Prime Minister Tansu Ciller who signed the document of the National Security Council to ‘eliminate’ Özgür Ülke, in the wording of the eventually revealed document. And now, in 2012, it was Prime Minister Erdogan who admitted to having a deal with the judiciary to silence politically active Kurds: ‘If you deal with them judicially, we will do what’s necessary in parliament’.

But they are not successful. Also on 12 December 2011, the day after nine Özgür Gündem journalists were taken into custody and computers and other stuff were seized, the paper was back on the newsstands. Just like on 4 December 1994, the morning after the bomb. Other independent papers put their equipment at Özgür Gündem’s disposal and in no time they made a paper. A paper of, just like then, four pages.


‘Hey, Yilmaz, are you there again?’ Yilmaz’ colleagues call out when he arrives at work. ‘You don’t have to come in to work, you know that don’t you?’ They get him a chair, he’s so unstable on his feet that they can hardly bare to look at him. Yilmaz smiles, and says: ‘It’s my job. I take that seriously, you know that.’ His dentures and his badly healed jaw make it hard to understand him these days. He drinks the tea his colleagues give him.

‘It’s good to see you here’, says colleague Tahsin. ‘Just as it was good in the old days to see you come around the corner again with your hand cart with its secret stash of papers. But please, take a rest, you deserve it’.
But Yilmaz is unstoppable. When he finishes his tea, he gets up. He walks to the depot of the parks and gardens department of the Diyarbakir municipality, gets a watering can, fills it with water and sprinkles the lawn. His colleagues are watching from a distance, shake their heads and smile.

He owes it to his people

Delivering papers was no longer possible. Oh it was sweet to be able to distribute them openly after in 2002 the state of emergency was lifted in the whole of Southeast Turkey and distributing the paper was no longer illegal. But his epileptic attacks have become so serious that it would be irresponsible to carry on. What if he had a seizure outside his own neighbourhood, where people may not know him and wouldn’t know what to do? His colleagues at the parks department know exactly what to do, they keep an eye on him.

Yilmaz’ job basically only exists on paper. The Diyarbakir municipality, for many years governed by pro-Kurdish party BDP, has a special programme for people who became disabled while contributing to the Kurdish struggle. Yilmaz was eligible. The parks and gardens department hired him. He doesn’t really have to show up, and his illness and handicaps also hardly allow him to. But Yilmaz comes in on the days he feels well enough. He waters the flowers and picks the weeds. He owes it to his people. That’s how he feels.

For this article use was also made of these two books:
* Ape Musa’nin kücük generalleri (The little generals of Ape Musa), by Nihat Hikmet Senol, Aram publishers, 2008.
* Susturulamayanlar (The ones that can’t be silenced), by Hüseyin Aykol, Aram publishers, 2012.

Happy Kurds in Denderleeuw

Denderleeuw – ‘We won!’ An employee of the Kurdish channel RojTV, broadcasting under a Danish license, enters the newsroom with a phone in his hand. He is on the line to Denmark, where the judge just announced the verdict in a case against RojTV, which is accused by the Turkish government of being a terrorist channel. Then everybody cheers: ‘We won!’ Shortly afterwards some people do a Kurdish folk dance, they sing, tears are flowing. RojTV will go on.

Five minutes earlier it’s very silent in the newsroom of RojTV, a satellite channel with millions of viewers in Turkey, surrounding countries and Europe. Everybody nervously awaits the verdict of the Danish judge. Under pressure from Turkey, the prosecutor has opened a case to get RojTV closed down for having ties with terrorism. More precisely: with the Kurdish PKK movement , which is still fighting a bitter war with the Turkish army, from bases in the North of Iraq.

RojTV covers what’s going on in Kurdish areas. Uncensored: funerals, demonstrations, bombardments, arrests. It’s been, to say the least, an irritant for the Turkish government and population for years. The very existence of RojTV and the fact that it is able to broadcast without any trouble from Belgium with a Danish licence, is in Turkish eyes the ultimate proof that Europe doesn’t take Turkey’s ‘fight against terrorism’ seriously.

