Turkey is a constitutional republic with an executive presidential system and a unicameral 600-seat parliament (the Grand National Assembly). In presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers expressed concern regarding restrictions on media reporting and the campaign environment, including the jailing of a presidential candidate, that restricted the ability of opposition candidates to compete on an equal basis and campaign freely.
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. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over law enforcement officials, but mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption remained inadequate. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Under broad antiterror legislation passed in 2018, the government continued to restrict fundamental freedoms and compromised the rule of law. Since the 2016 coup attempt, authorities have dismissed or suspended tens of thousands of civil servants and government workers, including more than 60,000 police and military personnel and more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors, arrested or imprisoned more than 95,000 citizens, and closed more than 1,500 nongovernmental organizations on terrorism-related grounds, primarily for alleged ties to the movement of cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accused of masterminding the coup attempt and designated as the leader of the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organization.”
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: arbitrary killings; suspicious deaths of persons in custody; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary arrest and continued detention of tens of thousands of persons, including opposition politicians and former members of parliament, lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, and employees of the U.S. Mission, for purported ties to “terrorist” groups or peaceful legitimate speech; political prisoners, including elected officials; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside the country, including kidnappings and transfers without due process of alleged members of the Gulen movement; significant problems with judicial independence; support for Syrian opposition groups that perpetrated serious abuses in conflict, including the recruitment and use of child soldiers; severe restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, and the internet, including violence and threats of violence against journalists, closure of media outlets, and arrests or criminal prosecution of journalists and others for criticizing government policies or officials, censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel laws; severe restriction of freedoms of assembly, association, and movement, including overly restrictive laws regarding government oversight of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; some cases of refoulement of refugees; serious government harassment of domestic human rights organizations; gender-based violence; crimes involving violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic minority groups; crimes involving violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons.
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. The government took limited steps to investigate allegations of high-level corruption.
Clashes between security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party terrorist organization and its affiliates continued and resulted in the injury or death of security forces, 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 counterterrorism operations.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression within certain limits. The government restricted freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, throughout the year. Multiple articles in the penal code directly restrict freedom of the press and other media and free speech through broad 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.
The government’s prosecution of journalists representing major opposition and independent newspapers and its jailing of journalists since the 2016 coup attempt hindered freedom of expression. Media professionals reported that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.
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. The government convicted and sentenced hundreds of individuals for exercising their freedom of expression. The government frequently responded to expression critical of it by filing criminal charges alleging affiliation with terrorist groups, terrorism, or otherwise endangering the state (see National Security, below).
In March prosecutors filed an opinion seeking an eight-year prison sentence for CHP Istanbul provincial chair Canan Kaftancioglu in an appeals case related to tweets critical of government policy, including comments related to the 2013 Gezi Park Protests and the 2016 coup attempt, which she made between 2012 and 2017. A lower court sentenced her to nearly 10 years’ imprisonment in 2018. In January prosecutors filed a separate indictment for “instigating the violation of privacy,” claiming that Kaftancioglu ordered photos of alleged illegal construction at the home of the Turkish Presidency’s communications director Fahrettin Altun. In October prosecutors also charged Kaftancioglu with “offending and insulting” Altun in relation to the same incident. In May, President Erdogan filed an insult lawsuit against Kaftancioglu, seeking 500,000 lira ($58,900) in damages for remarks she made in support of Bogazici University protesters. Kaftancioglu had pledged to “file a criminal complaint against the person who is occupying the presidential post,” referring to Erdogan.
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 noted that the law was used more to restrict freedom of speech than to protect minorities.
A parliamentary by-law prohibits use of the word “Kurdistan” or other sensitive terms on the floor of parliament, stating that parliamentarians could be reprimanded or temporarily expelled from the assembly; however, authorities did not uniformly implement this by-law.
Former Diyarbakir Bar Association chairman Ahmet Ozmen continued to face charges filed in 2019 stemming from 2017 and 2018 bar association statements titled “We share the unrelieved pain of Armenian people.” In April the Diyarbakir Bar Association reported that the Ministry of Interior launched an investigation after the bar association released a statement for Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.
Rights groups and free speech advocates reported intensifying government pressure that in certain cases resulted in their exercising enhanced caution in their public reporting.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other 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 through the companies’ affiliation with the government. 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.
Government prosecution of journalists limited media freedom throughout the year. In May the NGO Press in Arrest reported that prosecutors requested life sentences in 10 percent of cases filed against journalists since 2018. The NGO analyzed 240 press trials involving 356 journalists since 2018. In 60 percent (143) of the monitored cases, courts delivered prison sentences, ranging from 10 months’ to 19.5 years’ imprisonment. Prosecutors most frequently charged journalists with terrorism-related charges.
In January, Istanbul prosecutors filed terrorism propaganda charges against journalist Melis Alphan for sharing a picture on her social media account from the 2015 Newroz celebrations in majority-Kurdish Diyarbakir, which showed a PKK flag in the background. An Istanbul court acquitted Alphan in May, but prosecutors appealed. In July an appeals court ruled that Alphan should be retried. She faced up to seven-and-a-half years in prison.
In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country, including using electronic monitoring.
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 Committee to Protect Journalists reported that attacks on journalists were rarely prosecuted. Victims publicly expressed a belief that law enforcement agencies were not interested in prosecuting the crimes. In March a mob of 15 to 20 persons attacked Levent Gultekin, a columnist for online newspaper Diken and commentator for Halk TV, near the Halk TV studios. Both Diken and Halk TV are pro-opposition outlets. Following the attack, Gultekin shared that prior to the incident, he had received threats from supporters of a political party allied with the ruling party, referencing the Nationalist Movement Party. Police opened an investigation into the attack, and Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul promised to take steps to improve security for journalists but did not provide details.
On March 9, a man approached the home of radio presenter Hazim Ozsu in Bursa and shot him in the throat. Police arrested the presumed killer six days later. During interrogation, the suspect stated he shot Ozsu because he objected to some of Ozsu’s on-air remarks.
CHP parliamentarian Utku Cakirozer reported that in July alone at least 18 journalists were subjected to violence as a result of their professional activities. In August a group attacked Halk TV journalists and crew during a live broadcast from Marmaris, threatening the cameraman with a broken bottle. The journalists were reporting on wildfires in the region. Police detained the assailants after they fled the scene but later released them. News reports alleged that one of the assailants was an official at the local AKP office.
The government routinely filed terrorism-related charges against individuals or publications in response to reporting on sensitive topics, particularly government efforts against 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 for speech critical of the state.
In June police forcefully detained Agence France-Presse photographer Bulent Kilic while he was covering the pride march in Istanbul. According to an interview with Kilic and photos from the scene, officers threw Kilic to the ground and kneeled on his back and neck. Kilic reported struggling to breathe. He was briefly detained before being released with no charge.
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 private Kurdish-language outlets.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders maintained direct and indirect censorship of media and books. Authorities subjected some writers and publishers 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. Authorities also exercised censorship over online media (see Internet Freedom, below, for details).
