President Bashar Assad has ruled the Syrian Arab Republic since 2000. The constitution mandates the primacy of Baath Party leaders in state institutions and society, and Assad and Baath party leaders dominate all three branches of government as an authoritarian regime. An uprising against the regime that began in 2011 continued throughout the year. The 2014 presidential election and the 2016 parliamentary elections resulted in the election of Assad and 200 People’s Council (Syrian parliament) seats for the Baath Party-led National Progressive Front, respectively. Both elections took place in an environment of widespread regime coercion, and many Syrians residing in opposition-held territory did not participate in the elections. Observers did not consider the elections free or fair.
The regime’s multiple security branches traditionally operated autonomously with no defined boundaries between their areas of jurisdiction. Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence reported to the Ministry of Defense, the Political Security Directorate reported to the Ministry of Interior, and the General Intelligence Directorate reported directly to the Office of the President. The Interior Ministry controlled the four separate divisions of police. Regime-affiliated militia, such as the National Defense Forces (NDF), integrated with other regime-affiliated forces and performed similar roles without defined jurisdiction. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the uniformed military, police, and state security forces but possessed limited influence over foreign and domestic military or paramilitary organizations operating in the country, including Russian armed forces, Iran-affiliated Lebanese Hizballah, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and nonuniformed proregime militias, such as the NDF.
Regime and proregime forces launched major aerial and ground offensives in April to recapture areas of northwest Syria, killing thousands of civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands more to flee. In December these forces launched another large-scale assault. The April assault, involving the use of heavy weapons and chemical weapons, and the December assault that involved heavy weapons, devastated the civilian infrastructure in the affected areas and exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation. Syrian and Russian airstrikes repeatedly struck civilian sites, including hospitals, markets, schools, and farms, many of which were included in UN deconfliction lists. As of December the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported there were 6.2 million internally displaced Syrians, 2.5 million of whom were children, and more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings by the regime, including those involving the continued use of chemical weapons, among them chlorine and other substances; forced disappearances; torture, including torture involving sexual violence; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including denial of medical care; prisoners of conscience; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; a lack of independence of the judiciary; undue restrictions on free expression, including violence against journalists, restrictions on the press and access to the internet, censorship, and site blocking; substantial suppression of the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; undue restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation; high-level and widespread corruption; unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers by the regime and other armed actors; trafficking in persons; criminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) status or conduct; violence and severe discrimination targeting LGBTI persons; and severe restrictions on workers’ rights.
The regime took no steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights violations or abuses. Impunity was pervasive and deeply embedded in the security and intelligence forces and elsewhere in the regime.
Regime-linked paramilitary groups reportedly engaged in frequent violations and abuses, including massacres, indiscriminate killings, kidnapping civilians, extreme physical abuse, including sexual violence, and detentions. Regime-affiliated militias, including Hizballah, repeatedly targeted civilians.
Russian forces were implicated in the deaths of civilians resulting from airstrikes characterized as indiscriminate and resulting in the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure, particularly during support of the regime’s military campaign in northwest Syria. These airstrikes destroyed hospitals, shelters, markets, homes, and other integral civilian facilities, damaging medical supplies and equipment and shutting down vital health care networks, and followed a well-documented pattern of attacks with serious and deleterious humanitarian and civilian impacts.
In areas under the control of armed opposition groups, human rights abuses, including killings and extreme physical abuse, continued to occur due to the unstable security situation and continued to foster an environment in which human rights abuses were committed, including killings, extreme physical abuse, and detention.
Armed terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), committed a wide range of abuses, including massacres, unlawful killings, bombings, and kidnappings; unlawful detention; extreme physical abuse; and forced evacuations from homes based on sectarian identity. Despite the territorial defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in March, ISIS continued to carry out unlawful killings, bombings, and kidnappings, attack members of religious minority groups, and subject women and girls to routine rape, forced marriages, and sex trafficking.
Elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Syrian Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and other minorities that included members of the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG), reportedly engaged in acts of corruption, unlawful restriction of the movement of persons, and arbitrary arrest of civilians, as well as attacks resulting in civilian casualties.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the regime severely restricted this right, often terrorizing, abusing, or killing those who attempted to exercise this right.
Freedom of Expression: The law contains a number of speech offenses that limit the freedom of expression, including provisions criminalizing expression that, for example, “weakens the national sentiment” in times of war or defames the president, courts, military, or public authorities. The regime routinely characterized expression as illegal, and individuals could not criticize the regime publicly or privately without fear of reprisal. The regime also stifled criticism by invoking provisions of law prohibiting acts or speech inciting sectarianism. It monitored political meetings and relied on informer networks.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Although the law provides for the “right to access information about public affairs” and bans “the arrest, questioning, or searching of journalists,” press and media restrictions outweighed freedoms. The law contains many restrictions on freedom of expression for the press, including provisions criminalizing, for example, the dissemination of false or exaggerated news that “weakens the spirit of the Nation” or the broadcasting abroad of false or exaggerated news that “tarnishes” the country’s reputation. The law bars publication of content that affects “national unity and national security,” harms state symbols, defames religions, or incites sectarian strife or “hate crimes.” The law further forbids publication of any information about the armed forces.
The regime continued to exercise extensive control over local print and broadcast media, and the law imposes strict punishment for reporters who do not reveal their sources in response to regime requests. Freedom House reported that only a few dozen print publications remained in circulation, reduced from several hundred prior to the conflict. A number of quasi-independent periodicals, usually owned and produced by individuals with regime connections, published during the year. Books critical of the regime were illegal.
The regime owned some radio stations and most local television companies, and the Ministry of Information closely monitored all radio and television news broadcasts and entertainment programs for adherence to regime policies. Despite restrictions on ownership and use, citizens widely used satellite dishes, although the regime jammed some Arab networks.
Violence and Harassment: Regime forces reportedly detained, arrested, and harassed journalists and other writers for works deemed critical of the state as well as journalists associated with networks favorable to the regime. Harassment included intimidation, banning individuals from the country, dismissing journalists from their positions, and ignoring requests for continued accreditation. According to reliable NGO reports, the regime routinely arrested journalists who were either associated with or writing in favor of the opposition and instigated attacks against foreign press outlets throughout the country. The SNHR reported that authorities in February arrested Ahmad Orabi, who worked as a news correspondent for al Ayyam newspaper and Ana Press, despite having previously signed a reconciliation agreement with the regime. In January a U.S. federal court found the regime had perpetrated targeted murder to intimidate journalists, inhibit newsgathering and the dissemination of information, and suppress dissent, and found it liable for the 2012 death of American journalist Marie Colvin. The court ordered the regime to pay $302 million in punitive damages, which it has not paid.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that 26 journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants remained imprisoned, although it did not specify by whom, and the CPJ reported that at least five journalists remained missing or held hostage as of November. The reason for arrests was often unclear. RSF reported that at least 25 journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants died in regime detention between 2011 and October. For example, in July the CPJ reported that a prison official informed the family of Alaa Nayef al-Khader al-Khalidi in July that the photojournalist died due to torture while in regime custody at Sedayna Prison.
The regime and ISIS routinely targeted and killed both local and foreign journalists, according to the COI, the CPJ, and RSF. The CPJ estimated that 129 journalists were killed since 2011, while RSF estimated more than 260 journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants were killed during the same period. The CPJ attributed more than half of journalist deaths between 2011 and 2017 to regime and proregime forces.
During the year the CPJ, RSF, and the SNHR documented the deaths of six journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants. Anas Al-Dyab was killed in a Russian airstrike while documenting the bombardment of Khan Sheikhoun; Amjad Hassan Bakir was killed when a missile struck the Free Idlib Army vehicle in which he was riding as an embedded journalist covering the regime’s offensive in Idlib Governorate; Mohammad Jomaa was killed by a mine in Deir Ezzour in an area that had recently been retaken by the SDF; and Omar Al-Dimashqi was killed by the explosion of an IED placed under his car by an unidentified attacker.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The regime continued to strictly control the dissemination of information, including on developments regarding fighting between the regime and the armed opposition, and prohibited most criticism of the regime and discussion of sectarian problems, including religious and ethnic minority rights. The Ministries of Information and Culture censored domestic and foreign publications prior to circulation or importation, including through the General Corporation for the Distribution of Publications, and prevented circulation of content determined critical or sensitive. The regime prohibited publication or distribution of any material security officials deemed threatening or embarrassing to the regime. Censorship was usually more stringent for materials in Arabic.
Local journalists reported they engaged in extensive self-censorship on subjects such as criticism of the president and his family, the security services, or Alawite religious groups.
RSF reported journalists fled the advance of regime troops, fearing imprisonment as soon as the regime controlled the entire province they were in. RSF assessed that the regime’s persecution of journalists for more than eight years justified their fears, especially as many of them covered the uprising since the outset, helped to document the regime’s human rights violations, and risked severe reprisals if identified with the opposition.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes libel, slander, insult, defamation, and blasphemy, and the regime continued to use such provisions to restrict public discussion and to detain, arrest, and imprison journalists perceived to have opposed the regime.
National Security: The regime regularly cited laws protecting national security to restrict media criticism of regime policies or public officials.
Nongovernmental Impact: According to Freedom House, media freedom varied in territory held by armed opposition groups, but local outlets were typically under heavy pressure to support the dominant militant faction. The CPJ and RSF reported that extremist opposition groups, such as the HTS, detained and tortured journalists (see section 1.g.) and posed a serious threat to press and media freedoms. The CPJ reported that four members of the HTS abducted Syrian reporter Ahmed Rahal, a reporter for the Syrian pro-civil rights news website Al-Dorar al-Sahmia, after raiding his home in September. The SNHR reported that the family of Samer Saleh al Salloum, an activist responsible for the printing and distribution of al Gherbal political magazine and Zawrak children’s magazine, was informed in August that he had reportedly been executed in detention by the HTS in April.
In July the CPJ reported that the HTS arbitrarily detained Jumaa Haj Hamdou, a reporter for the Syrian pro-civil rights opposition news website Zaman al-Wasl, at his home in western Aleppo. He was not charged and was released after six days. Fathi Ibrahim Bayoud, the editor in chief of Zaman al-Wasl, told the CPJ he believed Hamdou was detained because of his reporting.
The regime controlled and restricted access to the internet and monitored email and social media accounts. In Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom on the Net Report, the country remained a dangerous and repressive environment for internet users. Individuals and groups could not express views via the internet, including by email, without prospect of reprisal. The regime applied the law to regulate internet use and prosecute users. The anticybercrime law (also referred to as Law No. 9) increases penalties for cybercrimes, including those affecting the freedom of expression, remained in place. It also mandates the creation of specialized courts and delegates specialized jurists for the prosecution of cybercrimes in every governorate. RSF asserted the law served as a tool for the regime to threaten online freedom. As of late in the year, at least 14 citizen journalists remained imprisoned by the regime, many on charges related to their digital activism. Hackers linked to Iran continued cyberattacks against Syrian opposition groups to disrupt reporting on human rights violations.
The regime interfered with and blocked internet service, text messages, and two-step verification messages for password recovery or account activation. The regime employed sophisticated technologies and hundreds of computer specialists for filtering and surveillance purposes, such as monitoring email and social media accounts of detainees, activists, and others. The regime did not attempt to restrict the security branches’ monitoring and censoring of the internet. The security branches were largely responsible for restricting internet freedom and access; internet blackouts often coincided with security force attacks. The regime censored websites related to the opposition, including the websites of local coordination committees as well as media outlets.
The regime also restricted or prohibited internet access in areas under siege. Regime officials obstructed connectivity through their control of key infrastructure, at times shutting the internet and mobile telephone networks entirely or at particular sites of unrest. There was generally little access to state-run internet service in besieged areas unless users could capture signals clandestinely from rooftops near regime-controlled areas. Some towns in opposition-held areas had limited internet access via satellite connections. Some activists reportedly gained access independently to satellite internet or through second- and third-generation (2G and 3G) cellular telephone network coverage.
The regime expanded its efforts to use social media, such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, to spread proregime propaganda and manipulate online content. Regime authorities routinely tortured and beat journalists to extract passwords for social media sites, and the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a group of proregime computer hackers, frequently launched cyberattacks on websites to disable them and post proregime material. In addition to promoting hacking and conducting surveillance, the regime and groups it supported, such as the SEA, reportedly planted malware to target human rights activists, opposition members, and journalists. Local human rights groups blamed regime personnel for instances in which malware infected activists’ computers. Arbitrary arrests raised fears that authorities could arrest internet users at any time for online activities perceived to threaten the regime’s control, such as posting on a blog, tweeting, commenting on Facebook, sharing a photograph, or uploading a video.
Observers also accused the SEA of slowing internet access to force self-censorship on regime critics and diverting email traffic to regime servers for surveillance.
The regime restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Authorities generally did not permit academic personnel to express ideas contrary to regime policy. Authorities reportedly dismissed or imprisoned university professors in regime-held areas for expressing dissent and killed some for supporting regime opponents. Combatants on all sides of the war attacked or commandeered schools. The Ministry of Culture restricted and banned the screening of certain films.
During the conflict students, particularly those residing in opposition-held areas, continued to face challenges in taking nationwide exams. For example, school districts in Dar’a were affected by the influx of new pupils to the governorate due to hostilities, forcing many schools to hire unqualified staff and begin operating in shifts to accommodate all the pupils. The COI reported that thousands of students had to repeat classes and retake examinations as a result. Areas liberated by the SDF from ISIS reopened local schools. In Raqqa city and the surrounding rural regions, more than 130,000 students returned to classes in 322 refurbished buildings and schools previously used or destroyed by ISIS. Many school buildings required extensive repairs, sometimes including clearance of explosive remnants of the war, and administrators required assistance to obtain basic supplies for learning.
The SDF also reportedly imposed penalties for SDF and school administration staff members who enrolled their children in schools that did not use their curriculum.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The regime limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, but the law grants the government broad powers to restrict this freedom.
The Ministry of Interior requires permission for demonstrations or any public gathering of more than three persons. As a rule the ministry authorized only demonstrations by the regime, affiliated groups, or the Baath Party, orchestrating them on numerous occasions.
According to allegations by Kurdish activists and press reporting, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the YPG sometimes suppressed freedom of assembly in areas under their control. Throughout the year inhabitants in Deir Ezzor protested against alleged corruption by SDF officials, lack of access to basic services, reports of forced conscription of youths into the SDF, and lack of information on the status of men and boys detained by the SDF due to suspected affiliations to ISIS following the coalition offensive to liberate Baghuz from ISIS control. Protests generally occurred throughout northeast Syria on a variety of issues without interference from local authorities.
During the year multiple media outlets reported that the HTS increased its repression of civil society activity in August due to widespread protests held in opposition to the group. The SNHR reported that the HTS arrested approximately 182 persons as of August, among them political and media activists, 45 of whom reportedly died in detention.
The constitution provides for the freedom of association, but the law grants the regime latitude to restrict this freedom. The regime required prior registration and approval for private associations and restricted the activities of associations and their members. The executive boards of professional associations were not independent of the regime.
The regime often denied requests for registration or failed to act on them, reportedly on political grounds. None of the local human rights organizations operated with a license, but many functioned under organizations that had requisite government registration. The regime continued to block the multiyear effort by journalists to register a countrywide media association. Despite regime efforts, journalists in exile founded the Syrian Journalist Association as an independent democratic professional association in 2012 to empower the role of freedom of the press and expression.
The regime selectively enforced the 2011 decree allowing the establishment of independent political parties, permitting only proregime groups to form official parties (see section 3). According to local human rights groups, opposition activists declined to organize parties, fearing the regime would use party lists to target opposition members.
Under laws that criminalize membership and activity in illegal organizations as determined by the regime, security forces detained hundreds of persons linked to local human rights groups and prodemocracy student groups. The death notices released by the regime shed light on this practice. For example, HRW described the forcible disappearance by the regime during the year of many young protest organizers, civil society leaders, and local coordination committee members. This included Sahar, a community leader and head of the Women’s Affairs Bureau in Daraa, who was detained without cause at a local checkpoint. In several cases documented by HRW, intelligence branches either arrested or repeatedly harassed relatives of civil society activists and people who fled the country to gain information about their wanted family members or force them to return.
The HTS restricted the activities of organizations it deemed incompatible with its interpretation of Islam. HTS forces detained Munawir Hamdeen, a relief worker at the Big Heart organization in Idlib, after severely beating him at his home in 2016. After five months of detention, Hamdeen pleaded guilty to the charge of adultery and was held in detention until August, when his body was found outside the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets) center in Idlib.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution provides for freedom of movement “within the territories of the state unless restricted by a judicial decision or by the implementation of laws,” but the regime, ISIS, and other armed groups restricted internal movement and travel and instituted security checkpoints to monitor such travel throughout the regions under their respective control. Regime sieges in Idlib Governorate restricted freedom of movement and resulted in documented cases of death, starvation, and severe malnutrition, while forced evacuations following sieges resulted in mass displacement and additional breakdowns in service provision and humanitarian assistance (see section 1.g.).
In-country Movement: In regime-besieged cities throughout the country, regime forces blocked humanitarian access, leading to severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care, and death. The violence, coupled with significant cultural pressure, severely restricted the movement of women in many areas. Additionally, the law allows certain male relatives to place travel bans on women.
The regime expanded security checkpoints into civilian areas to monitor and limit movement. Regime forces reportedly used snipers to prevent protests, enforce curfews, target opposition forces, and, in some cases, prevent civilians from fleeing besieged towns. The regime also barred foreign diplomats from visiting most parts of the country and rarely granted them permission to travel outside Damascus. The consistently high level and unpredictability of violence severely restricted movement throughout the country.
In areas they still controlled, armed opposition groups and terrorist groups, such as the HTS, also restricted movement, including with checkpoints (see section 1.g.). The COI reported in September it had received accounts of harassment, including of women, arbitrary arrest, unlawful search and seizure of property, and demands for bribes at checkpoints administered by the HTS and other armed actors.
