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, and freedom of the press. 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 platforms 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 purport to protect public order and criminalize insulting the state, the president, or government officials. The law also limits free expression online through a law criminalizing “disseminating false information” without establishing clear guidelines.
The government’s prosecution of journalists representing major opposition and independent newspapers and its jailing of journalists hindered freedom of expression. Media professionals reported that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals, both economically and through legal action.
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. 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). The increased application of insult laws was used to limit freedom of expression. Reports demonstrate that since 2014, more than 160,000 persons were investigated for “insulting the President,” and more than 35,000 went to trial. More than 38,000 persons, including more than 1,000 children, appeared before a judge. Of these trials, 12,881 individuals were convicted and 3,625, including 10 children, were sentenced to prison. According to the HRA, in the first 11 months of the year, at least 31 persons stood trial for allegedly insulting the president. Eleven persons, including two children and one journalist, were taken into custody on the same charges. Six were imprisoned. The ECHR stated that the country’s law affords the head of state a privileged status regarding the expression of information and opinion regarding them. The court asserted that the law should be amended to ensure individuals had the freedom to hold opinions and impart ideas without interference by authorities.
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 the law was used more to restrict freedom of expression than to protect members of minority groups.
On December 14, an Istanbul court found Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) guilty under criminal insult laws for comments on government officials and sentenced him to two years, seven months, and 15 days in jail, while also imposing a ban on Imamoglu’s political activity. The charges stem from Imamoglu’s comments to reporters seeking his take on the interior minister labeling Imamoglu a fool. Referring instead to the recent decision to rerun the Istanbul mayoral race, Imamoglu responded “those who cancelled March 31 elections in Istanbul are fools.” Imamoglu appealed the decision, and neither the prison sentence nor the political ban would take effect until the appeals process is complete, although the appeal timeline remained uncertain at year’s end. The court’s decision was widely criticized by civil society and the political opposition as politically motivated.
In May the Court of Cassation upheld a four year and 11-month prison sentence for CHP Istanbul provincial chair Canan Kaftancioglu in a 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. She remained free under judicial control, including a ban on running for public office. In June she was acquitted of charges of insulting the president and minister of interior in a tweet regarding a CHP political leaflet. Kaftancioglu remained under investigation for insulting the president in remarks made to a CHP political gathering in August. In January 2021, prosecutors charged her with “instigating the violation of privacy,” claiming she ordered photographs of alleged illegal construction at the home of the presidency’s communications director Fahrettin Altun, followed by charges of “offending and insulting” Altun 10 months later in relation to the same incident. In May 2021, 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. All three 2021 cases continued at year’s end.
A parliamentary bylaw 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. Authorities did not uniformly implement this bylaw.
In September the Diyarbakır Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into a councilor from the CHP over charges of “conducting terror propaganda.” The investigation concerns councilor Nevaf Bilek’s remarks made to Kurdish news agency Rudaw at the CHP’s Extraordinary Provincial Congress held in Diyarbakır’s central Yenisehir district. In the interview, held in Kurdish, Bilek said, “Diyarbakır is really an important and historical city in Turkish Kurdistan. It is a big city.”
Rights groups and free speech advocates reported intensifying government pressure that in certain cases resulted in their exercising enhanced caution in their public reporting.
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. There has been a rise in violence against journalists perpetrated by individuals allegedly affiliated with far-right groups with ties to political parties. Journalists allege that such groups were involved in the systematic intimidation of critical, left-leaning voices.
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 April, a group of approximately 50 persons raided the office and studio of the privately owned television broadcaster Deniz Postasi in Kayseri, attacking the host, Deniz Postasi, journalist Azim Deniz, and guest Sedat Kilinc, a local politician and businessman.
On February 23, journalist Memduh Bayraktaroglu of the opposition Korkusuz newspaper reported that a group of five to six apparent Gray Wolves, a far-right, ultranationalist group affiliated with the MHP, attacked his home in Mugla Province. Bayraktaroglu said that on the night of February 23, a group of men wearing masks and wielding sticks rang his doorbell, pretending to be delivering flowers. When Bayraktaroglu refused to let them in, they began to kick his door and attempted to enter forcibly. The group ran away after Bayraktaroglu called the police. Bayraktaroglu believed that a joke he posted on Twitter concerning MHP leader Develet Bahceli spurred the attack. A leader of the Gray Wolves responded to Bayraktaroglu’s tweet, stating, “You Dog! We will put you to the test in every lesson, explain it in a language you understand, and walk you through streets with a leash around your neck – have no doubt about it.”
In a separate incident on February 24, a group of 10 persons attacked journalist Arif Kocabiyik in Antalya. Kocabiyik runs a popular channel on YouTube where he interviews ordinary persons on the street regarding current events. He stated on Twitter that members of the mob claimed they were affiliated with the Gray Wolves. Kocabiyik stated the beating left him with marks on his arm, lip and back, and that his camera operator also had marks from the assault.
On February 19, an assailant murdered Gungor Arslan, the owner and editor-in-chief of local news site Ses in northwestern Kocaeli’s Izmit district. The police arrested the attacker, who allegedly claimed he killed Arslan because he “did not like [Arslan’s] columns.” Arslan’s daughter and lawyer Nazlican Arslan said Arslan received numerous threats due to his reporting and was assaulted four years prior in April 2017. In an article published the day before his murder, Arslan criticized the AKP-controlled Kocaeli Municipality for a tender awarded to local developer Haldiz Construction and called for holding Kocaeli Mayor Tahir Buyukakin accountable. Reporters Without Borders Turkey representative Erol Onderoglu issued a statement calling for a full investigation. Recalling the 2021 murder of radio presenter Hazim Ozsu in Bursa, Onderoglu lamented that Arslan’s killing “shows that Turkey is no longer a safe country for journalists amid the hostile climate that has been in place for years.”
