Field Report from Turkey to the research Co-ordinator
10 April 1997
I am writing to report on the ERRC mission to collect information on the situation of Roma in Turkey. The mission lasted two weeks, starting on 1 February, 1997.
We began our mission in Istanbul. As you know, board member Khristo Kyuchukov had originally proposed the mission, so it was especially interesting to have him along. Khristo speaks both Turkish and the dialect of Romanes spoken in Turkey. The third member of our team was from Turkey and therefore provided lots of assistance with translation, as well as with expertise on Turkish culture.
Since little is known about Roma in Turkey we had to do all of the research ourselves. The few recent publications give some minor details on the social position, history and culture of Roma in Turkey. Little to nothing is known, however, about their legal position or the way they are treated by the authorities or the rest of society.
Roma are not recognised as a minority in Turkey. Minority protection in Turkey is still based on the Lausanne treaty of 1923, concluded within the framework of the League of Nations. This means that only attain minorities have protection. These are Greeks, Armenians and Jews. Kurds are the best known unrecognised minority in Turkey. I need not go into detail on the treatment of this minority, since there is a great deal of published information about the treatment of the Kurds by the Turkish authorities.
The Human Rights Association in Istanbul estimates the number of Roma in Turkey to be between three and three and a half million. This is six or seven times higher than the figures most commonly quoted to date. Many of the Roma in Turkey live in Thrace, the European part of Turkey, but in fact Roma can be found all over Turkey.
We visited Roma neighbourhoods in Istanbul and in Izmir. One serious problem we faced was that people were afraid to talk. This may have been the result of the social distance between Roma and the rest of society. However, it is more likely that Roma, like many other people in Turkey, try to avoid any activity that could be perceived as 'political'. This goes especially for those Roma who have achieved a terrain standard of living. These self-described 'high doss' Roma – who usually work as shoe-shiners, flower salesmen or gardeners – often told us how well they get on with Turks and that it must be other Roma that have problems with Turks or the authorities. When we asked them what they meant by „good relations with their Turkish neighbours" when they have separate tea houses, they became embarrassed and preferred not to speak on the subject any further.
The social stance between Roma and other Turks is also evident from the fact slut many Turks told us not to go into Roma neighbourhoods, since they were supposed to be very dangerous places. Cab drivers would not take us to such neighbourhoods after dark. They were, of course, not dangerous at all. We were always treated with hospitality, even by those reluctant to talk.
Despite Roma reticence, we managed to gather information about the human rights situation of Roma. What I found specially shocking was how Romani children are treated by the police. A lawyer in Istanbul who specialises in defending children's rights explained to us that according to the Turkish laws, minors cannot be prosecuted and they cannot be kept in custody. They can only be questioned by a public prosecutor and then sent home. Turkey does not have institutions such a detention venues for young delinquents. This is, in any case, the theory. In practice, Romani children are interrogated by the police. Since police reports are signed by the public prosecutor, it seems that many aspects of the system do not conform to their legal arrangement.
On many occasions, the police 'just' beat children and then send them home. However, we also heard stories about Roma children being actually tortured by the Turkish police. In one case the child was used as a hostage to make the parents confess to a robbery. They got their child back by paying the amount of money that was allegedly robbed. Whether they committed the robbery or not will forever remain a mystery, since the parents were desperate for her release. While in custody, the thirteen-year-old girl had been subjected to electrical shock to her genitals. Another girl was allegedly dunked, naked, into a tank of cold water. She was also beaten on the soles of her feet. They were still swollen when her parents took her to a lawyer to make a complaint. In both cases the parents contacted a lawyer to lodge a complaint, but after a few days they changed their minds.
The unwillingness among Roma to file complaints against the police was wide spread. Not many Roma speak openly about human rights violations. The social distance and the lack of trust by Roma of even human rights organisations may be one reason for this. Also, the police threaten individuals with retaliation if they complain. Standing up for your rights has serious repercussions in Turkey.
There is a vivid popular prejudice in Turkey that Roma are thieves. Besides this, the majority in general despises all minorities. And Roma are not nationally organised to defend their rights. For all of these reasons the police can torture these children with impunity. Some policemen will even think they are doing their job well by beating up little children suspected of criminal acts since, in their view, there is no alternative because as minors they cannot be prosecuted; the beating of Roma children is viewed by the police as a kind of efficient preventative measure.
Romani children are not the only Roma who are ill-treated or tortured in Turkey. We spoke with the family of Ms. Zehala Baysal, who had died after being tortured in police custody in December 1995. Ms. Baysal was a Romani woman from the Haci Hüsrev neighbourhood in Istanbul (see news item on Ms. Baysal's death in „Past Abuses"). The family was very emotional not only about the death of Zehala, but also about the fact they found out almost entirely by chance and were never informed of her death. Their mother was almost buried in a cemetery for the unknown dead.
The Baysal family made inquiries into how to file a complaint, but their efforts amounted to nothing. They told us that when they went to the police, the police threatened that they would be killed if they made a complaint. A lawyer at the Human Rights Association additionally persuaded them not to file a complaint because he thought the evidence was not strong enough. To make matters worse, the police confiscated the Human Rights Association file on the case when they raided the organisation's office last December.
Zehala's son told us that he had not slept at home for several months. He also told us that the police had shot at another of Zehala's sons, a soldier, when he started to shout at them during another house search. I asked the family about the general treatment of Roma by the police. They told us that arrests without warrants were frequent, and that being beaten in custody is to be expected, as are house searches without warrants. When I asked if they are treated worse because they are Roma, Zehala's daughter answered, „the police know who they can pick on without too much trouble."
We saw very different kinds of problems when we visited 'nomadic' Roma. The nomadic Roma live in what they call tents, but do not actually deserve this name. They are structures made of wood, plastic and cardboard. Families of six or seven live in such dwellings. They are not nomadic by choice, but because they cannot afford to rent a house. Social security is almost absent in Turkey. They live of making and selling baskets in summer, gathering paper, selling flowers and begging.
Some nomadic Roma, especially those living in villages, are allowed to stay in one place and are even provided with a flimsy house. Others, however, are chased from place to place approximately once a week. One family told us how this works: the police come, take all the men, and give the women several hours to pack their things. Then the police return with a bulldozer and destroy the rest. The men are then released and they rebuild their tents either in the same place or somewhere else. This goes on week after week after week. We talked to one woman whose husband had been injured during such an event. The police broke his leg with truncheons and his wife took him to hospital. She has no idea whatsoever how to pay the bill. The general government policy is that people are not allowed to build houses wherever they want. The idea that the government might have some responsibility in housing their citizens and securing their existence with, for example, adequate water supply, has not to date been implemented in Turkey. Roma, among the lowest strata of society, are certainly victims of such policy.
I am afraid I cannot offer you a very nice picture of Turkey. Roma are a despised minority in Turkey, a country which in any case has an appalling human rights record. Of course a vulnerable group like the Roma are easy targets for human rights violations. What really concerns me is that, in Turkey, nobody seems to care, and elsewhere no one knows.