While the Syrian Democratic Council and the SDF generally supported IDP communities in northeast Syria, in July HRW reported that the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria was restricting the movement of more than 11,000 foreign women and children suspected to be affiliated with ISIS in a separate section of the al-Hol IDP Camp. The UN secretary-general also released a report on children and armed conflict stating that 1,248 children of 46 nationalities were deprived of their liberty to move freely by the SDF due to their actual or alleged association with ISIS.
Until the territorial defeat of ISIS in March, ISIS restricted the movement in areas under its control of regime supporters or assumed supporters, especially the Alawite and Shia populations, as well as Yezidi, Christian, and other captives. The Free Yezidi Foundation further reported that Yezidis were held against their will by ISIS. ISIS reportedly did not permit female passengers to traverse territory it controlled unless accompanied by a close male relative.
Foreign Travel: While citizens have the right to travel internationally, the regime denied passports and other vital documents, based on the applicant’s political views, association with opposition groups, or ties to geographic areas where the opposition dominated. The regime also imposed exit visa requirements and routinely closed the Damascus airport and border crossings, claiming the closures were due to violence or threats of violence. Additionally, the regime often banned travel by human rights or civil society activists, their families, and affiliates. Many citizens reportedly learned of the ban against their travel only when authorities prevented them from departing the country. The regime reportedly applied travel bans without explanation or explicit duration, including in cases when individuals sought to travel for health reasons. The regime comprehensively banned international travel of opposition members, often targeting any such individual who attempted to travel. Local media and human rights groups repeatedly stated that opposition activists and their families hesitated to leave the country, fearing attacks at airports and border crossings.
The regime also often refused to allow citizens to return. According to several media outlets, Richard Kouyoumjian, Lebanon’s minister of social affairs, stated in March that the regime accepted less than 20 percent of the refugees who attempted to return to the country from Lebanon.
Syrians born abroad to parents who fled the conflict and remained in refugee camps generally did not have access to Syrian citizenship documents. The regime allowed Syrians living outside of the country whose passports had expired to renew their passports at consulates. Many who fled as refugees, however, feared reporting to the regime against which they may have protested or feared the regime could direct reprisals against family members still in the country.
Women older than 18 have the legal right to travel without the permission of male relatives, but a husband may file a request with the Interior Ministry to prohibit his wife from departing the country.
During the year violence continued to be the primary reason for displacement, much of it attributed to regime and Russian aerial attacks. Regime and proregime evacuations of besieged areas, often overseen by Russian forces, forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of persons. Years of conflict and evacuations repeatedly displaced persons, and each displacement depleted family assets. In September the United Nations estimated there were more than 6.2 million IDPs in the country, including 2.5 million children and five million individuals in need of acute assistance. This number included 1.5 million new IDPs since the start of the year. In May UNOCHA recorded 27,969 spontaneous IDP returnees in several areas across the country. The greatest number of these returns were recorded in Homs with 8,290 returnees, approximately 45 percent of whom were displaced within the governorate. Deir Ezzor received the second-largest number of IDP returnees with 5,373 spontaneous returns, while 4,349 returns were recorded in rural Damascus. The fourth largest number of returnees was recorded in Aleppo, with 3,592 returnees, followed by Daraa with 3,098 recorded spontaneous returns. UN humanitarian officials reported that most IDPs sought shelter with host communities or in collective centers, abandoned buildings, or informal camps. The humanitarian response to the country was coordinated through a complex bureaucratic structure. The crisis inside the country continued to meet the UN criteria for a level 3 response–the global humanitarian system’s classification for response to the most severe, large-scale humanitarian crises.
The regime generally did not provide sustainable access to services for IDPs, did not offer IDPs assistance, did not facilitate humanitarian assistance for IDPs, and provided inconsistent protection. The regime forcibly displaced populations from besieged areas and restricted movement of IDPs. The regime did not promote the safe, voluntary, and dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs and, in many cases, refused to allow IDPs to return home (see section 1.e., Property Restitution).
According to HRW, the regime confiscated more than 70 residential households with all internal contents in the Eastern Ghouta Region. The regime restricted access to many of the neighborhoods and converted several properties into military headquarters. In November the Middle East Institute reported that regime security and intelligence forces had seized a number of homes and other properties belonging to local residents using several different methods. Those with a backlog of service bills or back taxes who were unable to pay their debt to the regime were given a brief window to leave their property, while some former opposition members had their homes and businesses summarily seized by intelligence forces. The regime routinely disrupted the supply of humanitarian aid, including medical assistance, to areas under siege as well as to newly recaptured areas (see section 1.g.).
The SARC functioned as the main partner for international humanitarian organizations working inside the country to provide humanitarian assistance in regime- and some opposition-controlled areas. NGOs operating from Damascus faced regime bureaucratic obstruction in attempting to provide humanitarian assistance. UN agencies and NGOs sought to increase the flow of assistance to opposition-held areas subject to regime offensives to meet growing humanitarian needs, but the regime increasingly restricted cross-line operations originating from Damascus. The UN and its humanitarian partners continued to provide cross-border assistance from Turkey and Iraq during the year. While humanitarian aid was provided cross-border from Turkey to northwest Syria (Idlib and Aleppo) via two border crossings, Turkey placed restrictions on the provision of humanitarian and stabilization aid to areas of northeast Syria from Turkey.
Assistance reached some hard-to-reach locations, but the regime continued to hinder UN and NGO access, and the regime secured control over many of these areas during the year. Humanitarian actors noted that access remained a pressing concern for service delivery in areas controlled by the regime and nongovernmental actors. The United Nations reported that only seven humanitarian assistance convoys accessed hard-to-reach areas during the year.
In September the United Nations and SARC delivered humanitarian assistance to 15,000 individuals and facilitated the voluntary return of nearly 400 individuals at Rukban Camp in southeast Syria near the Jordanian border. In early November the United Nations and SARC delivered humanitarian assistance to approximately 45,000 persons in need and provided an emergency vaccination campaign to protect some 5,000 children against measles, polio, and other diseases. Humanitarian conditions in Rukban remained dire due to inconsistent access to the area. The regime frequently took months to approve aid convoy requests, and Jordan declined requests to deliver aid from its side of the border, although it allowed a small, exceptional delivery by an NGO from Jordan during Ramadan. The United Nations reported that, since February, approximately half of the camp’s estimated population, or 18,000 individuals, left the camp through the regime-established transit point, primarily towards collective shelters in Homs, where the United Nations and SARC provided services, before moving onwards.
Armed opposition groups and terrorist groups such as the HTS and ISIS, also impeded humanitarian assistance to IDPs. Humanitarian actors reported that the HTS impeded the delivery of aid and services in areas of the northeast, making it difficult to effectively respond to displacement near Idlib. For example, in March the United Nations criticized Turkish-supported Syrian armed opposition groups, including the FSA, for providing inconsistent, restricted access to IDPs in Afrin. In October the United Kingdom temporarily suspended the delivery of aid to Idlib Province due to the HTS taxes on aid trucks. The United Kingdom subsequently resumed aid delivery and, as of November, was still delivering aid to Idlib. NGOs continued to report bureaucratic challenges in working with the HTS Salvation Government, which impeded delivery of services in the camps.
The SDF and SDC generally facilitated the safe and voluntary return of IDPs during the year, particularly to Deir Ezzour and Raqqa.
f. Protection of Refugees
UNHCR maintained that conditions for refugee return to the country in safety and dignity were not yet in place and did not promote, nor facilitate, the return of refugees to the country during the year. Throughout the year, however, the regime and Russia maintained a diplomatic campaign to encourage the return of refugees to Syria. While Russia reportedly was eager to use the return of Syrian refugees as a means to secure international donations for Syria reconstruction efforts, the regime adopted a more cautious approach on promoting the return of refugees, reportedly due to its suspicion that many Syrian refugees supported the opposition.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The regime inconsistently cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The regime provided some cooperation to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Both regime and opposition forces reportedly besieged, shelled, and otherwise made inaccessible some Palestinian refugee camps, neighborhoods, and sites, which resulted in severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care and humanitarian assistance, and civilian deaths.
Both regime and opposition forces reportedly besieged, shelled, and otherwise made inaccessible some Palestinian refugee camps, neighborhoods, and sites, which resulted in severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care and humanitarian assistance, and civilian deaths.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the regime has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR and UNRWA were able to maintain limited protection areas for refugees and asylum seekers, although violence hampered access to vulnerable populations. In coordination with both local and international NGOs, the United Nations continued to provide such individuals essential services and assistance.
Employment: The law does not explicitly grant refugees, except for Palestinians, the right to work. While the regime rarely granted non-Palestinian refugees a work permit, many refugees found work in the informal sector as guards, construction workers, street vendors, and in other manual jobs.
Access to Basic Services: The law allows for the issuance of identity cards to Palestinian refugees and the same access to basic services provided to citizens. The regime also allowed Iraqi refugees access to publicly available services, such as health care and education, but residency permits were available only to those refugees who entered the country legally and possessed a valid passport, which did not include all refugees. The lack of access to residency permits issued by authorities exposed refugees to risks of harassment and exploitation and severely affected their access to public services. The approximately 45,000 non-Palestinian refugees and asylum seekers in the country faced growing protection risks, multiple displacements, tightened security procedures at checkpoints, and difficulty obtaining required residency permits, all of which resulted in restrictions on their freedom of movement. The COI reported a rise in sexual- and gender-based violence and child-protection concerns among refugees, including child labor, school dropouts, and early marriages.
Following the 1962 census, approximately 150,000 Kurds lost their citizenship. A legislative decree had ordained the single-day census in 1962, and the government executed it unannounced to the inhabitants of al-Hasakah Governorate. Anyone not registered for any reason or without all required paperwork became “foreign” from that day onward. The government at the time argued it based its decision on a 1945 wave of alleged illegal immigration of Kurds from neighboring states, including Turkey, to Hasakah, where they allegedly “fraudulently” registered as Syrian citizens. In a similar fashion, authorities recorded anyone who refused to participate as “undocumented.” Because of this loss of citizenship, these Kurds and their descendants lacked identity cards and could not access government services, including health care and education. They also faced social and economic discrimination. Stateless Kurds do not have the right to inherit or bequeath assets, and their lack of citizenship or identity documents restricted their travel to and from the country.
In 2011 President Assad decreed that stateless Kurds in Hasakah who were registered as “foreigners” could apply for citizenship. It was unclear how many Kurds benefited from the decree. UNHCR reported that approximately 40,000 of these Kurds remained unable to obtain citizenship. Likewise, the decree did not extend to the approximately 160,000 “unregistered” stateless Kurds. The change from 150,000 to 160,000 reflected an approximate increase in population since the 1962 census.
Children derive citizenship solely from their father. Because women cannot confer nationality on their children, an unknown number of children whose fathers were missing or deceased due to the continuing conflict were at risk of statelessness. Mothers could not pass citizenship to children born outside the country, including in neighboring countries hosting refugee camps. Children who left the country during the conflict also experienced difficulties obtaining identification necessary to prove citizenship and obtain services.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
Although the constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, citizens were not able to exercise that ability. Outcomes reflected underlying circumstances of elections that impeded and coerced the will of the electorate.
Recent Elections: Municipal elections were held in September 2018 with approximately 40,000 candidates vying for more than 18,000 council seats in areas controlled by the regime. According to media outlets, opposition figures claimed a low turnout because most citizens considered the elections to be of limited value. Opposition sources, according to online media outlet Al-Monitor, alleged the regime forced civil servants to cast their votes. Multiple reports indicated the regime denied access to ballot boxes to voters residing in Daraa Province, which the regime brought under its control earlier in the year following a military offensive. According to observers the results were rigged in favor of the ruling Baath Party. Most of the candidates were either from the Baath Party or associated with it.
In 2016 the country held geographically limited parliamentary elections, the results of which citizens living outside regime control rejected. The 2014 presidential election, in which Bashar Assad ostensibly received 88.7 percent of the vote, was neither free nor fair by international standards. Voters faced intimidation by regime security forces, and the regime forcibly transported state employees in Damascus to polling centers, according to observers and media. Media reports described low overall voter turnout, even among those living in relatively stable areas with access to polling stations. Authorities allowed only persons in regime-controlled territory, certain refugee areas, and refugees who left the country after obtaining official permission to vote.
In 2017 Kurdish authorities held elections for leaders of local “communes” in an effort to establish new governing institutions to augment regional autonomy. The regime does not recognize the Kurdish enclave or the elections. The Kurdish National Council (KNC, a rival to the PYD) called for a boycott, terming the elections “a flagrant violation of the will of the Kurdish people.” Media outlets reported the election was monitored by a small group of foreign experts, including a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which runs the Kurdish Regional Government in neighboring Iraq.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The constitution provides that the Baath Party is the ruling party and assures that it has a majority in all government and popular associations, such as workers’ and women’s groups. The Baath Party and nine smaller satellite political parties constituted the coalition National Progressive Front. The Baath-led National Progressive Front dominated the 250-member People’s Council, holding 200 of the 250 parliament seats following the 2016 election. A 2011 decree allows for the establishment of additional political parties but forbids those based on religion, tribal affiliation, or regional interests.
Membership in the Baath Party or close familial relationships with a prominent party member or powerful regime official assisted in economic, social, and educational advancement. Party or regime connections made it easier to gain admission to better schools, access lucrative employment, and achieve greater advancement and power within the government, military, and security services. The regime reserved certain prominent positions, such as provincial governorships, solely for Baath Party members.
The regime showed little tolerance for other political parties, including those allied with the Baath Party in the National Progressive Front. The regime harassed parties, such as the Communist Union Movement, Communist Action Party, and Arab Social Union. Police arrested members of banned Islamist parties, including Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria. Reliable data on illegal political parties was unavailable.
The PYD generally controlled the political and governance landscape in northeast Syria while allowing for Arab representation in local governance councils. The PYD, however, maintained overall control of critical decisions made by local councils. PYD-affiliated internal security forces at times reportedly detained and forcibly disappeared perceived opponents.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Although there were no formal restrictions, cultural and social barriers largely excluded women from decision-making positions. The regime formed after the 2014 election included three female members: Vice President Najah al-Attar, Minister of State for Environmental Affairs Nazira Serkis, and Minister of Social Affairs and Labor Rima al-Qadiri. Thirteen percent of the members of parliament elected in 2016 were women. There were Christian, Druze, and Kurdish members of parliament. In 2017 Hammouda Sabbagh became the first Orthodox Christian to be elected speaker of parliament. Alawites, the ruling religious minority, held greater political power in the cabinet than other minorities as well as more authority than the majority Sunni sect did.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
Although the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, the regime did not implement the law effectively. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of regime corruption during the year. Corruption continued to be a pervasive problem in police forces, security services, migration management agencies, and throughout the regime.
Corruption: Due to the lack of free press and opposition access to instruments of government and media, there was almost no detailed information about corruption, except petty corruption. Freedom House reported that to secure its support base, the regime regularly distributed patronage in the form of public resources and implemented policies to benefit favored industries and companies. Authorities reportedly awarded government contracts and trade deals to allies such as Iran and Russia, possibly as compensation for political and military aid. Basic state services and humanitarian aid reportedly were extended or withheld based on a community’s demonstrated political loyalty to the regime, providing additional leverage for bribe-seeking officials.
For example, President Bashar Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, reportedly was known as “Mr. 5 Percent” or “Mr. 10 Percent,” depending on the size of the deal. As late as 2011, Makhlouf reportedly controlled 60 percent of the country’s economy. The Panama Papers, Swissleaks, and most recently the Paradise Papers chronicled his money-laundering and sanctions-busting activities (see section 1.e., Property Restitution).
Human rights lawyers and family members of detainees stated that regime officials in courts and prisons solicited bribes for favorable decisions and provision of basic services. In a December report, PHR provided the account of Dr. Youssef, a Syrian surgeon arrested on charges of providing “support to terrorists” for offering medical services to protesters who were shot by regime intelligence forces. Youssef was subjected to extensive torture in regime detention and only released after his family bribed regime authorities.
NGOs reported instances of elements affiliated with the SDF engaging in acts of corruption in northeast Syria. The SNHR reported increasing levels of corruption by civil councils in Deir Ezzour, comprised predominantly of SDF officials in northeast Syria, resulting in the unequal distribution of humanitarian assistance to family members of SDF officials and those willing to pay bribes.
Financial Disclosure: There are no public financial disclosure laws for public officials.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
The regime restricted attempts to investigate alleged human rights violations, criminalized their publication, and refused to cooperate with any independent attempts to investigate alleged violations. The regime did not grant permission for the formation of any domestic human rights organizations. Nevertheless, hundreds of such groups operated illegally in the country.
The regime was highly suspicious of international human rights NGOs and did not allow them into the country. The regime normally responded to queries from human rights organizations and foreign embassies regarding specific cases by denying the facts of the case or by reporting that the case was still under investigation, the prisoner in question had violated national security laws, or, if the case was in criminal court, the executive branch could not interfere with the judiciary. Amnesty International (AI), for example, attempted with little success to engage regime authorities on human rights concerns, including torture and other mistreatment, enforced disappearances, and deaths in custody, through various means since 2011. The regime denied organizations access to locations where regime agents launched assaults on antigovernment protesters or allegedly held prisoners detained on political grounds. The United Nations reported that the regime also actively restricted the activities of humanitarian aid organizations, especially along supply routes and access points near opposition-controlled areas (see section 1.g.).
There were numerous reports the regime harassed domestic human rights activists by subjecting them to regular surveillance and travel bans, property seizure, detention, torture, forcible disappearance, and extrajudicial killings (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees). In May, HRW reported on “Samir,” a human rights activist working with the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Swiss Department for Foreign Affairs in Daraa. He left Daraa in January after he found out he was wanted by the Criminal Intelligence branch for working with aid groups and receiving funding from foreign entities for his work in contravention of the Counterterrorism Law of 2012. A contact inside the Military Intelligence branch warned him that authorities intended to arrest him, prompting his immediate departure. A few days later, his family received an official summons from the regime.