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.
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 for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Government and political leaders maintained direct and indirect censorship of media and books. 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 December the NGO Media Law Studies Association analyzed 446 hearings of 210 freedom of expression trials in 23 different cities involving 318 journalists. In 41 trials, 67 individuals were sentenced to a total of 299 years, not including the life sentences of Osman Kavala and journalist Rojhat Dogru. Of the monitored cases, prison sentences ranged from 10 months to 18 years. In 38 percent (114) of cases prosecutors charged journalists with terrorism-related charges. The report also found an increase in lawsuits opened against journalists who had participated in peaceful demonstrations and protests as well as an increase in the prison sentences imposed in freedom of expression trials. The report also recorded a record increase in the number of acquittals handed down during the year; 226 persons were acquitted in 51 monitored cases.
On March 3, the Public Prosecutor’s Office appealed the retrial of journalist Melis Alphan to the Court of Cassation. Alphan was acquitted in May 2021 of terrorist propaganda charges 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.
In June, police in Diyarbakir detained 21 journalists and charged 16 with spreading terrorist propaganda and creating propaganda for a terrorist organization over the preparation of television shows broadcast from Belgium and the United Kingdom. Police reportedly stated they were investigating the “press committee” of the PKK. The detainees were kept in police custody for eight days without being formally indicted. Among the detained were Derdar Altan, cohead of the Dicle First Journalist Association, Jin News head Safiye Alagas, and Mesopotamia news agency editor Aziz Oruc.
Journalist Sedef Kabas was arrested in January on charges of “insulting the President” over a proverb she quoted during a television program. After 49 days under arrest, Kabas was acquitted of “insulting a public official” but sentenced to two years and four months in prison for “insulting the President.” She was released pending an appeal of the verdict.
In September two former reporters from Mesopotamia news agency, Sadiye Eser and Sadik Topaloglu, were sentenced to six years and three months in prison for “being a member of an illegal organization.” The sentence was given based on the statements of an anonymous witness who did not attend the hearings and a Kurdish song found on Eser’s mobile phone.
In several cases the government barred journalists from traveling outside the country, including by using electronic monitoring.
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).
While the law does not prohibit particular books or publications, court decisions resulted in bans for distribution or sale of certain books and periodicals. The Press Advertisement Board, which has the authority to impose advertising bans, amended the Press Ethics guidelines in July. Amendments included new provisions likely referencing the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) community, forbidding publications that “disrupt the family structure, which is the basis of society” and “weakened the common national and moral values of Turkish society.” Another amendment expanded the press ethics obligations to websites and social media accounts of newspapers. 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 2021, the press reported that the now-banned book was cited as evidence in a prosecutorial request to parliament to lift the parliamentary immunity of CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and seven other CHP members. In September, a judge also banned a poetry book written by Figen Yuksekdag, a former HDP cochair who has been in prison since 2016. The decision called for the book to be removed from stores and destroyed.
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 2021, “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, based on a 2019 regulation mandating broadcast licenses for radio, television broadcasting, and on demand audiovisual media services. In June, the Ankara Criminal Court of Peace, upon request by RTUK, blocked access to the Turkish language websites of Voice of America and Deutsche Welle for failing to apply for licenses.
RTUK is empowered to reject license requests on the grounds of national security and to subject content to prior censorship. The HRA reported that during the first 11 months of the year, six channels received 30-day administrative fines, two were suspended from broadcasting 18 times, and one channel was suspended from broadcasting for three days.
In April, RTUK fined three television stations (Halk TV, KRT, and Tele 1, all of which are regarded as pro-opposition) due to the way they covered a case of sexual abuse of seven children in Erzurum Province in a religious school run by the Directorate of Religious Affairs. An inspector on duty at the Hacı Bahattin Evgi boys’ boarding Quran course in central Palandöken district in Erzurum allegedly sexually abused seven children aged 10 to 11. An RTUK member affiliated with the CHP, İlhan Taşçı, stated in his tweet this fine was imposed as a result of a complaint lodged by the Presidency of Religious Affairs.
On September 14, RTUK fined opposition television channel Halk TV and suspended one of its programs for five episodes because of its broadcast concerning a family who received the remains of their deceased son in a bag. He was killed in clashes during a military curfew in Diyarbakir in 2015.
On August 17, RTUK imposed administrative sanctions on Netflix for violating the national and moral values of the society, general morality, and the protection of the family in the animated film Jurassic World Camp Cretaceous. The Ministry of Family previously lodged a complaint against the film, indicating the film portrayed an inappropriate relationship between two girls. Additionally, in May, RTUK required the music platform Spotify to remove playlists and podcast content that “insulted, humiliated and slandered national moral values, made pro-Gulen movement propaganda, insulted the President of the Republic of Turkey, political party leaders and state officials.”
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 2021, 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. Since the ruling, the press cards of 9,115 journalists were renewed, 1,371 have not been renewed, 1,238 press cards were revoked, and the evaluation process of approximately 200 journalists was still underway.
Authorities also targeted foreign journalists. On August 25, authorities detained Greek journalist Evangelos Areteos as he tried to enter the country. He was held for seven hours, was barred from entering the country “for reasons of public order,” but was not given a specific reason for the denial and returned to Brussels. Areteos stated he believed his denial was in relation to his work. Areteos is a reporter for the Greek newspaper Real, is the author of two books on Turkish politics, and was accredited as a foreign correspondent in Turkey. During his detention, he was reportedly questioned regarding his travels throughout Turkey and a visit to Syria in 2015. His recent work included reporting from southeast Turkey where he interviewed local individuals regarding life, culture, and politics including the status of Kurds in the country, and he reported daily on social and political developments in the Kurdish region of Syria. Turkish Cypriot journalists claimed they were sometimes barred from entering the country based on critical reporting of the Turkish government.
