This Is What Greece’s Refugee Crisis Really Looks Like

“Thanks to God I have made it here. I am free, I am alive!”

 Refugees arriving on the isle of Lesbos in a dinghy from Turkey. (Lazar Simeonov)
Refugees arriving on the isle of Lesbos in a dinghy from Turkey. (Lazar Simeonov)

By Jesse Rosenfeld

Lesbos, Athens, and northern Greece—In the baking midday August heat on the Greek island of Lesbos, Ziad Mouatash bounces out of an overcrowded inflatable raft and touches EU soil for the first time. The 22-year-old from Yarmouk—the Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of Damascus that has been besieged and bombed since 2012 by Bashar al-Assad’s forces and recently invaded by ISIS and the Al Qaeda–affiliated Nusra Front—hugs everyone around him, ecstatic to be alive.

From the Greek shore, activists and locals had looked on helplessly as the boat’s motor broke down two miles away, water pouring into the barely floating rubber dinghy. Children and adults alike cried desperately for help, until they were towed to Greece by another boat of refugees coming from Turkey.

Mouatash paid human traffickers in Turkey over 1,000 euros for this near-death experience, but as far as he’s concerned, it was a far less risky choice than continuing to hide out in deteriorating Damascus, which he’d abandoned for Turkey two weeks before. As a Palestinian who grew up in Syria’s refugee camps, he is stateless, but he has a brother in Paris and hopes to start a new life in France.

He paces up and down the shoreline, unsure of which direction to go, while local activists try to bring the new arrivals together to tell them that they need to start a 40-mile walk to a registration center on the other side of the island.

 Although he has escaped the horrors of Syria’s grinding civil war, Mouatash is just beginning the difficult journey through Europe. He will have to cross more borders illegally; rest in filthy, makeshift camps; pay traffickers to help him cross those borders; dodge border police; and sleep in parks and fields, before he can reunite with his brother. Still, Mouatash is one of the lucky ones. Four days after his arrival, a raft off the Greek island of Kos capsized and six Syrians—including a baby—drowned.

Read more at The Nation

Have Turkish Voters Renounced Islamist Dictatorship?

Turkey sees end of single party gov’t as AK Party vote drops significantly – Today’s Zaman

800px-Turkish-flag.svg
By Nevit Dilmen (Image:Turkishflag.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
After 13 years of domination as a single-party government, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which has been receiving growing criticism for pursuing highly divisive, authoritarian and repressive policies, saw a significant erosion of support in Sunday’s election and it failed to secure the 276 seats in the Parliament necessary to continue its single-party rule for another term.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP), which opted to run as a party in this election for the first time, rather than fielding independent candidates to circumvent the country’s 10 percent election threshold, managed to pass the barrier, which reduced the number of seats in Parliament that would have otherwise gone to the AK Party. Hence, the establishment of a coalition government is back on Turkey’s agenda after more than a decade.

The unofficial results of the election, which many said was more like a referendum in that would determine the fate and political future of the country – becoming either more authoritarian or denying President Erdoğan the changes he aspires to and curbing his power – indicated that the AK Party received 40.6 percent, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) received 25.3 percent, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) received 16 percent while the HDP, which widened its appeal beyond its core Kurdish vote to center-left and secularist segments disillusioned with Erdoğan, received 12.7 percent of the nationwide vote. These percentages translate into 257 seats for the AK Party, 131 for the CHP, 83 for the MHP and 79 for the HDP.

Sunday’s vote was held amid concerns of vote rigging, prompting more than 50,000 people to sign up to serve as election monitors. The fears were not without reason, as last year’s local elections, held on March 30, were overshadowed by allegations of election fraud due to the discrepancies between the numbers recorded at polling stations and those actually entered into the country’s election authority, the Higher Election Board (YSK), in addition to suspicious power outages taking place across 22 provinces during the vote count.

On Sunday, the mood was tense at some polling stations, particularly in the country’s predominantly Kurdish Southeast, after a bombing on Friday killed two people and wounded at least 200 at an election rally for the HDP, which has been a frequent target of violence in the run-up to the polls.