Terrorist groups, including ISIS, violently attacked organizations and individuals seeking to investigate human rights abuses or advocating for improved practices. The SDF and other opposition groups occasionally imposed restrictions on human rights organizations or harassed individual activists, in some cases reportedly subjecting them to arbitrary arrest.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The regime continued to deny access for the COI, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to document and report on human rights violations and abuses in the country. It did not cooperate fully with numerous UN bodies, resulting in restrictions on access for humanitarian organizations, especially to opposition-controlled areas.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and sexual assault of women, men, and children, but the regime did not enforce the law effectively. Rape is punishable by imprisonment and hard labor for at least 15 years (at least nine years in mitigating circumstances), which is aggravated if the perpetrator is a government official, religious official, or has legitimate or actual authority over the victim. Male rape is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. The law specifically excludes spousal rape, and it reduces or suspends punishment if the rapist marries the victim. The victim’s family sometimes agreed to this arrangement to avoid the social stigma attached to rape.
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and other UN agencies, NGOs, and media outlets characterized rape and sexual violence as endemic, underreported, and uncontrolled in the country (see sections 1.c. and 1.g.). Humanitarian organizations reported that women, men, and community leaders consistently identified sexual violence as a primary reason their families fled the country. The COI reported that rape and sexual violence continued to play a prominent role in the conflict and was used to terrorize and punish women, men, and children perceived as associated with the opposition, as did terrorist groups such as the HTS and ISIS. There were instances, comparatively far fewer, of armed opposition groups reportedly raping women and children. The HTS and ISIS also reportedly forced women and girls into sexual slavery.
The law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence, but it stipulates that men may discipline their female relatives in a form permitted by general custom. According to a May UNFPA report, violence against women and children was pervasive and increasing due to the conflict and the lack of economic opportunity for men. Victims did not report the vast majority of cases. Security forces consistently treated violence against women as a social rather than a criminal matter. Observers reported that when some abused women tried to file a police report, police did not investigate their reports thoroughly, if at all, and that in other cases police officers responded by abusing the women.
In previous years several domestic violence centers operated in Damascus; the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor licensed them. Local NGOs reported, however, that many centers no longer operated due to the conflict. There were no known government-run services for women outside Damascus. According to local human rights organizations, local coordination committees and other opposition-related groups offered programs specifically for protection of women; NGOs did not integrate these programs throughout the country, and none reported reliable funding.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law permits judges to reduce penalties for murder and assault if the defendant asserts an “honor” defense, which often occurred. The regime kept no official statistics on use of this defense in murder and assault cases and reportedly rarely pursued prosecution of so-called honor crimes. There were no officially reported honor killings during the year, but reporting from previous years indicated that honor killings increased since the onset of the crisis in 2011. NGOs working with refugees reported families killed some rape victims inside the country, including those raped by regime forces, for reasons of honor.
The terrorist groups ISIS and the HTS permitted and committed so-called honor killings in territories under their control (see section 1.g.).
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of gender but does not explicitly prohibit sexual harassment. The regime did not enforce the law effectively. Sexual harassment was pervasive and uncontrolled. For example, a 2019 UNFPA report cited an adolescent girl from Idlib who was blackmailed and harassed by a stranger who took revealing photos of her in a changing room and threatened to share them with her family.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization by the regime, but the Free Yezidi Foundation reported that ISIS forced some Yezidi women whom they had impregnated to have abortions (see section 1.g.).
Discrimination: Although the constitution provides for equality between men and women, the law does not provide for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. Criminal, family, religious, personal status, labor, nationality, inheritance, retirement, and social security laws discriminate against women. For example, if a man and a woman separately commit the same criminal act of adultery, then by law the woman’s punishment is double that of the man. The law generally permits women to initiate divorce proceedings against their spouses, but the law does not entitle a divorced woman to alimony in some cases. Under the law a divorced mother loses the right to guardianship and physical custody of her sons when they reach age 13 and of her daughters at age 15, when guardianship transfers to the paternal side of the family. Personal status laws applied to Muslims are derived from sharia and are discriminatory toward women. Church law governs personal status issues for Christians, in some cases barring divorce. Some personal status laws mirror sharia regardless of the religion of those involved in the case. While the constitution provides the “right of every citizen to earn his wage according to the nature and yield of the work,” the law does not explicitly stipulate equal pay for equal work. Women cannot pass citizenship to their children. The regime’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance law for all citizens except Christians. Accordingly, courts usually granted Muslim women half the inheritance share of male heirs. In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less. If they refuse to provide this support, women have the right to sue.
The law provides women and men equal rights in owning or managing land or other property, but cultural and religious norms impeded women’s property rights, especially in rural areas.
The Commission for Family Affairs, Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor shared responsibility for attempting to accord equal legal rights to women. Governmental involvement in civil rights claims, including cases against sexual discrimination, was stagnant, and most claims went unanswered.
Women participated in public life and in most professions, including the armed forces, although UNFPA reported that violence and lawlessness in many regions reduced women’s access to the public sphere. Various sources observed that women constituted a minority of lawyers, university professors, and other professions.
The terrorist groups ISIS and the HTS reportedly placed similar discriminatory restrictions on women and girls in the territories they controlled. For example, the International Center for the Study of Radicalism reported in September that the HTS forced women and girls into marriage, imposed a dress code on women and girls, banned women and girls from wearing makeup, required that women and girls be accompanied by a mahram or male member of their immediate family, forbade women from speaking with unrelated men or hosting men who were not their husband, forbade widows from living alone, banned women’s centers, banned meetings with mixed male and female participation, and segregated classrooms. The HTS maintained all-female police units to support the Hisbah in enforcing these regulations, sometimes violently, among women. Summary punishments for infractions ranged from corporal punishment, such as lashing, to execution.
Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship solely from their father. In large areas of the country where civil registries were not functioning, authorities did not register births. The regime did not register the births of Kurdish noncitizen residents, including stateless Kurds (see section 2.g.). Failure to register resulted in deprivation of services, such as diplomas for high school-level studies, access to universities, access to formal employment, and civil documentation and protection.
Education: The regime provided free public education to citizen children from primary school through university. Education is compulsory for all children between the ages of six and 12. Enrollment, attendance, and completion rates for boys and girls generally were comparable. Noncitizen children could also attend public schools at no cost but required permission from the Ministry of Education. While Palestinians and other noncitizens, including stateless Kurds, could generally send their children to school and universities, stateless Kurds were ineligible to receive a degree documenting their academic achievement.
The conflict and widespread destruction continued to hamper the ability of children to attend school. In October UNICEF reported that 5.3 million children were in need of humanitarian assistance. UNICEF also reported that fighting destroyed or damaged or that combatants occupied one in every three schools. Approximately 1.75 million children were out of school (among more than 2.6 million Syrian children, including refugees and others in the diaspora); another 1.35 million were at risk for leaving school.
ISIS and the HTS reportedly imposed their interpretation of sharia on schools and discriminated against girls in the territories they controlled. The International Crisis Group reported in March that the HTS continued to segregate classrooms by gender, imposed their curriculum on teachers, and closed private schools and educational centers. Additionally, the STJ reported in March that the HTS Salvation Government banned any students who had previously been granted elementary and middle-school diplomas by the regime from pursuing their high school education in any schools controlled by the HTS.
Child Abuse: The law does not specifically prohibit child abuse, but it stipulates that parents may discipline their children in a form permitted by general custom. According to a 2017 UNFPA report, violence against children, especially girls, was pervasive and increasing due to the conflict and the lack of economic opportunity for men.
NGOs reported extensively on reports of regime and proregime forces, as well as the HTS and ISIS, sexually assaulting, torturing, detaining, killing, and otherwise abusing children (see sections 1.a., 1.b., 1.c., and 1.g.). The HTS and ISIS subjected children to extremely harsh punishment, including execution, in the territories they controlled.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18 for men and 17 for women. A boy as young as 15 or a girl as young as 13 may marry if a judge deems both parties willing and “physically mature” and if the fathers or grandfathers of both parties’ consent. Early and forced marriages were common. CARE reported in March that young women were increasingly vulnerable to forced marriage due to the extreme financial hardships placed upon families while the conflict progressed into its eighth year.
Many families reportedly arranged marriages for girls, including at younger ages than typically occurred prior to the start of the conflict, believing it would protect them and ease the financial burden on the family.
There were instances of early and forced marriage of girls to members of regime, proregime, and armed opposition forces.
In previous years ISIS abducted and sexually exploited Yezidi girls in Iraq and transported them to Syria for rape and forced marriage; many of those Yezidi women and girls remained captive during the year (see section 1.g. and section 6, Women). Even after the territorial defeat of ISIS, the Free Yezidi Foundation reported that Yezidi women and children remained with ISIS-affiliated families in detention camps due to the intense trauma from their treatment under ISIS and out of fear. From 2014 onwards, ISIS began to forcibly marry Sunni (also a minority) girls and women living in territories under its control. Some of those forced to marry ISIS members were adults, including widows, but the vast majority of cases the COI documented revealed that girls between the ages of 12 and 16 were victims of forced marriage. Many women and girls reportedly were passed among multiple ISIS fighters, some as many as six or seven times within two years. The HTS also reportedly forced Druze and other minority women and girls into marriage as well as Sunni women and girls.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law stipulates penalties for those found guilty of certain forms of child abuse associated with trafficking crimes, including kidnapping and forced prostitution, both of which carry a penalty of up to three years in prison. The law considers child pornography a trafficking crime, but the punishment for child pornography was set at the local level with “appropriate penalties.” It was also unclear if there had been any prosecutions for child pornography or if authorities enforced the law.
The age of sexual consent by law is 15 with no close-in-age exemption. Premarital sex is illegal, but observers reported authorities did not enforce the law. Rape of a child younger than 15 is punishable by not less than 21 years’ imprisonment and hard labor. There were no reports of regime prosecution of child rape cases.
Child Soldiers: Several sources documented the continued unlawful recruitment and use of children in combat (see section 1.g.).
Displaced Children: There was a large population of IDP children and some refugee children as well. These children reportedly experienced increased vulnerability to abuses, including by armed forces (see sections 1.c., 1.g., 2.e., and 2.f.).
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
In 2016 NGOs estimated that fewer than 20–perhaps fewer than 10–Jews remained in the country. The national school curriculum did not include materials on tolerance education or the Holocaust. There is no designation of religion on passports or national identity cards, except for Jews. Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons. The regime-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency frequently reported on the “Zionist enemy” and accused the Syrian opposition of serving “the Zionist project.”
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor is responsible for assisting persons with disabilities, working through dedicated charities and organizations to provide assistance. During an April briefing with the UN Security Council, Syrian activist Nujeen Mustafa explained that persons with disabilities remained among the most vulnerable and neglected of all displaced persons in the country, particularly in areas of active conflict.
The destruction of schools and hospitals, most often by regime and proregime forces, limited access to education and health services for persons with disabilities, but government and nongovernment social care institutes reportedly exist for blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy, and physical and intellectual disabilities. The regime did not effectively work to provide access for persons with disabilities to information, communications, building, or transportation. In its November report, UNFPA detailed how both public and private spaces–including educational institutions, health-care services and religious or cultural buildings–were inaccessible to the elderly and persons with disabilities, leading to further ostracization and deprivation. UNFPA further stated that persons with disabilities were sometimes denied aid, as they could not access it, and some distribution centers required presence in person. UNFPA identified women and adolescent girls with disabilities as being at a dangerously high risk of various forms of violence and exploitation.
According to the COI, on May 13, two men and a child with intellectual disabilities were kidnapped by an armed group when travelling from Afrin to I’zaz. One of those abducted was reportedly found dead a few days later displaying signs of torture, while the kidnappers demanded a ransom of $10,000 for the remaining abductees. The bodies of the second man and child were discovered more than a month later. There was no indication the regime effectively investigated or punished those responsible for violence and abuses against persons with disabilities.
The regime actively restricted national and ethnic minorities from conducting traditional, religious, and cultural activities. The Kurdish population–citizens and noncitizens–faced official and societal discrimination and repression as well as regime-sponsored violence. Regime and proregime forces, as well as ISIS and armed opposition forces such as the Turkish-backed FSA, reportedly arrested, detained, tortured, killed, and otherwise abused numerous Kurdish activists and individuals as well as members of the SDF during the year (see section 1.g.).
The regime continued to limit the use and teaching of the Kurdish language. It also restricted publication in Kurdish of books and other materials, Kurdish cultural expression, and at times the celebration of Kurdish festivals.
The Alawite community, to which Bashar Assad belongs, enjoyed privileged status throughout the regime and dominated the state security apparatus and military leadership. Nevertheless, the regime reportedly also targeted Alawite opposition activists for arbitrary arrest, torture, detention, and killing. Extremist opposition groups targeted Alawite communities on several occasions for their perceived proregime stance.
In March the COI reported that armed opposition groups detained hundreds of women and girls belonging to minority groups, particularly Alawites, and used them as bargaining chips for initiating prisoner swaps with regime and proregime forces.
The terrorist groups ISIS and the HTS violently oppressed and discriminated against all non-Sunni Arab ethnic minorities in the territories they controlled (see section 1.g.).
HRW documented multiple instances of Syrian opposition forces “discriminating on ethnic grounds.” HRW reported that TSOs participating in Turkey’s military offensive into northeast Syria “refused to allow the return of Kurdish families displaced by Turkish military operations and looted and unlawfully appropriated or occupied their property.” HRW reported opposition forces systematically blocked Kurdish IDP returns while permitting some Arab IDP returns.
The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct, defined as “carnal relations against the order of nature” and punishable by imprisonment up to three years. In previous years police used this charge to prosecute LGBTI individuals. There were no reports of prosecutions under the law during the year, but NGO reports indicated the regime arrested dozens of LGBTI persons since 2011 on charges such as abusing social values; selling, buying, or consuming illegal drugs; and organizing and promoting “obscene” parties. Local media and NGOs reported instances in which regime and proregime forces used accusations of homosexuality as a pretext to detain, arrest, torture, and kill civilians. The frequency of such instances was difficult to determine, since police rarely reported their rationale for arrests.
Although there were no known domestic NGOs focused on LGBTI matters, there were several online networking communities, including an online LGBTI-oriented magazine. Human rights activists reported there was overt societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in all aspects of society.
The terrorist HTS regularly detained, tortured, and killed LGBTI individuals in the territories they controlled (see section 1.g.). For example, in August The Guardian newspaper reported that a Syrian transgender woman was arrested by HTS officers barely 110 yards across the border into Idlib after being deported by Turkish authorities. According to a fellow refugee deported on the same bus, the HTS officers went through her cellular telephone, humiliating her about pictures they found. The woman has not been heard from since she was seen forced into the back of a taxi, a bag tied over her head.
There were no reports of violence or discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS, but human rights activists believed such cases were underreported and the UN Development Program (UNDP) noted that stigma affected access to health care. The UNDP and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria assessed that the incapability of the health-care sector to identify newly infected persons or offer medical support in a hostile environment posed a major problem and added to the risk of further spread of the disease among the general population.
Yezidis, Druze, Christians, Shia, and other religious minorities were subject to violence and discrimination by ISIS, the HTS, and other extremist groups (see section 1.g.).
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
While the law provides for the right to form and join unions, conduct legal labor strikes, and bargain collectively, there were excessive restrictions on these rights. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination but also allows employers to fire workers at will.
The law requires all unions to belong to the regime-affiliated General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU). The law prohibits strikes involving more than 20 workers in certain sectors, including transportation and telecommunications, or strike actions resembling public demonstrations. Restrictions on freedom of association also included fines and prison sentences for illegal strikes.
The law requires that government representatives be part of the bargaining process in the public sector, and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor could object to, and refuse to register, any agreements concluded. The law and relevant labor protections do not apply to workers covered under civil service provisions, under which employees neither have nor are considered to need collective bargaining rights. The law does not apply to foreign domestic servants, agricultural workers, NGO employees, or informal-sector workers. There are no legal protections for self-employed workers, although they constituted a significant proportion of the total workforce. Foreign workers may join the syndicate representing their profession but may not run for elected positions, with the exception of Palestinians, who may serve as elected officials in unions.
The regime did not enforce applicable laws effectively or make any serious attempt to do so during the year. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
The Baath Party dominated the GFTU, and Baath Party doctrine stipulates that its quasi-official constituent unions protect worker rights. The GFTU president was a senior member of the Baath Party, and he and his deputy could attend cabinet meetings on economic affairs. In previous years the GFTU controlled most aspects of union activity, including which sectors or industries could have unions. It also had the power to disband union governing bodies. Union elections were generally free of direct GFTU interference, but successful campaigns usually required membership in the Baath Party. Because of the GFTU’s close ties to the regime, the right to bargain collectively did not exist in practical terms. Although the law provides for collective bargaining in the private sector, past regime repression dissuaded most workers from exercising this right.
There was little information available on employer practices with regard to antiunion discrimination. Unrest and economic decline during the year caused many workers to lose their private-sector jobs, giving employers the stronger hand in disputes.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law does not prohibit all forms of forced or compulsory labor, and such practices existed. The penal code does not define forced labor. The code states, “those sentenced to forced labor will be strictly required to do work with difficulty on par with their sex, age, and may be inside or outside of the prison.” The penal code allows for forced labor as a mandatory or optional sentence for numerous crimes, such as treason. Authorities may sentence convicted prisoners to hard labor, although according to the International Labor Organization, authorities seldom enforced such a sentence. There was little information available on regime efforts to enforce relevant laws during the year or on the effectiveness of penalties to deter violations.
Terrorist groups, including ISIS and the HTS, reportedly forced, coerced, or fraudulently recruited some foreigners, including migrants from Central Asia, children, and Western women to join them. Thousands of Yezidi women and girl captives of ISIS remained missing and were presumed to have served as sex slaves and in domestic servitude (see section 1.g.).
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law provides for the protection of children from exploitation in the workplace and prohibits the worst forms of child labor. There was little publicly available information on enforcement of the child labor law. The regime generally did not make significant efforts to enforce laws that prevent or eliminate child labor. Independent information and audits regarding regime enforcement were not available. The minimum age for most types of nonagricultural labor is 15 or the completion of elementary schooling, whichever occurs first, and the minimum age for employment in industries with heavy work is 17. Parental permission is required for children younger than 16 to work. Children younger than 18 may work no more than six hours a day and may not work overtime or during night shifts, weekends, or on official holidays. The law specifies that authorities should apply “appropriate penalties” to violators. Restrictions on child labor do not apply to those who work in family businesses and do not receive a salary.