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported 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 48,069 individuals for insulting the president or the state in 2021; 13,934 stood trial and 4,582 were penalized. In July 2021, 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’s appeal was denied in March.
Authorities charged citizens, including children, 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 AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted.
In May 2021, 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 continued at year’s end. The ECHR ruled in Yucel’s favor on January 25, finding that his pretrial imprisonment in an earlier case violated his human rights.
Lawyer Efkan Bolaç faced charges for “insulting the President” over two cartoons that he shared on Instagram in 2014. The first hearing was held on September 6 and was scheduled to resume in January 2023. The related cartoons were those of Carlos Latuff, a cartoonist from Brazil. One of the cartoons was concerning Berkin Elvan, who died at the age of 15 after being hit in the head by a tear gas capsule thrown by a police officer during Gezi Park protests in 2013; the other was concerning the 301 miners who died in the Soma Mine Disaster in 2014, the worst mining disaster in the country’s history. The cartoon concerning Berkin Elvan was published by several media outlets, including progovernment daily Hürriyet.
In April 2021, 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, 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. The trial continued at year’s end.
The government increasingly enforced blasphemy laws that prohibit insulting religious values. In August progovernment media outlets and social media accounts began circulating a video of pop singer Gulsen’s April concert during which she joked about a band member’s attendance at a religious school. She was soon arrested and charged with “provoking the people into hatred and hostility.” She was released from house arrest in September, and her international travel ban was lifted in October. If found guilty she could face up to three years in prison. Trial monitors reported the court allowed 700 individuals to appear at trial to lodge individual personal complaints against the artist. Her case remained pending at year’s end.
In July, Banu Ozdemir, a CHP official from Izmir, was acquitted for the second time of “inciting public hatred and enmity” after she shared a video of an Izmir mosque’s hacked sound system playing the song “Bella Ciao.” Ozdemir was first charged, and acquitted, in 2020. An Izmir regional court overturned her acquittal in March on the grounds of “incomplete investigation and examination.” Ozdemir reportedly was not directly notified of the March decision and learned of it from progovernment media coverage. Ozdemir was again acquitted of the charges in July. She characterized the “judicial harassment” as an attempt to intimidate her and pressure the CHP ahead of elections.
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, but according to the Media and Law Studies Association there were 59 as of December 1. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported 40 reporters and journalists were in government custody as of December 1. 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.
On October 26, authorities detained President of the Turkish Medical Association Dr. Sebnem Korur Fincanci on charges of “disseminating terrorist propaganda” for suggesting authorities should investigate the possible use of chemical weapons against Kurdish militants in Iraq. Procedural anomalies, skewed media coverage, rejections of all defense motions, and speedy trial progress were all indicative of political pressure on police, press, prosecutors, and judges. Despite broad public interest, December hearings lasted three to five hours and were held in small standing-room-only courtrooms, with only lawyers, press, politicians, and diplomats permitted inside. The courthouse itself was fortified with police in riot gear and “TOMA” trucks, armed vehicles with water cannons designed for riot control, a posture some observers reported was intended to intimidate. During the December 23 hearing, Fincanci was closely surrounded by nine jandarma, until her defense complained they could not see or communicate with their client. The team of 10 defense lawyers was informed shortly before the hearing that only three of them would be permitted to represent her at a time, creating a last-minute scramble. The trial remained pending at year’s end.
A study by the NGO Media and Law Studies Organization of 210 freedom of expression trials monitored from January to July found that in 38 percent of cases defendants faced charges related to terrorism. In February 2021, an Istanbul court convicted 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. The case was pending at year’s end.
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 expression and other constitutional rights in the southeast. Some journalists, political party representatives, and residents of the southeast reported pressure, intimidation, and threats if they spoke out against the PKK or praised government security forces.
The government continued to restrict access to the internet and expanded its blocking of selected online content. The government at times blocked access to cloud-based services and permanently blocked access to many virtual private networks. There was evidence the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority. A Freedom House report, Freedom on the Net 2021: The Global Drive to Control Big Tech, noted that the government removed online content deemed critical of the ruling party or President Erdogan from websites and social media platforms, and online activists, journalists, and social media users were harassed both physically and online for their social media posts.
The law allows the government to block a website or remove content if there is sufficient suspicion that the site is committing any number of crimes, including insulting the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or insulting the president. The government may also block sites to protect national security and public order. At times authorities blocked some news and information sites that had content criticizing government policies. The law also allows persons who believe a website violated their personal rights to ask the regulatory body to order ISPs to remove offensive content. Government leaders, including the president, reportedly employed staff to monitor the internet and initiate charges against individuals perceived as insulting them.
The government-operated Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) is empowered, as are government ministers, to demand that ISPs remove content or block websites with four hours’ notice. The regulatory body must refer the matter to a judge within 24 hours, who must rule on the matter within 48 hours. If it is not technically possible to remove individual content within the specified time, the entire website may be blocked. ISP administrators may face a penalty of six months to two years in prison or fines ranging from 50,000 to 500,000 lira ($5,100 to $51,600) for conviction of failing to comply with a judicial order. The president appoints the BTK president, vice president, and members of the agency.