Read more at Today’s Zaman

Fethullah Gulen: Turkey’s Eroding Democracy

 Hizmet supporters in Istanbul protesting the government’s harassment of journalists.   Credit Sedat Suna/European Pressphoto Agency
Hizmet supporters in Istanbul protesting the government’s harassment of journalists.
Credit Sedat Suna/European Pressphoto Agency

By Fethullah Gulen

SAYLORSBURG, Pa. — It is deeply disappointing to see what has become of Turkey in the last few years. Not long ago, it was the envy of Muslim-majority countries: a viable candidate for the European Union on its path to becoming a functioning democracy that upholds universal human rights, gender equality, the rule of law and the rights of Kurdish and non-Muslim citizens. This historic opportunity now appears to have been squandered as Turkey’s ruling party, known as the A.K.P., reverses that progress and clamps down on civil society, media, the judiciary and free enterprise.

Turkey’s current leaders seem to claim an absolute mandate by virtue of winning elections. But victory doesn’t grant them permission to ignore the Constitution or suppress dissent, especially when election victories are built on crony capitalism and media subservience. The A.K.P.’s leaders now depict every democratic criticism of them as an attack on the state. By viewing every critical voice as an enemy — or worse, a traitor — they are leading the country toward totalitarianism.

The latest victims of the clampdown are the staff, executives and editors of independent media organizations who were detained and are now facing charges made possible by recent changes to the laws and the court system. The director of one of the most popular TV channels, arrested in December, is still behind bars. Public officials investigating corruption charges have also been purged and jailed for simply doing their jobs. An independent judiciary, a functioning civil society and media are checks and balances against government transgressions. Such harassment sends the message that whoever stands in the way of the ruling party’s agenda will be targeted by slander, sanctions and even trumped-up charges.

Turkey’s rulers have not only alienated the West, they are also now losing credibility in the Middle East. Turkey’s ability to assert positive influence in the region depends not only on its economy but also on the health of its own democracy.

The core tenets of a functioning democracy — the rule of law, respect for individual freedoms — are also the most basic of Islamic values bestowed upon us by God. No political or religious leader has the authority to take them away. It is disheartening to see religious scholars provide theological justification for the ruling party’s oppression and corruption or simply stay silent. Those who use the language and symbols of religious observance but violate the core principles of their religion do not deserve such loyalty from religious scholars.

Speaking against oppression is a democratic right, a civic duty and for believers, a religious obligation. The Quran makes clear that people should not remain silent in the face of injustice: “O you who believe! Be upholders and standard-bearers of justice, bearing witness to the truth for God’s sake, even though it be against your own selves, or parents or kindred.”

For the past 50 years, I have been fortunate to take part in a civil society movement, sometimes referred to as Hizmet, whose participants and supporters include millions of Turkish citizens. These citizens have committed themselves to interfaith dialogue, community service, relief efforts and making life-changing education accessible. They have established more than 1,000 modern secular schools, tutoring centers, colleges, hospitals and relief organizations in over 150 countries. They are teachers, journalists, businessmen and ordinary citizens.

Read more in The New York Times/The Opinion Pages

Brave New Turkey

Gobierno de Chile [CC BY 3.0 cl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/cl/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey Gobierno de Chile [CC BY 3.0 cl], via Wikimedia Commons

By Andrew Finkel in The New York Times

ISTANBUL — Freedom House, the democracy watchdog, earlier this year downgraded the Turkish press from being “partly free” to “not free.” Now it may have to create a new category: “not free at all.”

On Sunday, Dec. 14, Turkish police raided the headquarters of Zaman, the country’s most widely circulated daily, and a major television station, taking into custody at least 24 people, including the paper’s editor-in-chief and the station’s director. (The editor has since been released.) They were detained on suspicions of “establishing a terrorist group.” But the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the raids smacked “of political vengeance.”

A decade ago Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister, was the most likely candidate to lead the Islamic world. He had managed to keep Turkey out of the 2003 Iraq War, was grooming it for membership in the European Union, and was getting on with economic reform. Ordinary Turks were feeling prosperous, proud and hopeful. So why is the Turkish government now going off the rails when it has been perfectly popular doing the right things?

Today Mr. Erdogan is the president, and his style is in-your-face confrontational. He is revered by enough people to get his party re-elected, but many others loathe him (remember the protests in Gezi Park?), and some of his eccentricities have made him a favorite of headline writers. Like a potentate of some Sacha Baron Cohen parody, he has had a presidential palace with over a thousand rooms built for himself. No one knows how much it cost: The government agency responsible for the construction says the sum is a state secret because its disclosure would damage the economy.