According to broadcasting coordinator Ferda Cetin, of course RojTV has nothing to do with terrorism, he explains before the verdict is out: ‘We show the daily realities of Kurdistan. And that just doesn’t involve peaceful picnics.’ And the uplifting, sometimes even aggressive music, why is that necessary? Cetin: ‘If there is reason to be angry, we also express that in the music that accompanies the news. That matches the emotions of our viewers.’

Before the judge speaks, the journalists at RojTV have no idea how the verdict will turn out. They trust the Danish judge because, they say, they don’t have ties with the PKK, so nobody can prove these ties exist. On the other hand: the pressure from both Turkey and the United States is enormous. ‘The question is’, says journalist Cahit Mervan, ‘whether the Danish judge will make a political decision, or whether he dares not do that.’

The judge decides RojTV can continue its broadcasting. ‘Democracy does exist!’ one of the journalists cries out in the newsroom after the verdict. The group dancing gets bigger and moves to the studio, from where it goes straight on air. The inhabitants of the sleepy town of Denderleeuw, close to Brussels, probably have no idea what’s going on in that building next to the big Carrefour supermarket.

The promised land – refugees in Turkey

Turkey is trying to bring its laws on refugees into line with Europe’s. In the meantime, refugees and asylum seekers who reach safety in Turkey live in a legal and social wasteland.

(published December 2009)

Several Turkish newspapers called it a disgrace last spring, when in Didim, a town on Turkey’s west coast, 65 people were forced to camp in the garden of a government building. These people were refugees from Palestine, Eritrea, Somalia and Iraq. And the pictures didn’t lie: there were children among them. And even though the authorities gave blankets and mattresses, the children were cold at night, wrote the papers with chocolate-thick letters. And, they added, the fact that the government didn’t offer these people a roof over their heads was a disgrace.
As if this was an exception to the rule. The Turkish authorities never provide shelter for refugees, and showed their humanitarian side only by handing out blankets and mattresses. The really exceptional aspect of the situation in Didim was that the deplorable situation of refugees in Turkey hardly ever becomes so visible. Usually refugees stay in a hovel in a dilapidated part of Istanbul, or with whole families in old, dark and smelly buildings in remote Anatolian cities.

Sometimes, they make it into the papers because they are found dead, for example in the sea between Turkey and Greece, (the refugees in Didim were also on the way to Greece when their boat broke down). Or in a field somewhere, dumped by a truck driver who discovered he was no longer transporting living people but dead ones. Or in the mountainous area between Iran and Turkey – where they are sometimes found frozen to death by shepherds reaching meadows high in the mountains where the snow has just melted.

The next procedure

It sounds unbelievable, but it’s true: according to Turkish law, asylum seekers are Europeans who need protection. Anyone coming from a non-European country to seek asylum doesn’t have chance. That’s the amazing consequence of the so-called ‘geographical limitation’ that Turkey has used since 1967 under the Geneva Convention of 1951. At the time, numerous other countries decided to limit the regions from where they would admit asylum seekers, but only Monaco and Turkey still maintain that policy.
As a result, asylum seekers go through the whole procedure at UN refugee organisation UNHCR, which has several offices in Turkey. For the months (or years) that the procedure takes, they have no rights. No right to income, no right to a roof over their heads, no right to health care. But they do need to obtain a residence permit every half a year for every family member, costing 300 lira (about € 150,-) per person. If they are recognised as refugees, then the next procedure starts: resettlement in a ‘third country’, usually Canada, the United States or Australia. Staying in Turkey is impossible, because of the geographical limitation. The problem is that if a third country is willing to accept the refugee, then Turkey only lets him or her go when the residence permits for the whole stay are paid for. For a family, this can reach thousands of lira. Until they are paid, the refugee has to stay in Turkey – and the cost of the residence permits keeps mounting up.