In October the government passed a “disinformation” bill that criminalizes “disseminating false information” with a penalty of up to three years in prison. It also grants BTK expanded powers to compel social media company compliance with government takedown orders and user data requests. If companies do not comply with government requests, penalties include bandwidth reduction of up to 90 percent and the law requires companies to appoint a local representative whom the government may personally hold criminally, financially, or administratively liable for noncompliance. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission noted concerns the law does not have a sufficiently clear definition for “false or misleading information.” Human Rights Watch representatives stated the law “effectively blackmails tech companies into abusing human rights to avoid becoming inaccessible platforms.” It further stated that the law, when it was still in draft form “constituted an interference with the freedom of expression.” Social media companies have voiced concerns that the law may violate their own international commitments to respect human rights.
This law builds on a 2020 law that introduced new requirements for social media companies with more than one million users to establish legal in-country representation, to respond quickly to content removal requests, and to store data in country. At the time of passage, human rights activists voiced strong concern over the law’s implication in broadening censorship. Several companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, faced fines in 2020 and early 2021 for failing to comply with the in-country representation requirement. By the end of 2021, all major social media companies had established offices or representation in the country. Major platforms including Facebook and Twitter announced they would continue to apply internal standards to content removal request reviews. Internet freedom activists reported a high number of content removals by major platforms on politicized topics at the behest of the government.
On December 14, journalist Sinan Aygul was placed in pretrial detention on charges of “spreading false information” based on the controversial new “disinformation” law. Earlier that day, Aygul, who serves as the chair of the local area’s journalists association, tweeted that a girl, age 14, had been sexually abused by police officers and soldiers in Bitlis Province. After speaking with the local governor, Aygul retracted the story and deleted the tweet, saying it was possible the information he received was incorrect or incomplete and he had not confirmed the story before publication. Nevertheless, a local court ordered his pretrial detention, assessing his statement had the potential to “disturb the national peace” given the size of his online following (approximately 18,000). Aygul’s arrest is the first case of pretrial detention applied under the new disinformation law. Aygul’s lawyer criticized the detention as unlawful, adding that the new law’s “interpretation in this way by the judiciary leaves us concerned that similar investigations and arrests will ramp up in the future.” Aygul also faced charges in 2019 for reporting on a separate sexual assault on the charge of “violating the confidentiality of an investigation” in addition to numerous previous convictions over his reporting including insult and terrorist propaganda. According to an interview with Aygul published by Justice for Journalists, Aygul contacted police before publishing the 2010 assault story and was given no indication the case was under investigation. Aygul voiced concerns he was targeted for his 2019 reporting due to a potential link between the perpetrator and security forces.
The government has authority to restrict internet freedom with limited parliamentary and judicial oversight. The law provides that government authorities may access internet user records to “protect national security, public order, health, and decency” or to prevent a crime. Human Rights Watch, Article 19, and other human rights watchdogs have raised concerns with the country’s expansive laws mandating government access to user data, noting the potential for abuse. The law also establishes an ISP union of all internet providers that is responsible for implementing website takedown orders. The judicial system is responsible for informing content providers of ordered blocks.
The government required ISPs, including internet cafes, to use BTK-approved filtering tools that blocked specific content. Additional internet restrictions were in place in government and university buildings. According to the internet freedom NGO EngelliWeb, the government blocked 107,706 domain names during 2021. Of the new domain names that the government blocked, 91 percent were blocked through a BTK decision that did not require judicial approval.
According to Twitter’s internal transparency report, during the last six months of 2021, the company received 4,284 court orders and other legal requests from Turkish authorities to remove content. Twitter had a 36.6 percent compliance rate with court orders and 60.9 percent compliance rate with other legal demands.
Restrictions on Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
During the year the government continued to limit academic freedom, restrict freedom of speech in academic institutions, and censor cultural events.
The president appointed rectors to state and foundation-run universities, leading critics to assert that the appointments compromised the academic and political independence of the institutions. Some academics faced charges due to public statements critical of government policy. The majority of the 822 “Academics for Peace” dismissed and tried for signing a 2016 petition condemning state violence in the southeast had not been reinstated to their positions despite a 2019 Constitutional Court ruling that their prosecution was a violation of freedom of expression. President Erdogan’s January 2021 appointment of Melih Bulu as the rector of Bogazici University resulted in protests in Istanbul and other cities. Bulu, an academic and former AKP parliamentary candidate, was the first rector appointed from outside the university community since the 1980 military coup, and his appointment quickly drew opposition from faculty, students, and alumni. In July 2021, Erdogan removed Bulu from office and replaced him with Mehmet Naci Inci, Bulu’s former deputy, two months later. Faculty and student demonstrations continued in September and October 2021, with police detaining several protesters. Prosecutors initiated legal proceedings, which remained pending at year’s end, against dozens of protesters for participating in the various Bogazici University protests. In the interim, students facing charges have lost university housing and access to scholarships.
Some academics and event organizers stated their employers monitored their work and that they faced censure from their employers if they spoke or wrote on topics not acceptable to academic management or the government. Many reported practicing self-censorship. Human rights organizations and student groups criticized court- and Higher Education Board-imposed constraints that limited university autonomy in staffing, teaching, and research policies.
The state-run Student Loans and Dormitories Institution, under the Youth and Sports Ministry, canceled an education loan granted to a university student after she attended a feminist march organized in the Mediterranean province of Antalya on International Women’s Day, March 8.
