‘The police in my home country tortured me … the Greek police brought my children breakfast.’

By ZIA WEISE, POlitico.eu

urkish citizens fleeing the country are finding safe haven in a place they were told hated them: Greece.

The neighbors have a long history of conflict and mutual distrust and present ties are far from warm. Amid disputes over borders and Cyprus, relations have deteriorated only months after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan traveled to Greece on the first Turkish state visit to Athens in 65 years.

Yet according to the Greek asylum servicenearly 2,000 Turkish citizens have sought asylum in Greece since the July 2016 coup attempt — adding to rising tensions.

The vast majority are civilians, and many are followers of the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Erdoğan accuses of orchestrating the plot to overthrow him. Others are academics, leftists or Kurds escaping Turkey’s ever-widening purge of government opponents.

The Turkish government demands that Greece and other countries extradite members of Gülen’s movement, which Turkey considered a terrorist organization, but EU members have largely refused or ignored Turkey’s requests.


The courts’ continued rulings against extradition to Turkey have turned Greece into an unexpected sanctuary for Turkish citizens.

“We would not want our neighbor Greece, with whom we are improving our ties, to be a safe haven for Gülenists,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoğlu said in October. “We believe these applications will be evaluated meticulously and that traitors will not be given credit.”

Greek courts have rejected several Turkish demands for extradition, prompting Ankara to accuse Greece of protecting terrorists.

This month, tensions escalated further after Turkey arrested two Greek soldiers who strayed across the border in bad weather, a move that some have interpreted as Ankara retaliating against Greece’s refusal to hand over eight Turkish soldiers who fled in a helicopter after the coup.

The courts’ continued rulings against extradition to Turkey have turned Greece into an unexpected sanctuary for Turkish citizens fleeing Erdoğan’s crackdown — past and present hostilities notwithstanding.

According to Eurostat, in 2017, more than 14,000 Turkish citizens sought asylum in the EU — 1,820 of them in Greece, making it the second-largest destination country after Germany (with 8,025). That’s a tenfold increase on 2016, when only 180 Turkish citizens applied for asylum in Greece, out of an EU total of 10,105.

Tuba Güven did not expect a warm welcome when she and her family crossed the river separating the two countries a few weeks after the failed coup. Growing up in Turkey, she had been taught that Greece and its people were her enemies.

But to her surprise, the policemen they encountered beyond the border treated them with kindness, bringing chocolate for her two young children and assuring them they were safe in Greece.

“It really was a shock,” said Tuba, sipping coffee in her new home in Thessaloniki. “In Turkey, the police labelled me a terrorist. Here, they welcomed us. It caused a revolution in my mind.”

Tuba and her family were among the first to arrive. Her husband Cevheri was the editor-in-chief of Nokta, a weekly magazine famous for its provocative covers; Tuba, too, was a journalist, working at the Turkish state television station TRT. They both sympathize with the Gülen movement.

They went into hiding shortly after the coup, when Cevheri’s name appeared on a list of journalists that were likely to be arrested soon. In September 2016, they decided to flee, paying smugglers €15,000 to help them cross the Evros River dividing Turkey and Greece.

The river crossing is no less risky than the journey across the Aegean: In February, a teacher and her two children drowned in the river when their dinghy sank. Turkish media identified them as Gülen sympathizers.

A few months earlier, in November, a Turkish family of five died when their boat capsized in the Aegean. The father was a high school teacher; the mother worked in a kindergarten. Both were dismissed from their jobs and accused of belonging to a terrorist organization.

Tuba feels fortunate that her own escape was uneventful. “We took a small wooden boat, which is safer. Now people come on plastic boats,” she said.

After a brief stay in a refugee camp, the Güven family settled in Thessaloniki, renting a flat near the port. Like most Turkish asylum seekers, they live off savings, borrowed money and financial support from the United Nations’ Refugee Agency.

In February, a year and a half after they arrived, they were granted asylum. They are settling in: Their nine-year-old daughter attends a public school and, as Tuba says proudly, speaks Greek “almost fluently.”

Halfway across town, on Thessaloniki’s eastern edge, another Turkish family laid out their Greek homework in preparation for that evening’s lesson.

Mehmet, a Gülenist engineer, fled with his wife and two children in May last year. To protect family members who remain in Turkey, he asked to be identified by a pseudonym.

An employee at Turkey’s energy ministry, Mehmet was dismissed a few weeks after the coup attempt. Shortly after, he was taken into custody. The police, he said, presented him with a pre-written confession admitting to membership of a terror organization.

“They wanted me to sign it,” he said. “They told me that if I don’t sign, they will detain my wife as well. I refused to sign. When my wife came to visit me the next day, they detained her.”

“Then they sprayed us with a fire hose. They wrapped wet fabric around their batons and hit us. And they put buckets of ice on our bellies” — Mehmet, Gülenist engineer

Mehmet and his wife spent 10 days in police custody. A prosecutor eventually released them on bail, but in spring last year, he was detained again.

The police once again gave him a paper to sign, he said. This time, they had added a paragraph in which he admitted to overseeing terror activities.

“Again I refused to sign,” he said. At this point, Mehmet paused; he did not want his wife and children to hear what happened next.

When they had left the room, he continued: “They tortured me and others who refused. They tied our hands and legs to plastic chairs. They removed our clothes and covered our faces.

“Then they sprayed us with a fire hose. They wrapped wet fabric around their batons and hit us. And they put buckets of ice on our bellies.”

The torture lasted a month, Mehmet said. At one point, they again threatened to detain his wife, but they could not find her; Mehmet had told her to go into hiding if he was arrested again.

Eventually, he was released after appearing before a judge, who placed him under house arrest. The court instructed him to return home and wait for an officer to fit him with an ankle monitor.

Mehmet had no intention of waiting. The day he was released, he and his family took a bus to Edirne, a Turkish city close to the Greek border, and bought an inflatable dinghy. The next morning, they crossed the Evros River.

Like Tuba Güven, he was struck by the Greek officers’ kindness. “Until May 9th, the police in my home country tortured me,” he said. “On May 10th, the Greek police brought my children breakfast.”

The Turkish government has repeatedly denied allegations of torture and mistreatment in prisons.

Although many Gülenists consider Greece a safe haventhe human rights group Hellenic League says it has obtained evidence that Greek authorities send back several Turkish asylum seekers. One of them, Nokta’s managing editor Murat Çapan, was jailed upon his return.

Still, the Turkish asylum seekers POLITICO spoke to were confident that Greece would not send them back.

“Here, the law is powerful,” said Ali, an academic from the central Anatolian city of Konya who fled Turkey after his Gülen-linked university was shut down by decree. “We feel very comfortable in Greece.”

“At school, we were taught the Greeks are enemies of Turkey. But no one can say that to me now” — Ali, academic from the city of Konya

His wife, who asked not to be named, chimed in: “Our cultures are very close, and our languages share some words. That helps. Our food is the same too — baklava, dolma, the coffee.” The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was born in Thessaloniki, she pointed out.

To Ali’s wife, their escape to Greece marks a return to her ancestral home: her family lived in Thessaloniki for generations until the Turkish-Greek population exchange of 1923, which saw the majority of ethnic Greeks expelled from Turkey and vice versa.

“When we got married, I used to tease her for being Greek. Now, she teases me. When we arrived in Thessaloniki, she turned to me and said: ‘Now, husband, how do you like my country?’,” Ali said, laughing.

Turning serious, he added: “At school, we were taught the Greeks are enemies of Turkey. But no one can say that to me now.”