Open air prison

‘Turkey should take more responsibility when it comes to asylum seekers and refugees,’  says Metin Çorabatir, spokesman for UNHCR headquarters in Turkey’s capital, Ankara. ‘A geographical limitation isn’t fitting for a country that is such an active member of the international community and at the moment even has a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.’
The situation now is ‘messy’, says Çorabatir. Just a minute ago, he got a phone call from a man from Iraq. He was recognised as a refugee by the UNHCR and was now waiting for resettlement in a third country. ‘The people he shares a house with are also from Iraq and they are about to leave for Canada. He also put in a request for Canada, but now it turns out that Canada has already reached its annual quota for ‘invited refugees’, so this Iraqi can’t get away from Turkey this year. Another year without rights, another year without a chance to build a new life. Turkey is effectively like an open air prison for asylum seekers and refugees.’

Since 2005 Turkey has had a ‘national action plan’ for refugees. A group of civil servants at the Ministry of Internal Affairs is busy adapting refugee laws to European standards. Quite an operation, because besides a law, a whole ‘refugee infrastructure’ is needed: refugee centres, centres where the first application can be made, training personnel and civil servants, educating the public. Inevitably the last move will be to abolish the geographical limitation.

Turkish fears

Originally, lifting the geographical limitation was planned for 2012, but it has been delayed indefinitely. Fear is the problem, says Professor of Migration Studies, Ahmet Içduygu of the Koç University in Istanbul: ‘Turkey is scared that enormous numbers of refugees will come knocking at its door once it becomes a settlement country. And this fear is not without reason, as Turkey borders Iraq and Iran, and Afghan refugees also enter Turkey through Iran. These are the very countries from which many refugees have been fleeing for decades.’ The number of asylum seekers registering at the UNHCR in Turkey is rising: in 2008 there were about 13,000, up from 4,550 in 2006. By comparison, in the Netherlands in 2008 about 15,000 people applied for asylum.

A deeper Turkish fear arises from the troublesome relationship with the EU. Negotiations were opened in 2005 with the set aim of Turkey entering the EU, but since then a lot has changed. Influential countries like France and Germany don’t support Turkish membership any more, the European people have shown in the last elections that they are not looking forward to further expansion of the EU and also the Turks are no longer as enthusiastic as before. In other words, what if Turkey lifts the geographical limitation and after that does not become an EU member? Then the EU borders a country where asylum seekers can be kept outside Europe with a clear conscience. That’s exactly why Turkey has decided to lift the geographical limitation only when the accession date to the EU is set firmly. ‘The EU’, says Içduygu, ‘doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge Turkish fears. You can not on the one hand demand that Turkey lift the limitation and at the same time keep the country at a distance when it comes to EU membership.’

Many small roads

From Van, a city in the east of Turkey with half a million inhabitants, it’s less than 100 kilometers to the Iranian border. In the city many signs point the way to ‘Iran’, but all lead to the only road that goes direct to the neighbouring country. The many small roads in this inhospitable area, covered under a thick layer of snow from autumn until spring, are full of gendarmes.  Anyone with no business here – and that includes journalists with an official press accreditation – is ordered to return to the city right away. And asylum seekers who choose these roads to leave Iran are sometimes literally picked up and deposited back across the border. This is a breach of the deal the Turkish authorities have with the UNHCR: anybody who seems to want to apply for asylum has to be told of the opportunity to register at one of the UNHCR offices in Turkey.

Glittering jewellery

Van has such an office. That’s why asylum seekers from Iran and Afghanistan who manage to get past the gendarmes settle down here. They add colour to the city, especially the Iranian women: where Turkish women with a headscarf in this part of the country choose grey modesty, the Iranians draw attention with scarves in bright colours that only cover the hair half-way, and with make up and glittering jewellery.

