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  • As Afghans flee, Turkey is accused of deporting them without a fair hearing
    As elections approach and politicians play to fears over the number of refugees in Turkey, a new report by Human Rights Watch accuses Turkish authorities of indiscriminately deporting Afghans regardless of the dangers awaiting them in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. These are dangerous times for Ahmad, not his real name. His name is being withheld for security reasons. Once a US-trained pilot fighting the Taliban, he has been in Istanbul for the last year, waiting for his American asylum application to be processed. But as he explains, he now lives under the shadow of deportation back to Afghanistan. "I know of people that have been deported, and a few of them were former military personnel," Ahmad says. "The Taliban say they have forgiven the former government military personnel, but they haven't. We hear the news that they are still looking for them, and they're still getting killed and kidnapped. "I was a pilot in Afghanistan, and my deportation will cause a serious risk to my life. When you're deporting an Afghan back to Afghanistan, it's not only you are just deporting a person, you're putting somebody's life at risk." Thousands deported In a slickly produced video posted on Twitter and other social media, Turkey's Directorate General of Migration Management proudly announced the latest deportations of Afghans by air. The total now stands at over 54,000 for this year, while another 240,000 were pushed back at the Iranian border or denied entry. A Human Rights Watch report released this month accuses authorities of using coercion and indiscriminately deporting Afghans without properly considering their claims to asylum.  "What we are seeing is that these people are generally rounded up in cities in big police operations, put in removal centres, and then coerced into signing or accepting return voluntarily – so-called voluntarily. If you beat somebody enough, they're bound to sign a form," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch. The title of the report, "No one asked me why I Left Afghanistan", refers to the fact that nobody in the report was offered the chance to file a claim for asylum, she explains. The Turkish authorities strongly deny the charge of coercion and say they comply with international standards. Pre-election fears The Human Rights Watch report also strongly criticized the European Union for failing to share the refugee burden with Turkey more equitably, and called for an end to EU countries pushing back refugees from their borders. Turkey hosts nearly four million refugees, mainly Syrians. However, with growing public discontent over refugees and elections due next year, the Turkish government is wary of allowing the number to rise.  Turkey looks to play pivotal role in Taliban's new Afghanistan "The Turkish government is afraid of a new wave of Afghan refugees," believes Ali Hekmat, the head of the Afghan Refugees Solidarity Association. More Afghans are arriving in Turkey now than Syrians, he says, and Turkish authorities fear that millions more will head to the country from other neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Iran. Fringe opposition parties regularly release anti-refugee videos on social media, while the main opposition is also taking a hard line on the issue. Opinion polls indicate that after inflation, the presence of refugees is ranked as voters' main concern. 'Race against time' The round-up of Afghans is expected to intensify as elections approach. Authorities also announced many Afghans in Istanbul will not have their residence permits renewed – including Ahmad.  His permit expired this month, leaving him in a precarious situation. "I'm scared any time I'm walking in the street, I'm scared that police may ask for a document and I don't have it," he says. "So I may face deportation. I'm very scared of being deported back to Afghanistan." Afghan students in India face tense future as visas run out But Ahmad says his final interview for his application for asylum in the United States is only weeks away, offering hope of being reunited there with his wife and four children. "It's a race against time," he says. The coming weeks could decide Ahmad's life: deportation back to Afghanistan and possible death – or the hope of a new life with his family.
  • What will the deadly bombing in Istanbul mean for Turkish politics?