Read more at The New York Times

Either With Us or Against Us

As Turkey’s ruling party consolidates its power, the space for free expression narrows.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
(By Randam (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

“A militant in the guise of a journalist — a shameless woman. Know your place!” This is how three-term Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose to describe Amberin Zaman, the Economist’s longtime Turkey correspondent, during a campaign rally on Aug. 7, just three days before he won the country’s first-ever direct presidential election. Erdogan lashed out at Zaman for having allegedly “insulted” Muslims in an interview with opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu on the 24-hour TV news channel CNN Turk — and she was likewise vilified in the conservative press and aggressively harassed online by Erdogan supporters.

The next day, Enis Berberoglu, editor in chief of Hurriyet, one of the country’s highest-circulating dailies, abruptly resigned. Because Hurriyet is owned by Dogan, the same media group that owns CNN Turk, many doubted that Berberoglu’s move was coincidental. Erdogan went on to win the election with 52 percent of the vote. By the time of his inauguration at the end of August, several journalists at other newspapers had also lost their jobs — for reasons widely regarded as political.

These events followed a pattern that has become disturbingly familiar in recent years. As Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has grown increasingly entrenched since it first came to power in 2002, the space for free expression has narrowed perceptibly. This trend has been particularly evident over the past 15 months, starting with the protests that began in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and which then swept the country in the summer of 2013, when dozens of journalists were fired or forced to resign after expressing critical viewpoints. Most recently, Turkey’s trouble with press freedom made headlines this weekend when Erdogan denounced the New York Times for, he said, implying that the Turkish state was connected with Islamic State (IS) militants.

In 2013, Turkey remained the world’s top jailer of journalists (followed by Iran and China) for the second year in a row. As of the end of the year there were 40 reporters behind bars — one of several factors that led Freedom House to downgrade the country from “partly free” to “not free” in its 2014 press freedom rankings. Turkey came in 134th out of 197 countries.

Social media has not been spared. In the lead-up to local elections on March 30, the Turkish government shut down Twitter for two weeks and YouTube for 67 days in an effort to suppress the leak of damning wiretapped recordings that surfaced in a police and judicial investigation into government corruption at the highest levels.

“The main problem is that pro-AKP media is not only the dominant media, it’s the obligatory media,” said one Turkish journalist who asked not to be named. “If you’re not with them, you’re against them.”

Read more at Foreign Policy

Syria’s Lost Generation

By KHALED HOSSEINI APRIL 11, 2014

There are now 2.5 million refugees from Syria, 1.2 million of them children. Photo credit; Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

SOMETHING about the boy was not right. He seemed disoriented, detached from his surroundings. He barely spoke, and when he did, it was in flat monosyllables, his eyes unfocused and downcast, as if too heavy to roll up from the weight of all they had seen. He was the picture of quiet devastation, of a childhood forever splintered.

He was 14 years old, a Syrian refugee, sitting with his family in a small room in the registration building of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Erbil, northern Iraq. In the crowded, noisy offices downstairs, scores of newly arrived refugees queued to register, including an exhausted-looking, dust-sheathed family of Dom Gypsies and a Syrian woman with a club foot, who limped about the hallways and pleaded with every passer-by to give her asylum in Germany.

In the upstairs office, the boy’s father sat across a table from me. A supple, boyish-looking 36-year-old, he recounted, with admirable calm, the story of his family’s harrowing escape, two weeks earlier, from their hometown, Aleppo, and their subsequent trip across the Turkish border and into the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Before the war, he said, he worked at a shoe store, and his three children excelled at school. It was a modest but happy middle-class life. But then came war, and suddenly rocket-propelled grenades were whooshing in all day and Aleppo was honeycombed by falling bombs. He lost his job and his children’s school closed; they would lose two full years of schooling before the family’s eventual escape.

Soon, there was no electricity, no telephone service, no food. The father sold the family’s belongings, down to the last piece of furniture. When the money ran out, he borrowed flour from neighbors for his wife to make bread.

“Sometimes we weren’t eating for two or three days, but just giving the bread and water to the children to eat to survive,” he said.

At some point this year, Syria will overtake my native country, Afghanistan, as the world’s largest refugee-producing state. There are now 2.5 million refugees from Syria, 1.2 million of them children. Two-thirds of Syrian refugee children, and nearly three million children inside the country, are out of school.

They face a broken future. Syria is on the verge of losing a generation. This is perhaps the most dooming consequence of this terrible war.