The government employed antiterror and other measures to restrict artistic and cultural activities, including music lyrics and theatrical performances. The government maintained a ban on more than 200 Turkish and Kurdish songs on the grounds their content encouraged persons to smoke or drink or conveyed “terrorist propaganda.” In March 2021, the Contemporary Cinema Actors Association released a survey of performing artists in which 61 percent of respondents said they had been subject to censorship in their work and 63 percent said they exercised self-censorship. The Adana Governorship did not allow Kurdish play Tartuffe to take stage at Adana Metropolitan Municipality Theatre on June 5. In its rejection statement the Adana Governorship cited an administrative law on the grounds the play could “disrupt peace and security within the borders of the province.”
In July media reported that the elite Middle East Technical University cancelled its graduation ceremony citing the possibility that “various groups (might turn the ceremony) into an area of protests for their causes.” The rectorate of the university argued it had become impossible to hold the ceremony due to security concerns. Middle East Technical University’s decision came days after Istanbul’s Bogazici University similarly cancelled its own mass graduation ceremony. The Bogazici rectorate instructed each faculty to hold its own ceremony, apparently in an attempt to prevent students gathering in large numbers, although the rectorate cited financial reasons for the change. Students nevertheless staged an unofficial graduation, where they protested the rectorate.
Centrally appointed governors and trustee mayors routinely canceled Kurdish-language cultural performances in the southeast, with last-minute bans in Adana, Mersin, Bitlis, Mus, Sirnak and other provinces justified by the alleged need to prevent the outbreak of “civil unrest” and stop the spread of “terrorist propaganda.” Approximately 20 events were canceled during the year.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Although the constitution provides for freedom of assembly, the law provides several grounds for the government to limit that right. The law stipulates penalties for protesters convicted of carrying items that might be construed as weapons, prohibits the use of symbols linked to illegal organizations (including chanting slogans), and criminalizes covering one’s face while protesting. The law permits police to use tinted water in water cannons, potentially to tag protesters for later identification and prosecution. The law also allows police to take persons into “protective custody” without a prosecutor’s authorization if there is reasonable suspicion that they are a threat to themselves or to public order. The antiterror law gives provincial governors enhanced authority to ban protests and public gatherings, a ban some governors enacted broadly during the year. According to the HRFT Documentation Center, 3,540 persons, including at least 28 children, were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, and 45 were injured as a result of the intervention of law enforcement officers in peaceful actions and activities within the scope of freedom of assembly and demonstration.
In May the Council of State announced a final decision to annul an April 2021 Ministry of Interior circular banning all audio and visual recordings of citizens and police at protests, after the policy was challenged by the Journalists’ Union of Turkey. Media workers reported that authorities still took steps to prevent the recording of demonstrations.
The government regarded many demonstrations as security threats to the state, deploying large numbers of riot police to control crowds, frequently using excessive force, resulting in injuries, detentions, and arrests. At times the government used its authority to detain persons before protests were held on the premise that they might cause civil disruption. The government generally did not investigate security forces’ actions. The HRFT reported that in the first 11 months of the year, police intervened in at least 303 peaceful demonstrations and prohibited at least 91. Human rights NGOs asserted the government’s failure to delineate clearly in the law the circumstances that justify the use of force contributed to disproportionate use of force during protests.
On March 8, hundreds of women and LGBTQI+ activists participated in the 20th annual Women’s March in Istanbul’s Taksim district, defying the Istanbul governor’s March 3 ban on demonstrations. Per media reports, marchers clashed with police, who used pepper spray and tear gas to disperse protesters and detained at least 38 persons. As in previous years, police used riot shields against protesters and fired tear gas at those assembled to disperse the demonstration. Police prevented demonstrators from gathering on Istiklal Street, the traditional site of women’s rights protests, and Taksim Square. Public transportation to the Istiklal and Taksim neighborhoods was canceled.
The governments in Hakkari, Mardin, Sanliurfa, and Diyarbakir continued to selectively ban demonstrations deemed critical of the government or politically sensitive, including rallies, sit-ins, marches, protests, and other types of gatherings.
In August members of the Private Sector Teachers Association, which has nearly 4,000 members in 60 provinces, held a demonstration in Ankara to protest low wages and long hours and demand better working conditions. Police prevented the protesters from completing their walk to the Ministry of Education and detained seven demonstrators who were subsequently released, including two lawyers. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu claimed the teachers were affiliated with terrorism and justified one teacher’s detention by sharing an older photograph on social media of her holding the flag of the HDP.
Istanbul police continued to prevent the vigil of the “Saturday Mothers” from taking place on Istiklal Street in Istanbul, detaining 16 group members during the commemoration of the vigil’s 900th week in June, including several relatives of victims of forced disappearances. They were released within 24 hours. Since the 1990s, the Saturday Mothers have gathered to commemorate the disappearances of relatives following their detention by security forces in the 1980s and 1990s and to call for accountability. Of the group, 46 members continued to face criminal charges for violating the law by holding their 700th weekly vigil in 2018. Human rights defenders asserted police blocked demonstrators from dispersing before striking them with riot shields and arresting them for failure to disperse. The demonstrators were loaded into police buses and taken to several police stations before they were unloaded and officially processed. Lawyers report that moving the demonstrators to multiple police stations obstructed the lawyers’ ability to represent their clients. The case remained pending at the end of the year.
Ahead of March 20-21 Newroz celebrations in the southeast, authorities detained 24 women’s rights activists in Diyarbakir. Among those detained were former elected mayors dismissed by the government and replaced with trustees. Some were affiliated with the HDP and others allegedly with the PKK-affiliated Free Women’s Movement; other detainees were involved in trade union organizing or human rights organizations. Most had been involved in organizing March 8 International Women Worker’s Day rallies in the region. Of those, police subsequently formally arrested 11; the rationale was sealed under a confidentiality order, according to press reports. In a statement the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights, HRA, and HRFT reported police questioned the detainees regarding assemblies, protests, gatherings, and press statements that took place in Diyarbakir, including on World Peace Day, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, International Women’s Day, and’s Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention.
