Politics & The World

On 20 March 2016, the siblings Javid and Nahid Raoufi and their friend Abdul Majid Rahimi arrived on the Greek island of Chios after having fled Afghanistan via Turkey. Upon arrival, they were detained in the so-called „Hotspot“ of Vial, an EU-initiated registration facility for asylum seekers converted into a detention centre. There, they had to endure abhorrent detention conditions: neither did they have access to medical care nor was the food sufficient or of acceptable quality. The sanitary conditions were appalling, with frequent cuts in water supply and extremely dirty toilets and showers.

Their story is not only one about personal suffering, but about the EU abandoning its commitment to human rights and international protection in the name of migration control. The day Mr and Ms Raoufi and Mr Rahimi reached Chios, the EU-Turkey statement of 18 March 2016, known as the EU-Turkey Deal, entered into force. It declares that any irregular migrant arriving on the Greek islands from Turkey will be sent back. This includes asylum seekers with inadmissible or unfounded claims. In exchange, the EU promised to resettle one Syrian from Turkey for every Syrian returned and to put in place a humanitarian scheme to take in more Syrian refugees from Turkey. The EU furthermore pledged to provide 6 billion € to support Syrian refugees in Turkey and to allow Turkish nationals visa-free entry into the Schengen Area. It is probably not very contentious to state that deporting asylum seekers to a country which hosts 3 million refugees, is mired in civil war and governed in an increasingly authoritarian fashion can hardly be considered a policy of providing international protection in a spirit of solidarity. What is more, the implementation of the deal raises serious questions as to its compliance with human rights and EU asylum law.

At Vial, Mr and Ms Raoufi and Mr Rahimi claimed asylum and on 19 April they filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights. They claim that they had not been informed of the reasons for their detention, that their detention was arbitrary and that they did not have access to legal aid or representation. Greek law allows for the detention of asylum seekers of up to 25 days with a possible extension of up to 3 months. The current policy appears to be to detain anybody arriving irregularly on the Greek Aegean islands for 25 days and then to release them with a restriction order, limiting freedom of movement to the island concerned, but the three claimants have been detained for longer. The complaint also alleges that the detention conditions at Vial amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment. The claimants’ reports in this regard have been confirmed by NGOs such as Human Rights Watch: In both the open and the detention sections of the “Hotspots”, extreme overcrowding forces people to sleep on the floor and in small tents. The hygienic conditions are extremely poor, with toilets overflowing and feces covering the surrounding floor. Medical care is either absent or insufficient and asylum seekers report frequent violent clashes and high levels of sexualized violence and harassment, which the Greek authorities did not provide protection against. Frequently, women, families and unaccompanied minors are not provided separate accommodation.

This state of affairs violates EU asylum law and the European Convention on Human Rights in multiple ways. Under the EU Reception Conditions Directive, detention of asylum seekers must be based on an individualized assessment. It may be applied only if a less coercive measure would not be adequate and if it is necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim. The policy to automatically detain all asylum seekers violates these requirements. Furthermore, both the EU Reception Conditions Directive and the European Convention on Human Rights require that detainees must be informed about the reasons of their detention and be granted the possibility to challenge its legality before a judge – this did not happen in the case of Mr and Ms Raoufi and Mr Rahimi. Unfortunately, this seems to be the norm rather than the exception.

Furthermore, the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment; the EU Reception Conditions Directive grants asylum seekers an adequate standard of living which guarantees subsistence, protects mental and physical health and, in any event, covers basic needs. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly held that detention conditions in Greek detention facilities for asylum seekers amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment – the claimants had been detained in overcrowded facilities under appalling hygienic conditions, without access to showers or clean toilets. Judging by the complaint of Mr and Ms Raoufi and Mr Rahimi as well as NGO reports, EU funding and support have not prevented the same deplorable and illegal detention conditions from materializing in the „Hotspots“.

Besides the illegality of the detention practice, the plan to return asylum seekers whose application is declared inadmissible to Turkey raises serious legal issues. This part of the deal is applied via admissibility interviews on the basis of which the Greek Asylum Service determines if Turkey is a safe third country or a first country of asylum for the interviewed asylum seeker – the logic being that a person for whom this is the case can avail themself of protection in Turkey.

