Kurdish politician, ex-Turkish police escape to Greece on refugee boat - reports

A Kurdish member of Turkey’s parliament was among 65 people who arrived by boat to the Greek town of Katakolo in the western Ilia region this week, the Greek City Times reported on Thursday.

The Kurdish deputy, who refused to give his or her name, speak to journalists or to be photographed, was discovered by Greek authorities as they carried out initial controls of the asylum seekers on Tuesday, the newspaper said, citing a report by local news outlet Ilia Live.

Among the passengers were 20 police officers, who told Greek authorities that they had been followers of Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, and is held responsible by the Turkish government for a failed military coup on July 15, 2016. 

Others on the boat included ten self-identified members of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), as well as a Kurdish journalist who went by the name Azad, meaning “free” in Kurdish.

Azad said he had spent three years in prison, and that he could not go back to Turkey for fear of continued persecution. The journalist also revealed that there were Kurdish academics among the passengers of the dangerous journey across the Aegean.

The Greek Migration and Asylum Ministry said 35 of the boat’s passengers were from Turkey, according to the Associated Press.

Eight of the remaining migrants on the boat were Iraqi Kurds, possibly fleeing a recent flare-up in tensions between the Barzani family that controls Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region and the PKK. All of them said they had been persecuted in Turkey.

The police officers on the boat did not provide many details about themselves. Turkey has sacked some 150,000 public servants, among them thousands of police officers, and imprisoned another 80,000 people over coup-related terrorism charges since 2016.

Turkey has seen an increasing number of dissidents leave the country in recent years, legally and illegally, a phenomenon accelerated by the 2016 coup attempt and a subsequent government crackdown on Gülenists, Kurds and left-wing activists. 

Those leaving legally are often highly-educated, young people who are able to secure job offers or education opportunities abroad. Falling living standards and growing political repression have been a deciding factor for emigration among the country’s youth. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, a total of 330,289 people left Turkey last year, 41 percent of whom were between the ages of 20-34.

Turkey has one of the largest populations of young people in Europe. But a recent poll conducted by the Foundation for Social Democracy found that more than 60 percent of Turkey’s 15 to 25-year-olds would choose to live abroad if given the opportunity.

Many who couldn’t leave legally, either because of a lack of employment or because they lost their travel documents in the post-coup purges, have braved the Aegean Sea. Among those was former Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) lawmaker Leyla Birlik, who fled to Greece in 2018, where she applied for asylum. Birlik had been stripped of her parliamentary immunity in May 2016 and arrested the following November, to be released with a foreign travel ban the following year.

Two former HDP lawmakers, Faysal Sarıyıldız and Tuğba Hezer Öztürk, simply remained in Europe, where they had been campaigning for Kurdish rights, after several HDP deputies had their parliamentary immunities from prosecution lifted. Both were stripped of their parliamentary status in 2017 in their absence.

A Turkish journalist who crossed the border to seek asylum in Greece in 2017 was returned to Turkey without having his appeal assessed, and was imprisoned upon his return to the country over a conviction for attempting to overthrow Turkey’s constitutional order.

In Bulgaria, a Turkish businessman who moved to the country in 2016 was handed over to Turkish authorities by Bulgarian intelligence. Since the failed coup, Bulgaria has returned to Turkey several more people by similar means; at least seven people by 2018. Human rights advocates have accused Greece of doing the same.

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