Roma in Turkey

07 February 2004

Tara Bedard1

At the beginning of September 2003, I undertook a one-week field mission to Istanbul, Turkey to engage in research into the situation of Roma in the country. What follows is a brief look at several issues that stuck out as the most important, as expressed by the people with whom I met.

Non-Recognition by the Turkish State as a Minority

In Turkey, there are strong politics of assimilation. The Turkish State is paranoid that ethnic groups may want to separate. [...] I personally do not have problems with Turks or with state officials, but I do not go around announcing that I am Romani. If members of minority groups start to promote their ethnic identity, they will have problems. However, if a person supports the state, they will never have problems. [...] On paper, everyone is Turkish. Everyone has personal documents. The government wants everyone to have these. Ethnicity is not listed in our documents because it is not recognised by the government.2

A Romani man from Istanbul made this statement to me after I asked him whether he experienced any problems attributable to his Romani ethnicity in Turkey. The Turkish State does not officially recognise the existence of ethnic minorities in the country. According to the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, only non-Muslims are recognised as minorities by the Turkish government. There is no reference to ethnicity or race, aside from Article 38, which states, "The Turkish Government undertakes to assure full and complete protection of life and liberty to all inhabitants of Turkey without distinction of birth, nationality, language, race or religion. [...]"3

Despite the fact that Roma are not recognised as a minority, existing legal provisions in Turkish legislation do discriminate against Roma. For example, Turkey's 1934 Law on Settlement (as subsequently amended) explicitly lists "itinerant Gypsies" among groups of persons to be subject to differential treatment. In the law's chapter on "Areas of Settlement", Article 1 states: "The settlement of immigrants, refugees, nomads and itinerant Gypsies within the country shall be arranged by the Ministries of Internal Affairs and Health and Social Assistance in accordance with the program to be made by the Council of Ministers with a view to ensuring their loyalty to Turkish culture and improving the establishment and distribution of the population." Article 4 states: "A. Those who are not attached to Turkish culture; B. Anarchists; C. Spies; Ç: Itinerant Gypsies; and D. Persons deported, shall not be accepted as immigrants into Turkey."4

In the past year, two legal reform packages have been passed by the Turkish government in its bid for EU membership. These contain provisions that, while not lending official recognition to minorities in the country, acknowledge the existence of such, at least linguistic minorities, and impact on access to basic rights by members of minority groups. Most recently, an amendment to the 1983 Law on Teaching of Foreign Languages and the Learning of the Different Languages and Dialects of Turkish Citizens, No.2934, provides that, while the language of tuition in training and educational institutions in the country must be Turkish, private language courses may be established to facilitate the learning of languages and dialects traditionally used by Turkish citizens.5 As of December 1, 2003, the Council of Ministers had not yet explicitly stated in which languages such training could be offered. A second amendment to the 1994 Law on the Establishment of and Broadcasting by the Radio and Television Channels, No.3984, provides that public and private television and radio stations may broadcast programming in the various languages and dialects traditionally used by Turkish citizens.6

However, Mr M.D. stated that, despite the fact that their membership in an ethnic minority group is not officially recognised, it is recognised by ordinary citizens. Another Romani man reported that he had, indeed, experienced discrimination due to his ethnicity. He stated, that many times in the past, he had tried to rent a flat from non-Roma but had always been unsuccessful. The man stated, "the landlords say that we won't pay because we're poor Gypsies and that we have too many children."7

Other Roma with whom I met claimed that, while they had not experienced outright discrimination by non-Roma, a definite distinction is made. It was explained to me that, while non-Roma do not outwardly display hostility or discriminatory attitudes towards Roma, there is a definite divide between Roma and non-Roma. As Mr M.D. stated,

Turks and Roma do not usually have much contact. For instance, a Romani man would not enter a café owned by a Turk because he would not feel comfortable.8 [...] there is racism among average people. You can feel it. I believe that many Turks regard Roma as second class citizens. Many Turks do not want their children to marry Roma. [...] Roma here have problems finding work. When applying for jobs, if the employer finds out a person is Romani, they will not be hired for the position. It is the same with buying and renting houses.9

Substandard Housing Conditions

During my time in Istanbul's Romani communities, I noted that one problem which affected almost everyone was access to adequate housing.10 While I met Roma living in both registered and unregistered housing, the conditions of the two types of housing differed dramatically, in terms of both physical condition and treatment of the inhabitants by outsiders. Additionally, the unregistered settlements were small segregated clusters of Roma, while those Roma living in registered housing lived in mixed areas.