For a country to be a safe third country under the EU Asylum Procedures Directive, there may neither exist a risk of persecution nor of serious harm, e.g. through torture or armed conflict. Furthermore, there must be no risk of a further deportation to a situation where such risk exists and there has to exist the possibility to apply for refugee status and to receive protection in accordance with the Geneva Refugee Convention. For a country to constitute a first country of asylum, the applicant must have been granted refugee status or enjoy an otherwise „sufficient protection“ in that country. It seems logical to assume that the requirements for such sufficient protection should be as demanding as they are with regard to the safe third country standard.

As of 15 June, the Greek committees that decide on the appeals against inadmissibility decisions of asylum claims have denied that Turkey is a safe third country in 70 out of 72 cases. This is because there are NGO reports about mass expulsions of asylum seeking Iraqis and Syrians to their countries of origin from Turkey as well as about violent rejections of asylum seekers at the Turkish borders. Furthermore, the committees doubt that the temporary protection status which Syrian refugees are granted in Turkey amounts to protection in accordance with the Geneva Refugee Convention, as it is often only granted with unacceptable delays, does not allow for access to the labour market and is only of temporary nature. Non-Syrians can obtain a „conditional protection“ status – however, this hardly seems to be applied in practice. Against this backdrop, returns to Turkey cannot be considered safe, although the Turkish government has provided assurances that deported Syrians will be granted temporary protection and that other returned persons will be protected from deportation to a situation where their life or liberty would be at risk. The appeals decisions demonstrate that the Greek institutions are capable of providing an independent scrutiny of the deal’s implementation. But as they call into question the entire scheme, they also put the Greek administration under enormous political pressure to overcome this obstacle to a smooth execution of the deportations.

The EU Commission maintains its assessment that Turkey is a safe third country and that the temporary protection available to Syrians amounts to protection in accordance with the Geneva Refugee Convention. It welcomed a recent reform which changes the composition of the Greek appeals committees and scraps a second hearing before the appeals decision – ostensibly to speed up proceedings. Most commentators however fear that the recomposition of the committees will undermine their independence; in an open letter, members of the previous appeals committees accused the Greek Migration Ministry of recklessly trying to clear the way for mass deportations to Turkey.

Hence, the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal violates EU asylum law and the European Convention on Human Rights in multiple ways: with regard to the legality of the detention of asylum seekers in Greek „Hotspots“, the appalling detention conditions and the assumption that asylum seekers can safely be returned to Turkey. This has not hindered the deal’s implementation, although article 2 of the Treaty on European Union declares respect for human dignity, human rights and the rule of law to be amongst the EU’s founding values. The EU and its member states seem content to betray their values, as long as this brings down the arrivals of asylum seekers at their shores. It is people like Mr and Ms Raoufi and Mr Rahimi who bear the cost. Ms Raoufi reportedly intented to commit suicide twice since being detained.



Simon Rau also published this article already in March on the Mercator Blog: https://nefia.org/blogs/Simon-Rau/The-implementation-of-the-EU-Turkey-Deal-betrays-European-Values

Politics & The World

  • From Istanbul, reports Sebastian Franzkowiak

Fans of Game of Thrones or House of Cards are used to incredible turns and twists in the series’ plots. Violence, intricate power games and cold-blooded calculations are constant features of those shows and shed a negative light on politics. What is going on in Ankara might be increasingly seen as one of the latest episodes developed by writers for HBO or Netflix. Taken to the extremes, Turkish politics are also a game, with an aspiring Sultan trying to impose his rule over his realm. Let’s take a look at an anecdote from last week to clarify:

The leading article in Günes, one of the most government-friendly Turkish newspapers, blamed the recent bomb attack in Istanbul on Germany, which had allegedly not been able to ‘cope with the harsh Turkish reaction’ to the Bundestag’s recent resolution acknowledging the Armenian genocide. Subsequently, President Erdoğan announced an ‘action plan against Germany’, publically denouncing the members of German parliament of Turkish origin as co-conspirators with terrorist forces in Turkey. When most German newspapers criticised Turkey’s reaction and direct attack on the parliamentarians, the Turkish narrative went so far as to present this as a clear proof that press freedom in Germany was under threat.