Child labor occurred in the country in both informal sectors, such as begging, domestic work, and agriculture, as well as in positions related to the conflict, such as lookouts, spies, and informants. Conflict-related work subjected children to significant dangers of retaliation and violence.
Various forces, particularly terrorist groups and regime-aligned groups, continued to recruit and use child soldiers (see section 1.g.).
Organized begging rings continued to subject children displaced within the country to forced labor.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
Although the constitution provides for equality between men and women, the law does not provide for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. Labor and nationality laws discriminate against women. While the constitution provides the “right of every citizen to earn his wage according to the nature and yield of the work,” the law does not explicitly stipulate equal pay for equal work. The Commission for Family Affairs, Ministry of Justice, and Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor shared responsibility for attempting to accord equal legal rights to women. Governmental involvement in civil rights claims, including cases against sexual discrimination, was stagnant, and most claims went unanswered. Women participated in most professions, including the armed forces, although UNFPA reported that violence and lawlessness in many regions reduced women’s access to the public sphere. Various sources observed that women constituted a minority of lawyers, university professors, and other professions.
The constitution does not address discrimination based on sexual orientation, age, or HIV-positive status. Since the law criminalizes homosexuality, many persons faced discrimination due to their sexual orientation.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, including their access to education, employment, health services, and other state services, but the regime did not enforce these provisions effectively. Discrimination occurred in hiring and access to worksites. The law seeks to integrate persons with disabilities into the workforce, reserving 4 percent of government jobs and 2 percent of private-sector jobs for them. Private-sector businesses are eligible for tax exemptions after hiring persons with disabilities.
Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to certain minority groups (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The law divides the public-sector monthly minimum wage into five levels based on job type or level of education, almost all of which fell below the World Bank’s poverty indicator. Benefits included compensation for meals, uniforms, and transportation. Most public-sector employees relied on bribery to supplement their income. Private-sector companies usually paid much higher wages, with lower-end wage rates semiofficially set by the regime and employer organizations. Many workers in the public and private sectors took additional manual jobs or relied on their extended families to support them.
The public-sector workweek was 35 hours, and the standard private-sector workweek was 40 hours, excluding meals and rest breaks. Hours of work could increase or decrease based on the industry and associated health hazards. The law provides for at least one meal or rest break totaling no less than one hour per day. Employers must schedule hours of work and rest such that workers do not work more than five consecutive hours or 10 hours per day in total. Employers must provide premium pay for overtime work.
The regime set occupational safety and health standards. The law includes provisions mandating that employers take appropriate precautions to protect workers from hazards inherent to the nature of work. The law does not protect workers who chose to remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety from losing their employment.
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor is responsible for enforcing the minimum wage and other regulations pertaining to acceptable conditions of work. The Ministries of Health and of Social Affairs and Labor designated officials to inspect worksites for compliance with health and safety standards. Workers could lodge complaints about health and safety conditions with special committees established to adjudicate such cases. Wage and hour regulations as well as occupational health and safety rules do not apply to migrant workers, rendering them more vulnerable to abuse.
There was little information on regime enforcement of labor law or working conditions during the year. There were no health and safety inspections reported, and even previous routine inspections of tourist facilities, such as hotels and major restaurants, no longer occurred. The enforcement of labor law was lax in both rural and urban areas, since many inspector positions were vacant due to the conflict and their number was insufficient to cover more than 10,000 workplaces. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
Before the conflict began, 13 percent of women participated in the formal labor force, compared with 73 percent of men. During the year the unemployment rate for both men and women remained above 50 percent, with millions unable to participate in the workforce due to continued violence and insecurity. During the year UNFPA reported that local female employment participation increased in areas such as Damascus, Raqqa, and Daraa, as men were detained or killed.
Foreign workers, especially domestic workers, remained vulnerable to exploitative conditions. For example, the law does not legally entitle foreign female domestic workers to the same wages as Syrian domestic workers. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor oversees employment agencies responsible for providing safe working conditions for migrant domestic workers, but the scope of oversight was unknown. The continued unrest resulted in the large-scale voluntary departure of foreign workers as demand for services significantly declined, but violence and lawlessness impeded some foreign workers from leaving the country.
Turkey is a constitutional republic with an executive presidential system and a 600-seat parliament. The unicameral parliament (the Grand National Assembly) exercises legislative authority. In presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers expressed concern regarding restrictions on media reporting and the campaign environment that restricted the ability of opposition candidates, including the jailing of a presidential candidate at the time, to compete on an equal basis and campaign freely. In March municipal elections, Council of Europe observers expressed similar concerns about limitations on freedom of expression, particularly for the media, and about a legal framework that contributed to an unequal campaign environment. The observers also criticized the Supreme Electoral Council’s decision to rerun the Istanbul mayoral race in June and several decisions replacing winning opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) candidates with second-place governing-party candidates.
The National Police and Jandarma, under the control of the Ministry of Interior, are responsible for security in urban areas and rural and border areas respectively. The military has overall responsibility for border control and external security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over law enforcement, but mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption remained inadequate, and impunity remained a problem.
Under broad antiterror legislation the government restricted fundamental freedoms and compromised the rule of law. Since the 2016 coup attempt, authorities have dismissed or suspended more than 45,000 police and military personnel and more than 130,000 civil servants, dismissed one-third of the judiciary, arrested or imprisoned more than 80,000 citizens, and closed more than 1,500 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on terrorism-related grounds, primarily for alleged ties to the movement of cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accuses of masterminding the coup attempt, and designated by the government as the leader of the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” (“FETO”).
Significant human rights issues included: reports of arbitrary killings; suspicious deaths of persons in custody; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention of tens of thousands of persons, including former opposition members of parliament, lawyers, journalists, foreign citizens, and employees of the U.S. Mission, for purported ties to “terrorist” groups or peaceful legitimate speech; the existence of political prisoners, including elected officials and academics; significant problems with judicial independence; severe restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, and the internet, including violence and threats of violence against journalists, closure of media outlets, and unjustified arrests or criminal prosecution of journalists and others for criticizing government policies or officials, censorship, site blocking and the existence of criminal libel laws; severe restriction of freedoms of assembly, association, and movement; some cases of refoulement of refugees; and violence against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons and members of other minorities.
The government took limited steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish members of the security forces and other officials accused of human rights abuses; impunity remained a problem.
Clashes between security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist organization and its affiliates continued, although at a reduced level compared with previous years, and resulted in the injury or death of security forces, PKK terrorists, and civilians. The government did not release information on efforts to investigate or prosecute personnel for wrongful or inadvertent deaths of civilians linked to counter-PKK operations.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression within certain limits, and the government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press, throughout the year. Multiple articles in the penal code directly restrict press freedom and free speech, for example, through provisions that prohibit praising a crime or criminals or inciting the population to enmity, hatred, or denigration, as well as provisions that protect public order and criminalize insulting the state, the president, or government officials. Many involved in journalism reported that the government’s prosecution of journalists representing major opposition and independent newspapers and its jailing of journalists during the preceding three years hindered freedom of speech and that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.
The law provides for punishment of up to three years in prison for a conviction of “hate speech” or injurious acts related to language, race, nationality, color, gender, disability, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, or sectarian differences. Human rights groups criticized the law for not including restrictions based on gender identity and noted that the law was sometimes used more to restrict freedom of speech than to protect minorities.
The government convicted and sentenced hundreds of individuals for exercising their freedom of expression. According to a poll by Reuters conducted in 2018 as part of its Digital News Report: Turkey Supplementary Report, 65 percent of respondents in Turkey stated, “…concern that openly expressing their views online could get them into trouble with the authorities.”
Expression critical of the government was frequently met with criminal charges alleging affiliation with terrorist groups or terrorism. In October, during Operation Peace Spring, the government launched investigations against more than 800 individuals largely for social media posts deemed critical of government actions in northeast Syria. The Ministry of Interior reported in the same month it had detained 186 and arrested 24 individuals based on charges related to support for terror because of their social media posts.
During the year the government opened investigations into thousands of individuals, including politicians, journalists, and minors, based on allegations of insulting the president; the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; or state institutions. Based on HRA and HRFT statistics, during the first 11 months of the year, the government investigated more than 36,000 individuals and filed criminal cases against more than 6,000 people related to accusations they insulted the president or the state. In May a court sentenced construction worker Deniz Avci to two years’ imprisonment for insulting the president after he shared two cartoons depicting President Erdogan on social media. Avci’s lawyer noted the government had not opened any lawsuits against the cartoons’ creator or publisher.
Estimates of the number of imprisoned journalists varied. The Media and Law Studies Association in Istanbul attributed the disparity to the varying definitions of “journalist” or “media worker.” While the government officially recognizes as journalists only persons who have been issued a yellow press accreditation card–typically limited to reporters, cameramen, and editors–media watchdog groups included distributors, copy editors, layout designers, or other staff of media outlets in their definition. The government often categorized imprisoned journalists from Kurdish-language outlets or alleged pro-Gulen publications as “terrorists,” alleging ties to the PKK and the Gulen movement. Information about and access to the imprisoned staff of some of these outlets was therefore limited, further contributing to disparities in tallies of jailed journalists.
Estimates of the number of incarcerated journalists ranged from at least 47 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to 136 according to the International Press Institute (IPI). The majority faced charges related to antistate reporting or alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement.
An unknown number of journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest, according to the Journalists Association. Hundreds more remained out of work after the government closed more than 200 media companies allegedly affiliated with the PKK or Gulen movement, mostly in 2016-17, as part of its response to the 2016 coup attempt.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals in many cases could not criticize the state or government publicly without risk of civil or criminal suits or investigation, and the government restricted expression by individuals sympathetic to some religious, political, or cultural viewpoints. At times those who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics or in ways critical of the government risked investigation, fines, criminal charges, job loss, and imprisonment.
On September 6, an Istanbul court sentenced Republican People’s Party (CHP) Istanbul chairperson Canan Kaftancioglu to nearly 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting the republic” and “insulting the president” for tweets she shared between 2012 and 2017. She remained free pending a legal appeal at years’ end.
A parliamentary by-law prohibits use of the word “Kurdistan” or other sensitive terms by members of parliament on the floor of parliament, providing for the possible issuance of fines to violators.
On December 2, the Diyarbakir public prosecutor requested charges be filed against former Diyarbakir Bar Association chairman Ahmet Ozmen and the former members of the bar’s executive board for violating Article 301 of the penal code, the article that criminalizes, among other things, openly provoking hatred and hostility and insulting parliament. The charges stemmed from a statement the Diyarbakir Bar Association released on April 24, 2017, saying, “We share the unrelieved pain of Armenian people.”
Rights groups and free speech advocates reported intensifying government pressure that in certain cases resulted in enhanced caution in their public reporting.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Mainstream print media and television stations were largely controlled by progovernment holding companies heavily influenced by the ruling party. Reporters Without Borders estimated the government was able to exert power in the administration of 90 percent of the most-watched television stations and most-read national daily newspapers. Only a small fraction of the holding companies’ profits came from media revenue, and their other commercial interests impeded media independence, encouraged a climate of self-censorship, and limited the scope of public debate.
Nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees.
Government prosecution of independent journalists limited media freedom throughout the year. In April 2018, 14 persons affiliated with the leading independent newspaper, Cumhuriyet, were convicted of aiding terrorist organizations, citing their reporting as part of the evidence against the accused, and sentenced to prison terms of between three and seven years. The court placed the journalists on probation and banned them from traveling abroad until the appeals process concluded. In April six defendants returned to prison after an appeals court upheld their convictions. Following a Supreme Court of Appeals ruling in September that dismissed most of the cases, only one former staff member remained jailed, but travel bans on the others remained in place. The original court set aside the Supreme Court of Appeals ruling and held a retrial for 13 of the original defendants in November, acquitting one and ruling against the Supreme Court of Appeals’ decision for the other 12. The case continued at year’s end as the defendants appealed the decision.
Additional journalists whose detentions were considered politically motivated included four journalists and editors who had worked for the now-closed, Gulen-linked Zaman newspaper. Authorities arrested the four in 2016, and they remained in detention on terrorism and coup-related charges. International human rights organizations condemned the sentences of six other journalists sentenced to aggravated life prison sentences on February 16 for alleged links to the 2016 coup attempt. On July 6, courts convicted an additional six journalists associated with the closed Zaman newspaper of terrorism-related charges and sentenced them to between eight and more than 10 years’ imprisonment.
In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country. For example, after serving three months in prison for “membership in a terror organization” and being acquitted in December 2018 due to lack of evidence, Austrian journalist and student Max Zringast remained under judicial control and was barred from leaving the country.
Violence and Harassment: Government and political leaders and their supporters used a variety of means to intimidate and pressure journalists, including lawsuits, threats, and, in some cases, physical attack.
In a spate of violence during the spring, six journalists from various outlets across the country were attacked in the space of five weeks. In May six individuals attacked Yenicag newspaper columnist Yavuz Demirag, ostensibly because they disagreed with his reporting. All three were released after questioning by authorities. In another attack in May, three individuals who attacked journalist Selahattin Onkibar were released under judicial control. The Turkish Journalists Union criticized the lack of investigations and blamed the increase in attacks against journalists on a sense of impunity on the part of those responsible for attacks.
The government routinely filed terrorism-related charges against an individual or publication in response to reporting on sensitive topics, particularly PKK terrorism and the Gulen movement (also see National Security). Human rights groups and journalists asserted the government did this to target and intimidate journalists and the public. In November reporters Ruken Demir (Mesopotamia Agency) and Melike Aydın (Jinnews) were placed in pretrial detention pending a hearing on charges of supporting a terrorist organization that reportedly stemmed from the content of their reporting.
Journalists reported that media outlets fired some individuals for being too controversial or adversarial with the government out of fear of jeopardizing other business interests.
Journalists affiliated or formerly affiliated with pro-Kurdish outlets faced significant government pressure, including incarceration. The government routinely denied press accreditation to Turkish citizens working for international outlets for any association (including volunteer work) with Kurdish-language outlets.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders maintained direct and indirect censorship of news media, online media, and books. The Ministry of Interior disclosed that, between January 1 and April 9, it examined 10,250 social media accounts and took legal action against more than 3,600 users whom it accused of propagandizing or promoting terror organizations, inciting persons to enmity and hostility, or insulting state institutions. Media professionals widely reported practicing self-censorship due to intimidation and risks of criminal and civil charges.
While the law does not prohibit particular books or publications, publishing houses were required to submit books and periodicals to prosecutors for screening at the time of publication. The Turkish Publishers Association (TPA) reported that the country’s largest bookstore chain, D&R, removed some books from its shelves and did not carry books by some opposition political figures.
The TPA reported that publishers often exercised self-censorship, avoiding works with controversial content (including government criticism, erotic content, or pro-Kurdish content) that might draw legal action. The TPA reported that publishers faced publication bans and heavy fines if they failed to comply in cases in which a court ordered the correction of offensive content. Publishers were also subject to book promotion restrictions. In some cases prosecutors considered the possession of some Kurdish-language, pro-Kurdish, or Gulen movement books to be credible evidence of membership in a terror organization. In other cases authorities directly banned books because of objectionable content. For example, in September a court in Kars banned two books related to Kurds or “Kurdistan” for promoting “a terrorist organization.”
In July an Ankara court ordered domestic internet service providers to block in-country access to 135 web addresses representing a wide variety of platforms, including the independent news site Ozgur Gelecek (see Internet Freedom).
The government’s efforts to control media continued. A July report by Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (a think tank with close ties to the ruling AKP) identified some foreign media outlets reporting from the country (e.g., BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Voice of America) as “antigovernment” and “proterrorism” for stories the organization deemed too critical of the Turkish government or promoting terrorist-related perspectives. In response the Turkish Journalists Union filed a complaint about the report, stating that it made the outlets and their correspondents “public targets.” Other critics and free speech advocates, including the European Center for Press and Media Freedom, asserted the publication laid the groundwork for greater suppression of foreign reporting and correspondents.
Some journalists reported their employers fired them or asked them to censor their reporting if it appeared critical of the government. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting became increasingly standardized along progovernment lines. Failure to comply typically resulted in a dismissal, with media groups occasionally citing “financial reasons” as a blanket cause for termination.
Some writers and publishers were subject to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, or insulting religious values. Authorities investigated or continued court cases against a myriad of publications and publishers on these grounds during the year. Media and Law Studies Association codirector and lawyer Veysel Ok and reporter Cihan Acar were sentenced to five months’ imprisonment on the charge of “degrading the judicial bodies of the state.” The lawsuit was based on an interview Ok gave to the newspaper Ozgur Dusunce in which he questioned the independence of the judiciary.
Radio and television broadcast outlets did not provide equal access to the country’s major political parties. Critics charged that the media generally favored the ruling AKP political party, including during the March municipal elections (see section 3).
The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.” For example, RTUK sanctioned television channel TELE1 for broadcasting a speech made by HDP cochair Sezai Temelli in parliament. As of August RTUK’s authority extended to online broadcasters as well. Service providers that broadcast online are required to obtain a license or may face having their content removed. RTUK is empowered to reject license requests on the grounds of national security and to subject content to prior censorship. Civil society organizations reported concerns about the high cost of the license and requirement to obtain vetting certification from local police.
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents, journalists, and ordinary citizens from voicing criticism (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press). According to press reports, convictions for insulting the president increased 13-fold between 2016 and the end of the year. The law provides that persons who insult the president of the republic may face a prison term of up to four years. The sentence may be increased by one-sixth if committed publicly and by one-third if committed by media outlets.
Authorities charged citizens, including minors, with insulting the country’s leaders and denigrating “Turkishness.” For example, in July a court of appeals sentenced famous local singer and actress Zuhal Olcay to 11 months and 20 days in prison for allegedly insulting the president in a song at a concert.
The government also targeted lawmakers, mostly from the pro-Kurdish HDP, with a significant number of insult-related cases. As of December at least 4,912 HDP lawmakers, executives, and party members had been arrested since July 2016 for a variety of charges related to terrorism and political speech.