Read more at The New York Times

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Inside the Turkish Government’s Propaganda Machine

By Kate O’Sullivan and Laura Benitez Apr 8 2014

A Turkish protest for internet freedom in February. Photos by Charles Emir Richards

“Journalists wanted for international news agency,” read the Guardian job ad. As an editor in an industry where legitimate opportunities are few and far between, you apply for pretty much any full-time job you see, so apply we did. A couple of months later, we arrived in Ankara, Turkey, ready to “write history” as the first international journalists to be welcomed into the Anadolu Agency (AA) family.

We joined the agency in January, supposedly to edit English-language news, but quickly found ourselves becoming English-language spin doctors. The AA’s editorial line on domestic politics—and Syria—was so intently pro-government that we might as well have been writing press releases. Two months into the job, we listened to Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç talking some shit about press freedom from an event at London’s Chatham House, downplaying the number of imprisoned journalists in Turkey. Soon after that, we got the chance to visit London on business. We grabbed it and resigned as soon as we hit UK soil.

Established in 1920, the AA was once a point of national pride. Today, it’s at the end of one of the many sets of strings in the ruling AK Party’s puppet parade. Most of Turkey’s TV stations are heavily influenced by the state, and the few opposition channels can expect to have their licenses revoked at any time or be banned from broadcasting key events, such as live election footage or anything that might detract from how fantastic the government is doing.

For example, Turkey’s media regulator, RTUK, fined the networks that aired footage of last year’s Gezi Park protests. Funnily enough, the watchdog is made up of nine “elected” members nominated by political parties—and the more seats in parliament a faction has, the more influence it possesses.

Media outlets that aren’t being hounded by RTUK can always look forward to direct intervention from Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan himself. In 2009, independent mogul Aydin Dogan’s media group—made up of various newspapers and TV channels, CNN Türk, and a news agency—was fined $2.5 billion for evading taxes. Incidentally, the audit came just after one of the group’s platforms published news on the Lighthouse charity scandal, which saw a German court convict three Turkish businessmen for funnelling $28.3 million into their personal accounts.

In one recent leaked recording, Erdogan is heard asking his former justice minister to ensure that Dogan be punished. Since then, the Dogan empire has been bound and gagged accordingly.

Police crack down on a free speech protest in Istanbul in February.

The international media relies increasingly on local sources when reporting domestic affairs overseas. The Gezi protests aside—which had nearly as many “live blogs” as protesters—much of Turkey’s English-language news came via Today’s Zaman, the largest English-language newspaper in Turkey. The leadership of the Zaman newsgroup is closely linked with the Islamic teacher and international education mogul Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of the AK Party who now lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

Read more at VICE

Paris Elects Its First-Ever Female Mayor / Turkey’s Erdogan declares victory in local elections

Paris Elects Its First-Ever Female Mayor

Paris has elected its first-ever female mayor, the Spanish-born Socialist Anne Hidalgo, even as elsewhere in the country more right-wing candidates won their races. Hidalgo received 54.5 per cent of the vote.

Hidalgo promised major investment in housing, transportation, and green spaces, hoping to stay the exodus of middle and working-class families from the city, aiming specifically to create 10,000 new social housing units and 5,000 kindergarten places.

Read more at Gawker

Turkey’s Erdogan declares victory in local elections

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Image attribution: Gobierno de Chile [CC-BY-3.0-cl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/cl/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan declared victory in local polls that had become a referendum on his rule and said he would “enter the lair” of enemies who have accused him of corruption and leaked state secrets, saying “they will pay for this”.

But while Erdogan’s AK Party was well ahead in overall votes after Sunday’s elections, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) appeared close to seizing the capital, Ankara.

Erdogan, fighting the biggest challenge of his 12-year rule, addressed supporters from a balcony at the AKP headquarters at the end of a long and bitter election campaign in which he has labelled his opponents “terrorists” and an “alliance of evil”.

The harsh tone of his balcony address suggested he felt he now had a mandate for strong action against his enemies. “From tomorrow, there may be some who flee,” he said.

The election campaign has been dominated by a power struggle between Erdogan and a moderate US-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of using a network of followers in police and judiciary to fabricate graft accusations in an effort to topple him. Erdogan has purged thousands of police officers and hundreds of judges and prosecutors since anti-graft raids in December targeting businessmen close to him and sons of ministers.