    In Turkey, the political and diplomatic fallout continues after a deadly bombing on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul. Turkey blames Kurdish militants backed by the United States for the attack, which comes months before fraught elections. On Saturday, Bulgarian prosecutors charged five people in connection with the blast. Mourners continue to lay flowers at the site of the 13 November bombing in Istanbul's most famous shopping street. The attack killed six, including a mother and son, and a father and daughter. Dozens more were injured. Shop owners are clearing up the devastation and, like the rest of the city, trying to come to terms with this latest attack. "It has been a disaster, " said shopkeeper Lokman Kalkan. "People were fighting for their lives. There was blood everywhere, and screaming and crying. There was nothing we could do." While the country grieves for the dead, the political repercussions are already being felt. Security forces, after detaining the alleged bomber just hours after the attack, claimed it was carried out by the Kurdish militant group the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK, a charge it denies.  The PKK is fighting the Turkish state for greater minority rights. But Devlet Bahceli, leader of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's parliamentary coalition partner the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), has called for the closure of the political party that represents Kurds in parliament, the Peoples' Democratic Party or HDP. "We don't want to see separatists in the parliament. We cannot stand seeing terrorists. We cannot tolerate the HDP for even a second," Bahceli bellowed to cheers from his parliamentary deputies. The HDP is already facing closure, accused of having links with the PKK, a charge it denies. Many of its parliamentary deputies are jailed on terrorism charges, convictions condemned as politically motivated by the European Court of Human Rights.  Tension with the US The bombing fallout is also threatening to strain US-Turkish relations further. The police allege the bomber was trained by the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People's Defense Units (YPG), which Ankara says is affiliated with the PKK. Washington backs the Syrian Kurdish group in its fight against Islamic State extremists near the border between Syria and Turkey. Speaking at the site of the bombing, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said Turkey should rethink its relationship with the United States. "We refuse the condolences of the American embassy," Soylu said. "We cannot accept an alliance with a state that sends money from its own senate to these groups, feeding the terror zones in [border town] Kobani, which aims to disturb Turkey's peace. Such a state is in a contradictory situation. This is open and clear." Turkey lays the ground for a smoothing of relations with Syria Turkey and Russia closer than ever despite Western sanctions There is a large audience in Turkey for such anti-American rhetoric, argues Senem Aydin-Duzgit of the Istanbul Policy Centre. "You have the Americans' alliance with the Kurds, in particular in northern Syria. So there is this perception that America is sort of in an alliance with the PKK and the Kurdish nationalist movement. And that creates hostility," she says. "And there is a lot of anti-Americanism in Turkey as well – some of it historical, ideological, because you have anti-Americanism both on the right and the left of the political spectrum." Ghosts of 2015 election Diplomatic fallout between Ankara and Washington appears contained, at least for now. Despite strong words at home, Erdogan recently met US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Indonesia. But analysts suggest the real impact could be on Turkey's presidential elections next year. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, the AKP, are currently languishing in the opinion polls. Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, is wary of a repeat of the 2015 general elections, when the AKP lost its absolute majority in parliament and an alternative government couldn't be formed. As elections loom in Turkey, Erdogan pulls plug on opposition social media How Turkish voters are beating internet press clampdown before polls That forced the vote to be repeated five months later, and in between violence escalated, says Ozel. "There were terrorist incidents, and one of the most awful terrorist incidents in the country's history with the largest number of deaths took place only 20 days before the repeat election," he recalls. Erdogan's AKP party eventually won the second election with a large majority. Opposition parties are already raising questions over the investigation into the Istiklal Avenue bombing, particularly the speed of the inquiry and its swift conclusions. That scrutiny is only likely to grow given the high political stakes, as many in the country look towards next year's election with increasing foreboding.
  • Debate on religious headscarves returns to the heart of Turkish politics
    In Turkey, the right of women to wear religious headscarves has returned to the core of the country's political agenda. With elections less than a year away, the leaders of Turkey's main political parties are vowing to enshrine the right for women to wear religious dress legally, an issue that for decades has been at the centre of a bitter political struggle. With presidential elections due in June 2023, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the leader of the main opposition CHP party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, are promising to introduce legal guarantees for the right of women to wear a religious headscarf. Addressing party supporters in October, Erdogan – whipping up his conservative religious base – committed himself to constitutional reform to protect the rights of the religious. "In order to completely ease the hearts of our daughters and sisters, I proposed the freedom of the headscarf," he