While leaders and deputies from opposition political parties regularly faced multiple insult charges, free speech advocates pointed out that the government did not apply the law equally and that AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted.
According to the Ministry of Justice, in 2018 the government launched 36,660 investigations against at least 6,320 individuals related to insulting the president, including 104 children between the ages of 12 and 15. Comprehensive government figures for 2019 were unavailable at year’s end.
National Security: Authorities regularly used the counterterrorism law and the penal code to limit free expression on grounds of national security. Organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House, reported that authorities used the counterterrorism law and criminal code to prosecute journalists, writers, editors, publishers, filmmakers, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students accused of supporting a terrorist organization–generally either the PKK or the Gulen movement.
In one example in July, two filmmakers were sentenced to four years, six months in prison for their 2015 documentary movie, Bakur, about the PKK. According to the court, the documentary was “propaganda for a terrorist organization.” Many observers, however, viewed the prosecution as an example of the government using antiterror laws to limit freedom of expression.
Prominent columnist Ahmet Altan remained in prison at year’s end. Altan was convicted in 2018 for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” and received an aggravated life sentence in February 2018. The Supreme Court of Appeals overturned his life imprisonment sentence in July and recommended he face the lesser charge of “aiding a terrorist organization.” In November the court convicted Altan on the lesser charge but ordered his release for time served. He was released on November 4 but rearrested on November 12 following the prosecutor’s objection to his release. Economist Mehmet Altan was previously convicted, along with his brother Ahmet, on terror-related charges for allegedly sending coded messages to the 2016 coup plotters during a panel discussion on a television program. The Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the verdict against Mehmet Altan due to a lack of sufficient and credible evidence, and he was acquitted in the retrial.
Authorities also targeted foreign journalists. For example, in June a criminal court in Istanbul accepted an indictment charging two Bloomberg News reporters for their coverage of the country’s economy, alleging that their reports had undermined the country’s economic stability. If convicted, they could face as many as five years in prison.
Nongovernmental Impact: The PKK used intimidation to limit freedom of speech and other constitutional rights in the southeast. Some journalists, political party representatives, and residents of the southeast reported pressure, intimidation, and threats if they spoke out against the PKK or praised government security forces.
The government continued to restrict access to the internet and expanded its blocking of selected online content. The government at times blocked access to cloud-based services and permanently blocked access to many virtual private networks. There was evidence the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority. The Freedom House report Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism highlighted fewer instances of network shutdowns but the continuation of blocked access to several news and citizen journalism websites, as well as increasing self-censorship.
The law allows the government to block a website or remove content if there is sufficient suspicion that the site is committing any number of crimes, including insulting the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or insulting the president. The government may also block sites to protect national security and public order. At times authorities blocked Wikipedia and other news and information sites that had content criticizing government policies. The law also allows persons who believe a website violated their personal rights to ask the regulatory body to order internet service providers (ISPs) to remove the offensive content. Government leaders, including the president, reportedly employed staff to monitor the internet and initiate charges against individuals perceived as insulting them.
The government-operated Information Technologies Institution (BTK) is empowered to demand that ISPs remove content or block websites with four hours’ notice, as are government ministers. The regulatory body must refer the matter to a judge within 24 hours, who must rule on the matter within 48 hours. If it is not technically possible to remove individual content within the specified time, the entire website may be blocked. ISP administrators may face a penalty of six months to two years in prison or fines ranging from 50,000 to 500,000 lira ($8,500 to $85,000) for conviction of failing to comply with a judicial order. The president appoints the BTK president, vice president, and members of the agency.
In August the BTK announced it would block access to 135 web addresses. The action targeted opposition news portals and public media accounts–notably the Twitter account of HDP Istanbul member of parliament Oya Ersoy and accounts that posted updates about the continuing Gezi trial. The BTK stated the move was “to protect national security and public order, prevent crime or protect public health.” Domestic and international media organizations and activists condemned the decision.
The government has authority to restrict internet freedom with limited parliamentary and judicial oversight. The law provides that government authorities may access internet user records to “protect national security, public order, health, and decency” or to prevent a crime. The law also establishes an ISP union of all internet providers that are responsible for implementing website takedown orders. The judicial system is responsible for informing content providers of ordered blocks. Content providers, including Twitter and Facebook, were required to obtain an operating certificate for the country.
Internet access providers, including internet cafes, were required to use BTK-approved filtering tools that blocked specific content. Additional internet restrictions were in place in government and university buildings. According to the internet freedom NGO Engelliweb, the government blocked an additional 54,903 domain names during 2018, bringing the total number of blocked sites to 245,825. Of the new domain names that were blocked, 95 percent were blocked through a BTK decision.
Wikipedia has been blocked in the country for more than two years on the basis of national security concerns. In May, following two years of a state-imposed ban against the Wikipedia website, the Wikipedia Foundation brought a case against the country in the ECHR. In July the ECHR decided to expedite the case, due to its public importance. The Constitutional Court began deliberations on the website’s appeal of the ban in September and in late December ruled the government’s ban was a violation of the freedom of expression.
According to Twitter’s internal transparency report, during the first six months of the year, the company received 6,073 court orders and other legal requests from Turkish authorities to remove content, the highest number of such requests worldwide.
During the year the government continued to limit academic freedom, restrict freedom of speech in academic institutions, and censor cultural events.
The president appointed rectors to state and foundation-run universities, leading critics to assert that the appointments compromised the academic and political independence of the institutions. Some academics lost their jobs or faced charges due to public statements critical of government policy during the year. Academics and others criticized the situation in public universities, asserting that the dismissals of more than 7,000 academics during the 2016-18 state of emergency had depleted many departments and institutions of qualified professional staff to the detriment of students and the quality of education. According to press reports, as of August, 273 departments for 78 public universities did not have any academic staff. In July the Constitutional Court ruled that the prosecution of nearly 2,000 academics, known as the Academics for Peace, for “terrorist propaganda” after they signed a 2016 petition condemning state violence against Kurds in the southeast and calling for peace, constituted a violation of their right to freedom of expression. Following the high court’s verdict, as of November lower courts acquitted 486 academics, and 336 cases remained pending. Most academics who were acquitted were not reinstated to their previous positions.
Some academics and event organizers stated their employers monitored their work and they faced censure from their employers if they spoke or wrote on topics not acceptable to academic management or the government. Many reported practicing self-censorship. Human rights organizations and student groups criticized court- and Higher Education Board-imposed constraints that limited university autonomy in staffing, teaching, and research policies.
Antiterror measures also affected arts and culture. The state-run broadcaster TRT banned songs from the airwaves and defended the practice, stating it was respecting the law that forbids the broadcast of content encouraging persons to smoke or drink or that conveys “terrorist propaganda.” In September prosecutors accepted a criminal complaint against 18 rappers who took part in the #SUSAMAM project, a 15-minute rap video that examined a wide spectrum of social issues.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Although the constitution provides for freedom of assembly, the law provides several grounds for the government to limit that right. The law stipulates penalties for protesters convicted of carrying items that might be construed as weapons, prohibits the use of symbols linked to illegal organizations (including chanting slogans), and criminalizes covering one’s face during a protest. The law permits police to use tinted water in water cannons, potentially to tag protesters for later identification and prosecution. The law also allows police to take persons into “protective custody” without a prosecutor’s authorization if there is reasonable suspicion that they are a threat to themselves or to public order. The antiterror law gives governorates enhanced authority to ban protests and public gatherings, a ban some governorates enacted broadly during the year.
The government regarded many demonstrations as security threats to the state, deploying large numbers of riot police to control crowds, frequently using excessive force and resulting in injuries, detentions, and arrests. At times the government used its authority to detain persons before protests were held on the premise they might cause civil disruption. The government generally supported security forces’ actions. The HRA and HRFT jointly reported that in the first 11 months of the year, police intervened in 962 demonstrations. As many as 2,800 persons claimed they faced beating and inhuman treatment during these police interventions. Neither government nor human rights groups released statistics regarding the number of demonstrations that proceeded without government intervention. Year-end figures for those injured in clashes with authorities during demonstrations were not available. Human rights NGOs asserted the government’s failure to delineate clearly in the law the circumstances that justify the use of force contributed to disproportionate use of force during protests. In July students at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University were confronted by police spraying tear gas before being forcibly removed. The students had set up tents to protest the cutting of trees for the construction of a new state dormitory on campus.
On March 8, police used tear gas to break up an International Women’s Day march of several thousand demonstrators near Istanbul’s Taksim Square. President Erdogan claimed some participants continued their protest during the call to prayer, which he said constituted an insult to religion (a crime according to domestic law). Progovernment media extensively covered the events with columnists widely condemning the demonstrators and largely echoing Erdogan’s criticisms, although some in progovernment media criticized his use of religion in this way. The women’s committee in charge of organizing the event issued a statement denying the accusations and asserting police used excessive force against the demonstrators.
Throughout the year during court hearings of jailed former HDP cochair Demirtas, the Ankara governorate or court security personnel banned gatherings, marches, and sit-in protests outside the court. Domestic and international observers were admitted to observe one hearing.
The government also selectively restricted gatherings to designated sites or dates, particularly limiting access to Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Istiklal Street and Ankara’s Kizilay Square, and set up roadblocks to prevent protesters from gathering there. Although police removed barriers around the human rights monument in Ankara’s Kizilay Square in July, a mobile police presence remained. The government selectively banned many demonstrations outright if they were critical of the government. In September-October, Ankara police prevented mothers of military cadets sentenced to life in prison for their alleged involvement in the coup attempt from gathering outside the AKP headquarters building in Ankara. In contrast, during the same period, police did not prevent demonstrators from staging sit-ins outside HDP buildings in Diyarbakir to demand the return of children allegedly forcibly recruited by the PKK.
Istanbul police continued to prevent the vigil of the Saturday Mothers from taking place on Istiklal Street, instead requiring the group to hold the weekly gathering on a nearby side street. Since the 1990s, the Saturday Mothers gathered to commemorate the disappearances of relatives following their detention by security forces in the 1980s and 1990s and to call for accountability. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu previously accused the group of exploiting the concept of motherhood to mask support for terrorism.
The governors of Kayseri and Istanbul banned an academic conference hosted by the Hrant Dink Foundation in their respective provinces. The conference was the sixth in a series of similar events across the country. In a press statement, the group said the conference was a legal action taken directly in line with its government-approved foundational charter and did not violate the sections of law pertaining to assemblies and demonstrations.
Pro-Kurdish demonstrations of many kinds faced violent police responses throughout the year. For example, in January police prevented HDP lawmakers from holding a press conference in support of HDP member of parliament Leyla Guven’s hunger strike in front of the HDP Diyarbakir provincial headquarters. Police also violently disrupted a February demonstration in Van on the same topic.
In contrast with previous years, labor rights activists and political parties participated in largely peaceful marches throughout the country on May 1 (Labor Day). Turkish authorities detained 127 marchers in Istanbul who attempted to gather in Taksim Square (which the government specified as off limits).
The governors of Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, Antalya, Gaziantep, and Mersin issued bans on public activities by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons during the year. In May and June, police broke up public events related to Pride Month using batons, tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets in Izmir and Istanbul. In Izmir groups reported police detained 16 persons for several hours, and police in Istanbul reportedly detained three to five individuals. Police in Ankara also responded to similar events with tear gas despite court rulings that the governorate’s blanket ban on public events by LGBTI groups was not legal. Activists reported that despite the court’s ruling, the government continued to impose individual bans on events and assemblies.
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right. The government used provisions of the antiterror law to prevent from reopening associations and foundations it had previously closed due to alleged threats to national security. In July the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures announced the government had closed 1,750 nongovernmental associations and foundations under state of emergency measures. Of those, the government allowed the reopening of 208 groups. Observers widely reported the appeals process for institutions seeking redress remained opaque and ineffective (see section 1.e.).
By law persons organizing an association do not need to notify authorities beforehand, but an association must provide notification before interacting with international organizations or receiving financial support from abroad and must provide detailed documents on such activities. Representatives of associations stated this requirement placed an undue burden on their operations. Human rights and civil society organizations, groups promoting LGBTI rights, and women’s groups in particular complained the government used regular and detailed audits to create administrative burdens and to intimidate them through the threat of large fines. In December the government closed Antakya Purple Solidarity Women’s Association, alleging the association was providing training without the requisite permissions. Bar association representatives reported that police sometimes attended civil society organizational meetings and recorded them, which the representatives interpreted as a means of intimidation.
In February the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office announced it would seek life imprisonment for philanthropist Osman Kavala, the former editor in chief of opposition-leaning newspaper Cumhuriyet, and 15 other journalists, artists, and human rights activists for “attempting to overthrow the government” by “organizing and financing” the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Human rights groups criticized the 657-page indictment as not containing “a shred of evidence” of criminal activities. Kavala, the founder of Anadolu Kultur, an organization dedicated to cross-cultural and religious dialogue, had been in prison since 2017. Hearings in the trial began in June. Defendants asserted the evidence presented by the prosecutor did not amount to a crime, contained inaccuracies, and made conclusions based on supposition rather than fact.
The case against former Amnesty International honorary chair Taner Kilic and 10 other human rights defenders continued. The defendants were charged with “membership in a terrorist organization” or “aiding a terrorist organization without being a member,” largely stemming from attendance at a 2017 workshop entitled, Protecting Human Rights Advocates–Digital Security, held on Istanbul’s Buyukada Island. A court had released Kilic under judicial control in August 2018 while his case continued. In November the prosecutor recommended conviction for Kilic and five other defendants on terror-related charges and requested acquittal for the remaining five. The case continued at years’ end.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights. The government continued to restrict foreign travel for some citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed 2016 coup attempt. In March authorities lifted passport restrictions for 57,000 individuals, although it remained unclear how many more remained unable to travel. Curfews imposed by local authorities in response to counter-PKK operations and the country’s military operation in northern Syria also restricted freedom of movement. The government declared Hakkari Province a “special security zone” and limited movement into and out of several districts in the province for weeks at a time, citing the need to protect citizens from PKK attacks.
In-country Movement: The constitution provides that only a judge may limit citizens’ freedom to travel and only in connection with a criminal investigation or prosecution. Antiterror laws allowed severe restrictions to be imposed on freedom of movement, such as granting governors the power to limit movement on individuals, including entering or leaving provinces, for up to 15 days.
Freedom of movement remained a problem in parts of the east and southeast, where countering PKK activity led authorities to block roads and set up checkpoints, temporarily restricting movement at times. The government instituted special security zones, restricting the access of civilians, and established curfews in parts of several provinces in response to PKK terrorist attacks or activity (see section 1.g., Abuses in Internal Conflict).
Conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection also experienced restrictions on their freedom of movement (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees).
Foreign Travel: The government placed restrictions on foreign travel for tens of thousands of citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed coup attempt, as well as to their extended family members. Authorities also restricted some foreign citizens with dual Turkish citizenship from leaving the country due to alleged terrorism concerns. The government maintained that the travel restrictions were necessary to preserve security.
For those barred from travel, some chose to leave the country illegally. In October a boat carrying 19 citizens seeking to flee the country capsized in the Aegean Sea, killing seven, including five children.
Syrians under temporary protection risked the loss of temporary protection status and a possible bar on re-entry into the country if they chose to travel to a third country or return temporarily to Syria. The government issued individual exit permissions for Syrians under temporary protection departing the country for family reunification, health treatment, or permanent resettlement, and required an individual exception for all other reasons. The government sometimes denied exit permission to Syrians under temporary protection for reasons that were unclear.
Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring displaced residents of villages along the country’s border with Syria. The renewal of conflict between the government and the PKK in the southeast in 2015 resulted in hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs). In some cases those displaced joined IDPs remaining from the conflict between security forces and the PKK between 1984 and the early 2000s. A reduction in urban clashes and government reconstruction efforts during the year permitted some IDPs to return to their homes. Overall numbers remained unclear at year’s end.
The law allows persons who suffered material losses due to terrorist acts, including those by the PKK or by security forces in response to terrorist acts, to apply to the government’s damage determination commissions for compensation. In Nusaybin the government built and distributed 778 housing units to residents whose homes were destroyed in antiterror operations.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government took steps during the year to increase services provided to the approximately four million refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in the country, nearly 3.7 million of whom were displaced Syrians. A 2016 agreement between the government and the EU continued to limit irregular migration from Turkey to Europe via the Aegean Sea. The Directorate General for Migration Management reported 414,313 “irregular migrants” were apprehended as of November. UNHCR reported 185,000 of these apprehensions were Afghan nationals. Some 89,000 were deported to their countries of origin. Most of these individuals were from Pakistan or Afghanistan, according to UNHCR. Reports of larger-scale detentions of individuals, including Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis, were also received. In the first six months of the year, an estimated 144 migrants died due to drowning, traffic accidents, or exposure to the elements.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Multiple sources reported that authorities denied entry to undocumented Iraqis, Syrians, and Afghans during the year. There were reports that Turkish border guards intercepted or summarily deported Syrians and Afghans seeking asylum. In the days immediately following the Ministry of Interior’s announcement of stricter enforcement of refugee registration requirements in Istanbul, UNHCR confirmed that a small number of Syrian refugees had been involuntarily returned to Syria. Turkish border guards also reportedly killed or injured Syrian asylum seekers at the border (see section 1.a.). During the offensive by Syrian government forces in Idlib in June and July, there were reports of displaced Syrians in Turkey being forced to return back across the border into Syria (also see Refoulement).
The country’s borders with Syria and Iraq remained closed to all but urgent humanitarian, medical, and family reunification cases since late 2015. Of the 20 border crossing points between Syria and Turkey, only three were open for limited civilian access. The rest were for military or military and humanitarian assistance only. Since November 2017 some provinces along the border with Syria limited registration of asylum seekers to certain exceptional cases only, limiting refugees’ ability to gain access to social services, including education and medical care in these areas, unless they relocate to a city where they can register. Large cities such as Istanbul also limited registration.
Incidents of societal violence directed against refugees and persons in refugee-like conditions increased during the year. In June in the Kucukcekmece district of Istanbul, tensions between local residents and Syrian refugees erupted into violence that continued for two nights and resulted in the destruction of several Syrian businesses. Workplace exploitation, child labor, and forced early marriage also remained significant problems among refugees. Human rights groups alleged conditions in detention and removal centers sometimes limited migrants’ rights to communication with and access to family members, interpreters, and lawyers (also see Refoulement).