This is in sharp contrast to their houses. In a street in the city centre, a steel door unexpectedly gives access to a big building intended to house small businesses. Now asylum seekers are crammed into it. The walls of the former offices, nine to twelve square meters in size, were once painted pink, but are dirty now. There is just enough space for a bed, a small carpet, a hat stand, a few boxes for storing things. A hole in the back wall leads to another few square meters, and only a curtain screens off the toilet and a tiny cooking area. No windows, no fresh air. If you see children running around on the landings of the first and second floors, you hold your breath: the balustrade is not really close-meshed and a child could easily fall through. The steep rickety iron stairs appear life-threatening even for adults.

Nasrin Hasannahah (36), her husband Ismail (37) and their toddler daughter Niyoşa might be forced to move here soon. At the moment, the family has a place of their own, but they haven’t been able to pay the rent of fifty lira a month (about 23 euros) for six months now. Nasrin shows their little house and seems to be a bit ashamed. On entering, a big hole in the ceiling draws attention; underneath it on the carpet are pieces of reeds that keep falling down from the hole. The walls and the ceiling of the living room are partly black from moisture, and she really doesn’t want to show the kitchen. ‘There, around the corner’, she points. Around the corner a dark space, on the floor one gas bottle to cook on, no kitchen sink unit but a small tap with a bucket underneath. ‘In Iran we were not poor. We had a spacious apartment, with washing machine, and dishwasher, we were short of nothing. And now look at this.’

Pay the rent or buy diapers

Nasrin and Ismail have been living in Van for two years now. Nasrin learned Turkish rather quickly and earns part of the family income by translating for Iranians and Afghans who ask for help at the women’s centre in Van. Ismail takes any job he can get, like carrying things and painting, but it doesn’t earn much. Recently they were recognised as refugees by the UNHCR and are waiting for resettlement in a third country.
In the meantime, the landlord is getting impatient. ‘He is kind and takes our situation into consideration’, says Nasrin, ‘but of course, he can’t rent his house to us for free, I understand that. But we have to choose: pay the rent or buy food and diapers.’ The rent in the former office building is higher – but where will they ever find something cheaper than 50 lira per month? ‘Maybe we will have to share a room with others’, she says.

For a few years now asylum seekers in Turkey have been allowed to work. But the conditions for a legal job are absurd: it’s only possible if the potential employer applies for a work permit, and that is only granted if there is no Turk available to do the job. It leaves asylum seekers no other choice than to work illegally. To a certain extent the Iranians and Afghans in Van are lucky. Van is the biggest city in the region and offers some possibilities for work, and the civil servants in charge are not the strictest: they are rather well-informed about the situation asylum seekers are in, know most of the faces and are willing to turn a blind eye to illegal work.

A stamp every other day

The situation of many other asylum seekers is quite different. After they have registered with both the UNHCR and local police, the Turkish authorities send them to one of the thirty so-called ‘satellite cities’, provincial towns that are designated as living places for asylum seekers who are proceeding through UNHCR channels. Ibrahim Kavlak, head of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) in Ankara: ‘Tokat, in the north of central Anatolia, is one of the satellite cities. I know a young asylum seeker who lived in Istanbul for some time. He was good with computers and in Istanbul he could earn a reasonable income with that. Then he was forced to move to Tokat. But even Turks leave Tokat because there is no work there. So what’s an asylum seeker going to do there? Overnight the guy was left without any income.’

The police in each satellite city define how often asylum seekers have to come to get a stamp to prove they actually stay in the city. ‘In some cities, this stamping has to be done daily’, says Kavlak, ‘in others once or twice a week. If you have to go get a stamp every day or every other day before five o ‘clock, you can’t combine that with a job. The working days in Turkey are long, and of course illegal work is insecure. What asylum seeker would ask his boss to leave work early that often, what boss would agree to it? This way, asylum seekers are not given the opportunity to earn an income.’


