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 insult. The law provides for punishment of up to three years in prison for 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.
Hundreds of incarcerations were widely viewed as related to freedom of expression. In an example of the government’s use of broad definitions of terror to prosecute and intimidate critics, in June, authorities arrested two teenagers who drew a picture of an electric kettle and wrote the name of the pro-Kurdish HDP on a wall in Istanbul’s Gazi neighborhood. The teens were charged with disseminating the propaganda of a terrorist organization. The tea kettle reference came from remarks by jailed HDP presidential candidate Demirtas, who had joked, through social media posts by his lawyers, about tweeting via an electric kettle in his prison cell.
Many in media reported the government’s prosecution of journalists representing major independent newspapers and its jailing of journalists during the preceding two years hindered freedom of speech and that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.
During the year the government opened investigations into thousands of individuals, including politicians, journalists, and minors, for insulting the president, the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or state institutions. For example, on July 6, authorities detained four students from Ankara’s Middle East Technical University for insulting the president by carrying a banner depicting President Erdogan as different cartoon animals. Critics of the arrests noted that the cartoon had appeared years earlier and had faced a similar challenge in court, but that the court had ruled that it did not meet the threshold for insult. On July 18, President Erdogan directed prosecutors to start criminal insult proceedings against opposition CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu and 72 other CHP parliamentarians after they shared the same cartoon via Twitter in a sign of support for the university students.
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 only officially recognizes persons who have been issued a yellow press accreditation card–typically limited to reporters, cameramen, and editors–media watchdog groups include distributors, copy editors, layout designers, or other staff of media outlets in their definition. The government also characterized those working for Kurdish language outlets as “terrorists” for their alleged ties to the PKK, regardless of their previous work. Information about and access to Kurdish outlets’ imprisoned staff was therefore limited.
The Committee to Protect Journalists claimed that, as of December, there were at least 73 journalists in prison; the Journalists’ Union of Turkey claimed 142 journalists were in prison as of July 20; Reporters without Borders claimed there were 43 journalists in jail as of December 2017; the NGO Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) reported that there were 176 journalists, editors, or media managers in jail as of October 19, the vast majority for alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement. An unknown number of additional 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 as part of its response to the 2016 coup attempt, closed media outlets, mostly in 2016-17, that were allegedly affiliated with the PKK or Gulen movement.
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 many who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics or in ways critical of the government risked investigation.
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. In January parliament fined Osman Baydemir, a suspended former HDP spokesperson and Sanliurfa parliamentarian, 12,000 lira ($2,290) after he referred to himself as a “representative of Kurdistan” during a December 2017 discussion in parliament.
Rights groups and free speech advocates reported intensifying government pressure that, in certain cases, resulted in enhanced caution in public reporting.
Press and Media Freedom: Mainstream print media and television stations are largely controlled by progovernment holding companies. According to Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), with the sale in March of the large Dogan Media Group to the progovernment Demiroren Group, the government was able to exert power in the administration of 90 percent of the most watched television stations and most read national dailies. Only a 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, although a Kurdish-language radio and television station, Amed Radio-Television, opened following the end of the state of emergency in July.
Government prosecution of independent journalists limited media freedom throughout the year. Examples include 14 persons affiliated with leading independent newspaper Cumhuriyet convicted April 28 of aiding terrorist organizations and sentenced to prison terms ranging between three and seven years. The court placed the journalists on probation and banned them from traveling abroad until the appeals process concluded. The cases continued at year’s end. Examples of 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. Examples of convictions condemned by international human rights organizations included six journalists sentenced to aggravated life prison terms February 16 for alleged links to the unsuccessful 2016 coup attempt. Courts convicted an additional six journalists associated with the shuttered Zamannewspaper of terrorism-related charges July 6 and sentenced them to between eight and more than 10 years imprisonment.
On July 12, police in Diyarbakir raided the offices of Kurdish publication JinNews and confiscated the new organization’s computers. On June 28, Istanbul police also raided the office of the Sendika.org news website as part of an investigation into Editor in Chief Ali Ergin Demirhan, who was briefly detained on May 28 on charges of promoting “terrorist propaganda” in a column titled, “We Can Stop Dictatorship.”
In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country. In December 2017 the government imposed a travel ban on journalist Mesale Tolu, a dual German-Turkish national, when she was charged with membership in a terror organization. In August authorities lifted the travel ban pending the outcome of her trial. Many other journalists remained unable to travel abroad due to travel bans.
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.
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 said the government did this to target and intimidate journalists and the public. On June 20, journalist and editor in chief of the Cagdas Sesnews website, Ece Sevin Ozturk, was arrested and charged with aiding a terrorist organization after the conservative progovernment newspaper Yeni Safak alleged that she had ties to “FETO.”
