Seized files set to endanger Turkish asylum-seekers in Europe

Last September, Turkish police arrested a Turkish lawyer working for the German embassy in Ankara and charged him with espionage. For some two decades, the lawyer, Yılmaz Sunar, had reviewed the claims of Turkish citizens seeking political asylum in European countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. Suddenly Turkish authorities had determined it was a criminal offence to access judicial authorities’ personal data on Turkish citizens for a foreign government without a permit. 

When news of Sunar’s arrest broke in November, the German Foreign Ministry responded with outrage, defended Sunar’s work as common practice and called for his release. As part of the arrest, Turkish authorities seized Sunar’s files that included detailed biographical and personal information for hundreds, perhaps thousands of Turkish citizens, many of whom fled the country fearing government persecution.

In July 2016, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fended off a bloody coup attempt that it quickly blamed on U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen. Turkey labelled the Gülen movement, which at the time had millions of members worldwide, a terrorist organisation and began purging all government bodies of those with any links to its leader. To date, more than 150,000 people have been dismissed from their jobs, some 50,000 people have been jailed and tens of thousands have fled the country fearing arrest. 

This has not stopped Erdoğan, who has shown a willingness to pursue his enemies beyond Turkey’s borders. Turkey has requested thousands of Interpol Red Notices, akin to an international arrest warrant, and pressured governments across the world to detain alleged Gülenists and return them to Turkey. The government has since expanded its purge to include a broad variety of critics, including journalists and pro-Kurdish activists and politicians. 

Turkish officials have said some 14,000 terrorists are allowed to live freely in Germany, and exiled Turkish journalist Can Dündar wrote for the Washington Post last month detailing how the Turkish government might be plotting assassinations against dissidents abroad. This explains why Germany’s largest immigrant advocacy organisation, Pro Asyl, described Turkey getting its hands on Sunar’s files as the “worst-case scenario”. 

Mehmet, a former senior adviser to the Turkish government, is now seeking asylum in Germany and fears for his family back home. Mehmet is wanted in Turkey for links to Gülen, and chose to use a pseudonym to protect his family. “The Erdoğan government knows where I am and can threaten my family in Turkey any time,” he told Ahval. 

Mehmet is far from alone. Initially, the German Foreign Ministry said only 47 asylum seekers had been compromised by Turkey’s seizure of Sunar’s files. In December, a German state said the number was at least 276. Then Turkish news outlets reported that Sunar and another so-called cooperation lawyer had examined the cases of more than 4,000 asylum seekers. Pro Asyl responded to these reports with great concern.

“Until the dimension of this scandal and its effects on those affected are clarified, we are calling for an immediate nationwide stop to deportation to Turkey,” the organisation said in a November statement. “In addition, we are calling for all refugees affected to be granted asylum and immediate measures to protect family members who may face political persecution as a result of the confiscation of the files.”

Berlin said it had quickly informed at-risk Turkish exiles of the data leak, but Mehmet said he had only been notified of the seized files after Sunar’s arrest had been made public. German authorities granted protection to at least 45 of the people mentioned in Sunar’s files. 

The German constitution stipulates that asylum-seekers need not show documents proving their persecution, but just needed to make their persecution credible. Hanover-based asylum lawyer Dündar Kelloğlu, who has been working for several of the Turkish asylum-seekers, said that now the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) routinely requested some evidence of persecution. He blamed the policy shift on the massive increase in the number of Turkish asylum-seekers. 

Turkish asylum applications in Germany have spiked following the failed coup, with nearly 11,000 applying in 2019, up more than a third from 2017. As a result, the recognition rate for Turkish asylum-seekers has fallen to 47 percent in Germany, even as it remains above 90 percent in Norway and Finland, which have received thousands fewer Turkish nationals. 

“When earlier there were only a few checking orders, suddenly there were thousands,” Kelloğlu said. “Of course, the Turkish secret service became aware of it. The most insane thing is that the research almost always showed that the asylum applications were justified.”

Mehmet’s story of exile began 10 days after the failed coup, when he was fired from his government post. “I was accused of being a spy and a member of a terrorist organisation, which is absurd,” he said. “The reason given was that I had attended a school of the Gülen movement.” 

Mehmet, who said he is not a Gülenist, but has many friends in the movement, stayed in Turkey for a year before deciding to flee. He took an illegal, pre-dawn boat to a Greek island, then made his way to Germany, where he applied for asylum in September 2017. 

In January 2018, Mehmet’s application was rejected. But he quickly appealed and in mid-2019 his case was referred back to BAMF, after the court decided documents proved his persecution. Soon after, BAMF sent Mehmet a letter informing him that another authority had been commissioned to examine his case. 

“Other asylum seekers received similar notices," said Mehmet. "We wondered what that means. Now we know.

BAMF had handed the cases over to the German Foreign Ministry, which hired Sunar and another lawyer to examine the asylum claims. 

“People were exposed to an unpredictable danger by BAMF handing their cases over to the Foreign Ministry for investigation in the persecuting country,” said Kelloğlu. 

The German Foreign Ministry told Ahval that Sunar’s work for the embassy was in line with an internationally accepted practice that it viewed as indisputably justified. In November, Germany’s ambassador to Turkey said Sunar’s arrest was incomprehensible, and pressed Turkey to clarify the charges against him. 

“Our legal consultant has provided our embassy with support that is ordinary from an international perspective and undoubtedly not forbidden. Such cooperation should be possible without any obstacles,” ambassador Martin Erdmann said in a statement.

Sunar’s Turkish lawyer Levent Kanat agreed that the government’s charges are unfounded because it had known for more than a decade about the cooperation between the German embassy and the lawyers, and done nothing. Kelloğlu, the German lawyer, thought it possible that Sunar had not broken any law, but that instead the Turkish government had created the charges so it could seize his files and learn more about exiled Gülenists and Kurds.

A Turkish law professor who also fled to Germany and declined to be named was unsure of the legal basis for Turkey’s charges, but suggested that either the embassy had failed to inform Turkey what it was doing or Sunar had failed to gain authorisation. 

Last month, the German Foreign Ministry sent officials to meet Sunar in prison and told a parliamentary commission that it had suspended the practice of hiring local attorneys in Turkey. 

"The milk is already spilled," said Günter Burkhardt, managing director of Pro Asyl. “The moment a cooperation lawyer starts asking questions from neighbours or the authorities, it becomes dangerous ... Anyone who leaves electronic traces endangers asylum seekers.”

Indeed, Turkish authorities have confirmed that Sunar’s files included information on a former parliamentarian of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Leyla Birlik, who has been granted asylum in Germany. Mehmet is convinced Turkey’s arrest of Sunar was intended to send a message to its supposed enemies abroad. 

“They showed us that they know everything about us,” he said.

© Ahval English

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.