In certain districts of Istanbul, NGO staff members reported receiving verbal threats and harassment from residents of host communities, urging them not to help Syrians.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to conditional refugees, returning refugees, stateless persons, and temporary and international protection status holders.
UNHCR reported there were LGBTI asylum seekers and conditional refugees in the country, most coming from Iran. According to human rights groups, these refugees faced discrimination and hostility from both authorities and the local population due to their status as members of the LGBTI community. Commercial sexual exploitation also remained a significant problem in the LGBTI refugee community, particularly for transgender individuals.
Refoulement: Authorities generally offered protection against refoulement to all non-European asylum seekers who met the definition of a refugee in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, although there were some confirmed cases of refoulement and tens of thousands of deportations have taken place during the year. The government increased efforts to deport those it claimed entered the country illegally, before they were granted status determination interviews by Turkish migration authorities. Istanbul, along with 14 other provinces, stopped registering asylum seekers in 2018, with the exception of those in a few categories such as newborn children and some specialized medical cases and family reunification instances. Many asylum seekers reported that in order to find work or be with their families, they either did not register or moved from the city where they had registered, neither of which is allowed under the country’s regulations. During the year the government also increased enforcement in major cities, such as Istanbul, against those who were either unregistered or registered to live in another province. In one instance an operation in July in Istanbul apprehended 6,122 individuals, including 2,600 Afghans and 1,000 Syrians, who either did not have valid registration to reside in Istanbul or who did not have registration at all.
The Ministry of Interior stated that all refugees of nationalities other than Syrian apprehended during these operations were sent to “repatriation centers.” Multiple refugee advocacy and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, reported the refoulement of some Syrians throughout the summer, during active conflict in Idlib, and the fall. While some deported Syrians acknowledged they were living unregistered when they were apprehended and deported, others said they were living outside their city of registration or claimed to have been carrying valid government documents guaranteeing their ability to reside in Turkey. One international human rights group reported that 23 Syrians claimed they were forcibly repatriated although they had not been willing to sign a “voluntary return form” or signed only after being coerced or misinformed. The government contended all returns were voluntary.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for standard treatment of asylum seekers countrywide and establishes a system of protection, but it limits rights granted in the 1951 convention to refugees from Europe and establishes restrictions on movement for conditional refugees. While non-European asylum seekers were not considered refugees by law, the government granted temporary protection status to millions of Syrians while maintaining conditional/subsidiary refugee status and providing international protection for other asylum seekers. Individuals recognized by the government for temporary protection (Syrians) or conditional/subsidiary refugee status (all other non-Europeans, for example, Iraqis, Iranians, and Somalis) were permitted to reside in the country temporarily until they could obtain third-country resettlement.
The law provides regulatory guidelines for foreigners’ entry into, stay in, and exit from the country, and for protection of asylum seekers. The law does not impose a strict time limit to apply for asylum, requiring only that asylum seekers do so “within a reasonable time” after arrival. The law also does not require asylum seekers to present a valid identity document to apply for status.
UNHCR reported it had intermittent and unpredictable access to detention and removal centers where non-Syrians were detained. UNHCR reported its visits to removal centers where apprehended foreigners were detained indicated the need for improvement in some areas, including access to information and legal aid by detainees as well as improved interpretation services. A 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey allows some migrants arriving in Greece to be returned to Turkey in particular circumstances. Some contacts expressed doubts that all these readmitted persons had access to the asylum procedure and echoed UNHCR’s concerns.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities assigned Syrians to one of 62 “satellite cities,” where they are supposed to receive services from local authorities under the responsibility of provincial governorates. These refugees were required to check in with local authorities on either a weekly or biweekly basis and needed permission from local authorities to travel to cities other than their assigned city, including for meetings with UNHCR or resettlement-country representatives, which the government generally provided. Syrians under temporary protection were also restricted from traveling outside of provinces listed on their registration cards without permission. Syrians and non-Syrians could request permission to travel or to transfer their registration through the Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM). Certain provinces did not accept travel permission requests or transfer of registration from Syrians under temporary protection. Syrians living in camps required permission from camp authorities to leave the camps.
Employment: The law allows both Syrians under temporary protection and non-Syrian conditional refugees the right to work, provided they were registered in the province they wish to work in for six months. Applying for a work permit was the responsibility of the employer, and the procedure was sufficiently burdensome and expensive that relatively few employers pursued legally hiring refugees. As a consequence, the vast majority of both conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection remained without legal employment options, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, including illegally low wages, withholding of wages, and exposure to unsafe work conditions.
Access to Basic Services: The government provided free access to the public medical system to Syrians registered for temporary protection and subsidized medical care to other conditional refugees. The government also expanded access to education for school-age Syrian children. Many encountered challenges overcoming the language barrier or meeting transportation or other costs, or both.
As of September the Ministry of National Education reported that 684,000 of the school-age refugee children in the country were in school, a significant increase from prior years. An estimated 36.9 percent remained out of school as of September. According to UNICEF, nearly 526,000 refugee children received monthly cash assistance for education through a joint program with UNICEF funded by international donors.
Provincial governments, working with local NGOs, were responsible for meeting the basic needs of refugees and other asylum seekers assigned to satellite cities in their jurisdictions, as well as of the Syrians present in their districts. Basic services were dependent on local officials’ interpretation of the law and their resources. Governors had significant discretion in working with asylum seekers and NGOs, and the assistance provided by local officials to refugees and persons in situations similar to those of refugees varied widely.
Durable Solutions: The law does not provide for durable solutions within the country for Syrians under temporary protection or for conditional refugees, but it allows them to stay until resettled to a foreign country or able to return to their country of origin. The government granted citizenship to some Syrian refugees on a limited basis. As of September authorities had granted approximately 100,000 Syrians citizenship since 2010, according to the Interior Ministry’s General Directorate of Population and Citizenship Affairs.
Temporary Protection: Turkey adopted a geographically limited understanding of the term “refugee” when it ratified the Refugee Convention and acceded to the Refugee Protocol, recognizing only Europeans as eligible for legal refugee status. In recognition of this gap, the government adopted a temporary protection regulation in 2014. The government offered temporary protection to Syrian refugees who did not qualify as refugees due to the European-origin limitation in the law. According to the Syrian National Coalition and Turkish authorities, at year’s end the country was hosting under this “temporary protection” status nearly 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Authorities required Syrian asylum seekers to register with the DGMM to legalize their temporary stay in the country. In 15 provinces the DGMM no longer processed new registrations beyond newborns and highly vulnerable Syrians. Syrians who registered with the government were able to receive an identification card, which qualified them for assistance provided through the governorates, including free primary health care. By year’s end the DGMM had closed all but seven camps in five provinces. Residents of these camps numbered 63,443 at year’s end, according to authorities.
Syrians who officially entered the country with passports could receive one-year residence permits upon registration with the government. In 2018, 74,939 Syrians held valid residence permits; 2019 figures were not available at year’s end.
The government did not keep figures for stateless persons. The government provided documentation for children born to conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection, although statelessness remained an increasing concern for these children, who could receive neither Turkish citizenship nor documentation from their parents’ home country. As of December there were at least 405,500 babies born to Syrian mothers in the country since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, according to the Interior Ministry.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
Although the constitution and law provide citizens the ability to change their government through free and fair elections based on universal and equal suffrage conducted by secret ballot, the government restricted equal competition and placed restrictions on the fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression. The government restricted the activities of some opposition political parties and leaders, including through police detention. Several parliamentarians remained at risk of possible prosecution after parliament lifted their immunity in 2016. During the year restrictive government regulations impacted the ability of many among the opposition to conduct political activities, such as organizing protests or political campaign events and sharing critical messages on social media. The government also suspended democratically elected mayors in multiple cities and municipalities in the southeast and in their place assigned state “trustees” when the former were accused of (but not necessarily convicted of) affiliation with terrorist groups. These tactics were most commonly directed against politicians affiliated with the leftist pro-Kurdish HDP and its partner party, the DBP. The government removed 44 percent of HDP mayors elected in the March municipal elections. Since 2016 the government had removed 62 percent of elected HDP officials. Former HDP cochairs Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag remained in prison (see section 1.e, Political Prisoners and Detainees).
Opposition party officials reported difficulty raising campaign donations from individuals and businesses, which said they feared reprisals from the government. Some company employees seen by their management as supporting opposition parties, especially the HDP, claimed they faced adverse treatment, including termination of employment.
Recent Elections: On March 31, the country held municipal elections for thousands of seats, ranging from local neighborhood council seats to metropolitan mayors. The campaign occurred in a media environment that was heavily biased in favor of the government. Progovernment outlets and ruling party incumbents criticized opposition leaders and candidates by alleging they had links to terrorism.
In an April 1 statement, Council of Europe observers stated the elections were conducted in a technically sound and orderly manner but noted that a genuinely democratic election also needed a political environment with genuine freedom of expression, media freedom and equal access to all parties, and a fair and reasonable legal framework overseen by a robust judiciary.
After the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) initially declared opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu the winner of the mayoral race in Istanbul, the YSK then ordered a rerun of the race in response to ruling party claims of election irregularities. The rerun decision attracted criticism from the European Commission, the Council of Europe, and many others, who asserted the YSK made the decision in a highly politicized context and under pressure from the presidency. Imamoglu won the election rerun on June 23 and assumed office on June 27.
The municipal campaigns and elections occurred in an environment with restricted basic rights and freedoms, including those of assembly and speech. While most candidates were generally able to campaign ahead of the elections, government officials threatened multiple candidates and party leaders with criminal charges. For example, a prosecutor revived a resolved legal case against the opposition candidate for Ankara mayor; and President Erdogan publicly raised doubts about the candidate’s ability to fulfill his term should he be elected mayor because of the pending case.
The YSK unseated some winners in March, finding them ineligible to serve, after it had initially cleared their eligibilities for candidacy. For example, four winning HDP mayoral candidates were barred from taking office on the grounds of their previous dismissals from civil service positions but after the YSK previously approved their eligibility to run in the election. Starting in August the government suspended 28 newly elected HDP mayors in the southeast on allegations of support to terrorist elements and replaced them with appointed trustees.
All parties alleged irregularities in the voter lists, which they complained included “ghost voters” (one “ghost” registrant was older than age 130) or legally deceased individuals, and suspicious residency claims.
Media coverage overwhelmingly favored the candidates of the ruling party and those of its coalition and election ally, the Nationalist Movement Party. For example, according to a member of the national broadcasting regulator during the 57-day period prior to the elections, state-run TRT devoted 150 hours of coverage to AKP, 50 hours to CHP, and three hours to HDP. Many opposition parties relied instead on social media to connect with supporters.
The pre-election period saw several attacks on political party offices, rallies, and members, including some incidents that led to death and serious injury. Opposition party members faced frequent accusations from the highest levels of government of alleged terrorism-related crimes. On April 21, a crowd assaulted CHP chair Kemal Kilicdaroglu during the funeral ceremony for a soldier killed by the PKK. The attack followed statements by President Erdogan and other government officials accusing the CHP of sympathizing and collaborating with “PKK terrorists” during the municipal election campaigns.
In June 2018 the country held early parliamentary and presidential elections that had been originally scheduled for late 2019. The elections completed a constitutional amendment process that began with the 2017 national referendum, the passing of which initiated the country’s official transition from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. The campaign and election both occurred under a state of emergency that had been in place since 2016 and that granted the government expanded powers to restrict basic rights and freedoms, including those of assembly and speech. While most candidates were generally able to campaign ahead of the elections, the HDP’s candidate remained in prison during the campaign and the candidate for the IYI Party faced a de facto media embargo. Despite the ability to campaign, the OSCE’s Election Observation Mission noted the elections were held in an environment heavily tilted in favor of the president and the ruling party, noting, “the incumbent president and his party enjoyed a notable advantage in the campaign, which was also reflected in excessive coverage by public and government-affiliated private media.”
Media coverage of the 2018 parliamentary and presidential candidates similarly overwhelmingly favored the president and ruling party. For example, according to a member of the Radio and Television Supreme Council, between May 14 and May 30, TRT broadcast 67 hours of coverage on President Erdogan, seven hours on CHP candidate Muharrem Ince, 12 minutes on IYI candidate Meral Aksener, eight minutes on Felicity Party candidate Temel Karamanoglu, and no coverage of HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtas. Many opposition parties relied instead on social media to connect with supporters.
The period between the April 2018 announcement of early elections and the vote saw a number of attacks on political party offices, rallies, and members, including some incidents that led to death and serious injury. Violence most commonly targeted the HDP and its campaigners. Opposition party members faced frequent accusations from the highest levels of government of alleged terrorism-related crimes. A number of opposition candidates for parliament continued to face legal charges in connection with such claims, and the HDP’s presidential candidate, Demirtas, was in prison during the campaign. The OSCE noted that key amendments were adopted within months of the early elections, without consultation, and were perceived as favoring the ruling party.
There were allegations of electoral irregularities primarily in the east, which some tied to unanticipated levels of success for the AKP and associated parties, in an area historically dominated by opposition parties.
Political Parties and Political Participation: Eight political parties existed in parliament, with others able to participate in elections. Some parties enjoy greater advantages than others. Media influence favored the ruling party, and representatives expressing views critical of the government or President Erdogan have faced criminal or civil charges. HDP representatives faced particularly significant legal challenges to their ability to campaign, express opinions, and retain their mandate. The government used opposition leaders’ social media postings to file criminal and civil complaints against them, alleging the defendants insulted the president and spread terrorist propaganda.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minorities in the political process. Some individuals advocating for political rights or associated with the HDP, however, experienced increased government pressure or were accused of ties to the PKK terrorist organization. According to the Association to Support Women Candidates, the number of women participating in the March 31 municipal elections as candidates at the mayoral, district mayoral, and metropolitan city levels was between 7.5 percent and 8.5 percent. For example, 652 of 8,257 (7.9 percent) mayoral candidates in the March 31 elections were women. Of 1,389 newly elected mayors at the district level or higher, 37 were women. The number of women in the judiciary also remained disproportionately low. As of year’s end, there were 102 women in the 600-member parliament. The greatest number of elected female mayors were in the southeast and ran on leftist and pro-Kurdish party tickets.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
While the law provides criminal penalties for conviction of official corruption, the government did not implement the law effectively, and some officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Parliament charges the Court of Accounts, the country’s supreme audit institution, with accountability related to revenues and expenditures of government departments. In 2018 it did not publish its annual report, however, and as of December had not begun its 2019 audit. Outside this audit system, there was no established pattern of or mechanism for investigating, indicting, and convicting individuals accused of corruption, and there were concerns regarding the impartiality of the judiciary in the handling of corruption cases.
During the year the government prosecuted law enforcement officers, judges, and prosecutors who initiated corruption-related investigations or cases against government officials, alleging the defendants did so at the behest of the Gulen movement. Journalists accused of publicizing the corruption allegations also faced criminal charges. In March a court sentenced 15 individuals involved in a 2013 corruption investigation of senior government leaders to life imprisonment. There were no reports that senior government officials faced official investigations for alleged corruption.
In October the Constitutional Court overturned a broadcast and publication ban on 2013 reports about corruption involving former ministers (four resigned at the time). As of December, however, the Radio and Television Supreme Council had yet to remove the ban on the reports, despite the court’s ruling.
Corruption: In August the government began investigations against two independent media outlets, T24 and Diken, for publishing reports based on tweets by an anonymous Twitter account (Fuat Avni) in 2014-15 related to allegations of corruption against the ruling AKP.
In August media outlets reported that a Ministry of Interior Affairs inspection found that in the southeastern province of Sanliurfa, the former AKP mayor of the Ceylanpinar district, Menderes Atilla, appointed his daughter as his executive assistant with an annual salary of more than 250,000 liras ($42,500). The former mayor’s daughter, Tugce Atilla, was first appointed in 2015 but did not report to work until March 2019, according to the inspection. The ministry ordered Atilla to pay back the income she had not earned.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires certain high-level government officials to provide a full financial disclosure, including a list of physical property, every five years. Officials generally complied with this requirement. The Presidency State Inspection Board is responsible for investigating major corruption cases. Nearly every state agency had its own inspector corps responsible for investigating internal corruption. Parliament, with the support of a simple majority, may establish investigative commissions to examine corruption allegations concerning the president, vice president(s), and ministers. The mechanism was not used during the year. A parliamentary super majority (400 deputies) may vote to send corruption-related cases to the Constitutional Court for further action.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A limited number of domestic and international human rights groups operated throughout the country, although many faced continued pressure from the government during the year. Some had difficulty registering as legal entities with the Ministry of Interior. Others faced government obstruction and restrictive laws regarding their operations. Human rights groups reported the government was sometimes unresponsive to their requests for meetings and did not include their input in policy formation. Human rights organizations and monitors as well as lawyers and doctors involved in documenting human rights abuses occasionally faced detention, prosecution, intimidation, and harassment, and their organizations faced closure orders for their activities. For example, in May a court sentenced 11 members of the executive board of the Turkish Medical Doctors Union to between 20 months’ and three years’ imprisonment for alleged terror propaganda for their 2018 public statement that “war is a public health issue” during the country’s Operation Olive Branch intervention in Syria. Human rights organizations reported that official human rights mechanisms did not function consistently and failed to address grave violations.
Human rights groups reported continued and intense government pressure. In one case, Osman Kavala, a prominent philanthropist and civil society leader jailed since 2017, remained in prison on charges of “attempting to overthrow the government” for involvement during the 2013 Gezi Park protests. The government also prosecuted on similar charges 15 others loosely associated with Kavala, including human rights activists and academics. Local and international human rights groups criticized the detentions and trials as politically motivated and lacking evidentiary justification.
The HRA reported that as of June its members had cumulatively faced more than 5,000 legal cases, mostly related to terror and insult charges since the group’s establishment. The HRA also reported that executives of their provincial branches were in prison. The HRFT reported its founders and members were facing 30 separate criminal cases. The harassment, detention, and arrest of many leaders and members of human rights organizations resulted in some organizations closing offices and curtailing activities and some human rights defenders self-censoring.
