University students using EU exchange programs to seek asylum, says Turkish Ministry of Education

University students who are leaving Turkey under the European Union’s Erasmus exchange program are applying for asylum in European countries, according to a recent circular issued by the Turkish Ministry of Education.

The Sözcü daily reported that the ministry sent a circular to provincial directorates of education warning them that increasing numbers of students were seeking asylum and that students who were at a “high risk of [seeking] asylum” should be excluded from the Erasmus program.

According to the circular, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a report to the Education Ministry saying students and some teachers enrolled in exchange programs were quitting mid-program and were looking for ways to permanently stay in European countries.

Nearly 20,000 students in Turkey enroll in the Erasmus program each year. According to the program conditions, they can only stay in Europe for a year, after which they must return to Turkey. However, in the last 15 years more than 500,000 students have applied for asylum.

The Ministry of Education asked provincial directorates to meticulously investigate Erasmus program candidates to protect the reputation of Turkey in international programs and funds.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government have been increasing pressure on students and academics in recent years. In a controversial move, the Interior Ministry sent circulars to governor’s offices earlier this month requesting that universities closely monitor student activities, raising concerns that government pressure on students was increasing.

According to the circular universities were ordered to crack down on drug use and prevent terrorist organizations from recruiting on their campuses. Moreover, universities were requested to closely monitor the activities of student clubs and platforms.

However, it raised eyebrows among students, academics and legal experts, who argue that the government is aiming to crack down on student freedoms and free speech.

Increasing numbers of students have been detained for attending events such as the Pride March and housing shortage protests.

Many other students have been arrested for alleged links to the faith-based Gülen movement, which the government accuses of masterminding a coup attempt on July, 15, 2016 and labels a “terrorist organization,” although the movement strongly denies involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.

Furthermore, hundreds of students protesting the appointment of pro-government rectors to Boğaziçi University have been detained since early 2021.

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