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Defending Human Rights in Turkey: Cavidan Soykan

28 August 2019

Cavidan Soykan is an academic who has dedicated much of her career to refugee rights. She is one of the Academics for Peace being judicially targeted for signing the “We will not be party to this crime!” petition, which opposed the military violence perpetrated by the Turkish state in the predominantly Kurdish southeast region. Sustained attention and a proactive strategy by the EU and its Member States is needed to defend Cavidan Soykan and other human rights defenders and journalists in Turkey, from further criminalisation and reprisals for their work.

The portrayal of Soykan’s experiences is a continuation of the series “Defending Human Rights in Turkey: Stories that Need to Be Heard,” told by Tan Tunali, with illustrations by Marco Lambooij.

A water-colour depiction of Cavidan Soykan

It came as no surprise to Cavidan Soykan when she read a news report on Turkish authorities deporting refugees back to Syria. She knew that the unlawful deportations reported on earlier this summer were not the first; “It happened before and it will happen again,” she said. Ankara has long denied allegations by international human rights organisations that Syrian refugees are being unlawfully forced to return to a country that is far from safe. Instead, the Turkish government claims that refugees are only being sent back to cities where they were first registered when they came to Turkey. This is due in part to the significant portion who left their city of registration and migrated to Istanbul for better job prospects. Those who are being sent back to Syria, the government argues, are being sent back on a voluntary basis.

Soykan agrees with many critics that the lack of a coherent integration policy, combined with the dire economic downturn in Turkey, has fuelled an atmosphere of tension and xenophobia. Turkey currently shelters more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees, in addition to those who fled from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and other countries. This makes Turkey the country hosting the largest number of refugees worldwide—a fact for which Ankara has been widely applauded. However, legislative restrictions have made it difficult for many Syrians to make a living in Turkey.

While Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the geographical reservation on the definition of a refugee that Ankara stipulated when signing the Convention allows it to register Syrians under a temporary protection status rather than as refugees with full rights. “You cannot expect people to be able to settle down and lead a normal life without giving them a secure legal status,” explained Soykan. She continued, “Just following an open door policy doesn’t mean you are protecting refugee rights.”

Soykan experienced the resulting crackdown on human rights defenders first-hand when she signed a petition… and was later sacked from her university for the petition”

Soykan began studying Turkey’s asylum policy before the conflict in Syria forced many of them to flee their country. She wrote her doctoral thesis at the University of Essex between 2008 and 2013, focusing mainly on Iranian, Iraqi, Afghan and Somali migrants and refugees. After obtaining her PhD, she returned to Turkey and began teaching human rights at Ankara University’s Faculty of Political Science. By then, many people had already fled war-torn Syria—a country that shares a 900 km border with Turkey. The academic remembers that she, many of her colleagues, and other human rights activists initially lauded their government’s efforts to shelter Syrians seeking safety from the war. She explained further, “But we could also see other motives related to Turkey’s foreign policy. Also, the Turkish government thought the war would end and the guests would return, but that’s not what happened.”

From the beginning of the conflict to now, the situation for Syrians in Turkey has changed dramatically. “In the beginning, Syrians were happy that they could come to Turkey, that the border was open and that they could find safety,” Soykan explained. “But in 2015 they [the Syrians] started to realise that the war was not going to end anytime soon and that they needed a more secure legal status in Turkey.” She added that until 2015, the Turkish government and media had mainly been referring to Syrians as “guests” and “Muslim brothers and sisters” instead of “refugees” who would be “sent home,” a discourse that became more prevalent after the EU-Turkey deal.

Trapped in Turkey without full refugee status and the rights that accompany the status, the situation of Syrians quickly began to deteriorate. When describing the situation, Soykan said, “They did not have the legal right to work until 2016. So people worked illegally in the informal economy and were exploited.” The high unemployment rate among the Turkish population, coupled with incoherent refugee policies and a lack of transparency by the government on this issue, led to growing discontent amongst the population. All over Turkish social media, rumours spread about preferential treatment of Syrians, including that they receive priority access to health care and education, as well as claims that Syrian businesses are exempt from taxation.

We realized that if something like this can happen to Taner, anything can happen to us who work for refugee rights as well,” Soykan explained.

A key turning point came in March 2016, when the European Union (EU) and Turkey signed a highly controversial deal. In the deal, Turkey agreed to take back the migrants who travel through Turkey to Greek islands. For each migrant Turkey took back, the EU would take in and settle a Syrian refugee. Lastly, the EU also promised €6 billion in assistance funds for the Syrians in Turkey. Soykan summarised the situation by saying, “Turkey wanted the money and the EU wanted Turkey to stop migration to Europe, so the government became the gatekeeper that kept Syrians in Turkey.”

