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Reppression everywhere: Family who fled Erdoğan’s crackdown to be deported from Norway

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Bünyamin Tekin

Buket (42) and her husband Fatih (48) were once teachers. They found themselves in the middle of a widespread crackdown on civil society in Turkey that did not let up despite the plight of the victims. They lost their jobs, went to prison and were deprived of their rights because they were labeled as members of a demonized group and had to endure this for seven years with their three sons, who are now 20, 14 and 12.

When Buket tried to flee with eight others who shared the same fate in 2022, they were stripped of their clothes by Greek border guards, robbed of their belongings and pushed back to Turkey, most of them naked. Turkish soldiers taunted them, saying: “Who did you think would have you? Who did you turn to?”

In 2023 they managed to get to Croatia, hoping to find a safe haven there. Greece has traumatized Buket, and she has taken antidepressants. She can’t go back there, where she might encounter the same masked men who pushed her back.

There was no shortage of that kind of man in Croatia. Border guards surrounded them in a forest and harassed and abused them, even to the point of holding their children at gunpoint.

The goal was to find out where they came from as they did not have any documentation with them. Maybe it was a place Croatia could send them back to.

After experiencing what they had been through in Croatia, they went to Norway, where the EU-wide database showed that Buket’s fingerprints had been taken in Croatia, but not the fingerprints of her husband Fatih.

That is strange. Why? He was there with her. To find out, you have to go deeper and see how extralegal methods once associated with authoritarian regimes are permeating Europe’s borders and crushing helpless people in their midst.

And you have to do that to know why Norway, one of the richest countries in the world with an excellent system for even the worst in society, decided to deport this family back to Croatia even before their appeal process was completed.

Purge

After a failed coup in July 2016, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began a sweeping crackdown on civil society. More than a hundred media outlets and private schools were shut down, over 100,000 people were dismissed from the civil service and tens of thousands were detained and arrested across the country and tortured by law enforcement and prison guards. Many international organizations documented widespread torture in the months after the coup attempt. Many died due to the torture they endured. Like Gökhan Açıkkollu.

After the night of the coup, torture had become tolerated in Turkey, and the killing of certain people went unpunished that night. There was even a presidential decree that absolved from any responsibility the people who had committed crimes against the putschists in order to put the coup down.

This is a recipe for disaster in a country like Turkey, where the government uses broad and vaguely worded laws to prosecute opponents as terrorists or putschists.

This time, the terrorists were not Kurds advocating for the recognition of Kurdish identity, as has been the case for decades, but actual or perceived members of the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen.

President Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-prime minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle.

Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members.

He intensified the crackdown on the movement following the abortive putsch in 2016 that he accused Gülen of masterminding. Gülen and the movement strongly deny involvement in the coup attempt or any terrorist activity.

Fatih was a teacher who was imprisoned along with thousands of others in the summer of 2016. In September of the same year, he was dismissed from public service by an emergency decree.

He was later sentenced to more than eight years in prison for his membership in the Gülen movement.

The evidence? He was a member of a teachers’ union and installed a messaging application called ByLock on his mobile phone.

A report by Italian judge Luca Perilli states that the current crackdown is based on a series of unofficial criteria used to establish alleged links to the Gülen movement, such as attending a school affiliated with the organization, depositing money in a bank linked to the group or installing the ByLock mobile messaging application on your phone.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) recently ruled in a landmark judgment that this is not sufficient evidence to link someone to a crime.

But Fatih had already spent more than five years in prison for non-criminal behavior while his family awaited his release, like thousands of others.

After Fatih was released in the fall of 2021, another ordeal began. His wife, who had done nothing more than deposit some money in a legally operating bank that has since been closed by the Turkish government, was prosecuted.

The family tried to reunite, but the cards were stacked against them.

Fatih, who knew the terrible conditions he had endured in prison, did not want his wife to go through the same ordeal. He wanted to arrange her escape from Turkey before she was convicted of aiding and abetting a terrorist organization because she had deposited money in a certain bank.

In addition to the thousands who were jailed, scores of other Gülen movement followers had to flee Turkey to avoid the government crackdown.

Pushback from Greece

For years Greece has been accused of illegally pushing asylum seekers back to Turkey, which it strongly denies.

However according to witness testimony and rights groups, summary deportations are taking place, and they are also hitting vulnerable victims of President Erdoğan’s crackdown on political dissent, which he launched using the failed coup as a pretext.

Thousands of post-coup crackdown victims had to leave the country illegally because the government had revoked their passports.

The people who wanted to flee the country to avoid the crackdown took dangerous journeys across the Evros River or the Aegean Sea. Some were arrested by Turkish security forces; some were pushed back to Turkey by Greek security; and others perished on their way to Greece.

Crackdown victims fleeing Turkey comprise people accused of membership in the Gülen movement and Kurds who actively participate in the Kurdish struggle for recognition.

