Growing diaspora of Turkish opposition sees no quick return home
Washington - Not long ago, Adem Yavuz Arslan was the Ankara bureau chief of a Turkish daily critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. These days, Arslan is trying to make ends meet as a driver for the Uber transportation service in Washington.
Arslan, 42, is a member of a growing Turkish diaspora including journalists, academics and diplomats who have left their home country to avoid arrest by what they say is an increasingly repressive regime. They say they yearn to return but have little hope of being able to do so in the foreseeable future. “You have two choices,” Arslan said. “You can go to jail or leave the country.”
More than 100,000 Turks have been fired, suspended or detained in a crackdown following an attempted coup against Erdogan in July. The government said it was trying to remove followers of the alleged coup leader, US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, from state institutions and deprive his movement of its support system in the economy and in the media.
Ankara is seeking Gulen’s extradition and calling on the United States, Germany and other countries not to give shelter to what the Turkish government calls terrorists. Critics say the post-coup wave of arrests is a witch-hunt against Erdogan opponents of all stripes. More than 100 journalists have been jailed.
Turkey’s pro-government media say Arslan is a leading figure of the Gulen movement, a charge he denies. He said he decided to leave Turkey with his family in 2014 after stepping on the government’s toes as the Ankara bureau chief of the now-defunct Bugun newspaper. The daily was close to the Gulen movement and employed liberal commentators, some of whom are in prison or have fled from Turkey. Arslan became the Washington correspondent of another Gulen-inspired daily that was banned after the July coup, leaving him without a job.
Erdogan’s wrath is not limited to alleged Gulen supporters. Many pro-Kurdish media have been banned for their alleged support for Kurdish rebels. More than 150 media outlets have been shut down since July. Authorities have detained journalists and editors of the daily Cumhuriyet, a staunchly secularist newspaper highly critical of Gulen.
Even before the coup, Cumhuriyet’s former editor Can Dundar was sentenced to prison for treason. Freed pending an appeal, he left Turkey and now lives in Germany, home to a Turkish minority of around 3 million people. Dundar says he will not return to Turkey as long as the state of emergency, introduced after the coup, is in force. German news reports say close to 60 Turkish diplomats and members of their families in the country have also decided not to return home. Germany has also taken in Turkish academics.
According to official figures, a total of 4,437 Turkish citizens applied for political asylum in Germany in the first ten months of the year, more than twice as many as in all of 2015, when 1,767 applied. The aftermath of the July coup has seen a steep rise in the number of applications, climbing from 350 a month in the first half of the year to 485 in October.
The government in Berlin has publicly invited Turkish journalists, intellectuals and others to seek refuge in Germany. Michael Roth, a junior minister for Foreign Affairs, said his country stood in solidarity with all “critical minds” in Turkey. Scandinavian countries, France and the United States are other destinations for Turks feeling under growing pressure at home.
“I cannot go back as long as Erdogan is there,” Arslan said, adding that his hopes for a return soon were not high.
Erdogan wants Turks to decide whether to switch from the current parliamentary system to a presidential one in a referendum next year. His plan for the new system would allow him to stay in office until 2029.
Meanwhile, there is a steady trickle of Turks leaving their home. Arslan said a Turkish friend who carries a diplomatic passport joined him in Washington recently. “He left the country by boat to Greece, like a refugee,” he said. Arslan did not provide name of his friend, whose family is still in Turkey trying to get away. “The Turkish diaspora is growing every day,” Arslan said.
Another Turkish journalist in the United States, Emre Uslu, said he left Turkey in March 2014 after coming under increasing pressure for criticising Erdogan. At the time, pro-Erdogan newspapers accused Uslu of involvement in alleged plot to kill Erdogan’s daughter Sumeyye. The judiciary later said alleged messages by Uslu about the purported plot were fake. A political scientist by training, Uslu has been teaching at Virginia International University near Washington. His wife and two children have joined him.
“Of course I want to go back,” Uslu said. “I am dying to go back. Turkey is my country.” He estimated, however, a return would probably not be possible for another ten years. “There is no indication that things will get better.”
Arslan agreed. He said he felt torn between his new home and his country. “It’s a conflict between my head and my heart”, he said. On one hand, he knew that he, his wife and three children should adapt to their new life in the United States but, on the other hand, it was difficult to let go of Turkey. “My son is asking me when we go and visit grandpa” in Turkey, he said.