While the law does not prohibit particular books or publications, court decisions resulted in bans for distribution or sale of certain books and periodicals. Bookstores did not carry books by some opposition political figures.
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 Turkish Publishers Association 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. Authorities also subjected publishers 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 2020 a court ruled to ban the book The Political Branch of FETO in 21 Questions published by the CHP, which accused President Erdogan and other officials of cooperating with the Gulen movement. Prosecutors sought the ban based on insult charges and the charge of “provocation of the public to hatred and enmity.” The court decision barred future printing, distribution, and sale of the book and ordered confiscation of all copies already in print. In April the press reported that the now-banned book was cited as evidence in a prosecutorial request to the parliament to lift the parliamentary immunity of CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and seven other CHP members.
Some journalists reported their employers asked them to censor their reporting if it appeared critical of the government or jeopardized other business interests and fired them if they failed to comply. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting became increasingly standardized along progovernment lines.
Radio and television broadcast outlets did not provide equal access to the country’s major political parties. Critics charged that media generally favored the ruling AKP. The president of the country’s broadcasting authority, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK), told interviewers in April, “The political opposition wants to oppose [the government] in an uncontrolled manner. There are limits that cannot be surpassed.”
RTUK continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.” 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. RTUK member Ilhan Tasci, who represented the CHP, reported that as of July, RTUK had imposed 22 penalties on pro-opposition outlets only, mainly Halk TV, TELE1, and FOX TV. RTUK did not impose any fines on progovernment outlets.
In August, RTUK sent a letter to broadcasters regarding coverage of massive wildfires that broke out in July. The letter directed broadcasters to cover successful extinguishing efforts in addition to covering ongoing fires or face “heavy sanctions.” RTUK subsequently imposed fines on six opposition broadcasters for their coverage of the fires.
In March, RTUK fined pro-opposition broadcasters Halk TV and TELE1 for “mocking religious beliefs and social values.” Halk TV incurred the penalty after a news commentator noted that the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) Ali Erbas received medical care in more expensive private, rather than public hospitals. RTUK fined TELE1 because a newscaster used the term “Islamic terrorism.”
According to Committee to Protect Journalists reporting, during the state of emergency from 2016 to 2018, the government cancelled nearly 2,000 press cards and another 1,400 in 2020. In April the Council of State, the country’s top administrative court, ruled against the 2018 press card regulation that expanded government authority to cancel press accreditation cards. The court ruled that the regulation specified grounds for press card cancellation, such as “conduct against the public order or national security” and “behaviors that damage the professional dignity of journalism,” that were arbitrary and ambiguous. The court mandated revision of the regulations. In May the Presidency Communications Directorate announced new regulations that reinforced the directorate’s authority to cancel press cards if journalists create content that “praises terror, endangers national security or provokes animosity and hatred” and enabled cancellation of permanent credentials granted to journalists after 20 years of service. The Journalist’s Union of Turkey assessed that the new regulations endangered journalistic freedom by allowing the government to arbitrarily suspend press credentials. In December the Council of State suspended the application of the revised regulations, ruling that the Presidency Communication Directorate is not authorized to decide who will be given a press card or under what circumstances a press card can be cancelled.
Authorities also targeted foreign journalists. In March authorities blocked French freelance journalist Sylvain Mercadier from entering the country and deported him after detaining him overnight. Mercadier reported that police questioned him regarding his work and whether he focused on Kurdish issues. Mercadier intended to cover Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakir, among other topics. Immigration officials indicated public security as the reason for deportation in documentation provided to Mercadier.
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents, journalists, and ordinary citizens from voicing criticism. 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.
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. According to Ministry of Justice statistics, police investigated 44,717 individuals for insulting the president or the state in 2020; 10,629 stood trial and 3,655 were penalized. In July a court sentenced journalist Cem Simsek to 11 months and 20 days in prison for insulting the president in connection with a 2015 article analyzing cartoon drawings showing President Erdogan. Simsek was appealing the sentence at year’s end.
Authorities charged citizens, including minors, with insulting the country’s leaders and denigrating “Turkishness.” Free speech advocates pointed out that, while leaders and deputies from opposition political parties regularly faced multiple insult charges, the government did not apply the law equally and that AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted.
In May, Istanbul prosecutors indicted journalist Deniz Yucel, formerly of the German newspaper Die Welt, on charges of “publicly degrading the Turkish nation and the state” in connection with two articles from 2016. In 2020 an Istanbul court convicted Yucel of “incitement to hatred” and spreading “terrorist propaganda” and sentenced him in absentia to two years and nine months in prison. An appeal was ongoing at year’s end.
In February a court sentenced CHP Aydin Province women’s branch president Ayse Ozdemir to 11 months’ imprisonment for “insulting the president” in connection with her participation in a 2020 performance to protest violence against women. Participants sang a viral Chilean feminist anthem during the performance. The court ordered a suspended sentence.
In April, President Erdogan signed a presidential order banning students convicted of insulting the president from staying in public university dormitories.
The government pursued an insult case against the Ankara Bar Association chair and executive board members for criticizing an anti-LGBTQI+ statement made by the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) Ali Erbas in 2020. The Ankara Bar Association leaders faced a potential sentence of up to two years in prison for “insulting a public official due to his or her duty for expressing beliefs, thoughts and opinions.” Police separately launched investigations into the Izmir and Diyarbakir bar associations in relation to the same incident.
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.
Estimates of the number of imprisoned journalists varied, ranging from at least 18 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists to 37 according to the International Press Institute. The majority faced charges related to antigovernment reporting or alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement.
The Media and Law Studies Association in Istanbul attributed the disparity in estimates of the number of incarcerated journalists to the varying definitions of “journalist” or “media worker.” While the government officially recognizes as journalists only persons to whom it has issued a press accreditation card (typically limited to reporters, cameramen, and editors working for print or broadcast outlets), media watchdog groups also included distributors, copy editors, layout designers, and other staff of media outlets, including digital outlets, in their definition. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported allegations from journalists that the process for receiving credentials was discriminatory and partisan, and NGOs estimated that only roughly one-quarter of the press corps were credentialed.
A study by the NGO Media and Law Studies Organization of 372 freedom of expression cases conducted from January to July found that in 58 percent of cases defendants faced charges related to terrorism. Prosecutors cited journalistic activities as evidence in 64 percent of cases where a press worker was a defendant.
In February an Istanbul court convicted the former HRA cochair Eren Keskin, two other former editors, and the former publisher of pro-Kurdish daily Ozgur Gundem on terrorism charges and sentenced them to jail terms ranging from 25 months to more than six years. In the same month hearings resumed in cases against four other journalists, including Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative of Reporters Without Borders, for “promoting terrorist propaganda” in a separate case related to Ozgur Gundem. In 2016 the defendants participated in a solidarity campaign with Ozgur Gundem, serving as the newspaper’s editors for one day each. Prosecutors subsequently filed charges against Onderoglu and other participants. Although an Istanbul court acquitted the four defendants in 2019, prosecutors subsequently appealed. Prosecutors sought up to 14 years in prison for the defendants in the resumed cases.