A tour of the Kuştepe neighbourhood in the District of Şişli revealed a neighbourhood better off than the rest I would eventually visit, though I found the conditions of the community to be far from adequate. Kuştepe is reportedly a mixed neighbourhood, housing ethnic Turks, Kurds and Roma. There were many buildings with no glass in the windows, and some doors were missing. There also appeared to be holes in the exterior walls of some of the buildings. I was informed by Mr T.R., a Romani man from the neighbourhood, that all of the homes had running water, indoor sanitary facilities and electricity.11 However, I was inclined not to believe that every house/flat had access to such services given the state of the buildings. The electrical wires connected to the poles looked very chaotic as if they had been hooked up illegally. I also saw, on one street, a live wire hanging about three feet from the ground with three children, probably between 8- and 10-years-old, playing limbo beneath it. Bilgi University, a private Turkish university, is located directly across the street from the Romani community. Mr T.R. noted that while the entire neighbourhood is often without electricity due to bad transformers, the university is never without electricity, because it is receives power from a wealthier district. The area was littered with trash, though garbage was reportedly collected every night.

The other communities I visited were in far worse condition. I visited one evening a Romani community living in tents in an open field at least one kilometre from other buildings in the District of Ataşehir. There were twenty tents in total, constructed of scrap materials including wood, metal, cardboard, carpets and plastic. There was no electricity in the settlement and no running water. The residents informed me that they had built a well for water without permission and otherwise obtained water from people living in houses in the district. The settlement also lacked canalisation and garbage littered the area.

I also visited two settlements in the Yeni Sahre neighbourhood in the District of Kadiköy, inhabited completely by Roma. The Roma living in the first settlement did not want to speak with me but I was able to see during my brief visit that the settlement consisted of about 10 makeshift shacks in very bad condition. Some of the homes had cement foundation and walls, with scrap wood, metal, plastic and brick roofs. Others of the homes were made entirely of collected materials. There were visible holes in the walls of each home that I saw and no glass in some of the windows. The area was littered with garbage, and there were horses grazing in a small field next to the shacks with manure everywhere. The condition of the settlement generally appeared to be very unhealthy.

There were about 15 shacks in the second settlement in the Yeni Sahre neighbourhood. A few of the shacks had cement frames, some of which looked as if they had been partially bulldozed and rebuilt with scrap materials. The other structures were actually tents made of plastic and scrap wood. One of the "shacks" that I saw was merely a wooden frame with hanging carpets. The shacks had electricity but no source of potable water or sanitary facilities. The shacks I entered had gas burners/heaters. Some of the shacks had cement floors, while the tents had dirt floors. Garbage was littered throughout the settlement and the broken glass and bricks from half- demolished homes were strewn everywhere.

Forced Evictions

One form of degrading treatment to which Romani inhabitants of informal settlements reported being subjected was recurrent forced evictions by local authorities and police without the provision of any form of alternative accommodation. In one community, it was reported that the police are often abusive during eviction procedures.

Romani inhabitants of the tent settlement in the District of Ataşehir informed me that they had moved to that location approximately 10 years earlier, following the destruction of their unregistered homes by municipal authorities in the District of Küçük Bakkalköy. They had reportedly built small huts on the land, but in August 2002, the police had destroyed these along with their possessions and ID cards. The Roma with whom I spoke informed me that they had all had their ID cards replaced, but they were now forced to live in tents. One Romani woman testified,

Four or five times a year, representatives of the municipality and the police come and we are forced to move to other places for short periods of time. But we always come back. They usually say that people are complaining about the sight of the area. The last time this happened was two or three months ago. Usually, about 40 to 50 municipal workers and police are involved. During the evictions, the police sometimes curse our ethnicity. If we react at all to the eviction, the police beat us. The last time we were evicted, we were not given any notice. The police came that day and told us to pack our belongings and leave. A 16-year-old boy who does not live here anymore was injured. One of the officers cursed us and called us "Gypsies" so the boy punched the officer. Many of the officers present began to beat the boy. They punched him and hit him with truncheons on his head and back. The officer that the boy punched also pointed a gun at him and threatened him. Later the officer apologised for cursing at us. Another woman who is not here tried to protect her tent and another officer cursed her and hit her many times with a truncheon.12

All of the Roma from the settlement stated that local authorities had never provided them with alternative accommodation. In the past rather, they have moved to other locations in which they live in similar conditions for short periods of time until again being evicted.

Similarly, the Romani residents of the second segregated settlement I visited in the Yeni Sahre neighbourhood informed me that they were frequently subjected to forced evictions by local authorities and police. An approximately 25-year-old Romani woman from the settlement stated that her seven-member family had been living on and off in the same location for about four years, following their eviction from their previous residence. According to the woman,

We are evicted from here four or five times every year. Most recently, we were evicted in August. We were given two or three days notice that we would be evicted, so we gathered our belongings and left the area before we were evicted. We lived in similar conditions in another place, but we were evicted from there too, so we moved back here. We generally have to move every one or two months.13

Access to Education, Employment and Social Assistance

Many of the Roma with whom I spoke during my mission testified that they did not have access to social and economic rights such as education, formal employment and social welfare. In terms of access to education, Romani residents from every community I visited stated that the largest impediment to sending their children to school was financial. Mr T.R. from the Kuştepe neighbourhood stated that many Romani children from the neighbourhood do not attend school after the fourth grade because their parents cannot afford to purchase either the supplies they need, or to pay their tuition. A Romani woman from the settlement in the District of Ataşehir stated "We can't even buy bread", therefore none of the children from the settlement attend school. Ms B.L., a 37-year-old Romani woman living beside the second segregated settlement I visited in the Yeni Sahre neighbourhood, informed me that only one of her two school-age children attends school.14 Her son reportedly remained at home because she could not afford to purchase school supplies for him. Residents of the Romani communities in the District of Ataşehir and the Yeni Sahre neighbourhood reported that their frequent eviction from their places of residence also prohibit their children from attending school.