Conspiracies like this are as recurrent as is the public bemoaning of officials of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), who feel notoriously disadvantaged and discredited by alleged ‘enemies’ from both within and outside Turkey. We are not in the realm of fictional TV series, but paradoxically it appears that as the discourses by Turkish politicians become increasingly unpredictable and absurd, the AKP rules the country as unchallenged as never before. What is going on in Turkey, a country that was cherished as the rising regional force in the Middle East, a growing economic power and as some tend (or would like) to forget, which is still an official EU accession candidate?

A self-inflicted predicament

Part of Turkey’s current predicament is self-inflicted. Take the Kurds. One year ago, the pro-Kurdish HDP landed a major election success by entering Turkish Parliament. For the first time since thirteen years, the AKP had failed to win an absolute majority in the legislative elections. Observers were hoping for a more peaceful Turkey that could leave the past violence behind it. Instead of a continuous armed conflict between the militant Kurdish wing (PKK) and the Turkish army, Turkey’s Kurds would get the chance to use Parliament as an arena to assert their political rights. What an illusionary thinking.

One year on, HDP-Parliamentarians have a hard time in Turkey. Erdoğan did have two choices when the Kurdish party won a considerable number of votes in summer 2015: accommodating them in a coalition government or re-launching the conflict and scheduling new elections. The AKP managed to regain its absolute majority in the newly held November 2015 elections, and is now stronger than ever before: recently, the immunities of Kurdish parliamentarians were lifted and Erdoğan replaced the too critical Prime Minister Davutoğlu, with a less critical figurehead (Yildirim). The establishment of a semi-presidential system with a strong presidential mandate for Erdoğan seems to be a palpable vision. The Sultan-like personal empowerment strategy however happened at the expense of the peace process with the PKK and the conflict resumed increasing levels of violence.

Turkey in 2016 is a different country than it was only a year ago. You can literally feel that something is in the air when strolling through the streets of Istanbul. On Istiklal Street, the major shopping avenue, a suicide bomber had blown himself up in March 2016, inflicting the death of five tourists and many more wounded. It was another heavy blow in a chain of deadly attacks throughout the country that had started in autumn 2015, and already the second one in Istanbul including foreign tourists in 2016. Although life in a metropolis like Istanbul must go on, people are anxious about Turkey’s fate – as the country now faces the threat of both the Islamic State and Kurdish extremists willing to use bomb attacks for their political goals.

Failing in Syria and beyond

Turkey’s foreign policy failure in Syria is the major factor behind the Turkish predicament. While Turkey does a great job hosting more than two million Syrian refugees, Turkey’s room for manoeuvre in the Syrian conflict is constrained by opposing any solution involving Al-Asad. Moreover, uneasiness with the growing autonomy of Syria’s Kurds has put Ankara at odds with the United States, who favour the Kurds as effective fighters against ISIS. Ankara’s preferred solution – regime-change, will most probably not manifest itself in the near future. Too many things are at stake in Syria, and the global repercussions of the proxy-war mean that any final solution is beyond Turkey’s capacity to act. Furthermore, as long as Ankara does continue targeting PKK positions instead of decisively fighting ISIS, rumours about ties between ISIS and the AKP will not cease. Some officials speak of Turkey’s ‘precious loneliness’ in the Middle East, as Turkey would arguably benefit from having stood with the people that rose against autocratic regimes in the region in the long run. Realistically speaking, this is a strategy to mask failure to the Turkish public, particularly in Syria.

Arguably, the aspiring Sultan has to be careful that the wind does not blow too harshly from all sides. Despite Erdoğan’s conviction to ‘fight terrorists until the end’, and despite the apparent stability of the governing AKP, the actual prospects of a stabilisation of the situation are very unclear. Turkey appears to be in a flummoxed state. Usually, cordial ties with allied countries should be a top priority for Ankara. Messing up the relations with major international players – Russia, the US and now Germany to name a few – is not in the long-term interest of the government. Because finally, while there is some truth in the idea that especially the EU needs Turkey to manage the refugee crisis, Turkey also depends on its allies in terms of trade and investment relations. At worst, disenfranchising allies and purporting absurd discourses might reveal that the apparently stable house of cards can be knocked down. If Erdoğan does not recalibrate his risky posturing, a very long winter might be coming for Turkey.


cover image: flickr_cclicense

Politics & The World

by Hoai Tram Nguyen

“What time is it now?” was the most frequently asked question in Turkey on the 25th of October 2015. Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to delay the time change to winter time due to the upcoming national elections on Sunday, the 1st of November. Appointments were missed, flights were delayed, and frustrations towards “Erdogan’s time” grew.