And little or no income means sleeping in a barn or in a hovel, or sharing a space with too many people. In some satellite cities there are charities that rent houses for the use of asylum seekers. The women’s organisation in Van, for example, has a building where about 25 women can stay temporarily. The UNHCR in Van regularly sends single Afghan or Iranian women to the shelter. But usually they don’t stay there long: they prefer to find a place to live together, for example in the few bigger rooms that the former office building has available. In such rooms, women come and go, visitors are offered a beer – strict Muslims seem absent here – and children run and crawl around freely.

In Istanbul, a metropolis of 16 million inhabitants, the foreigners don’t form a group in a building, but populate whole neighbourhoods. Katip Kasim is such a neighbourhood. If you walk westwards along the waterfront from Aya Sophia and Topkapi Palace, you will certainly come across the first signs of asylum seekers and economic refugees: Africans who try to earn a living selling fake watches and perfumes in the parks alongside the Marmara Sea. Katip Kasim is old, poor and dilapidated, and the houses in the worst condition are where the immigrants live, most of them from countries like Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan. A few of them took the effort to apply for asylum at UNHCR, but the majority prefer to map out their route to the west by themselves.

Sleeping in shifts

Staying in Istanbul is not an option for these Africans. Whoever you speak with, nobody has been in Istanbul longer than about eleven or twelve months. In other words, the African community renews itself all the time. And unlike the UNHCR- recognised refugees, they don’t leave for ‘third countries’, but for Europe. Ali, who is in his twenties and from Mali, has been in Turkey now for six months. He says: ‘In Turkey you don’t have any rights and Turks speak only Turkish. In Europe, you can get a lawyer and there is more work.’ Makiyo (25) from Somalia: ‘I’ve been in Istanbul now for 29 days. I have family in Western countries, they send me money. I try to save that as much as possible, so I can leave here after not too long.’ Bashir (18), also from Somalia: ‘I paid a lot of money to come to Greece, but ended up in Istanbul instead. So now I have to try to get some money again, so I can still go to Greece.’

They seem to put up with the awful living conditions. In a room with four bunk beds 32 men are living: they sleep in shifts of six hours. On the upper floor of the house there are rooms for women and children. The women don’t sit up straight on the beds, because there is not enough space on the lower part of the bunks. Children – with carefully braided hair – stick to the dirty floor with their hands and feet every time they make a move, and now and then stumble over broken electrical wires and multiple sockets that are lying everywhere. Don’t lean against the walls here: they are only thin, made of cardboard.
Of course it’s this group that especially worries the European Union. As soon as they have enough money, they book an illegal trip to Greece and off they go. From several places on the Turkish west coast, it’s only ten or twenty kilometers to a European country. The discussions between Europe and Greece are often heated: in 2002 the countries agreed that Turkey would take back asylum seekers who obviously came through Turkey to get to Greece, but of 25,000 cases Turkey took back only 1,600, according to a Greek migration institute.

Turkish passport

There is something peculiar about Iranian Nasrin and her husband Ismail. They say they are waiting for resettlement in a European country. They turned down an offer from the United States, (Nasrin: ‘My ex husband lives there with many members of his family and I’m terrified of them’) and they also declined offers from Australia and Canada. Just why, remains totally unclear, or it must be that they simply want to go to Europe. But Europe doesn’t accept UNHCR-recognised refugees from Turkey. Does she know that this means that they will have to stay in Turkey, without rights? ‘Well, if it has to be that way, we have to accept it’, says Nasrin. ‘Niyoşa was born in Turkey and can get a Turkish passport later on, so for her everything will be okay.’

You could see it as an early sign of the change that will be inevitable in the long run. The geographical limitation will not exist much longer, and if everybody keeps promises made earlier, Turkey will become an EU member. By then Turkey will surely have developed into a country where life is good, in terms of both material prosperity and human rights. Then Turkey will no longer be a springboard to the West, but will itself be part of the West. And Turkey will have become a country where refugees will want to stay.