Journalists reported that media outlets fired some individuals for being too controversial or adversarial with the government due to fear of jeopardizing other business interests.
Journalists currently 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 increased direct censorship of news media, online media, and books. In November the Interior Ministry reported that authorities investigated 631,233 digital materials, monitored 110,000 social media publications, and detained 7,000 individuals for social media posts.
In August, following a steep drop in the value of the lira, the government promised sanctions against “disturbing” comments or social media posts about the economy, effectively criminalizing criticism of the government’s handling of the economy and the crisis. On September 27, media reported that HDP official Idris Ilhan was arrested for “terror propaganda” and “opposition to the capital markets law” after he tweeted on August 13 that “the dollar is up because we are going down.” On September 18, online publication T24 reported that the General Directorate for Security announced that it had initiated 346 investigations on August 12 alone in connection with posts about foreign currency rates.
On February 6, following a request by the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK), an Ankara court blocked access to hundreds of websites linked to opponents of Operation Olive Branch including organizations, journalists, and news outlets, as well as some YouTube and Instagram accounts, for allegedly “promoting terrorism, inciting people to crime, and disturbing public security and order.”
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 their shelves and did not carry books by some opposition political figures.
The TPA reported 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 Gulenist 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 May courts banned at least nine Kurdish books written in Turkish, citing counterterrorism. Avesta, the Kurdish publishing company, stated the books included a biography of Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani and Yezidi religious books. In October police confiscated copies of an Avesta book on Sheikh Ubeydullah and the Kurdish Uprising of 1880 at the Batman Book Fair and detained the publishing company’s staff.
Some journalists said their firms 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 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, and insulting religious values. Authorities investigated or continued court cases against a myriad of publications and publishers on these grounds during the year. For example, authorities charged Sebla Kucuk with “spreading the propaganda of a terrorist organization” after she published translations of Reuters reports and transcriptions from the court hearings of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla and Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, who were on trial in the United States for charges related to an Iranian sanctions evasion scheme.
In 2017 the government issued an emergency decree removing the Supreme Board of Election’s authority to fine or halt private radio and television broadcast outlets that violated the principle of equality, which required that broadcasters give equal access to the country’s major political parties. The board’s authority remained curtailed during the year. Critics charged that the move benefited the ruling AKP political party generally, and impacted coverage of the June elections.
The Radio and Television Supreme Council continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.”
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). 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, on May 29, President Erdogan filed a criminal complaint against CHP candidate Muharrem Ince for allegedly “insulting the president” in claims he made during a campaign rally.
Lawmakers, mostly from the pro-Kurdish HDP, were also targeted in a significant number of insult-related cases. At year’s end, 6,000 HDP lawmakers, executives, and party members were in prison 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.
The Ministry of Justice reported that in 2017 it launched 20,000 investigations related to insulting the president. Comprehensive government figures for the year were unavailable at year’s end, but according to media reports, from 2014 through 2017, government authorities filed more than 68,000 insult-related lawsuits against individuals or organizations.
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, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students accused of supporting a terrorist organization–generally either the PKK or the Gulen movement, or early in the year in connection with opposition to Operation Olive Branch.
In one example, prominent columnist Ahmet Altan remained in prison at year’s end, convicted along with his brother, economist Mehmet Altan, on terror-related charges in February for allegedly sending coded messages to the 2016 coup plotters during a panel discussion on a television program. On June 27, a court released Mehmet Altan, with a travel ban and judicial monitoring as conditions as the trial continued. Many observers viewed their prosecution as an effort to intimidate or silence prominent opposition voices.
Foreign journalists were also prosecuted. For example, in October 2017, a court convicted Wall Street Journal correspondent Ayla Albayrak of terrorist propaganda based on a story she wrote on government-PKK clashes, and was sentenced in absentia to two years and one month in prison. Her case remained under appeal at year’s end.
Nongovernmental Impact: The PKK used a variety of pressure tactics that limited freedom of speech and other constitutional rights in the southeast. In the aftermath of curfews first enacted in 2016 in response to PKK violence, 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.
During the year internet freedom did not improve. The government did not block new sites as frequently in the past, but it continued to restrict access to the internet and did not unblock 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 that the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority.
The Freedom House report Freedom on the Net 2017: Manipulating Social Media to Undermine Democracy highlighted increasing efforts by authorities to control use of virtual private networks and the use of government-employed “armies of opinion shapers” to spread progovernment views online.
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. For example, authorities have blocked Wikipedia and other news and information sites that have content criticizing government policies.