Next to the special time initiation, particular news stations (the ones who were critical towards Erdogan) were hijacked from their broadcast, demonstrations were cracked down by police, and international attention on Turkey was high.

Why was Turkey holding the second parliamentary election within five months?

What is the reason behind internal tensions in the country?

And where did the high international interest in the elections come from?

Previous Elections
Turkey has been ruled by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2002. This changed however as the party lost its long-held majority for the first time in the elections earlier this year in June. Even more significant, their opposition, called the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) gained 80 seats and surpassed the threshold of 10% (with 12%) to enter Parliament for the first time in history.

This was significant because the HDP was the first pro-Kurdish party that succeeded to pass the threshold. Coalition talks failed – which was not a surprise taking into account Erdogan’s ambitious dream of a presidential instead of a parliamentary system.

The time in between the elections of June and November could be described as highly tense and divided. The outcome of the previous elections resulted in a rise of tensions between the Kurds and the nationalistic Turks. Still today, the Turkish-Kurdish peace process is far away from being a success.

At the end of July, President Erdogan emphasised in a statement that the peace process was impossible to continue “with those who threaten our national unity and brotherhood”. The situation became even more complicated when Turkey decided to bomb ISIS alongside with NATO, while simultaneously bombing camps of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq.

This led to growing violence on the east side of the country, which saw not only suffering among civilians rising, but also a return to the vicious circle of the Oslo Process negotiations which failed in 2011. Even though Turkey has shown great efforts in the evolution of granting Kurds equal citizenship rights, assimilation and acculturation are still a common phenomenon according to critics.

Recognition of Kurdish identity or not, visible internal violence was still growing in many parts of Turkey. Consequently, hundreds of people gathered for a peace-rally in Ankara to protest against the violence on the 10th of October. Tragically, these peaceful demonstrators became victims of a twin bomb attack, which killed more than 130 people.

The aftermath of these bombings was even grimmer – social media was shut down by the government for nearly a week. Fortunately, my Facebook was still half-functioning, and my Turkish friend was able to send me a message to warn me of upcoming demonstrations: “Please try to avoid Taksim/Beyoğlu for 2 days, the police will not hesitate to use water cannons, rubber bullets, and teargas”.

Demonstrators went on the streets and protests broke out like my friend predicted, as they were blaming the government for the attacks in Ankara. Their suspicion could be linked with the fact that the HDP organised the peace rally. In the period between the attack and the elections, many demonstrations have broken out, showing divisions in the country with brutal police force.
International Interest in Turkey

The world we are living in today shows how tightly interconnected we are. The war in Syria gave Turkey a significant role in global politics. The high flow of refugees that have reached the EU countries through Turkey has resulted in many talks between the EU and Turkey.

On the one hand, the EU needs a functioning Turkish government to cooperate with in the refugee crisis. On the other hand, the EU cannot ignore its values such as democracy, human rights, freedom of media etc. The latter is partially a major problem in the accession process of Turkey to the EU.

MEP Marietje Schaake put emphasis on this matter during a debate before the elections:
“The media is under serious and systematic pressure in Turkey. This is not just about insults, in fact it is about personal attacks on journalists, intimidation, excessive, politically-motivated tax fines on media companies, raid of media companies, personal violence used against a columnist recently. This is very very worrying and does not enable an environment and a debate for free elections”.

However, if one looks more critically at the situation, one could conclude that the EU was more focused on a stable government, rather than another hung parliament as the refugee crisis continues to affect the EU on daily basis. Priorities? Right…

It is too early to speculate on the future of the country after these elections. All we know is that Erdogan won back his majority votes (50% of the votes), enabling Turkey to be ruled by a single-party once again. However, the outcome must have disappointed Erdogan to a lower degree, as the AKP party only gained 316 seats, but would need 367 seats to change the constitution. Moreover, the HDP succeeded once again to pass the threshold (though lower this time, with 10%). How the country will progress now is still a question that no one can yet answer. Only time will tell, what I can say is: let’s hope for the best from all sides (internal and external).

Image by Democracy Chronicles, taken from flickr