In March a court convicted an OdaTV news editor, Muyesser Yildiz, and TELE1 journalist, Ismail Dukel, for obtaining and disclosing confidential information. Yildiz was sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment and Dukel to one year and 15 days. The journalists were tried in connection with telephone conversations they held with the third defendant in the case, a military officer, who allegedly provided them with information about Turkey’s intervention in Libya. The military officer received a sentence of seven-and-a-half years’ imprisonment.
In April the country’s highest appeals court ordered the release of prominent novelist and former editor of shuttered Taraf daily, Ahmet Altan. Police first detained Altan in 2016. Shortly before the appeals court’s decision, the ECHR ruled that the government violated Altan’s rights to liberty and security, right to fair and speedy proceedings, and freedom of expression. Altan was convicted in 2018 for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” for alleged involvement in the 2016 coup attempt; he received an aggravated life sentence. In 2019 after the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the life imprisonment sentence, Altan was convicted for “aiding a terrorist organization” and released on time served. Within days of the release, he was rearrested following the prosecutor’s objection. Altan’s lawyers reported that the case against him was ongoing.
An unknown number of journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest in connection with the 2016 coup attempt or other charges. Independent reports estimated the government has closed more than 200 media companies since 2016.
Nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees.
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 restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
c. Freedom of Religion
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
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 terrorism, links to the Gulen movement, or the failed 2016 coup attempt. 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, as did movement restrictions introduced as COVID-19 precautions.
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 allow severe restrictions to be imposed on freedom of movement, such as granting governors the power to limit individuals’ 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 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.).
The Ministry of Interior and provincial governors instituted travel restrictions as anti-COVID-19 measures on several occasions throughout the year.
Conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection also experienced some restrictions on their freedom of movement (see section 2.f.).
Foreign Travel: The government placed restrictions on foreign travel for tens of thousands of citizens accused of terrorism due to links to the Gulen movement or the failed coup attempt, as well as on 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 the travel restrictions were necessary to preserve security. Some persons whom the government barred from travel chose to leave the country illegally.
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 without government permission. The government issued individual exit permissions for Syrians under temporary protection departing the country for the Eid holiday visit program to Syria, family reunification, health treatment, or permanent resettlement. The government sometimes denied exit permission to Syrians under temporary protection for reasons that were unclear.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
In 2019 the country’s Peace Spring military operation displaced more than 215,000 residents of villages along the country’s border with Syria in parts of Aleppo, al-Hasakah, and Dayr az Zawr. At the time the president announced the country’s intention to create a safe zone for the return and resettlement of one to two million Syrian refugees from Turkey. In October the government announced that 414,000 individuals had voluntarily returned to Syria. Approximately one-half of those displaced inside Syria because of the operation have returned according to February 2020 UN estimates, the latest available. More than 100,000 persons remained displaced, however, including tens of thousands of women and children. Turkish officials publicly committed to safe and voluntary refugee returns.
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 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 international protection applicants and status holders and temporary protection beneficiaries.
The government took steps during the year to continue services provided to the approximately four million refugees and asylum seekers in the country, nearly 3.7 million of whom were Syrians, despite a number of economic, political, and social challenges. Amidst growing antirefugee sentiment and following attacks against Syrians in an Ankara neighborhood in August, the government announced in September the closure of Ankara Province to temporary protection registration for Syrians (joining at least 15 other provinces in the country). The Presidency of Migration Management (PMM), previously known as the Directorate General for Migration Management, reported that the government apprehended 122,302 individuals in 2020, either for staying in Turkey without proper documentation or trying to enter or exit Turkey irregularly. The PMM reported that 50,161 of those apprehended were Afghan nationals. The government did not provide official data on the number of “irregular migrants” deported to their countries of origin. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior stated that the government prevented the illegal entry of more than 505,000 foreign nationals.
Increased border surveillance and protection measures by security services along the eastern border areas with Iran prevented individuals, particularly Afghans, from accessing international protection in some cases. Media reports alleged authorities executed pushbacks back to Iran of individuals trying to access Turkey, with no opportunity provided to access the asylum procedures, deportation proceedings, or the right to appeal deportation as provided in the law. UNHCR continued to engage with Turkish authorities to support the implementation of the legal framework that provides for access to international protection, in line with relevant national and international commitments.
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 Refugee 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 nearly four million Syrians and provided international protection to asylum seekers of other nationalities. Individuals recognized by the government for temporary protection (Syrians) or international protection (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 regular access to removal centers where foreigners, including persons under temporary and international protection, were detained. UNHCR continued to work together with the government to ensure access to asylum procedures for persons in need of protection, including through access to information, interpretation, and legal aid. A 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey allowed some migrants arriving in Greece to be returned to Turkey in particular circumstances, but the Turkish government has not accepted any returns under this framework since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The country’s borders with Syria and Iraq remained strictly managed, with admissions only for medical, humanitarian, and family reunification cases from the border with Syria since late 2015. Of the 20 border crossing points between Syria and Turkey, as of December 2020, five were open for limited humanitarian, commercial, and individual crossings, and four additional gates required permission from authorities for all movements. Of the five open crossings, one permitted UN humanitarian cargo to transit the border. During the first half of the year, a second border crossing, which had previously allowed UN humanitarian movements, prohibited such crossings beginning in July per UN Security Council Resolution 2533.
Since 2017 some provinces along the border with Syria limited registration of asylum seekers to certain exceptional cases only, limiting their ability to obtain 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 and Ankara also limited registration. 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 was allowed under the country’s regulations but was often necessary to survive without depending on humanitarian or government assistance.
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. The government continued efforts to deport those it claimed entered the country illegally, particularly non-Syrians, as well as those it deemed to pose security threats before they were granted status-determination interviews by Turkish migration authorities.
As of September 30, UNHCR intervened in incidents of detention of 1,160 persons of various nationalities that had been brought to its attention. The majority were Syrian nationals (710 persons), Afghans (219 persons), and Iranians (150 persons). Of those known incidents of detention in which UNHCR intervened, two persons were reportedly returned, against their will, to their country of origin. Information concerning individuals who were reportedly no longer in the country could not be verified.
In incidents of administrative detention of which UNHCR was made aware, the reasons for detention related to violations of provisions of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (including but not limited to irregular stay, lack of foreigners’ identity card due to not complying with the obligations of registration procedures, being in another city without authorization, working without a permit, entry ban, rejection of request for temporary protection), or criminal acts.
UNHCR typically intervened in incidents of detention when there were concerns detained individuals were unaware of or unable to access the appropriate administrative processes to raise potential protection concerns. In October the PMM announced it would deport seven Syrian refugees because of their provocative social media posts; the Syrians had posted videos of themselves eating bananas in response to a Turkish citizen’s comment that he could not afford to buy bananas because of the poor economy, while alleging Syrian refugees were buying the fruit “by the kilo.” Refugee rights NGOs criticized the government’s decision as “illegal,” arguing that “provocative social media posts” cannot be ground for deportation under the law.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: Due to strict border control measures as well as intercity travel bans through June 1 due to COVID-19, migration into and through the country remained low in the first half of the year; however, stricter controls increased the danger for migrants and refugees attempting to travel.