Throughout the year the governors of Van, Tunceli, Mus, Hakkari, and several other provinces banned public protests, demonstrations, gatherings of any kind, and the distribution of brochures. Bans on assembly and expression first introduced in 2016 with the initiation of the state of emergency were still effective in Hakkari, Van, Artvin and Eskisehir provinces, despite the state of emergency having ended in 2018. For instance, the bans restricted public meetings, demonstrations, setting up stands and issuing press statements. In an additional 14 provinces, the holding of public meetings was subject to the permission of the governor. In Tunceli, there was a complete ban on public events including distribution of leaflets and holding press conferences required permission. In Bitlis, a broad curfew applied in one district.
The government continued selectively to ban demonstrations outright if they were critical of the government or deemed politically sensitive. The Hakkari governor’s office released a statement extending a six-year ban of rallies, meetings, demonstrations, marches, sit-ins, protests, and other types of gatherings in public areas, squares, streets, roads, and parks every 15 days. On June 3 this statement extended the types of banned gatherings to include commemorations, concerts, festivals, theater, cinema, pantomime, putting up posters, handing out brochures, and all similar activities. In August, the Mardin Governorship followed suit by issuing a ban on public meetings that it has extended every 15 days since. Similar bans were also executed in Sanliurfa and Diyarbakir for security-related concerns.
Authorities restricted the rights of assembly of LGBTQI+ individuals and allies throughout the year (see section 6).
Freedom of Association
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right. The government used provisions of the antiterror law to prevent associations and foundations it had previously closed due to alleged threats to national security from reopening. In its 2021 end-of-year report, the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures reported that 208 of the 1,727 associations and foundations closed following the 2016 coup attempt had been allowed to reopen. Observers widely reported the appeals process for institutions seeking redress through the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures remained opaque and ineffective (see section 1.e., Denial of Fair Public Trial).
By law persons organizing an association do not need to notify authorities beforehand, but an association must provide notification before interacting with international organizations or receiving financial support from abroad and must provide detailed documents on such activities. Representatives of associations stated this requirement placed an undue burden on their operations. Human rights and civil society organizations, groups promoting LGBTQI+ rights, and women’s groups in particular stated the government used regular and detailed audits to create administrative burdens and to intimidate them by threatening large fines.
Human rights groups reported that supposed counterterrorist financing legislation “Preventing Financing of Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” passed in December 2020 was used to justify increased and more onerous government audits of organizations and associations focusing on human rights or topics otherwise sensitive to the ruling party. The law expanded the Ministry of Interior’s powers to audit, suspend staff and governing board members, and temporarily shut down operations of NGOs without judicial review. Although authorities did not close any civil society organization using this law during the year, NGOs reported that the law had a substantial chilling effect. Civil society organizations warned the law provided authorities with expanded powers to punitively target organizations engaged in politically sensitive work, and some organizations reported restricting their normal activities to reduce the likelihood of attracting adverse government attention.
The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission criticized the law, noting its stipulations regarding aid collection and mandatory yearly audits could be applied punitively and arbitrarily to restrict NGO activity in violation of freedom of association, and that the provisions of the law apply indiscriminately to the entire civil society sector rather than to specific NGOs identified as being vulnerable to financing by terrorist entities. Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu stated 5,214 associations were audited by March 31 and 25,000 audits were anticipated by the end of the year.
Two rights-based organizations, Tarlabasi Community Center and We Will Stop Femicides Platform, face closure cases following administrative audits that the HRA characterizes as demonstrative of how the “legal framework is easily abused by the administration and judiciary.” Tarlabasi Community Center’s audit was preceded by strong criticism of the organization by progovernment media in response to an event on protection of LGBTQI+ youth. The event yielded fines for irregularities in bookkeeping and failure to timely report foreign funding. The We Will Stop Femicides Platform was a vocal critic of the decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. The closure case states that the platform’s activities exceed the purpose stated in its charter by “acting in violation of the law and morality.”
According to the HRA’s June report, Drowned in Procedure, Sentenced to Fail: Administrative Harassment of Civil Society in Turkey, “independent NGOs are targeted through stigmatizing and criminalizing statements by both state officials and progovernment media, which creates a climate of complacency that encourages administrative bodies to abuse their authority over NGOs.” The HRA also note the policy environment is “difficult to navigate” and “imposes an excessive and unjustified burden on NGOs to predict the laws’ implementation, due to the extreme vagueness of the relevant legal provisions.” The report further states that “women’s rights or LGBTQI+ rights NGOs critical of the government are increasingly being targeted by state officials and progovernment media for ‘receiving foreign funding.’” The HRA further reported that such smear campaigns often include a focus on financial resources and burdensome tax audits that “severely restrict the daily operations” and created a chilling effect.
In November a court overturned convictions of Amnesty International honorary chair Taner Kilic and three other human rights defenders. The defendants had been charged with “membership in a terrorist organization” or “aiding a terrorist organization without being a member,” largely stemming from attendance at a 2017 workshop, “Protecting Human Rights Advocates – Digital Security,” held on Istanbul’s Buyukada Island. Kilic’s case was overturned based on an “incomplete investigation” and was scheduled to be returned to a first instance court; he remained free pending the decision of the court. In May, the ECHR determined Kilic’s detention violated his rights to freedom and security and called for authorities to overturn his conviction.
Bar association and other civil society organization representatives reported that police sometimes attended organizational meetings and recorded them, which the representatives interpreted as an effort to intimidate them.
e. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to international protection applicants and status holders and temporary protection beneficiaries, stateless persons, and returning refugees.