Read more at France 24

Turkish Court Orders Release of Jailed General

FILE – A person holds photos of Ilker Basbug, former Chief of Staff, as family members of jailed Turkish army officers, accused of coup plot, demonstrate in Ankara.

A Turkish high court has ordered the release of a former army chief serving a life prison sentence for plotting to topple Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Ilker Basbug was freed Friday – a day after it was ruled a lower court violated his rights by failing to publish a detailed explanation of the verdict last August.

Read more at Voice of America

In related news: Erdogan: Turkey Could Ban Facebook and YouTube via Voice of America

Why the United States Is Getting Tough With Turkey

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Barack Obama in the White House Rose Garden, May 16, 2013. (Kevin Lamarque / Courtesy Reuters)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu did something extraordinary when they emerged from a January 12 bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria conference in Paris. Such occasions are usually marked by predictable boilerplate rhetoric about how productive the talk was and how closely both countries are working to solve pressing global issues, and Davutoğlu’s comments followed the standard script. What happened next was more unusual. After Davutoğlu finished speaking, Kerry took the opportunity to chide his Turkish counterpart for neglecting to mention an important component of the talks: Kerry’s emphatic rejection of Turkish claims that the United States had been meddling in Turkish politics and trying to influence the Turkish elections. As Davutoğlu sheepishly looked at the floor, Kerry continued that Davutoğlu now understood the score, and said that the two countries “need to calm the waters and move forward.”

Kerry’s addendum came in response to what has become a familiar Turkish government strategy of shifting the blame to outside powers, and particularly to the United States, when faced with any sort of internal opposition. During the Gezi Park protests in June, for example, Turkish government figures blamed Washington, CNN, and “foreign powers” for inciting unrest. More recently, when an ongoing corruption scandal exploded into the open in late December, Turkish ministers were quick to insinuate that the United States was the hidden hand behind the graft probe. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to expel U.S. ambassador Francis Ricciardone for allegedly provoking Turkey and “exceeding limits,” a reference to allegations that the ambassador was somehow meddling in Turkish affairs and prodding the investigation of government officials.

It isn’t surprising that the Turkish government has blamed the United States for self-inflicted wounds. But it is surprising that the United States has finally responded forcefully. And, if Turkey’s behavior after the flap is any indication (it made a quick about-face on a number of issues that have been particularly angering the United States), the Obama administration should make getting tougher with Turkey a priority.

PROBLEM PARTNER

Turkey voted in the UN Security Council against additional sanctions on Iran; helped Iran get around the international sanctions regime; and even hinted at Iran’s natural right to a nuclear program.

Turkish officials like to describe the last few years as a golden age in bilateral relations. Davutoğlu, in particular, likes to wax on about the “model partnership” between the two countries. What he is responding to is the United States’ decision early in Obama’s first term to treat Turkey with kid gloves despite an increasingly long track record of troubling Turkish behavior. The United States had two main motivations. The first was the hope that Turkey could serve as a democratic example for other Muslim countries. For a variety of reasons, including Turkey’s unique history and its distinctive combination of structural pressures, it was never going to be a good model, but that did not prevent Washington from pushing it wholeheartedly.

The second motivation was a conviction that Turkey could serve as an interlocutor between the West and the Middle East. With its ties to groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its relationship with Iran, Turkey was seen as irreplaceable, and Washington was reluctant to alienate it. Even when the United States instituted a policy directly intended to counter problematic Turkish behavior, Turkey was still given an inordinate amount of leeway. For example, in January 2013, when Congress passed legislation specifically outlawing trade in gas for gold to stem Turkish sanctions-busting in Iran, Turkey was granted a six-month buffer period. The only thing the backpedaling did was enable ever-bolder Turkish probing of U.S. red lines.

And probe it has. As has been documented repeatedly, Turkish democracy has been off the rails for some time. Since winning re-election in 2007, the AKP has systematically squeezed political opponents, consolidated state power, and done all it can to marginalize the feckless opposition. It has jailed journalists in unprecedented numbers, prosecuted citizens for insulting the prime minister, subjected companies that have run afoul of the government to crushing fines, and convicted military officers on charges based on forged evidence. All the while, the United States has largely sat on the sidelines with its mouth shut. State Department officials repeat the mantra that Turkey is more democratic now than it has ever been, and in 2012, President Barack Obama listed Erdogan as one of the five world leaders with whom he has the closest and most trusting relationship.

Read more at Foreign Affairs

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