Some international and Syrian NGOs based in the country and involved in Syria-related programs reported difficulty renewing their official registrations with the government, obtaining program approvals, and obtaining residency permits for their staff. Some noted the government’s documentation requirements were unclear.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The government continued to staff its human rights monitoring body, the NHREI. According to August press reports, the NHREI received at least 10 applications regarding prison conditions and the practices of prison authorities. The NHREI did not accept any of the complaints. In response to an application regarding prison overcrowding, the NHREI stated that “due to the increased number of arrestees [related to the state of emergency period] and intensity of the capacity in prisons, such practice shall be accepted as proportionate.” Critics complained the institution was ineffective and lacked independence.
The Ombudsman Institution operated under parliament but as an independent complaint mechanism for citizens to request investigations into government practices and actions, particularly concerning human rights problems and personnel issues, although dismissals under the 2016-18 state of emergency decrees did not fall within its purview. According to online data, in 2018 the office received 17,585 applications for assistance, the majority of which dealt with public personnel issues.
The Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures, established in 2017 to address cases and appeals related to purges and closures during the state of emergency, announced in July that it had reviewed a total of 482,000 case files since its inception. From 2017 to August, the commission rejected 77,600 appeals and accepted approximately 6,700. Critics complained the commission’s decisions were opaque, biased, and slow.
The Ministry of Justice’s Human Rights Department served as its lead entity on human rights issues, coordinating its work with the ministry’s Victims’ Rights Department.
Parliament’s Human Rights Commission functioned as a national monitoring mechanism. Commission members maintained dialogue with NGOs on human rights issues and conducted some prison visits, although activists claimed the commission’s ability to influence government action was limited.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The government and independent monitoring groups reported with concern that violence against women, particularly femicides, increased, compared with 2018. The law criminalizes violence against women and sexual assault, including rape and spousal rape, with penalties of two to 10 years’ imprisonment for conviction of attempted sexual violation and at least 12 years’ imprisonment for conviction of rape or sexual violation. The government did not effectively or fully enforce these laws or protect victims. For example, in May human rights lawyer Muzeyyen Boylu Issi was shot and killed by her husband in front of their children, after having survived two previous attempts on her life and filing for divorce and a protection order. As of November the husband, Mesut Issi, was in prison pending trial. If convicted of murder, he could face additional charges of aggravated life imprisonment.
The law covers all women and requires police and local authorities to grant various levels of protection and support services to survivors of violence or those at risk of violence. It also mandates government services, such as shelter and temporary financial support, for victims and provides for family courts to impose sanctions on perpetrators.
The law provides for the establishment of violence-prevention and monitoring centers to offer economic, psychological, legal, and social assistance. There were 81 violence prevention centers throughout the country, one in each province. There were 144 women’s shelters nationwide, providing shelter to approximately 30,000 women. Women’s rights advocates asserted there were not enough shelters to meet the demand for assistance and that shelter staff did not provide adequate care and services, particularly in the southeast. Some NGOs noted shelters in multiple southeastern provinces closed during the state of emergency and that others faced difficulty following the removal of elected mayors and appointment of government trustees, some of whom cut funding and ended partnerships with the local NGOs. Some NGOs noted the lack of services was more acute for elderly women and LGBTI women as well as women with older children. The government operated a nationwide domestic violence hotline and web application called the Women Emergency Assistance Notification System (KADES). NGOs asserted the quality of services provided in calls was inadequate for victims of domestic violence. According to press reports, 13,000 women had used the KADES app to report violence as of September.
Violence against women, including spousal abuse, remained a serious and widespread problem both in rural and urban areas. Spousal rape is a criminal offense, and the law also provides criminal penalties for conviction of crimes such as assault, deprivation of liberty, or threats. Despite these measures, killings and other forms of violence against women continued unabated. According to the We Will Stop Femicide Association, 430 women were murdered in the first 11 months of the year; 53 in September alone.
On August 24, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Istanbul and in other cities around the country to protest gender-based violence following the public killing of Emine Bulut by her former husband in front of their 10-year-old daughter. Social media users shared video of the attack, and the victim’s dying words, “olmek istemiyorum” (“I don’t want to die”), became a rallying cry for demonstrators and on social media. In October Bulut’s former husband was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Following the incident, women’s rights groups called for the enforcement of the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, and leaders from across the political spectrum denounced that attack. Courts regularly issued restraining orders to protect victims, but human rights organizations reported that police rarely enforced them effectively. Women’s associations also charged that government counselors and police sometimes encouraged women to remain in abusive marriages at their own personal risk rather than break up families.
In October Ayse Tuba Arslan’s former husband attacked her with a meat cleaver. Arslan had pressed charges against her former husband 23 times; an Eskisehir court dismissed five of the 10 charges filed during the year. Police failed to enforce the court-issued restraining orders effectively. Arslan died of her wounds on November 25.
Courts in some cases gave reduced sentences to some men found guilty of committing violence against women, citing good behavior during the trial or “provocation” by women as an extenuating circumstance of the crime. For example, in August an Adana court reduced the sentence of Mehmet Ciftci from life imprisonment to 18 years’ imprisonment for good behavior. Ciftci was convicted of murdering his 19-year-old wife, who was four months pregnant at the time of her murder.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Human rights activists and academics reported the problematic practice of “honor killings” of women continued across the country (31 cases reported during the year). The prevalence of killings was most severe in the southeast.
Individuals convicted of honor killings may receive life imprisonment, but NGOs reported that courts often reduced actual sentences due to mitigating factors. The law allows judges, when establishing sentences, to take into account anger or passion caused by the “misbehavior” of the victim.
Sexual Harassment: The law provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for sexual harassment. If the victim is a child, the recommended punishments are longer; however, women’s rights activists reported that authorities rarely enforced these laws. For example, in February a police officer sexually harassed a university student being detained during a protest in Ankara. According to local media, despite the existence of photographic evidence, police attempted to cover up the incident, accused the victim of having ties to a terror organization, and detained and interrogated the journalist who interviewed the victim and her family.
Gender equality organizations indicated that incidents of verbal harassment and physical intimidation of women in public occurred with regularity and cited as the cause a permissive social environment in which harassers were emboldened. In one case, in September a woman physically attacked in Ankara reported that authorities tried to legitimize the attack by questioning her during her deposition about what she was wearing and whether the attack occurred late at night.
Some women’s rights NGOs asserted that weak legal enforcement of laws to protect women and light sentencing of violent perpetrators of crimes against women contributed to a climate of permissiveness for potential offenders. Women’s advocates expressed concern that laws passed in 2018 to encourage dispute resolution through mediation rather than the court system would reduce the severity of criminal punishment given perpetrators of violence against women, thereby reducing the deterrent effect of the law, undermining women’s safety, and potentially enabling impunity.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or forced sterilization.
Discrimination: Women enjoy the same rights as men by law, but societal and official discrimination were widespread. Women faced discrimination in employment.
The constitution permits measures, including positive discrimination, to advance gender equality. To encourage the hiring of women, the state paid social services insurance premiums on behalf of employers for several months for any female employee older than age 18. Laws introduced as a gender justice initiative provided for maternity leave, breastfeeding time during work hours, flexibility in work hours, and required child care by large employers. Rights organizations contended, however, that these changes in the legal framework discouraged employers from hiring women and negatively impacted their promotion potential.
Birth Registration: There was universal birth registration, and births were generally registered promptly. A child receives citizenship from his or her parents, not through birth in the country. Only one parent needs to be a citizen to convey citizenship to a child. In special cases in which a child born in the country cannot receive citizenship from any other country due to the status of his or her parents, the child is legally entitled to receive citizenship.
Education: Human rights NGOs and others expressed concern that despite the law on compulsory education, some families were able to keep female students home. The Education Reform Initiative, an NGO focusing on education, reported in its Education Monitoring Report for 2017-18 that the government took important positive steps to expand girls’ access to education, including by providing conditional cash transfers to incentivize poor families to continue education for their daughters. According to education union Egitim Sen, based on 2018-19 reporting, the rate for schooling decreased to 91 percent and the rate for girls’ schooling decreased to 91 percent, compared with 99 percent in 2013-14. According to European Statistics Office data, drop-out rates in the country were 34 percent for girls and 31 percent for boys in 2017, an improving trend.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in its Education at a Glance report, stated the number of young adults who attained a tertiary education had doubled in the last year, although it noted that nearly half of them did not complete upper secondary education.
Child Abuse: Child abuse was a problem. The law authorizes police and local officials to grant various levels of protection and support services to victims of violence or to those at risk of violence. Nevertheless, children’s rights advocates reported failed implementation. The law requires the government to provide services to victims, such as shelter and temporary financial support, and empowers family courts to impose sanctions on those responsible for the violence.
By law, if the victim of abuse is between the age of 12 and 18, molestation results in a three-to-eight-year prison sentence, sexual abuse in an eight-to-15-year sentence, and rape in a sentence of at least 16 years. If the victim is younger than 12, molestation results in a minimum five-year prison sentence, sexual abuse in a minimum 10-year sentence, and rape in a minimum 18-year sentence.
Government authorities increased attention on the problem of child abuse. According to Ministry of Justice statistics, imprisonment sentences for child sexual abuse in the country increased to 18,000 in 2018. Child rights experts reported that the increased attention on the problem had led to greater awareness and reporting. The women’s NGO We Will Stop Femicides reported that, in just the month of July 2018, there were 433 reported cases of child sexual abuse. According to Ministry of Justice statistics, there were 16,348 child sex abuse cases filed in 2017.
Early and Forced Marriage: The law defines 18 as the minimum age for marriage, although children may marry at 17 with parental permission and at 16 with court approval. The law acknowledges civil and religious marriages, but the latter were not always registered with the state.
NGOs reported children as young as 12 married in unofficial religious ceremonies, particularly in poor and rural regions and among the Syrian population living in the country. The government’s 2018 Demographic and Health Survey showed that 12 percent of Syrian girls in the country married before age 15 and 38 percent married before age 18. Early and forced marriage was particularly prevalent in the southeast, and women’s rights activists reported the problem remained serious. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, 26 percent of women in the country married before the age of 18, and 10 percent gave birth to their first child before the age of 18. Local NGOs worked to educate and raise awareness among the Turkish and Syrian population in major southeast provinces.
Separately, women’s rights groups stated that forced marriages and bride kidnapping persisted, particularly in rural areas, although it was not as widespread as in previous years.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The constitution requires the state to take measures to protect children from exploitation. The law criminalizes sexual exploitation of children and mandates a minimum sentence of eight years in prison. The penalty for conviction of encouraging or facilitating child prostitution is up to 10 years’ imprisonment; if violence or pressure is involved, a judge may double the sentence.
The age of consent for sex is 18. The law prohibits producing or disseminating child pornography and stipulates a prison sentence of up to two years as well as a fine for violations.
Incest involving children remained a problem, although prosecutions remained minimal. The law provides prison sentences of up to five years for incest.
Displaced Children: Many women’s and migrant rights NGOs reported that displaced children, mostly Syrian, remained vulnerable to economic and sexual abuse.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
According to the Chief Rabbinate in Istanbul, there were approximately 16,000 Jews living in the country. Some members of the community continued to emigrate or seek to obtain citizenship in a second country, in part due to concerns about anti-Semitism.
Jewish citizens expressed concern regarding anti-Semitism and security threats. On July 31, a video was posted on social media showing children at an apparent summer camp being led in chants calling for death to Jews. Leading individuals in the community denounced the video, which was viewed more than 400,000 times, and expressed concern at such forms of indoctrination and hatred at such a young age. HDP member of parliament Garo Paylan called for an investigation into the incident for possible prosecution under hate crimes statutes. On March 28, an unidentified attacker attempted to throw a Molotov cocktail at the Beth Israel Synagogue in Izmir. The synagogue was not damaged in the attack, and police apprehended and charged a suspect within a few days.
The premiere of the film Cicero generated controversy and condemnation when the scenery for the premiere’s red carpet walk depicted features of a concentration camp, including striped uniforms draped on barbed wire fencing and guard dogs. The local Jewish community, columnists, and AKP lawmakers denounced the display as disgraceful. The filmmakers subsequently apologized.
During the campaign for Istanbul mayor, altered images of opposition CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu showing him shaking hands with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and meeting with a group of Orthodox Jews appeared on social media in an effort to discredit him, according to commentators. Disparaging comments and statements calling Imamoglu a friend of Zionism accompanied the images.
In November an IYI party member of parliament made a remark on social media commenting on a government official’s family’s “excessive” display of wealth, posting, “There is a group of people that have become rich due to their undeserved income and live luxuriously, we call them Protestant Muslims. These people have become Jews, mentally.” The post received widespread criticism on social media.
In October social media users and media outlets shared photographs of anti-Christian and anti-Semitic posters hung at municipal bus stops in the central Anatolian town of Konya by the local branches of the Anatolian Youth Association and National Youth Foundation. The posters cited a Quranic verse that appeared to advise Muslims not to befriend Christians and Jews. The images also included a crucifix and Star of David with what appeared to be droplets of blood. Social media users from all three faiths criticized the posters as insulting to religious minorities, misrepresenting the message of the Quran, and undermining the dignity of the nation. The private advertising company leasing the billboards said the associations changed the content of the posters before printing them, and the company replaced the images with Turkish flags shortly after the concerns appeared on social media. The Anatolian Youth Association described the situation as a misunderstanding and indicated it was investigating the cause of the incident.
Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued in print media and on social media throughout the year. According to a Hrant Dink Foundation report on hate speech, as of August 31, there were 430 published instances of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the press depicting Jews as violent, conspiratorial, and enemies of the country. A reader’s letter published in Yeni Akit claimed Jewish residents in Istanbul trained street dogs to bite Muslims and repeated historic blood libel anti-Semitic tropes. Some commentators criticized the letter as ridiculous, and former AKP member of parliament Mustafa Yeneroglu denounced its content as “the language of the Nazis,” according to multiple media reports. In some instances officials and party representatives denounced stories with anti-Semitic content on social media.
The government took several positive steps to combat anti-Semitism. On January 24, Ankara University hosted an event to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which also issued a written statement marking the occasion. On February 21, the Istanbul governor’s office hosted a commemoration for the sinking of the Struma and the loss of nearly 800 Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in 1942. In April, September, and December, President Erdogan sent the Jewish community public messages celebrating Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Hanukkah, respectively, that highlighted religious diversity as part of “the country’s most important wealth that strengthens unity and solidarity.”
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, but NGOs that advocate for persons with disabilities asserted the government did not enforce the law effectively. In March the Association for Monitoring Equal Rights reported there were serious structural and institutional barriers with respect to access and justice for persons with disabilities, specifically citing accessibility problems as. barriers to voting and holding public office.
The law requires all governmental institutions and businesses to provide persons with disabilities access to public areas and public transportation and allows for the establishment of review commissions and fines for noncompliance. The government made little progress implementing the law, and access in many cities remained limited.
The Ministry of Labor, Social Services, and Family is responsible for protecting persons with disabilities. The ministry maintained social service centers assisting marginalized individuals, including persons with disabilities. The majority of children with disabilities were enrolled in mainstream public schools; others attended special education centers.
The law requires all public schools to accommodate students with disabilities, although activists reported instances of such students being refused admission or encouraged to drop out of school. According to disability activists, a large number of school-age children with disabilities did not receive adequate access to education. According to a June report by the Ministry of Family, Labor, and Social Services, 353,610 students with disabilities were in school, with 257,770 studying in regular schools and the remainder in either state-run or privately owned special education schools or classes. There were more than 12,000 teachers working in special education schools. A Ministry of Labor, Social Services, and Family program allowed individuals with autism to stay in government-run houses and offered state resources to families who were unable to attend to all the needs of their autistic children.
In April the UN Committee on the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities concluded that, while the country ratified the Optional Protocol of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and had achieved progress since the ratification in 2009, concerns persisted regarding the prevalence of medical, charitable, and paternalistic approaches to disability. The association called for greater awareness raising among the public concerning disability rights, establishing more robust complaint mechanisms for persons with disabilities, addressing physical accessibility issues, and responding to allegations of discrimination against the disabled.
On January 9, the government announced the addition of 3,200 citizens with disabilities to the public sector during the year, bringing the total employed in the public sector to 56,500. The private sector employed 124,000 of the two million citizens with disabilities qualified for work. An employment quota implemented in 2014 requires private-sector companies with more than 50 employees to include in its workforce at least 2 percent employees with disabilities. The public-sector requirement is 4 percent. There has been no reporting regarding the implementation of fines for accountability. President Erdogan declared 2020 the “year of accessibility,” with particular focus on mass transit and building entrances.
The constitution provides a single nationality designation for all citizens and does not expressly recognize national, racial, or ethnic minorities except for three non-Muslim minorities: Armenian Apostolic Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. Other national, religious, or ethnic minorities, including Assyrians, Jaferis, Yezidis, Kurds, Arabs, Roma, Circassians, and Laz, were not permitted to exercise their linguistic, religious, and cultural rights fully.
More than 15 million citizens were estimated to be of Kurdish origin and spoke Kurdish dialects. Security force efforts against the PKK disproportionately affected Kurdish communities in rural areas throughout much of the year. Some predominantly Kurdish communities experienced government-imposed curfews, generally in connection with government security operations aimed at clearing areas of PKK terrorists (see section 1.g.).
Kurdish and pro-Kurdish civil society organizations and political parties continued to experience problems exercising freedoms of assembly and association (see section 2.b.). Hundreds of Kurdish civil society organizations and Kurdish-language media outlets closed by government decree in 2016 and 2017 after the coup attempt remained shut. In October the International Crisis Group reported 4,686 persons, including state security personnel, PKK-affiliated militants, civilians, and individuals of unknown affiliation, had been killed in the conflict since mid-2015.
The law allows citizens to open private institutions to provide education in languages and dialects they traditionally use in their daily lives, on the condition that schools are subject to the law and inspected by the Ministry of National Education. Some universities offered elective Kurdish language courses, and two universities had Kurdish language departments, although several instructors in these departments were among the thousands of university personnel fired under official decrees, leaving the programs unstaffed. The law also allows reinstatement of former non-Turkish names of villages and neighborhoods and provides political parties and their members the right to campaign and use promotional material in any language; this right was not protected in practice.