bellowed to thousands of supporters at a rally in the provincial city of Malatya.. "What did I propose? We have started the preparation of a constitutional proposal by adding the protection of the family against the impositions of perverted trends, which is another vital issue," Erdogan added to rapturous cheers from the crowd. A brief history of headscarf restrictions Erdogan's lifting of restrictions a decade ago on religious dress – introduced to protect the Turkish secular state – is one of his most significant achievements, claims Emine Ucak, a journalist who wears a religious headscarf and writes for the news journal Perspective. "The headscarf issue in Turkey was implemented within the framework of a law as a ban that prevented many women from participating in the public sphere and receiving education," explains Ucak. "That was how it was in the past. And this lasted for many years, both in the public sphere, in public institutions, and the issue of education. But this ban wasn't only confined to public institutions. "This continued in other sectors, in the private sector. So these women went through this trauma, some still couldn't go back to their professions," added Ucak. As elections loom in Turkey, Erdogan pulls plug on opposition social mediaHeadscarf debate wins votes  Throughout the 1990's and early 2000s, students wearing headscarves protested against a ban on them from attending universities, becoming lawyers or judges, or even a member of parliament. The issue has proved a vote winner for Erdogan in the past. In 2008 Erdogan, then as prime minister, won a landslide in a general election dominated by whether his political ally Abdullah Gul could be president as his wife wore a headscarf. The staunchly pro-secular CHP strongly advocated the ban, holding mass rallies in its support. But now it's calling for legislation to guarantee the right to wear the headscarf. "It is very significant because I believe that CHP has luggage because of those limitations, those bannings," said Politics and law professor Istar Gozaydin has written several books on religious affairs in Turkey. "A step like that I find very, very successful in the sense of embracing more of the society, that a huge step in terms of CHP would be to be expressing yourself to fight for the rights of the whole, not just that certain amount of part of the society," added Gozaydin. Outrage as Turkish courts seek to silence anti-femicide campaignersGenerational shift The CHP's shift comes as – under Erdogan's two-decade rule – a generation has grown up without such barriers. A conservative religious middle class also has emerged and prospered. Some analysts say they are now more concerned about the country's present economic woes of near triple-digit inflation than past religious debates. "Many of the fights their parents had are not these kids' fights, right? They don't care," said Can Selcuki, the head of Istanbul Economics Research, an opinion poll company. "Let's take a head-veiled girl that's having her university education right now. Her fight is not to keep her veil on, but her fight is to get a better education and to get a higher-paying job, so she can start a family and a good career," continued Selcuki. Erdogan's anti-LGBT platform But Erdogan is seeking to broaden the debate calling for constitutional reform that not only guarantees the right to wear the headscarf but protects the family from what he calls "perverse trends," a reference to the LGBT community. "There is a strong underlining of the family values, of the protection of the family," observes Gozaydin. "And more its to do, not only with this scarf issue, which is I find quite a fringe issue for the moment but more with the LGBT+ groups. So he's trying to set an agenda against those groups within conservative circles." Crackdowns are already enforced on what were once legal, public displays by Turkey's vibrant LGBT community. While anti-LGBT protests have already started, as parties jockey to set the political agenda ahead of what is widely predicted to be closely fought elections.
  • Greece and Turkey trade blame over plight of injured, naked migrants
    Photographs of bruised and naked migrants at the Greek Turkish border have drawn international condemnation. Ankara and Athens have blamed each other for the incident. Rights groups warn that escalating Greek Turkish tensions risk having a terrible impact on refugees. Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi accused Turkish authorities of stripping naked 92 male migrants and forcing them into Greece. The men were found by Greek police close to the two countries' northern border, some with injuries. The UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, said it was deeply distressed by the images and reports of the naked migrants and called for an investigation. Ankara has blamed Greek authorities for the incident. "It's natural for Greece to attempt to slander Turkey as its own crimes multiply," said Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, adding, "one has to be truly shameless and reckless to try to appear right even in the most unfair situation."  The ugly incident and resulting blame game is the latest in an increasingly bitter war of words and videos between Athens and Ankara over the migrant crisis.  Attacking immigrants Ankara has released numerous videos of Greek coast guards purportedly pushing migrants and refugees back to Turkey. Athens too has released a video on Twitter, accusing Turkish authorities of attacking migrants. "These people, because we are talking about people, women, men, and children, are trapped in a strategic game between Greece and Turkey," warned Eva Cossé, the representative in Greece of Human Rights Watch. Greece and Turkey have been increasingly at odds over a range of territorial disputes centered on the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. Athens fears migration could be the latest front in bilateral tensions.  