The government-operated BTK is empowered to demand that internet service providers (ISPs) remove content or block websites with four hours’ notice. 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 ($9,500 to $95,000) for conviction of failing to comply with a judicial order. Under a decree published in the official gazette on July 9, the president appoints the BTK president, vice president, and members of the authority.
The law also allows persons who believe a website has violated their personal rights to ask the regulatory body to order the ISP to remove the offensive content. Government ministers may also order websites blocked, and the regulatory authority is legally compelled to comply within four hours, followed by a court order within 24 hours.
The state of emergency allowed the government expanded powers to restrict internet freedom with reduced 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.
Government leaders, including the president, reportedly employed staff to monitor the internet and initiate charges against individuals accused of insulting them.
Internet access providers, including internet cafes, are required to use BTK approved filtering tools. Additional internet restrictions operated in government and university buildings. According to the internet freedom NGO Engelliweb, the government blocked at least 54,400 websites during the year. Of those, 51,600 were blocked through a BTK decision and 875 by court order.
In April 2017 the BTK banned Wikipedia from operating in the country due to two terrorism-related articles, pursuant to a law that allows filtering on national security grounds. The BTK also demanded the removal of “offensive content” and that Wikipedia open an office in the country. The organization appealed the decision, which the Constitutional Court upheld on May 5. Wikipedia remained inaccessible in the country without the use of virtual private networks. The government stated the ban would remain in place as long as Wikipedia does not remove content that links the country with support to the terrorist group ISIS.
According to Twitter’s internal transparency report, during the first six months of the year, the company received 8,988 court orders and other legal requests from authorities to remove content, more than double compared to the previous six months. According to digital news source The Daily Dot, at year’s end, Twitter had blocked media-related accounts in the country at the government’s request.
In July Russia’s state-controlled Sputnik news agency shut down its Kurdish language website, reportedly in response to a request from Turkish authorities.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
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 independence of the institutions. Hundreds of additional professors lost their jobs or faced charges due to political speech during the year. The Council of Higher Education reported that, as of July 31, 7,257 academics from more than 100 universities had been dismissed since the 2016 attempted coup under state of emergency decrees. Of those, 5,705 were suspended for allegedly aiding a terrorist organization. Many of those dismissed were prohibited from travelling abroad, as were their spouses and children. During the first half of the year, rectors required the permission of the chairman of the Council of Higher Education to travel abroad. That requirement was lifted in July. Other administrators and some professors were also required to seek permission from supervisors for foreign travel. Throughout the year, courts issued sentences for 28 academics, known as the Academics for Peace, for “terrorist propaganda” after they were among the more than 1,100 signatories of a 2016 petition condemning state violence against Kurds in the southeast and calling for peace. Among them, an Istanbul court sentenced prominent physician and chairwoman of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, Sebnen Financi, on December 19 to two years and eight months in prison for “spreading terrorist propaganda.”
Some academics and event organizers stated their employers monitored their work and that 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 legal and Higher Education Board-imposed constraints that limited university autonomy in staffing, teaching, and research policies.
State of emergency and antiterror measures also affected arts and culture. In May press outlets reported that state broadcaster TRT had banned 208 songs from the airwaves over the previous two years. TRT defended the practice, stating it was respecting the law which forbids the broadcast of content encouraging people to smoke or drink or that conveys “terrorist propaganda.” On May 23, authorities arrested rapper Ezhel on charges of inciting drug use in some of his songs; following a month of pretrial arrest, the court acquitted and released him on June 19. In January Ankara and Istanbul authorities banned actor Baris Atay’s play, Only Dictator, indefinitely citing security concerns.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
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 state of emergency and subsequent antiterror law gave governorates enhanced authority to ban protests and public gatherings, a ban widely enacted during the year.
The government regarded many demonstrations as security threats to the state, deploying large numbers of riot police to control crowds, sometimes using excessive force. At times the government used its authority to detain persons before protests were held on the premise that they might cause civil disruption.
Throughout the year at the hearings of detained former HDP co-chair Demirtas, the Ankara governorate or court security personnel banned gatherings, marches, and sit-in protests outside the court. Domestic and international observers were also banned from observing the trial hearings.
The government also selectively restricted meetings to designated sites or dates, particularly limiting access to Istanbul’s Taksim Square 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 banned many demonstrations outright if they touched on sensitive subjects.
On August 25, Istanbul police began preventing the vigil of the Saturday Mothers–a group who since the 1990s had gathered to commemorate the disappearances of relatives following their detention by Turkish security forces in the 1980s and 1990s and call for accountability. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the group was exploiting the concept of motherhood to mask support for terrorism.