Buket, who did not want to end up in prison like her husband, fled the country. And that took about 45 days, because you don’t just decide to cross the border one day and hop the fence the next. Especially if you are labeled a Gülenist, you have to be careful and wait for the proper arrangements and paperwork and the right time and place so that you don’t get picked up by the Turkish police. This is what she had to endure. She lived in desolate smugglers’ dens where people took drugs and abused alcohol. Ten days here, seven days there, and finally she crossed the Aegean to a small island near Gallipoli, from where patrol boats picked her up and handed her over to plainclothes officers.

That should have been the end of the matter. The group of eight has set foot on EU soil. They have a right to apply for asylum. That is enshrined in law. In international agreements. The word is written. The ink is dry. Not following it should have consequences. Denying certain people their rights would ultimately lead to all but a few having rights.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. The plainclothes officers put them in the back of a van and took them out to push them across the Evros River back to Turkey after stripping some of them naked and stealing their belongings. They ended up in a Turkish military zone, where they spent almost two days trying to find a way out.

They spent the night in miserable conditions in the open, bruised and without proper clothing. Buket describes it as the worst night of her life.

The next day they were picked up by Turkish soldiers, arrested and taken to prison.

Civil death

Buket was sentenced to more than two years in prison for depositing money in the bank and remained there for nine months, but was sent to one prison after another against her will.

In one place, Edirne, they only had water for 40 minutes a day and had to sleep to the sound of rodents, which were everywhere in the historic prison complex.

 

Once she was out of prison, Fatih said they had no choice but to flee the country.
Erdoğan won the May 2023 presidential election, before which polls showed him trailing against his opponent, the opposition’s joint candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

Many suffering from Erdoğan’s crackdown hoped he would be ousted in the election, but their hopes were crushed yet another time. This meant there was no future in Turkey for all those labeled as Gülenists who had spent time in prison.

Once you are labeled as such, every door is slammed in your face, since the government, the country’s biggest employer, won’t ever hire you and might even deny you certain rights like your pension.

The private sector will hesitate to give you a job because they fear ending up like Buket, who had done nothing but deposit money in a certain bank. Aiding and abetting terrorists might be a charge they could face.

Some banks even refuse to open accounts in these people’s names since their record as having been dismissed by emergency decree-laws shows up in their database.

Some rights advocates labeled this situation as “civil death,” a phenomenon that goes beyond physical imprisonment to encompass a range of tactics used to deprive crackdown victims of their participation in society. In Turkey, this has manifested itself in travel restrictions, physical surveillance, blacklisting and the confiscation of assets.

Seeking safe haven

Thus, unable to be a part of their society, Buket and Fatih had to flee. By this time, their eldest son had gone to Poland for studies and they were just four. They went to Kosovo in July 2023, legally, through the border. From there, they went to Bosnia and Herzegovina and crossed into Croatia.

One needs to pause here to understand the context. According to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Croatian police regularly and often violently push back refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to Bosnia and Herzegovina without examining their asylum applications or protection needs.

According to HRW, pushbacks have long been standard procedure for the Croatian border police, and the government has misled EU institutions with distractions and empty promises.

They did not push back Buket, Fatih and their two children and another family of seven with their five small children.

However, they mistreated them and held their kids at gunpoint to find out where they came from as they did not have papers with them.

They refused to give in for a while in custody. While waiting there, the Croatian police denied them food and medicine, despite the men’s pleas for their sick children. They were beaten with batons and were told they had to be fingerprinted so they could be registered in the database.

Buket and Fatih wanted to go far away, where they would have better opportunities for their children after all they had been through in their home country. If they went there with their fingerprints taken in Croatia, they would be sent back under the so-called Dublin procedure and possibly even deported to Turkey from Croatia.

But their will was broken by denying them food, mistreating them and threatening them with deportation to Turkey if they refused to allow themselves to be fingerprinted.

After they did so, they were released by the Croatian authorities and went to Norway in August 2023.

Norway deports the family

In Norway, when they applied for asylum, Buket’s fingerprints showed up in the database. But there were no sign of Fatih’s fingerprints.

Later on, Buket found that it was a common practice by Croatian authorities to deny asylum to male asylum seekers, as they did not register their data in the system.

Norway ruled to send Buket back to Croatia, and under the Dublin procedure Fatih is being sent back with her because they are a family.

In 2022 the Council of State in the Netherlands ruled that the Dublin transfer of persons who have applied for asylum in the Netherlands to Croatia should be reconsidered in view of the risk of deportation, which violates Article 4 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court found that the returns to Croatia constituted a fundamental flaw in the Dutch asylum procedure, especially considering that Croatia does not respect the right to seek asylum on its territory and routinely deports people to third countries, namely Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.

However, the Norwegian authorities decided to send Fatih, Buket and their two children back to Croatia. They appealed this decision, but there was another decision stating that they should go through the appeal process on Croatian soil.

They could be deported to Croatia at any moment.

After going through all this and finally ending up in Norway and being turned away from the country they wanted to make their home, the mental strain becomes unbearable as the future of their children is at stake.

Yesterday Fatih had a heart attack during a meeting with a psychological counselor and was hospitalized. Buket says his condition is now stable. Their mother is on antidepressants and their father is in the hospital, and the children are traumatized and scared.

The past shows that Croatia is not a safe place for them to return to. But will Norway take this into account and reverse this mistake?

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