After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August contributed to fears of a possible refugee influx to Turkey, authorities engaged in pushbacks, including multiple reports by international media of alleged violence and forced returns to Iran of Afghans and other asylum seekers attempting to enter the country.
While conditions in the border area between Greece and Turkey were calmer than in early 2020, migrants and asylum seekers still experienced severe mistreatment when attempting to cross the border. Amnesty International alleged the country violated the rights of migrants and asylum seekers on the border by encouraging some persons to attempt to cross the border again and by failing to rescue those stranded in the river in a timely manner. International media and UN agencies also documented similar mistreatment of migrants and asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey.
In September, one UN agency reported eight migrants died in Turkish waters while trying to cross the sea into Europe from Turkey. There were 43 deaths recorded along the Greece-Turkey land border, according to the agency, of which 36 were drownings in the Meric River; three other migrants were found dead in forests, two died from traffic accidents, and two others were beaten or shot dead.
A total of 21 civil disturbance incidents involving refugees were reported by media in 2020, an increase from nine such incidents reported in 2019. Tensions escalated in the Ankara neighborhood of Altindag following the death in August of an 18-year-old Turkish national who was wounded in a fight between Turkish and Syrian youths. This incident prompted hundreds of individuals to gather in the neighborhood, where they attacked Syrians’ homes and businesses and shouted nationalist slogans. At least six Syrian refugees were injured. Authorities deployed more than 1,000 police officers to the district. According to Ankara law enforcement authorities, police detained nearly 150 individuals in the following days for instigating violence on social media and participating in the riots. Some were subsequently arrested.
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.
UN agencies reported there were LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and conditional refugees in the country – most coming from Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq – and LGBTQI+ individuals from Syria under temporary protection status. 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 LGBTQI+ community. Many experienced gender-based violence. Commercial sexual exploitation also remained a significant problem in the LGBTQI+ refugee community, particularly for but not limited to transgender persons.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities assigned non-Syrians to one of 62 “satellite cities,” where they were expected to receive services from local authorities under the responsibility of provincial governorates. These international protection applicants and status holders were required in some provinces 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 provinces listed on their registration cards without permission. International protection applicants and status holders and temporary protection beneficiaries could request permission to travel or to transfer their registration through the PMM. Certain provinces did not accept travel permission requests or transfer of registration.
The PMM operated seven refugee camps, which the government called temporary accommodation centers, in five provinces. As of early December 2020, there were nearly 60,000 Syrians in the accommodation centers, a slight decline from the previous year. While more than 98 percent of Syrians under temporary protection live integrated in communities across the country’s 81 provinces, some Syrians elected to remain in the camps, usually because they were elderly, had disabilities, or felt they might not successfully transition to living outside the camps. Syrians living in camps required permission from camp authorities to leave the camps.
Employment: The law allows both international protection applicants and status holders (mostly non-Syrians) and temporary protection beneficiaries (mostly Syrians) the right to work, provided they were registered for six months in the province where they wished to work. Most did not have access to regular or skilled work. Conditions further deteriorated during the COVID-19 pandemic as overall unemployment rates in the country rose sharply. In addition, 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 anyone who required a special permit. The vast majority of both international protection applicants and status holders and temporary protection beneficiaries remained without legal employment options, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, including illegally low wages, withholding of wages, and exposure to unsafe work conditions. As of 2019 only an estimated 140,319 Syrians in the country had formal work permits according to the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.
Access to Basic Services: International protection applicants and status holders lose access to subsidized health care after one year residing in the country. Individuals meeting certain conditions, such as documented chronic conditions or those older than a specific age, could apply for an exemption to be placed back under subsidized care coverage. Temporary protection beneficiaries (3.7 million) continued to receive free access to the public-health system. The government also expanded access to education for school-age Syrian children, many of whom encountered challenges overcoming the language barrier, meeting transportation or other costs, or both.
As of June the Ministry of National Education reported that 771,458 of the school-age refugee children in the country were in school, a significant increase from prior years. More than 400,000 remained out of school. According to UNICEF since 2017, a total of 700,097 refugee children received monthly cash assistance for education through the Conditional Cash Transfer for Education Program for Syrians and other refugees, implemented through a partnership among the Ministry of Family and Social Services, the Ministry of National Education, the Turkish Red Crescent and UNICEF, and funded by international donors.
Provincial governments, working with local NGOs, were responsible for meeting the basic needs of international protection applicants and status holders and temporary protection beneficiaries 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 vulnerable persons varied widely. NGO staff members reported individual cases of refugees being refused health-care services.
Children of unregistered migrants, including asylum seekers, were unable to attend Turkish schools, leaving many in vulnerable situations. Some NGOs also reported some local authorities started to enforce residency requirements for registered refugees, refusing to enroll children in school if outside their place of residency in Turkey and thereby contributing to school dropouts.
Durable Solutions: The law does not provide for naturalization or resettlement within the country for international protection applicants and status holders or temporary protection beneficiaries, but it allows them to stay until resettled to a foreign country or able to return to their country of origin. Temporary protection beneficiaries or international protection status holders could only access naturalization through marriage to a Turkish citizen or through an exceptional circumstances allowance. According to a December 2019 Ministry of Interior statement estimate (the most recent estimate available), 110,000 Syrian nationals had been granted Turkish citizenship. The statement did not specify the timeline nor the process for having obtained the Turkish citizenship.
As of October 25, UNHCR, in cooperation with the PMM, observed the spontaneous voluntary return interviews of 18,700 Syrian individuals in 15 provinces, where 90 percent of the refugee population resided. The total number of voluntary return interviews observed by UNHCR since 2016 was close to 120,000 individuals. UNHCR could not confirm the authorities’ estimate for voluntary returns to Syria. Through June the PMM suspended voluntary repatriation due to COVID-19 measures. Amnesty International reported in September that former refugees who returned voluntarily to Syria were subjected to detention, disappearance, and torture, including sexual violence.
UNHCR continued to work closely with Turkish authorities as well as resettlement countries to identify, assess, and process refugees for resettlement considerations. Due to the pandemic and related restriction of movement, the PMM facilitated UNHCR interviews of refugees by providing government facilities across the country, enabling resettlement processing to continue, with the required COVID-19 prevention measures and also remotely, when needed, through most of the first half of the year. As of August 31, a total of 5,607 refugees were submitted for resettlement and 4,666 refugees departed the country for resettlement.
The government did not keep figures for stateless persons. The government provided documentation for children born to international protection applicants and status holders and temporary protection beneficiaries, although statelessness remained an increasing concern for these children, some of whom could receive neither Turkish citizenship nor documentation from their parents’ home country. As of October there were 508,513 Syrian children younger than age four in the country, according to the PMM.