Tensions rise between Greece and Turkey over island military bases Athaniosos Drougos, a defense analyst at Greece's War College, does not believe the situation will degenerate into outright war.. "But on the other hand," he says, "we will have some hybrid asymetrıc episodes with the case of illegal immigration, especially from the Evros river." The river Evros forms part of the border between Turkey and Greece. Two years ago, a migrant crisis erupted after Ankara, then hosting four million refugees, declared it was opening its border with Greece. Greek security forces used teargas and rubber bullets in a weeks-long campaign against people trying to enter the country. In Turkey, there's been growing public animosity towards migrants and refugees. And President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is under pressure to address the issue in the run-up to elections next year. He accuses Greece and Europe of failing to share the refugee burden. "What I see now is the politicisation of the issue by the (Turkish) opposition parties mainly and the instrumental position of the refugee issue by the government in their relationship with Europe," observed Didem Danis of the Istanbul-based Association for Migration Research. Highest price "Of course, this creates a very difficult situation for the refugees because they feel more and more anxious about their everyday survival," added Danis. And experts warn that refugees will pay the highest price in this escalating diplomatic war. "Unfortunately, every now and then, we hear about the demise of people who are trying to cross, for the pushbacks conducted on both sides," said Omar Kadkoy of the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey. "And the only people who are losing in this journey are those asylum seekers or people who want to have a better future for themselves. But trying to cross the borders nowadays is definitely riskier than it was," added Kadkoy. Earlier this month,18 migrants and refugees drowned while crossing from Turkey to a Greek island. Dozens more are missing. Rescue workers and islanders worked through the night in a desperate struggle to reach survivors. Most of the victims were women and children.  Greek and Turkish authorities blamed each other for the deaths. The only thing both sides appear to agree on is that this tragedy will not be the last.
  • As elections loom in Turkey, Erdogan pulls plug on opposition social media
    Turkey's parliament has passed a law which will criminalise the spreading of fake news on social media. The move has drawn national and international condemnation. Critics claim the legislation is intended to silence one of Turkey's last platforms for free expression ahead of elections in 2023.  The Turkish government has, in recent years, introduced several pieces of legislation aimed at controlling social media. But critics say the latest 40-article law is the most severe.  Wielding a hammer before his fellow deputies, Burak Erbay of the opposition Republican People's Party recently destroyed his mobile phone during the parliamentary debate on the so-called "disinformation law". "If the law passes here, you can break your phone like this, my brothers. You will not need to use it," he yelled, warning the government that "these young people will give you the lesson you deserve in June 2023". Tightening its control on media will be vital for the government ahead of the 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections, says journalist Hikmet Adai of the Turkish news portal Bianetand. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP party continue to languish far behind in the polls after over two decades of rule.  "With the ongoing economic crisis, the government doesn't want this bad news to be disseminated, especially for the world to see the scale of the crisis". "This law, represents the heaviest censorship in Turkish press history, so it will definitely affect journalism," added Adai. Condemnation of the disinformation law is not confined to Turkey, with a European legal watchdog warning that the legislation threatens freedom of expression and independent journalism ahead of next year's elections.  The warning is in a report compiled by the Venice Commission, which advises the Council of Europe on constitutional matters.  A way to kill political debate "Our main concern is the chilling effect that this will have on the political debate in Turkey as this draft law will apply to everyone," said Herdis Kjerulf Thorgeirsdottir, vice president of the Venice Commission. "Secondly, the heavy sanctions of one to three years imprisonment of those found guilty of disseminating false or misleading information will lead to widespread self-censorship," she insists.  Rights groups already rank Turkey among the world's sternest jailers of journalists, a charge Ankara denies.  Press freedom concerns as Ankara forces internet giants to bow to Turkish law Yaman Akdeniz of Turkey's Freedom of Expression Association says social media threatens the government's control of media in general.  "Social media usage in Turkey is high, whether it's Twitter, Facebook or other social media platforms. Turkish people predominantly rely on social media to obtain information because we cannot any longer obtain information from newspapers in Turkey or even TV channels because the majority of these channels and newspapers are controlled by the government," said Akdeniz.  Obliged to reveal identities Under the new legislation, social media platforms will be required to give up the identities of anyone deemed to have fallen foul of the law. The government argues the proposed legislation is similar to social media controls in other European countries. But the Venice Commission report says such comparisons are false. "The inspiration from these countries is not relevant because they do not criminalise false information," says Throgeirsdottir. "Although they may apply to internet service providers or online platforms to remove illegal content, this is not a valid comparison with Turkey."

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