The government continued to host approximately four million refugees and asylum seekers in the country, 3.5 million of whom were Syrians, despite a number of economic, political, and social challenges. The government announced a variety of new measures to strengthen migration controls. Starting in late 2021 and through mid-2022, the government implemented an address verification process to ensure international protection applicants and status holders and temporary protection beneficiaries were living in their registered provinces. Those not found at their registered locations and who did not subsequently update their addresses with migration authorities had their registration documents inactivated, which resulted in suspension of health and social services in some instances. In February the minister of interior announced the government would limit the number of foreigners living in a given neighborhood to 25 percent to avoid “ghettoization.” The government changed the quota to 20 percent in June, and as of July, almost 1,200 neighborhoods in more than 60 provinces (out of 81) were closed for new refugee registration specifically. In June the government reportedly issued official (but not public) guidance requiring all new Syrian temporary protection applicants to stay and register at Turkey’s seven existing temporary accommodation centers in the southeast, with some exceptions for newborns, spouses, persons with special needs, and medical cases.
As of December 25, the Presidency for Migration Management (PMM, formerly DGMM) reported that the government apprehended 285,027 individuals during the year, including 115,775 Afghans, for staying in Turkey without proper documentation; prevented the entry of 274,311 individuals mostly on the country’s eastern border with Iran, where many asylum seekers from Afghanistan attempt to enter Turkey after a 1,300-mile, month-long journey by foot; and deported 119,816 “irregular migrants” to their countries of origin, including 66,534 Afghans.
Refugee-rights NGOs and UN agencies reported that Afghans, particularly single Afghan males, were in many cases unable to register for protected status since August 2021, even with legal assistance. 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, Afghans, 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, although there were increasing reports from refugee-rights NGOs and bar associations that authorities prevented them from accessing clients and asylum seekers at risk of deportation. UNHCR continued to work with the government to ensure access to asylum procedures for persons in need of protection, including through access to information, interpretation, and legal aid.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, NGOs reported the arrival of more than 351,000 Ukrainian nationals as of the end of October, most on visa waivers for 90 days, and more than 47,000 with residence permits. PMM reported there were 7,131 Ukrainian international protection applicants by the end of the year. According to the Ukrainian Embassy in Ankara, a “significant number” of Ukrainians left subsequently to return to Ukraine or move to a third country. Authorities facilitated access to registration and documentation for Ukrainians seeking access to services or protection.
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, only one remained open for limited humanitarian, commercial, and individual crossings, and eight additional gates required permission from authorities for all movements. One crossing permitted UN humanitarian cargo to transit the border. 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 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 increased 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 migration authorities.
Some NGOs shared stories of clients taken into custody when applying for asylum and then deported without being given access to a lawyer. There were also reports that some Afghans and Syrians were coerced into providing a fingerprint signature on “voluntary” repatriation forms in removal centers through physical force or terrible conditions that induced them to “sign.” HRW reported in October that “police and gendarmes have been detaining significant numbers of undocumented Afghans, and often coercing or deceiving them to sign so-called voluntary repatriation forms, then deporting them to Afghanistan.” HRW also found that “many Afghans facing imminent deportation are given no opportunity to make refugee claims or otherwise challenge their deportation, and their signatures or fingerprints on voluntary return forms are often forced, obtained through deception, or forged.” As of December 25, PMM reported it had deported 66,534 Afghans, although UNHCR still had an advisory against forcible returns to Afghanistan in place. The government resumed flights to Afghanistan for “voluntary” returns in January. In an August 31 report, Amnesty International documented 178 instances of forced return, 124 involving men and women and 54 involving children.
As of the end of December, 3,274 persons of various nationalities contacted UNHCR for information, counseling, and further referrals/support related to their or their relatives’ administrative detention. They included Syrian nationals (1,479 persons), Afghans (1,021 persons), Iranians (405 persons), Iraqis (97 persons), and 272 persons of other nationalities.
In incidents of administrative detention of which UNHCR was made aware, the reasons for detention primarily related to violations of provisions of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (including but not limited to irregular presence in the country, irregular entry to or departure from the country, or due to alleged involvements in criminal acts). In cases of alleged forced return or risk of forced return, UNHCR shared its concern with the relevant authorities.
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 January media reported that the government involuntarily returned 150 Syrians to Syria. In widely shared videos, young Syrians living in Istanbul alleged they were rounded up by police, brought to removal centers, and forced to sign papers to agree to return to Syria even though some had legal residency papers in Turkey, families in Turkey, or were enrolled in local universities. Reports of PMM denying refugee status and issuing deportation orders to individuals who have fled countries where they face persecution for their religious beliefs have increased. Many such cases involve Iranians, including Baha’is, Christian converts, and atheists. While UNHCR did not find evidence of systematic discrimination against non-Muslims or religious minorities in these denials, there were reported instances of individual migration officials and judges making comments that indicate general ignorance of religious minorities and sometimes individual bias.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban contributed to fears of a possible refugee influx, 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. On July 3, media reported that police in the city of Van on the Turkey-Iran border fired at a vehicle believed to be carrying migrants; one Afghan child was killed, and four other individuals were reportedly in critical condition. On August 31, Amnesty International released a report alleging Turkish security forces repeatedly pushed back Afghans attempting to enter the country via the Iran border, including by opening fire on men, women, and children. Amnesty’s report ascribes Turkish security force shooting as responsible for killing three teenage boys and wounding six men and three boys. Amnesty’s report also includes “instances of torture or other ill-treatment by Turkish security forces.” One account alleges a security agent “beat my friend with the butt of his gun, and then the policeman sat on my friend, as if he was sitting on a chair. He sat there and lit a cigarette. Then he hit me on my legs with his gun as well… When I was sitting, down, the Turkish policeman kicked me on the knee. He gave me two big kicks.”