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 entrusts the Court of Accounts, the country’s supreme audit institution, with accountability related to revenues and expenditures of government departments. Outside this audit system, there was no dedicated regulator with the exclusive responsibility for investigating and prosecuting corruption cases and there were concerns regarding the impartiality of the judiciary in the handling of corruption cases. According to Transparency International, the public procurement system has consistently declined in transparency and competitiveness, with exceptions to the Public Procurement Law widely applied.
While opposition politicians frequently accused the ruling party of corruption, there were only isolated journalistic or official investigations of government corruption during the year. Journalists and civil society organizations reported fearing retribution for reporting on corruption issues. Authorities continued to pursue criminal and civil charges against journalists reporting on corruption allegations. Courts and RTUK regularly blocked access to press reports regarding corruption.
In May the state-run Anadolu Agency fired reporter Musab Turan after he asked government officials about corruption allegations against Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu during a press conference. Anadolu Agency issued a statement that Turn was fired for lacking “journalistic principles” and propagating “political propaganda.” The statement also said that Anadolu requested that prosecutors open a terrorism investigation into Turan. Fahrettin Altun, the presidency’s communications director, wrote on Twitter, “Those who seek to harm the respectability of our state will pay the price.”
Corruption: There were several credible press allegations of corruption throughout the year. For example, in June the opposition-leaning Cumhuriyet published a series of reports on the conclusions of an Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality probe into corruption allegations of excessive public spending on projects benefiting the Turkey Youth Foundation (TUGVA), which was closely linked to ruling AKP figures. Under prior AKP leadership, Istanbul municipal officials reportedly colluded with the public-housing authority KIPTAS in a series of opaque real estate transactions apparently aimed at avoiding open bidding. One such deal saw a contract for a public cultural center repurposed for use by TUGVA. TUGVA and another AKP-linked foundation were also allocated municipal luxury cars and toll passes. Investigators estimated the total losses to the public at approximately $1.6 billion. Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu directed municipality officials to initiate the probe when he took office in 2019. The Ministry of the Interior took over the investigation in December 2020 after which progress appeared to have stalled.
In October a former TUGVA employee leaked to a journalist documents suggesting the government allocated thousands of state-owned dormitory buildings for exclusive use by TUGVA members and channeled generous subsidies to TUGVA and other AKP-aligned foundations via state-owned banks. The whistleblower also shared purported lists of TUGVA-nominated candidates for jobs within the police, judiciary, and military. TUGVA officials denied the authenticity of the documents. RTUK fined opposition Halk TV for its coverage of the allegations regarding TUGVA.
In April authorities investigated accusations that seven municipalities in the southeast issued official visa-exempt passports in exchange for bribes, allowing individuals to travel to Europe. The scheme was allegedly discovered after most participants in municipality-organized visits to Germany claimed asylum while abroad and did not return to Turkey.
There were no high-profile prosecutions of officials on corruption charges during the year.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes gender-based violence 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. Women’s groups reported that the government did not effectively or fully enforce these laws or protect survivors.
Gender-based violence, including domestic and intimate partner violence, remained a serious and widespread problem both in rural and urban areas. NGOs continued to report higher rates of domestic violence reports during periodic COVID-19 lockdowns implemented throughout the year.
The We Will Stop Femicide Platform, an NGO dedicated to monitoring violence against women, estimated that men killed at least 415 women during the year, compared with 410 in 2020. Government authorities did not consistently release statistics on gender-based violence. The minister of interior stated that 266 women were killed in episodes of domestic violence in 2020.
The law 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. In 2020 the Ministry of Family and Social Services reported there were 145 women’s shelters nationwide with capacity for 3,482 persons. In July the minister of family and social services announced that 55,882 individuals, including 35,311 women and 20,551 children, received services from women’s shelters in 2020. 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. Shelter capacity was further reduced as a result of COVID-19 prevention requirements. Lack of services was more acute for elderly women and LGBTQI+ women as well as for women with older children.
The government operated a nationwide domestic violence hotline and a web application called the Women Emergency Assistance Notification System (KADES). In May the Ministry of Interior stated that since its inception in 2018, the KADES application had received 138,978 reports of which 73,417 were legitimate threats and that authorities had responded to each. The ministry did not specify types of response. NGOs asserted the quality of services provided in response to calls was inadequate for victims of domestic violence and that women were at times directed to mediation centers or told to reconcile with their husbands.
In March, President Erdogan announced the country’s withdrawal from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention. Turkey was the first country to ratify the convention in 2012; its withdrawal from the convention became effective July 1. Women’s groups strongly criticized the withdrawal, expressing concern that it would result in a weakening of protections for survivors of gender-based violence and foster impunity for perpetrators. Women’s and human rights groups asserted that the withdrawal, which was accomplished by presidential decree without consulting parliament, violated the country’s constitution and filed court challenges. The constitution specifies that parliament must ratify international agreements but does not address withdrawal. The Council of State, the country’s top administrative court, upheld the presidential decree in November, but appeals were ongoing. Since the country’s withdrawal from the convention, women’s groups that worked with survivors of gender-based violence reported that they were less likely to approach authorities, believing that the withdrawal signaled a lessening of the government’s commitment to aid survivors.
Government officials, including President Erdogan, stated that the country’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention did not signal a diminished government commitment to combating gender-based violence. The Presidency’s Directorate of Communications issued a statement that the withdrawal resulted from the convention’s “hijack[ing]” by those “attempting to normalize homosexuality – which is incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values” (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
In July the government released its National Action Plan for Combatting Violence Against Women (2021-2025). Women’s groups largely dismissed the plan as a tactical effort to stem public criticism following the Istanbul Convention withdrawal and stressed that prior action plans did little to curb the rise in gender-based violence in the country.
Courts regularly issued restraining orders to protect victims, but human rights organizations reported police rarely enforced them effectively. According to a report compiled by the opposition CHP, courts rejected 7 percent of restraining order requests in 2020. 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 May, Zeynep Erdogan was stabbed and killed by her husband, Mehmet Erdogan, in Ankara. According to press and NGO reporting, Erdogan had filed multiple restraining orders against the husband, who was on trial for domestic violence against her during the time of the killing. Police arrested Mehmet Erdogan following the killing.
Courts in some cases gave reduced sentences to men found guilty of committing violence against women, citing good behavior during the trial or “unjustifiable provocation” by women as an extenuating circumstance of the crime. The criminal code allows defendants to receive a reduced sentence if the offense was committed “in a state of anger or severe distress caused by an unjust act.” For example, in May press outlets reported that a Konya court reduced the sentence of convicted felon Bekir Erol, who killed his wife, Tuba Erol, in 2019 by stabbing her 46 times. Erol initially received a life sentence with no possibility of parole. The court ruled to reduce the sentence to 18 years and four months on the grounds of “good behavior” and “unjustifiable provocation.”