Regarding employment, none of the Roma living in the informal settlements I visited had access to formal employment and engaged in various informal trades as a means of survival. Roma from the tent settlement in the District of Ataşehir collected garbage and scrap metal, which they recycled for money. However, many of the Roma stated that when they are forcibly evicted, they are in much worse situations, because the place at which they recycle the collected goods is close to the settlement. The distance between their alternative settlements and the place at which they sell the collected goods reportedly makes it impossible to earn money. Similarly, Roma from the Yeni Sahre neighbourhood with whom I spoke collect garbage and cardboard for money. Roma living in better conditions in the Kuştepe neighbourhood engaged in the flower trade as a source of income, however business had reportedly fallen in recent times, due to Turkey's poor economic situation. Regardless of the type of economic activity in which the Roma with whom I met were engaged, all felt that the government was failing to do its part to meet their needs.

While many of the Roma with whom I met stated they were either unemployed or engaged in failing businesses, the same people stated that there existed a stark lack of social programmes to which they could turn for assistance. It was reported to me that none of the Romani residents of the tent settlement in the District of Ataşehir received any form of social assistance, in terms of either welfare or medical insurance. Roma from the community stated that they received medical treatment as long as they had money to pay for it and that, while doctors did not treat them differently than non-Roma, the level of treatment depended on the amount of money they had. The same was reported by Roma from the Kuştepe and Yeni Sahre neighbourhoods. This despite the fact that Article 5 of the Turkish Constitution sets out, "The fundamental aims and duties of the State are; to safeguard the independence and integrity of the Turkish Nation, the indivisibility of the country, the Republican democracy; to ensure the welfare, peace, and happiness of the individual and society; to strive for the removal of political, social and economic obstacles which restrict the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual in a manner incompatible with the principle of justice and of the social State governed by the rule of law; and to provide the conditions required for the development of the individual's material and spiritual existence."15

The End of the Week

At the end of my week in Istanbul, I was left with the general impression that, while the situation of Roma in Turkey is somewhat different from that of Roma in other countries, many of the problems are the same. However, the stark lack of a Romani civil society in the country and the minimal focus on Romani issues generally by policy measures was noteworthy. I was alarmed at the state of Roma rights in the country, in particular beacuse next to nothing is currently being done to remedy the injustices suffered by many Roma.


  1. Tara Bedard is Researcher/News Editor at the ERRC.
  2. ERRC interview with Mr M.D., a Romani man. September 10, 2003, Kuştepe neighbourhood, District of Şişli, Istanbul. The initials of the Romani interviewees have been changed for the purpose of this publication, to ensure the safety of the people with whom the ERRC met.
  3. Treaty of Peace with Turkey Signed at Lausanne. July 24, 1923.
  4. Law No. 2510, The Turkish Law of Settlement. Adopted on June 14, 1934 and published in the Official Gazette on June 21, 1934.
  5. Article 23 of Law No 4963. Published in the Official Gazette on August 7, 2003.
  6. Article 14 of Law No. 4928. Published in the Official Gazette on July 19, 2003.
  7. ERRC interview with a Romani man who requested anonymity. September 12, 2003, Yeni Sahre neighbourhood, District of Kadiköy, Istanbul. A very high number of Roma interviewed during this field mission were unwilling to allow even their initials to appear in print, apparently out of fear of consequences.
  8. Indeed, only Roma were present in the café owned by a Romani man in which we spoke.
  9. ERRC interview with a Romani man who requested anonymity. September 10, 2003, Kuştepe neighbourhood, District of Şişli, Istanbul.
  10. Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Turkey ratified in August 2000, states, "The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing, housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right [...]." In its General Comment 4, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which monitors state's compliance with the ICESCR, defined adequate housing in terms of the following elements: legal security of tenure; availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure; affordability; habitability; accessibility; location; and cultural adequacy.
  11. ERRC interview with a Romani man who requested anonymity. September 10, 2003, Kuştepe neighbourhood, District of Şişli, Istanbul.
  12. ERRC interview with a Romani woman who requested anonymity. September 11, 2003. District of Ataşehir, Istanbul.
  13. ERRC interview with a Romani woman who requested anonymity. September 12, 2003. Yeni Sahre neighbourhood, District of Kadiköy, Istanbul.
  14. ERRC interview with Ms B.L. September 12, 2003. Yeni Sahre neighbourhood, District of Kadiköy, Istanbul.
  15. Article 5 of the 1982 Constitution of the Republic of Turkey. Official translation available on the Internet at:


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