In January police prevented HDP lawmaker Ziya Pir, Democratic Regions Party (DBP) co-chair Mehmet Arslan, Democratic Society Congress (DTK) co-chair Leyla Birlik, and other party members from holding a press conference opposing Operation Olive Branch in front of the HDP Diyarbakir provincial headquarters.
Security forces at times responded with excessive force to protests, resulting in injuries, detentions, and arrests. 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 785 demonstrations, detaining 3,697 people and arresting 118 individuals. Year-end figures for those injured in clashes with authorities during demonstrations were not available. Human rights NGOs asserted that 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. On June 27, for example, police in Ankara broke a facial bone of a protester in Ankara while detaining her.
On May 1 (Labor Day), authorities restricted rallies in parts of Istanbul and other cities if they were not government sanctioned. In Istanbul, 50 persons participating in the celebrations were detained while authorities closed Taksim Square, the traditional venue for the celebrations. Police roughly arrested protesters who sought to defy the ban on demonstrations by marching towards the square.
On April 25, Istanbul police briefly detained three human rights activists for using the word “genocide” in their statements and on their banners in an April 24 Armenian Remembrance Day commemoration organized by the HRA in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square. Police reportedly told the organizers that the term “genocide” was not permitted, and they did not allow the ceremony to be held.
Pro-Kurdish demonstrations of many kinds faced violent police responses throughout the year. For example, police tear gassed and sprayed pressurized water at supporters of the pro-Kurdish HDP celebrating the party’s elections performance in June after the demonstrators began throwing stones at police vehicles.
Local authorities issued indefinite bans on LGBTI events in several parts of the country, including for film festivals and other public activities in Ankara and parts of Istanbul. Adana’s governor banned a planned LGBTI pride march in June, and Ankara’s governor extended a ban on LGBTI events through the end of October 2019.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right during the year. Under the state of emergency and using provisions of the antiterror law, the government shut down associations and foundations for alleged threats to national security. The government did not release data on the number of NGOs it closed during the year. According to the HRJP, the government closed nearly 1,500 nongovernmental associations or foundations for alleged threats to national security. Other NGOs reported different statistics, based on different data collection methods. Observers widely reported that the appeals process for institutions seeking redress was 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 that the government used regular and detailed audits to create administrative burdens and to intimidate them through the threat of large fines. Bar association representatives reported that police sometimes attended civil society organizational meetings and recorded them, interpreting it as a means of intimidation.
In January authorities detained at least 25 members of the conservative Furkan Foundation and closed all of its branches in Adana in connection with the group’s criticism of Operation Olive Branch. In July 2017 authorities detained eight leading human rights activists, including Amnesty International’s Turkey director, and two foreign trainers during a workshop on digital security and stress management that President Erdogan claimed was a “continuation” of the 2016 failed coup attempt. Most were charged with supporting a terrorist organization. All were released from pretrial detention in October 2017, but those arrested still faced charges and prison time at year’s end.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights. The government restricted foreign travel for hundreds of thousands of citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed 2016 coup attempt. On July 25, authorities lifted the foreign travel bans of 155,000 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. Authorities in Sirnak province, on the country’s border with Syria and Iraq, designated 12 areas as “temporary security zones” through February 12. The government also limited freedom of movement for the 3.6 million persons from Syria as well as for the approximately 370,000 persons from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries who were present in the country.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to conditional refugees, returning refugees, stateless persons, and temporary and international protection status holders.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Between January and December, authorities apprehended 268,003 irregular migrants attempting to enter Turkey, according to Turkish General Staff and Ministry of Interior data. Multiple sources reported that authorities denied entry to undocumented Iraqis and Syrians during the year. There were reports Turkish border guards intercepted, or summarily deported, Syrians seeking asylum back to Syria. For example, on March 22, HRW reported Turkish forces “routinely intercepted hundreds, and at times thousands, of asylum seekers at the Turkey-Syria border since at least December 2017 and summarily deported them to the war-ravaged Idlib governorate in Syria.” Turkish border guards also reportedly killed or injured Syrian asylum-seekers at the border (see Section 1.a.).
The country’s borders with Syria and Iraq have remained closed to all but urgent humanitarian cases since late 2015. Of the 19 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 had limited registration of asylum seekers to newborn babies and urgent protection cases only, limiting their ability to gain access to social services, including education and medical care.
Incidents of societal violence directed against refugees and persons in refugee-like conditions increased during the year. In June in the Bornova district of Izmir Province, tensions between local residents and Syrian refugees erupted into violence that continued for three days. Workplace exploitation, child labor, and 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).