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: There were occasional reports of “honor killings” of women, mainly in the southeast. In October the press reported that a man stabbed and killed his mother in public in Istanbul after the family discovered she had an affair 20 years earlier. Police arrested the suspect.
The criminal code prescribes life imprisonment for killings perpetrated with the motive of “custom,” but NGOs reported that courts often reduced actual sentences due to mitigating factors, including “unjustifiable provocation.”
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. Women’s rights activists reported, however, that authorities rarely enforced these laws.
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.
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. According to Ministry of Justice statistics, there were 28,083 sexual harassment cases in 2020, a significant increase from the previous year. Prosecutors did not prosecute 43 percent of the cases. In cases that went to court, the courts acquitted the accused perpetrator in 16 percent of cases, convicted and sentenced the perpetrator in 40 percent, and suspended the sentence through a verdict postponement judgement in 25 percent of the cases. The high rate of verdict postponement contributed to perceptions of impunity for sexual harassment.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
There were no government restrictions or policies designed to prevent information on medical treatment affecting reproductive health from reaching vulnerable populations, including ethnic minorities and refugees.
The UN Population Fund determined that 11.5 percent of women in the country had unmet needs in family planning based on data from the 2018 Turkey Demographic and Health Survey conducted by Hacettepe University’s Institute of Population Studies. The survey, conducted every five years, found 97 percent of women knew of at least one family prevention method. At least 70 percent of married women reported using at least one family planning method.
An analysis of historical survey data from 2013 and 2018 by the NGO Turkish Family Health and Planning Foundation (TAPV) found that there was significant unmet demand for family planning counseling and services, particularly among older women with at least one child. Women in Northeast Anatolia, Istanbul, West Marmara, and Southeast Anatolia regions had the highest rate of unmet family planning needs in the country. TAPV concluded that the shrinking role of public health-care providers in reproductive health (vice private health-care providers) negatively impacted accessibility to family planning resources, particularly among lower income women. Women could access contraception methods for free in government-funded primary health-care units and hospitals or from pharmacies and private practitioners for a fee.
An interview-based survey of health providers conducted by TAPV in 2020 found that the COVID-19 pandemic further limited access to contraception and family planning counseling, while the country maintained maternity services, such as pregnancy follow-ups.
A 2021 report in BMC Women’s Health based on interviews in Istanbul found that religious factors played the leading role in women’s choice of a particular family planning method, with less religious women more likely to choose modern contraception methods. The study found that religious belief did not have a direct influence on decisions of whether to employ family planning. The report also noted that men had limited involvement in family planning decision making.
Access to family planning methods and information on managing reproductive health was more difficult for many of the four million refugees in the country. A 2020 Reproductive Health Journal analysis of the sexual and reproductive health of Syrian refugee women stated the rate of postnatal care was inadequate. The review reported a 24 percent rate of modern contraceptive method use among all age groups of Syrian girls and women, with estimated rates of unmet family planning needs at 35 percent and only 20 percent of Syrian women having regular gynecological examinations.
The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. Emergency contraception was available as part of clinical management of rape.
Discrimination: Women enjoy the same rights as men by law, but societal and official discrimination were widespread. Women faced discrimination in employment (see section 7.d.). Based on data from the Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK), the labor participation rate for men was 78 percent and only 35 percent for women. A joint 2020 study by TUIK and the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated the gender pay gap in in the country at 15.6 percent. Women were disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic economically.
The constitution permits measures 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 18. Laws introduced as a gender justice initiative provided for maternity leave, breastfeeding time during work hours, flexibility in work hours, and required childcare by large employers.
Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination
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 fully exercise their linguistic, religious, and cultural rights. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on language, race, or color and provides for equality in the eyes of the law, but authorities did not consistently enforce these provisions.
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 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.
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 five universities had Kurdish-language departments. A survey by the Ismail Besikci Foundation of 58 academics working in Kurdish studies found that 63 percent reported practicing self-censorship in their classes and 70 percent reported practicing self-censorship in their academic research and publications.
The law 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, but this right was not protected. The law restricts the use of languages other than Turkish in government and public services.
In October police detained and released on the same day a Kurdish shop owner in Siirt Province after his comments to an opposition politician circulated in a social media video. As shown in the video, the man stated, “Our language is denied, our identity is denied, ‘Kurdistan’ is denied.” Prosecutors launched an investigation into the statements for “making propaganda of a terrorist organization.”
There were several attacks against ethnic Kurds that human rights organizations alleged were racially motivated. In July assailants shot and killed seven members of the Dedeogullari family in Konya. A mob attacked the family earlier in May. Family relatives alleged the May attack was perpetrated by ultranationalists affiliated with the extremist group the Grey Wolves. The Konya Public Prosecutor’s Office denied that the attack was racially motivated, attributing it to a long-standing dispute between the Dedeogullari and another family. Police arrested 13 suspects in connection with the killings. Prosecutors indicted 11 suspects for the killings. Their trial was ongoing at year’s end.
In September the Kiziltepe Public Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation against JinNews reporter Oznur Deger. Deger reported that police questioned her about her reporting on the Dedeogullari family killings and social media posts regarding her Kurdish identity.
In May police arrested three persons who attacked a Kurdish family visiting the southeastern province of Mersin from Erbil, Iraq. The family alleged the assailants used anti-Kurdish slurs and the hand sign of the ultranationalist extremist group the Grey Wolves during the attack.
Romani communities reported discrimination and lack of access to education, housing, health care, and employment. Community members recounted that majority of community members do not complete formal education and as a result are unable to secure employment. Community representatives indicated that more than 90 percent of Roma were unemployed, although many had jobs in the informal economy.
The government adopted a national Romani strategy in 2016 but underfunded the initiative. Romani advocates complained there was little concrete advancement for Roma. They also reported that Romani communities were particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and that the national government did little to provide economic assistance to the communities, particularly since most Roma worked in the informal economy as garbage collectors, flower vendors, and musicians who perform at restaurants or social events. With the imposition of restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 by enforcing social-distancing precautions, many Roma found themselves cut off from their livelihoods and without access to the social safety net available to those who could apply for unemployment benefits. Community representatives reported that some families lost housing and utilities due to inability to pay their bills. For instance, 60 families in Izmir relocated to a tent camp after being evicted from their apartments. Romani children also faced difficulty accessing distance education during the COVID-19 pandemic. The government did not compensate Roma forcefully removed from tent cities in Cesme in 2020.
Armenian minority groups reported hate speech and coded language directed against the Armenian community, including from high-level government officials. The Armenian Patriarchate reported receiving anonymous threats around Armenian Remembrance Day.
In April independent parliamentarian Umit Ozdag threatened Garo Paylan, an HDP member of parliament and ethnic-Armenian Turk, after Paylan criticized the fact that streets and schools were still named after Talat Pasha, the Ottoman Empire’s minister of interior during the Armenian genocide. Ozdag responded, “Talat Pasha didn’t expel patriotic Armenians but those who stabbed us in the back like you. When the time comes, you’ll also have a Talat Pasha experience, and you should have it.”