The law restricts the use of languages other than Turkish in government and public services. In June authorities in some districts of Istanbul began enforcing a new regulation that requires 75 percent of signage be in Turkish and removed signs in Arabic. A government-appointed trustee mayor in Siirt removed a multilingual welcome sign in the majority Kurdish city in February. The original sign featured welcome messages in Kurdish, Turkish, and Arabic (using a Latin script). It was replaced with a sign only in Turkish.
On International Mother Language Day, February 21, members of parliament from opposition CHP and HDP parties delivered official remarks in the Laz, Armenian, and Kurdish languages. The official parliamentary record registered only an “x” in place of their respective remarks, and the footnotes indicated only the Turkish language would be recorded.
Although the government officially allows the use of Kurdish in private education and in public discourse, it did not extend permission for Kurdish-language instruction to public education.
An Armenian-language television station, Luys TV, inaugurated its programming by broadcasting Orthodox Christmas services in January. The channel featured news broadcasts, children’s programs, and discussion forums on topical issues for the community, according to media reports.
Romani communities reported being subjected to disproportionate police violence and housing loss due to urban transformation projects that extended into their traditional areas of residence. Members of the Romani community also reported they faced problems with access to education, housing, health care, and employment. Roma reported difficulty in utilizing government offers to subsidize rent on apartments due to discriminatory rental practices. Unofficial estimates indicated more than 90 percent of Roma were unemployed, although many worked in jobs in the informal economy. In line with a national Romani strategy adopted by the cabinet in 2016, the government carried out a number of pilot projects to enhance social inclusion of Romani citizens, including vocational courses offered by the government’s employment agency, IsKur. Roma advocates complained there was little concrete advancement for Roma. They also expressed concern that NGOs closed during the state of emergency that offered literacy courses to Roma remained shut or continued to face severe restrictions.
While the law does not explicitly criminalize LGBTI status or conduct, provisions of law concerning “offenses against public morality,” “protection of the family,” and “unnatural sexual behavior” sometimes served as a basis for abuse by police and discrimination by employers.
Numerous LGBTI organizations reported a continued sense of vulnerability as restrictions on their freedom of speech, assembly, and association continued. During the year the Ankara governor’s office continued its indefinite ban instituted in 2017 on all public LGBTI events in the province, citing public safety concerns,. In April a regional administrative court lifted the ban and rejected the government’s argument that the prohibition was necessary because some individuals might be provoked to violence by LGBTI events. Despite the decision, the Ankara governor’s office did not change its policy on LGBTI events in the capital and continued to block events on an individual basis.
The criminal code does not include specific protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The law allows for up to three years in prison for hate speech or injurious acts related to language, race, nationality, color, gender, disability, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, or sectarian differences. Human rights groups criticized the law’s failure to include protections based on gender identity and noted it was sometimes used to restrict freedom of speech and assembly rather than to protect minorities. LGBTI definitions were not included in the law, but authorities reported a general “gender” concept in the constitution provides for protections for LGBTI individuals. KAOS-GL, a local NGO focused on LGBTI rights, maintained that, due to the law’s failure to recognize the existence of LGBTI individuals, authorities did not provide them social protection.
KAOS-GL reported that some LGBTI individuals were unable to access health services or faced discrimination. Some LGBTI individuals reported they believed it necessary to hide their identities, faced mistreatment by health-service providers (in many cases preferring not to request any service), and noted that prejudice against HIV-positive individuals negatively affected perceptions of the LGBTI community.
During the year LGBTI individuals experienced discrimination, intimidation, and violent crimes. Human rights groups reported that police and prosecutors frequently failed to pursue cases of violence against transgender persons or accepted justification for perpetrators’ actions. Police often did not arrest suspects or hold them in pretrial detention, as was common with other defendants. When arrests were made, defendants could claim “unjustifiable provocation” under the penal code and request a reduced sentence. Judges routinely applied the law to reduce the sentences of persons who killed LGBTI individuals. Courts of appeal previously upheld these verdicts based in part on the “immoral nature” of the victim. LGBTI advocates reported that police detained transgender individuals engaged in sex work to extract payoffs and that courts and prosecutors created an environment of impunity for attacks on transgender persons involved in sex work.
The LGBTI advocacy organization KAOS-GL reported that at least 48 LGBTI individuals faced physical assault in 2018. Of those, only nine cases were reported to authorities; prosecutors pursued one criminal case of the nine reported. In March security personnel at a nightclub in Eskisehir first blocked three transgender individuals from entering the facility, then assaulted the group while a police officer watched and failed to intervene, according to a KAOS-GL report. In May a transsexual woman in Antalya was killed, reportedly due to her identity. The alleged perpetrator was subsequently arrested, and a trial was underway at year’s end. In October two LGBTI individuals were verbally and physically assaulted on a public bus in Antalya. According to activists, the perpetrators justified their actions to police using homophobic insults.
In April a transwoman reported that she was stopped on the street by police officers requesting she provide identification. After inspecting her identity card, police asked her, “Aren’t you ashamed? You are a man, why do you dress like a woman?”; when she tried to record their remarks, police used pepper spray before beating her and bringing her to the police station. After contacting a local LGBTI organization, the woman was released to a hospital. Police charged her with “insult” and resisting the officer on duty.
For the fifth consecutive year, the governor’s office banned Istanbul’s Pride March, citing public safety concerns. Despite the ban and heavy police presence, several hundred activists and supporters took part in the event. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up crowds and prevent participants from entering areas in and around Taksim Square, briefly detaining five participants. Organizers did not hold a transgender march again during the year due to security concerns. Independent activists also reported police presence at all events during the week leading up to the pride march, which they interpreted as an intimidation tactic.
In addition to Istanbul, authorities prohibited pride marches from taking place in Ankara, Antalya, Izmir, Gaziantep, and Mersin. Local and international human rights groups widely criticized the decisions as violations of the freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. Events took place in most cities despite the bans and resulted in police interventions breaking up the marches.
In August Istanbul police blocked the “Queer Olympix” sporting event scheduled to take place in Istanbul with more than 130 athletes expecting to take part. Organizers reported on social media that authorities justified their action as “a precaution against provocations that may occur due to social sensitivities.” A review of media coverage of LGBTI issues by KAOS-GL, released in April, concluded that half of all stories contained hate speech and discriminatory language.
Some LGBTI groups reported harassment by police, government, and university authorities. University groups complained that rectors denied them permission to organize, and some indicated they faced administrative investigations or other sanctions for participating in events. In May students at the Middle East Technical University organized a pride march over the objections of the university administration. Police detained 22 individuals while breaking up the event using pepper spray, plastic bullets, and tear gas. Organizers reported that 10 of those detained were later stripped of scholarships and educational loans. Civil rights defenders criticized the subsequent indictment of 19 participants as legal harassment of the LGBTI community.
LGBTI organizations reported the government used regular and detailed audits against them to create administrative burdens and threatened the possibility of large fines.
Multiple sources reported discrimination in housing, since landlords refused to rent to LGBTI individuals or charged significantly higher prices.
Many persons with HIV/AIDS reported discrimination in access to employment, housing, public services, benefits, and health care. Rights organizations noted that the country lacked sufficient laws protecting persons with HIV/AIDS from discrimination and that there were legal obstacles to anonymous HIV testing. Due to pervasive social stigma against persons with HIV/AIDS, many individuals avoided testing for HIV due to fear the results would be used against them. In December, on World AIDS Day, the Positive Solidarity organization released a statement saying that 49 percent of the persons with HIV were not aware of their HIV status. They assessed that although access to diagnosis and treatment of HIV was readily available, persons avoided being tested due to concerns about social prejudices, stigmatization, and discrimination. In July a teacher was dismissed following the disclosure of his HIV-positive status to his employer by his workplace physician. The individual’s lawyer argued the information should have remained confidential and should not serve as a justification for dismissal. A lawsuit initiated by the dismissed employee continued at year’s end.
The government launched an HIV/AIDS control program to raise awareness and combat risk factors. The government also implemented HIV/AIDS education into the national education curriculum.
Alevis and Christians, including Armenian Apostolics, remained the subject of hate speech and discrimination. The term “Armenian” remained a common slur. Attacks on minority places of worship were rare.
According to the Hrant Dink Foundation’s Media Watch on Hate Speech Report, an analysis of national and local newspapers between January 1 and August 31 found 2,635 instances of published hate speech that targeted national, ethnic, and religious groups. The most-targeted groups were Syrians, Greeks, Jews, and Armenians.
Atheists also remained the subject of intimidation in progovernment media, albeit at a lower level relative to other religious minorities.
Conditional refugees and displaced Syrians under temporary protection also faced increased societal discrimination and violence during the year (see section 2.d.).
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes, but it places significant restrictions on these rights. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and requires reinstatement of workers fired for union activity or payment of a fine equal to one year’s salary.
Certain public employees, such as senior officials, magistrates, members of the armed forces, and police, cannot form unions. The law provides for the right to strike but prohibits strikes by public workers engaged in safeguarding life and property and by workers in the coal mining and petroleum industries, hospitals and funeral industries, urban transportation, energy and sanitation services, national defense, banking, and education. For example, on October 4, a group of miners from Soma–the site of a 2014 disaster that left 301 workers dead–announced they would march 180 miles to Ankara to demand seniority indemnity payments for the previous five years. Jandarma reportedly prevented the miners from marching on October 6. Employees in some of these sectors were able to bargain collectively but were obligated to resolve disputes through binding arbitration rather than strikes.
The law allows the government to deny the right to strike in any situation it determines represents a threat to public health or national security. In January the government banned a strike by Izmir Suburban Rail System workers demanding salaries comparable to other rail transport workers, arguing that a strike would be disruptive to urban public transportation services. The government maintained a number of restrictions on the right of association and collective bargaining. The law requires unions to notify government officials prior to meetings or rallies, which must be held in officially designated areas and allow government representatives to attend their conventions and record the proceedings. A minimum of seven workers is required to establish a trade union without prior approval. To become a bargaining agent, a union must represent 40 percent of the employees at a given work site and 1 percent of all workers in that particular industry. Labor law prohibits union leaders from becoming officers of or otherwise performing duties for political parties or working for or being involved in the operation of any profit-making enterprise. Nonunionized workers, such as migrants and domestic servants, were not covered by collective bargaining laws.
The government did not enforce laws on collective bargaining and freedom of association effectively in many instances, and penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Labor courts functioned effectively and relatively efficiently, although appeals could often last for years. If a court ruled that an employer had unfairly dismissed a worker and should either reinstate or compensate the individual, the employer generally paid compensation to the employee along with a fine.
Public-sector employees dismissed under the 2016-18 state of emergency did not have access to adequate recourse to appeal their dismissals (see section 1.e.). The closure of foundations, universities, hospitals, associations, newspapers, television channels, publishing houses, and distributors under state of emergency decrees left employees jobless, without their salaries and severance payments, as part of the seizure of assets by the government. In June 2018 the International Labor Organization found that the government had unfairly dismissed or arrested worker representatives in addition to tens of thousands of public-sector workers. In a July 2018 report, the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers Unions (DISK) asserted that government actions under the state of emergency violated a range of labor rights and reported that 19 unions and confederations were shut down under the state of emergency, at times due to alleged affiliations with the Gulen movement. As of year’s end, the unions had not been reopened.
The government and employers interfered with freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Government restrictions and interference limited the ability of some unions to conduct public and other activities. Police were frequently present at union meetings and conventions, and some unions reported that local authorities prohibited public activities, such as marches and press conferences. In major cities authorities limited the traditional May 1 Labor Day rallies to distinct neighborhoods, while Labor Day activities in most other cities throughout the country faced no restrictions.
Official government statistics stated 52 workers lost their lives while working on the site of Istanbul’s new airport, while some union reports alleged the number was much higher. Police broke up a September 2018 on-site rally of workers protesting unsafe working conditions and unpaid wages at the construction site of Istanbul’s airport, leading to the detention of approximately 500 workers. Prior to their November 27 hearing, 67 defendants continued to face charges of destruction of property, disrupting the freedom to work, violating the law on public assemblies, and possession of weapons. None remained in detention or under judicial control.
According to DISK and CHP member of parliament Veli Agbaba, under the state of emergency, the government banned seven strikes that it deemed threats to national security and suspended 16 in 2019.
Employers used threats, violence, and layoffs in unionized workplaces. Unions stated that antiunion discrimination occurred regularly across sectors. Service-sector union organizers reported that private-sector employers sometimes ignored the law and dismissed workers to discourage union activity. Many employers hired workers on revolving contracts of less than a year’s duration, making them ineligible for equal benefits or bargaining rights. On March 7, chiefly female employees in the Flormar cosmetic company ended their strike and called for a boycott of the company’s products after 297 days protesting the firing of 132 women who complained of low pay and poor safety conditions in May 2018. The women accepted the company’s compensation offer.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law generally prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the government enforced such laws unevenly. Penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Forced labor generally did not occur, although some local and refugee families required their children to work on the streets and in the agricultural or industrial sectors to supplement family income (see section 7.c.).
Women, refugees, and migrants were vulnerable to labor trafficking. Although government efforts to prevent trafficking continued with mixed effect, authorities made improvements in identifying trafficking victims nationwide. Penalties for conviction of trafficking violations were sufficiently stringent compared with other serious crimes. The government did not make data on the number of arrests and convictions related to trafficking publicly available.
The government implemented a work permit system for registered Syrian adults with special temporary protected status; however, applying for a work permit was the responsibility of the employer, and the procedure was sufficiently burdensome and expensive that relatively few employers pursued legally hiring refugees. As a consequence, the vast majority of both conditional refugees and Syrians under special temporary protection remained without legal employment options, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, including illegally low wages, withholding of wages, and exposure to unsafe work conditions.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law allows children to perform light work that does not interfere with their school attendance from the age of 14 and establishes 16 as the minimum age for regular employment. The law prohibits children younger than 16 from performing arduous or dangerous work. The government prohibited children younger than 18 from working in certain professions or under hazardous conditions.
The government did not effectively enforce child labor laws but made efforts to address the problem. Resources and inspections were insufficient to effectively monitor and enforce prohibitions against the use of child labor. In the absence of a complaint, inspectors did not generally visit private agricultural enterprises that employed 50 or fewer workers, resulting in enterprises vulnerable to child labor exploitation.
Illicit child labor persisted, including in its worst forms, driven in part by large numbers of Syrian refugee children working in the country. Child labor primarily took place in seasonal agriculture (e.g., hazelnuts), street work (e.g., begging), and small or medium industry (e.g., textiles, footwear, and garments), although the overall scale of the problem remained unclear, according to a wide range of experts, academics, and UN agencies engaged on the issue. Parents and others sent Romani children to work on the streets selling tissues or food, shining shoes, or begging. Such practices were also a significant problem among Syrian and Afghan refugee children. The government implemented a work permit system for registered adult Syrian refugees with temporary protection status, but many lacked access to legal employment; some refugee children consequently worked to help support their families, in some cases under exploitative conditions. According to data from the Ministry of Family, Labor, and Social Services, in 2018, 50 workplaces were fined for violating rules prohibiting child labor.
Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law does not explicitly address discrimination due to sexual orientation, gender identity, color, national origin or citizenship, social origin, communicable disease status, or HIV-positive status. The labor code does not apply to discrimination in the recruitment phase. Discrimination in employment or occupation occurred with regard to sex, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, HIV-positive status, and presence of a disability. Sources also reported frequent discrimination based on political affiliation and views. Penalties were insufficient to prevent violations.
Women faced discrimination in employment and were generally underrepresented in managerial-level positions in business, government, and civil society, although the number of women in the workforce increased compared with previous years. According to the Turkish Statistics Institute, the employment rate for women in 2018 was 29.1 percent (an increase from 28 percent in 2016), corresponding to 8.84 million women, compared with 65.5 percent employment for men. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2018 recorded that 36.1 percent of women participated in the labor force, compared with 33.8 percent in 2017.
For companies with more than 50 workers, the law requires that at least 3 percent of the workforce consist of persons with disabilities, while in the public sector, the requirement is 4 percent. Despite these government efforts, NGOs reported examples of discrimination in employment of persons with disabilities.
LGBTI individuals faced particular discrimination in employment. Some statutes criminalize the vague practice of “unchastity.” Some employers used these provisions to discriminate against LGBTI individuals in the labor market, although overall numbers remained unclear.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The national minimum wage was greater than the estimated national poverty level.
The law establishes a 45-hour workweek with a weekly rest day. Overtime is limited to three hours per day and 270 hours a year. The law mandates paid holiday/leave and premium pay for overtime but allows for employers and employees to agree to a flexible time schedule. The Labor Ministry’s Labor Inspectorate effectively enforced wage and hour provisions in the unionized industrial, service, and government sectors. Workers in nonunionized sectors had difficulty receiving overtime pay to which they were entitled by law. The law prohibits excessive compulsory overtime. Government-set occupational safety and health (OSH) standards were not always up to date or appropriate for specific industries.
The government did not effectively enforce laws related to the minimum wage, working hours, and OSH in all sectors. The law did not cover workers in the informal economy, which accounted for an estimated 25 percent of the gross domestic product and more than one-quarter of the workforce. Penalties were not adequate to deter violations.
OSH violations were particularly common in the construction and mining industries, where accidents were frequent and regulations inconsistently enforced. The Assembly for Worker Health and Safety reported at least 1,606 workplace deaths during the first 11 months of the year. In many sectors workers could not remove themselves from situations that endangered their health or safety without jeopardizing their employment, and authorities did not effectively protect vulnerable employees. Overall numbers of labor inspectors remained insufficient to enforce compliance with labor laws across the country.
OSH laws and regulations covered both contract and unregistered workers but did not sufficiently protect them. Migrants and refugees working in the informal sector remained particularly vulnerable to substandard work conditions in a variety of sectors, including seasonal agriculture, industry, and construction. A majority of conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection were working informally as employers found too burdensome the application process for work permits (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees).