As our regular readers know, TOL normally does not cover Turkey, unless an issue concerns one of the countries we do cover in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, through the fall and perhaps beyond, we are making an exception because of the dire situation faced by many journalists in Turkey since the attempted coup in 2016. After that dramatic event, almost 200 media outlets were closed down and scores of critically minded journalists lost their jobs and now struggle to eke out an existence. We are proud to provide some international exposure to many of these Turkish reporters and expand, at least for now, our mission of supporting independent journalism and the freedom of the media to this fascinating and important part of the world.
When 28-year-old Turkish journalist Hulya Emec applied for political asylum in Switzerland this January, she hoped her request would be approved quickly. Five months later, she is not so sure.
“I may have to wait for two more weeks, or two more years,” she said.
Emec is one of thousands of Turkish citizens who have applied for political asylum in European countries following the failed coup attempt in July 2016. The Ankara government imposed a state of emergency immediately after the event, and it is still in force almost two years later.
Emec is currently in a center for asylum seekers and refugees near Zurich, Switzerland. If her request is rejected and she is sent back to Turkey, she will be detained at the airport and taken straight to prison.
Asylum requests from Turkish citizens in European countries significantly increased in 2017, with more than 14,000 applications made in Germany, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, and Greece. Most of those claims are related to the persecution of opposition figures, journalists, and activists.
Many applicants face an uncertain future. In Germany, by far the preferred European destination for those fleeing Turkey, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper reported last year that the state had rejected nearly 5,000 requests out of some 5,800 claims made by Turkish citizens since July 2016.
Switzerland has come in for criticism from Amnesty International for its sometimes rigid treatment of asylum seekers. There have also been cases where people who had their claims rejected were sent back to countries including Turkey.
Emec used to work for the Firat News Agency, an independent outlet known in Turkey for its focus on Kurdish issues and which was shut down in the immediate aftermath of the attempted coup.
As a consequence of her reporting, Emec was charged with membership of an illegal organization and sentenced to seven years and six months in prison, a term confirmed by the Turkish Supreme Court in January 2018.
Emec has already served a prison sentence for her work as a journalist.
Ten years ago, when she was only 18, Emec was reporting for a Kurdish media outlet on protests against the mistreatment of sick prisoners in Turkey’s detention facilities.
As a result of her work, she was also charged with membership of an illegal organization and sentenced to two years and three months in prison.
Emec said that the time she spent in Istanbul’s Bakirkoy women’s prison made her grow up fast.
“I could not go outside, and was sleep-deprived,” she said.
While her decision to leave Turkey was not an easy one, Emec said that she felt that she had no other choice. Spending another seven years in detention was not an option.
“I constantly have to pay the price of being a Kurd, as well as a woman journalist, in Turkey,” she said.
She left her home without saying a proper goodbye to her mother, boyfriend, and friends, and decided to go to Switzerland after reading that it was considering asylum applications from 408 Turkish citizens wanted by the Ankara government following the 2016 coup attempt.
In December 2017 she fled Turkey and, after taking a circuitous route that involved stopovers in Georgia and Brazil, arrived in Switzerland a month later where she immediately claimed asylum.
She was kept in a detention facility at Zurich airport for almost a month before the Swiss authorities finally allowed her to formally enter the country on 10 February.
She now spends most of her time in a cramped room which she shares with an Iranian-Kurdish asylum seeker at the camp near Zurich.
Emec said that she has found it hard adjusting to Switzerland’s cold climate, and has been diagnosed with anemia and vitamin D and B12 deficiency.
“I am used to sunshine, which I had almost every day while I lived in Turkey. Switzerland’s cold and gloomy weather affects both my physical and mental health,” she said.
And not knowing when she will receive an official response to her asylum application makes Emec feel as if she were still a prisoner.
“My biggest delusion was thinking that, once I reached Switzerland, I would be free,” she said. “However, after spending almost a month in detention at the Swiss airport, and then swapping one detention facility for another, I now understand that I will probably never be truly free.”
Emec stressed that she had not expected a red carpet welcome for Turkish asylum seekers like her in Switzerland.
But she said she was baffled why, when the whole world could see the persecution of journalists and human rights activists in Turkey, she was being treated with such apparent suspicion.
“I cannot understand people who think that we have come to Europe willingly, easily and in search for pleasure. I am not judging Swiss people or their laws, but I don’t really feel that I will ever belong here,” Emec said.
The Swiss authorities failed to respond to repeated requests for comment about the country’s asylum procedure.
She is now focusing on learning German, the official language of this part of Switzerland, hoping to resume her career as a journalist as soon as she gets a work permit.
But she made clear that she fully intends to return to Turkey one day. “When my country is free from cruelty, I will go back, as will many other Turkish citizens spending their lives in exile all over the world,” she added.
Zeynep Yunculer started her journalism career at the Milliyet newspaper, one of the biggest media outlets in Turkey. She also worked for Artı1 TV and the BirGun newspaper. Zeynep received a national award for the best interview published in 2016. She is currently a freelance journalist, an editor at Journo.com.tr, and an active member of the Journalists’ Union of Turkey.