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 may not 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 and the progress made by the nationwide literacy campaign launched in 2018, some families were able to keep female students home, particularly in religiously conservative rural areas, where girls often dropped out of school after completing their mandatory primary education. The reliance on online education platforms during COVID-19 lockdowns in the 2020-21 school year negatively affected both boys and girls from socioeconomically disadvantaged families lacking internet access and further exacerbated learning inequalities. In May the Education and Science Workers’ Union (Egitim Sen) reported that four million students were not able to access distance education during the previous school year. In a survey, 44 percent of the teachers interviewed by the union said the attendance rate in their classes was less than 20 percent. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute 2020 data, 98 percent of men and 87 percent of women had a primary education, while 50 percent of men and 38 percent of women had a secondary education. A total of 20 percent of men and 17 percent of women had a postsecondary education.
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. The Turkish constitution prohibits any language other than Turkish to be taught “as a mother tongue.”
Child Abuse: The law authorizes police and local officials to grant various levels of protection and support services to children who are victims of violence or to those at risk of violence. Nevertheless, children’s rights advocates reported inconsistent implementation and called for expansion of support for victims. 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 ages of 12 and 18, molestation results in a sentence of three to eight years in prison, sexual abuse in a sentence of eight to 15 years’ imprisonment, and rape in a sentence of at least 16 years’ imprisonment. If the victim is younger than 12, conviction of molestation results in a minimum sentence of five years’ imprisonment, conviction of sexual abuse a minimum of 10 years’ imprisonment, and conviction of rape a minimum of 18 years’ imprisonment.
According to Ministry of Justice statistics, courts opened 22,497 legal cases related to child sexual abuse and sentenced 12,064 persons to imprisonment for child sexual abuse in 2020. Child advocates stated that reports of child abuse increased during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and school closures.
Child, 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.
Comprehensive statistics on child, early, and forced marriage were unavailable because the marriages often took place unofficially. NGOs reported children as young as 12 married in unofficial religious ceremonies, particularly in poor and rural regions and among the Syrian community in the country. Early and forced marriage was particularly prevalent in the southeast, and women’s rights activists reported the problem remained serious. A study of child, early, and forced marriage by the UN Population Fund and Hacettepe University released in December 2020 found that the proportion of women who had married before the age of 18 in the 20-to-24 age group declined between 1993 and 2008. The decline did not continue between 2008 and 2018, however, and the rate of child, early, and forced marriage increased in West Marmara, Aegean, Mediterranean and Southeast Anatolia regions. In 2020 according to the Turkish Statistical Institute, 4.6 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before age 18.
Human rights organizations reported that during the COVID-19 pandemic there were incidences of families “selling” girls for marriage to Turkish men as an economic coping mechanism. Hacettepe University’s 2018 Demographic and Health Survey showed that 12 percent of Syrian girls in the country married before the age of 15 and 38 percent married before the age of 18. Local NGOs worked to educate and raise awareness among individuals in the Turkish and Syrian populations in southeastern provinces.
Women’s rights groups stated that there were instances of forced marriages and bride kidnapping, particularly in rural areas, although the practices were not widespread.
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 commercial sexual exploitation is up to 10 years’ imprisonment; if violence or pressure is involved, a judge may double the sentence. The government did not publish data on rates of sexual exploitation of children.
NGOs such as ECPAT noted that young Syrian female refugees were particularly vulnerable to being exploited by criminal organizations and pressured into sex work, and this practice was particularly prevalent among adolescent girls.
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. 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 .
According to the Chief Rabbinate in Istanbul, approximately 16,000 Jews lived 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 regarding anti-Semitism.
Jewish citizens expressed concern regarding anti-Semitism and security threats. Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued in print media and on social media throughout the year, increasing during the outbreak of conflict in West Bank and the Gaza strip in May. Addressing Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, President Erdogan deployed anti-Semitic rhetoric, stating, “They [Israelis] are murderers, to the point that they kill children who are five or six years old. They are only satisfied by sucking their blood.” Turkish officials denied that the statement was anti-Semitic.
In July, Huseyin Hakki Kahveci, a writer and journalist, linked the massive wildfires in Turkey to Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, the chair of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States. Kahveci wrote on Twitter that the location of the fires corresponded to the rabbi’s route as part of his travel for a Jewish heritage project. He wrote, “Rabbis know Kabbalah-Black Magic well.” The Turkish Jewish Community, a foundation representing the Jewish community, announced that it would file a criminal complaint against Kahveci.
To combat anti-Semitism and Holocaust distortion, the government continued to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issuing a statement for the occasion. The Presidency’s Directorate of Communications established a website dedicated to the memory of victims of the Holocaust and other genocides. The website included video messages from President Erdogan, the chief rabbi, and the president of the Turkish Jewish Community. In March the government donated $36,000 to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland.
In February the government for the sixth year in a row commemorated the nearly 800 Jewish refugees who died aboard the Struma, a ship that sank off the coast of Istanbul in 1942. The governor of Istanbul, Chief Rabbi Haleva, other members of the Jewish community, and members of the diplomatic community attended the commemoration. As in previous years, President Erdogan issued public messages in celebration of the Jewish holidays of Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Hanukkah.
The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly in July 2020, provides details on the country’s history during the Holocaust and activities for Holocaust restitution, remembrance, education, and archival access (see .
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. Government guidelines required official information materials to be provided in accessible formats. The law requires that transit on public transportation be provided free of charge to persons with disabilities. The government, however, made limited progress implementing the law, and access in many cities remained restricted. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated service accessibility problems for individuals with disabilities, particularly in the health sector.
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.
The Ministry of Family and Social Services is responsible for protecting persons with disabilities. The ministry maintained social service centers assisting marginalized individuals, including persons with disabilities. Most children with disabilities were enrolled in mainstream public schools; others attended special education centers.
According to Ministry of Family and Social Services data, the public sector employed 62,337 persons with disabilities as of December. Some NGOs representing persons with disabilities reported delays in appointment of candidates with disabilities to government positions. In June a group called the Platform for Disabled Teachers Waiting for Appointment staged protests in Ankara demanding the immediate appointment of thousands of teachers with disabilities whose appointments were delayed due to COVID-19.
The private sector employed approximately 100,000 of the two and a half million citizens with disabilities qualified for work. An employment quota requires private-sector companies with more than 50 employees to include at least 3 percent representation in their workforce of employees with disabilities. The public-sector quota is 4 percent. There was no information available on the implementation of fines for accountability.
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, a situation aggravated by distance learning implemented as a COVID-19 precaution. NGOs reported that public distance-education programs created to enable distance learning under COVID-19 did not provide sign interpretation or subtitles for hearing impaired students. According to a June report by the Ministry of Family and Social Services, during the 2019-20 school year (the latest period for which data was available), 425,774 students with disabilities were in school, with 318,300 studying in regular schools and the remainder in either state-run or privately owned special education schools or classes. A Ministry of Family and Social Services 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.
Many persons with HIV and 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 and AIDS from discrimination and that there were legal obstacles to anonymous HIV testing. Due to pervasive social stigma against persons with HIV and AIDS, many individuals avoided testing for HIV due to fear the results would be used against them. Human rights advocates reported that some employers required HIV/AIDS testing prior to employment to screen positive applicants. HIV-positive individuals also reported issues in receiving exemption from compulsory military service. In September the Pozitif-iz Association reported that it received 42 complaints of human rights abuses in 2020, the majority related to health service-provider discrimination (52 percent) followed by employment discrimination (31 percent). The NGO reported instances of doctors citing COVID-19 prevention measures, such as government guidance to postpone elective procedures, as an excuse to deny treatment to HIV-positive individuals.
The government implemented an HIV/AIDS control program for 2019-24 to raise awareness and combat risk factors. The government also incorporated HIV/AIDS education into the national education curriculum.
During the year LGBTQI+ individuals experienced discrimination, intimidation, and violent crimes. Human rights groups reported that police and prosecutors frequently failed to pursue cases of violence against LGBTQI+ persons or accepted justification for perpetrators’ actions. Police rarely arrested suspects or held 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 or assaulted LGBTQI+ individuals. Courts of appeal previously upheld these verdicts based in part on the “immoral nature” of the victim. LGBTQI+ advocates reported police detained transgender individuals engaged in sex work and that courts and prosecutors created an environment of impunity for attacks on transgender persons involved in sex work.
In March a Syrian transgender woman was severely injured and lost one eye after a hydrochloric acid attack in Istanbul. An Istanbul court initially sentenced the perpetrator, the victim’s former boyfriend, to 11 years in prison for the attack, but it subsequently reduced the sentence to six years on the grounds of “unjustifiable provocation.” Friends of the victim alleged that hospital staff expressed homophobic attitudes towards the victim.
Numerous LGBTQI+ organizations reported a continued sense of vulnerability as restrictions on their freedom of speech, assembly, and association continued. NGOs reported that police targeted LGBTQI+ individuals using disproportionate force while intervening in demonstrations. University officials limited LGBTQI+ students’ ability to organize and stage pride events.
Human rights activists attributed what they assessed to be increased public anti-LGBTQI+ sentiment and incidence of violence against LGBTQI+ individuals to an uptick in anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric by government officials amplified through progovernment media.
Government officials increased the targeting of the LGBTQI+ community after an art exhibit staged by students during the Bogazici University protests in January that displayed a picture of the Muslim holy site, the Ka’aba, with superimposed rainbow flags (see section 1.c.). Government officials baselessly blamed the LGBTQI+ community for the exhibit. Minister of Interior Soylu tweeted, “Four LGBT perverts were detained for disrespecting the Ka’aba at Bogazici University.” In a February 2 interview, Soylu alleged that Western countries were spreading the LGBTQI+ “movement” to Turkey to destroy its values by funding LGBTQI+ organizations in the country. President Erdogan told AKP party members, “God willing, we will bring our youth to the future, not as the LGBT youth, but as the youth in the nation’s glorious history. You are the youth on the keyboards of computers, you are not the LGBT youth. You are not a youth that vandalizes; on the very contrary, you are a youth making the broken hearts stand on their feet again.”
Police detained seven students associated with the exhibit and raided the LGBTQI+ student club on the Bogazici University campus. The students continued to face charges of “inciting hatred and insulting religious values” at year’s end. Police confiscated pride flags and banners during the raid and alleged finding a PKK-linked book. The university shut down the student club following the raid. In March police detained 12 other students for displaying pride flags during a demonstration. The students were subsequently released but continued to face charges for violating the law on meetings and demonstrations. Also in March the Adana Security Directorate issued a ban on displays of pride flags and posters during the Women’s Day march.
The Presidency Communications Directorate attributed the country’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention to the convention being “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality which is incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values.” LGBTQI+ groups reported concern that following the country’s withdrawal from the convention, the government would weaken protections for LGBTQI+ victims of gender-based violence or follow the withdrawal with anti-LGBTQI+ legislation.
In June police intervened to disperse the Istanbul Pride March, using force, tear gas, and rubber projectiles. Police detained 47 demonstrators and observers, including an Agence France-Presse photojournalist. All were later released. The Istanbul Governor’s Office refused to issue a permit for the march, citing threats to public morality and the “inappropriate” nature of the event, among other reasons. Police also intervened and detained demonstrators during smaller pride events in Istanbul, Ankara, and Eskisehir.
An opposition parliamentarian reported that the student loan and housing board under the Ministry of Youth and Sport subsequently retaliated against several university students for participating in Eskisehir pride events, cancelling their scholarships and expelling them from government dorms.
In October an Ankara court acquitted 18 Middle East Technical University students and alumni and one faculty member for organizing a pride march on campus in 2019. The court ruled to fine one of the students for insulting a police officer, but the sentence was deferred and could be challenged on appeal.
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. LGBTQI+ definitions were not included in the law, but authorities reported a general “gender” concept in the constitution provides for protections for LGBTQI+ individuals.
Provisions of the 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.
In September, Larin Kayatas, a transgender doctor, reported that the Ministry of Health expelled her from service on the basis of her LGBTQI+ identity after finding that her social media posts were not “in line with public morality.” Kayatas alleged that a colleague had filed a complaint regarding her social media messages with the Presidency’s Communications Center, which precipitated a disciplinary investigation.
Human rights organizations reported that some LGBTQI+ individuals were unable to access health services or faced discrimination. Some LGBTQI+ 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 LGBTQI+ community. In June the NGO KAOS GL reported that a doctor in Istanbul refused treatment to a transgender woman and shouted transphobic insults at her after forcefully pushing her from the examination room. Multiple sources reported discrimination in housing, as landlords refused to rent to LGBTQI+ individuals or charged them significantly higher prices.
LGBTQI+ organizations reported the government used regular and detailed audits against them to create administrative burdens and threatened the possibility of large fines. Authorities audited LGBTQI+ organizations more frequently than NGOs focused on other issues.
Dating and social networking sites catering to the LGBTQI+ community faced content blocks. In August, Apple removed the social networking application Hornet from its Turkey store, based on a 2020 court order stemming from a complaint filed by the Ankara provincial Jandarma command. Details on the case or the court’s reasoning were not publicly available. Access to Hornet’s website also remained blocked. Authorities have blocked the dating site and application Grindr since 2013.
Alevis and Christians, including Armenian Apostolic Christians, remained the subject of hate speech and discrimination. Vandals continued to target disused minority religious sites, including an Armenian Apostolic Christian church in Kayseri and two Greek Orthodox churches in the Black Sea region. In March several newspapers reported that police were investigating the burning of the gate of a disused Istanbul synagogue as a possible case of arson.
Atheists also remained the subject of intimidation in media, albeit at a lower level relative to other religious minorities.
International protection status holders and temporary protection beneficiaries also faced increased societal discrimination and violence during the year (see section 2.d.).