UNHCR conducted a number of visits to temporary reception centers in Duzici/Osmaniye and Kayseri, where migrants readmitted from Greece were referred on a temporary basis, but did not have regular, unfettered access. In most cases, these migrants did not have access to legal counsel or interpretation, leaving them vulnerable to refoulement.
UNHCR reported there were LGBTI asylum seekers and conditional refugees in the country, most 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.
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. The state of emergency allowed the government to limit citizens’ internal movement without a court order. The new antiterror law allows severe restrictions to be imposed on freedom of movement, such as granting governors the power to limit movement, including entering or leaving provinces, for up to 15 days.
Freedom of movement remained a problem in parts of the east and southeast, where continuing 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.).
Conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection also experienced restrictions on their freedom of movement (see 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. The government applied travel restrictions to those accused of affiliation with terrorist groups or Gulen movement, as well as to their extended family members. Authorities also restricted foreign citizens with dual Turkish citizenship from leaving the country. The government maintained that these travel restrictions were necessary and justified to preserve security.
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.
Until September non-Syrian conditional refugees accepted by a third country for resettlement through a UNHCR process also needed to obtain exit permission before leaving the country. In September the government assumed full control of the national asylum system for international protection cases and became the referring authority for all resettlement cases.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
The renewal of conflict between the government and the PKK in the southeast in 2015 resulted in hundreds of thousands of 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. The government reported that, between 2004 and June, it had distributed more than 1 billion lira ($190 million) to more than 70,000 victims of displacement due to past PKK terrorism in Sirnak province.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
The government took steps during the year to increase services provided to almost four million refugees in the country. A 2016 agreement between the government and the EU continued to hold down irregular migration from Turkey to Europe via the Aegean Sea. As of November 23, the government reported a total of 32,000 interceptions of individuals attempting to leave Turkey via the Aegean. Fewer individuals than in 2017 attempted to leave Turkey through a more dangerous route to Romania via the Black Sea and Evros River through the Greek border.
Refoulement: During the year UNHCR reported 27 cases of possible refoulement of persons of various nationalities, including Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians, and Syrians. Reports of detention of larger numbers of individuals, including Syrians and Iraqis, were also received. 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 unconfirmed cases of possible refoulement and tens of thousands of deportations may have taken place during the year. According to media reports, between January and October, more than 26,000 Afghans and more than 5,000 irregular migrants were deported.
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 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 stopped registering persons of concern on September 10 as the Ministry of Interior Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM) assumed full control of the national asylum system, including those under international protection. It reported that approximately 370,932 persons of concern were registered with UNHCR as of September 7, including 142,728 who were Iraqi nationals, 171,519 Afghan nationals, 39,220 Iranian nationals, and 5,757 Somali nationals. As of December 13, there were 3,611,834 Syrians registered for temporary protection; as of December 13, there were 143,803 Syrians and Iraqis residing in government-run camps, according to DGMM statistics.
UNHCR reported it had intermittent and unpredictable access to detention and removal centers where non-Syrians returned to the country from Greece were detained. UNHCR expressed doubts that all readmitted persons had access to the asylum procedure and reported that the access of readmitted persons to information, interpretation services, and legal assistance was problematic.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities assigned “conditional refugees” 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. 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 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 have been 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 so 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 more than 640,000 of one million school-age Syrian children. Many encountered challenges overcoming the language barrier or meeting transportation or other costs, or both.
As of November 1, the Ministry of National Education reported that 64 percent or 640,000 school-age Syrian children in the country were in school, a significant increase from prior years. An estimated 36 percent remained out of school during the 2018-19 school year. According to UNICEF, more than 350,000 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 60,000 Syrians citizenship since 2010, according to the Interior Ministry’s General Directorate of Population and Citizenship Affairs.
Temporary Protection: The government offered temporary protection to Syrian refugees who did not qualify as refugees due to the European-origin limitation in the law. Authorities required Syrian asylum seekers to register with the DGMM to legalize their temporary stay in the country. In some provinces, after November 2017, DGMM no longer processed new registrations beyond new babies 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 health care. During the year administration of the camps was handed from the emergency authority to the DGMM, and the DGMM completed the closure of six camps and relocation of approximately 60,000 residents. Remaining residents of the camps received significantly more assistance, including shelter, education, and food support.
Syrians who officially entered the country with passports could receive one-year residence permits upon registration with the government. Figures for the year were not available as of year’s end.
Government figures for stateless persons for the year were not available as of year’s end. 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. According to public statements by the Interior Minister, as of December there were more than 380,000 babies born to Syrian mothers in the country since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011.