HRW released a report on November 18 documenting similar reports of Turkish authorities’ treatment of Afghans along the border with Iran. According to HRW, Afghans were blocked from registering for international protection, those facing deportation were not given an opportunity to make refugee claims, and authorities pushed back tens of thousands at the border. HRW reports Afghan asylum seekers were beaten with batons and “the kind of iron stick that is used for construction.”
Migrants and asylum seekers continued to report severe mistreatment when attempting to cross the border with Greece. 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. There were some reports by NGOs and UN agencies that Turkish authorities bused apprehended migrants to the Turkey-Greece border. In February, Turkey and Greece traded accusations after 19 migrants were found frozen to death in Turkey near the border with Greece. International media and UN agencies also documented similar mistreatment of migrants and asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey. Greek officials also claimed Turkish forces escorted boats containing migrants and asylum seekers into Greek territorial waters.
In September the International Organization for Migration reported 44 migrants died or went missing in Turkish waters and 72 died or went missing in Greek waters while trying to cross the sea into Europe from Turkey. There were 54 deaths recorded along the Turkey-Greece land border, according to the agency, of which 15 were drownings in the Meric River. Another 24 were found dead, likely due to exposure, in forests along the border, three died from traffic accidents, and eight others were beaten or shot dead.
A total of nine civil disturbance incidents involving refugees were reported by media during the year, a slight increase in comparison to 2021 when six were reported. In the aftermath of the Altindag incident in Ankara in August 2021, in which the death of a Turkish national prompted hundreds of persons to gather in the neighborhood and attack Syrians’ homes and businesses, Turkish media coverage of refugees was increasingly negative in tone, portraying refugees as prone to criminality, disturbers of peace, or beneficiaries of government assistance. One NGO focused on media and migration issues reported that the increase in negative rhetoric concerning refugees in the media impacted refugees’ daily lives directly and indirectly, with some stating they felt increasingly unsafe, tended to keep quiet and out of the public eye, and preferred not to report problems to authorities or the police for fear of potential deportation. In May, an assailant kicked a Syrian refugee woman, age 70, in the face in Gaziantep. In June, Turkish youths stabbed a Syrian refugee to death during a brawl in Istanbul. In July, media outlets reported a group of Turkish youths severely beat a Syrian refugee, age 17, in the heavily refugee-populated Fatih district of Istanbul. Workplace exploitation, child labor, and forced early marriage also remained significant problems among refugees and worsened as a result of COVID-19 and the declining economic conditions in the country. 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 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. Syrians under temporary protection and international protection applicants and status holders continued to be restricted from traveling outside provinces listed on their registration cards without permission. Refugees reported increasing difficulties in obtaining these permissions, even for doctor’s appointments. 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 August, there were nearly 50,000 Syrians in the accommodation centers. In June, the government implemented a policy requiring new Syrian temporary protection applicants to register and stay at these camps, which resulted in an increase in the camp populations. There were exceptions for some groups including newborns, children, dependent adult children, spouses of already registered temporary protection beneficiaries, and persons with specific needs. 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. According to a study by the International Labor Organization (ILO), as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Syrian refugees lost 24.3 percent of their working hours. In addition, applying for a work permit was the responsibility of the employer, and the procedure was sufficiently burdensome and, for some, expensive that relatively few employers pursued legally hiring anyone who required a special permit. The government also did not conduct sufficient labor inspections to identify informal work. Some refugees opted not to work formally with work permits because they would lose cash assistance support from social programs and were unaware of the advantages of formal employment. More than 90 percent of both international protection applicants and status holders and temporary protection beneficiaries remained without legal employment options, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, including wages under minimum wage, withholding of wages, and exposure to unsafe work conditions. The last official data released by the government in 2020 indicates only 62,369 work permits were issued to Syrians, including refugees under temporary protection and those with residency permits.
Access to Basic Services: International protection applicants and status holders lose access to subsidized health care after one year of registration 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. Refugee rights NGOs reported getting those exemptions was increasingly difficult, leaving many international protection applicants without health-care support. Temporary protection beneficiaries (more than 3.5 million) continued to receive free access to the public-health system, although some services such as medicines and advanced medical procedures were not always covered. School-age Syrian children had access to education, although many encountered challenges overcoming the language barrier, meeting transportation or other costs, and facing bullying in school both from school officials and other students. NGOs reported the government no longer accepted students residing outside their registered provinces to enroll in schools, resulting in more children out of school. There were also NGO reports of a 30 percent quota to limit refugee children’s registration in refugee-dense districts, which also resulted in children out of school. In some instances, some NGOs succeeded in getting court orders to enroll the students, but the process was legally burdensome and required many appeals.
As of June, the Ministry of National Education reported that 855,136 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 803,697 refugee children (cumulatively) 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 the country 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 19 Ministry of Interior statement, 223,881 Syrian nationals had been granted Turkish citizenship, including to 126,786 older than 18. The statement did not specify the timeline nor the process for having obtained the Turkish citizenship.
As of November 30, UNHCR, in cooperation with the PMM, observed the spontaneous voluntary return interviews of 31,915 Syrian individuals in 15 locations. Since 2016, UNHCR observed voluntary return interviews for close to 156,000 individuals. UNHCR could not confirm the authorities’ estimate for voluntary returns to Syria of approximately 540,000. Amnesty International reported in September 2021 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. A total of 10,075 refugees were resettled to 12 countries as of the end of the year.