“The refugee deal made people understand that Syrians would not go anywhere anytime soon,” Soykan continued to explain, “Racist attacks on Syrians increased.” In a move sharply criticised by human rights organisations, the Turkish government closed the border with Syria by building a wall, in effect preventing Syrians fleeing the war from coming to Turkey. At the same time, regulations for Syrians already in the country tightened significantly. Istanbul and nine provinces on or near the border stopped registering Syrians in 2017 and 2018. Syrians who were already registered in a certain district would now have to apply for official travel permits in order to leave that district, turning even small family visits and business trips into a bureaucratic nightmare.

Throughout this period, Turkey was itself going through intense political turmoil. Violent clashes in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, terror attacks in several big cities, and a coup attempt in the summer of 2016 coincided with mounting pressure on civic space. Soykan experienced the resulting crackdown on human rights defenders first-hand when she signed a petition criticising the state’s excessive military operations in Kurdish cities, and was later sacked from her university for the petition—similar to other Academics for Peace such as Füsun Üstel. In early 2017, in the wake of the coup attempt, Soykan, along with half of the Political Science Department’s staff, lost their jobs in purges of the public sector and academia authorised by emergency decrees. The Human Rights Centre at Ankara University, where she taught, was also shut down by the University’s administration.

It was in this environment that people working on refugees’ rights began to experience growing restrictions in their work. The detention of Taner Kılıç, honorary president of Amnesty International Turkey, had a particularly chilling effect. For Soykan and her colleagues, Kılıç’s arrest had a big impact because he is one of the most prominent figures in defending refugee rights and a renowned legal expert in the field. “We realized that if something like this can happen to Taner, anything can happen to us who work for refugee rights as well,” she explained.

Despite the judicial pressure she is currently facing, and her health issues, she hopes she will soon recover and continue her human rights work in civil society once again.”

Soykan has been very active in civil society organisations throughout her career. In 2009, she started volunteering at the Association for Solidarity with Refugees (Mülteci-Der) in her hometown Izmir—a city on the Aegean coast that has hosted thousands of migrants and refugees. Upon her return from the UK, she became a board member and vice-president of Mülteci-Der—a position she held between 2014 and 2018.

In this repressive climate, many refugee rights organisations quit or scaled down their campaigns and collaborations. “We moved press conferences to hotels where we would not attract big crowds,” she recalled. After Kılıç (a founding member of Mülteci-Der) was arrested, Soykan said she had to tone down her criticism of the government in order not to endanger the work of the NGO. Soykan also recalled that Ankara University’s Human Rights Center stopped being invited to discussions on the government’s draft asylum bill after the Center’s board published a critical comment about the legislative text on its website.

The initial self-censorship and fear in response to the crackdown against refugee rights defenders is slowly fading away, replaced instead by growing indignation with the government’s practices, Soykan observed. Following the latest deportations of Syrians, citizens and civil society organisations took to the streets in protest. Soykan believes these demonstrations forced the government to pay heed to this part of public opinion. Nevertheless, Soykan’s dismissal and prosecution for signing a peace petition have stopped her from continuing her academic career and banned her from working in the public sector. A travel ban also prevents her from traveling abroad. Despite the recent ruling by the Constitutional Court stating convictions for signing a petition were unlawful, her court case is ongoing. But first and foremost, since her dismissal Soykan has been battling serious health issues that have rendered her largely immobile. Despite the judicial pressure she is currently facing, and her health issues, she hopes she will soon recover and continue her human rights work in civil society once again.

UPDATE: On 26 July 2019, the Constitutional Court found that being prosecuted for signing a peace petition violates the right to freedom of expression. Soykan was acquitted of all charges on 07 November 2019.
Since the publication of her story, Soykan has been diagnosed with “stiff person syndrome.” It took her five years to be diagnosed with this very rare -one in a million- neuromuscular autoimmune disorder that impedes her mobility severely. Her treatment has been halted due to current precautions taken in hospitals in Turkey as a result of the COVID-19 virus. In addition to the hindrance to her treatment, on which there is little knowledge in Turkey, Soykan has also faced stigmatisation and disregard by some of her associates in Turkey. As a result, she is raising awareness about the syndrome and is pursuing to become a disability rights activist in addition to her valuable work as a refugee rights defender.”