Turkish asylum seekers in Greece tell of lives full of fear in Erdoğan’s Turkey

Erkan (not his real name) says he was jailed and tortured because he is a member of the Gülen movement. Photo: DW

German media outlet Deutsche Welle (DW) has written that “fear and uncertainty has been spreading in Turkey for years,” as it reported on Turks’ reflections who recently fled from Turkey to neighbouring Greece on what compelled them to left their country.

According to the report by Marianna Karakoulaki and Dimitris Tosidis from Thessaloniki, a Turkish citizen, Serhat, 24, who is a political activist and member of a progressive-leftist organization was an active participant in İstanbul’s leftist scene; now he lives and studies Greek literature in Thessaloniki and is an active member of a leftist student union.”My story does not have to do with escaping the state per se — It’s more complex and the reasons are many,” he says.

In October 2015 Serhat was planning to go to a protest in Ankara but decided to stay in İstanbul as his father was ill that day. Hours later two explosions went off at the protest Serhat had meant to attend.

“Some people I knew from the progressive-leftist political space were among the dead. For me that day was the turning point. Political repression was evident,” Serhat says. “We could no longer organize and participate in political protests. They led us to silence ourselves. Friends of mine were imprisoned. Yet things became even worse after the coup [attempt],” he continues.

According to report by DW, “Turkey’s character has changed; the people’s political mindset has shifted. It’s not just [Turkish President] Erdoğan and [his party] AKP, but the general wave of extreme conservatism — something that cannot be changed that easily,” he said.

Dominika Spyratou of the Greek NGO SolidarityNow, which provides assistance to refugees, says that more than 1,000 Turkish citizens came to Greece seeking asylum after the July 2016 failed coup, while almost 300 Turkish families are now in Thessaloniki.

Sabahattin and Erkan (not his real name) met at a detention facility for migrants in northern Greece but they now live in Thessaloniki. They had both crossed the Greek-Turkish land border in May. Both supporters of the Gülen movement felt they had no choice other than to flee the country.

According to the DW report, Sabahattin was a filmmaker and director in İstanbul before he decided to leave. He was also an active member in the Gülen movement. Before he left Turkey he had been trying to reunite with his wife, a Swedish citizen. “After the coup my passport was cancelled by the government, they later removed it from me and didn’t let me renew it. I was forced to come [to Greece] as I felt I was monitored,” he says.

Sabahattin believes that Erdoğan behaves like a dictator, but that he will not stay in power for long, despite the backing of a large part of Turkish society. But until then, he fears what might happen to those like him who have supported the Gülen movement. “We have heard of kidnappings, and we know people who were kidnapped by Turkish intelligence officers. We are afraid that the same will happen to us,” he said.

DW reported that Erkan worked as a geologist at the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources in Ankara until, a month after the coup attempt, he was suddenly suspended. Sometime later he was arrested and accused of being one of the coup plotters and of killing the victims on that July night. In late December he was arrested. He refused to confess to the alleged crimes. The next day the authorities arrested his wife. Both were kept in jail for 10 days. Four months after his release, Erkan was again arrested. His wife went into hiding.

“I was taken to a large sports hall, about 160 government officials were there. They tried to make me sign a confession, and they threatened that they would kill me if I didn’t,” Erkan told DW. “I was handcuffed to a chair and my head was covered with a bag. They fired water from a firetruck’s hose at me and later placed huge blocks of ice on my lap. When they took a break, they asked me to sign the confession. I didn’t,” he says.

“They didn’t let us talk, they didn’t let us sleep on our backs, they didn’t let us sleep on the left side. Only on the right side. If during the night we turned sides a soldier would come and kick us. They gave us food that was inside blocks of ice, we had to melt the ice in order to eat.”

Erkan claims some people who had once held higher, political positions suffered worse abuse, and some were even raped. Erkan was put under house arrest. A day before the authorities were due to bring an ankle monitor to track his movements, he took his wife — who had remained in hiding — and his two children and headed to the Greek border. The family climbed in a small boat and crossed the Evros River to Greece. The following day he surrendered to the Greek authorities for entering the country illegally and asked for international protection.

Turkey survived a controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that killed 249 people. Immediately after the putsch, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government along with Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pinned the blame on the Gülen movement.

Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the movement, strongly denied having any role in the failed coup and called for an international investigation into it, but President Erdoğan — calling the coup attempt “a gift from God” — and the government initiated a widespread purge aimed at cleansing sympathizers of the movement from within state institutions, dehumanizing its popular figures and putting them in custody.

Turkey has suspended or dismissed more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and civil servants since July 15, 2016. Turkey’s Justice Ministry announced on July 13 that 50,510 people have been arrested and 169,013 have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.

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