Roma in Turkey: Not recognized, not protected
Övgü Pinar - 08/04/2015
The Roma population in Turkey is not recognized as a minority, and therefore not under legal protection. Roma rights activists in Turkey fight against discriminatory rhetoric of politicians and stereotypical representation in the media and publications that feed the prejudice."Although the Roma living in Turkey are Muslims they have their own culture and traditions. And the dominant culture tries to adjust the ones who don't resemble the majority" says Hacer Foggo, ERRC Human Rights Monitor in Turkey, in an interview with Babelmed.
"I am a Gypsy. They have been afraid of us since the most ancient times. They named us the Gypsies. We were different. We were more free. But we were humanbeings. Just like them. They didn't want to work, live, talk with us. They casted us away to the forgotten parts of the cities. We were burdened by a never-ending curse of poverty."
This is how Ali Mezarcıoğlu, writer of "The Book of the Gypsies" (Çingenelerin Kitabı) depicts the sufferings of the Gypsies throughout the history. On his blog "cingeneyiz" (we are Gypsies) Mezarcıoğlu further questions the motives of the discrimination against his people:
"Our descendants, not having herds of animals or lands of their own, could not find any other means of livelihood but nomadic craftsmanship. Indeed, this is the only difference that distinguishes Gypsies from non-Gypsies...
It is strange that such a great distinction has occured although the only characteristic that distinguishes Gypsies from other people is the nomadic craftsmanship. So what is it that scares the other people so much?"
To answer this question he goes back to the times when humanity lived in hunting and gathering tribes. He goes on to suggest that when some of these tribes started shepherding, they became engaged in figths to protect the grasslands the herds fed on. And the people who were caught in the fights between the shepherding tribes had to choose another profession: Nomadic craftsmanship.
Mezarcıoğlu says that the women in the tribes that were occupied with nomadic craftsmanship were as active in social and economical life as men, contrary to the herding tribes where women were dominated by men. And other tribes were wary of the nomadic craftsmen as they were scared of the social system where men and women were equals. "The social power that our women possess is a source of pride for us, whereas for the others it can be a reason to scorn us", he says.
Up to 5 million but not recognized
The exact population of Roma and related groups in Turkey is not known. Estimates range between 500,000 and 5 million. The rights of minorities in Turkey is largely regulated by the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which does not foresee the recognition of the Roma as a minority group. Rights activists underline that this lack of legal recognition prevents the Roma to be protected against discrimination.
Although in recent years NGOs have been widely active in advocating the minorities' rights in Turkey, European Roma Right Center (ERRC) says that "Roma are not a target or a priority for this sector, or for international human rights NGOs that focus more on the Kurdish population, the split between Islamist and secular society or the role of the military in civilian life".
"In Turkey, Roma groups are diverse, but a large proportion suffers from multidimensional social exclusion", European Commission says in its 05.04.2011 report titled "An EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020".
According to ERRC's Turkey profile (2011-2012) , "the majority of Roma live in Western Anatolia, Thrace, in the Marmara region and the Aegean Sea region while the Dom and Lom groups mostly live in South Eastern and Eastern Turkey". Almost all the Roma in Turkey are Muslims.
ERRC says that Roma in Turkey face the same socio-economic challenges as Roma in other European countries.
Hacer Foggo, ERRC's Human Rights Monitor in Turkey, told Babelmed that the biggest problems of the Roma in Turkey are discrimination and hate-mongering rhetoric. Hacer Foggo portrays the living conditions of Turkish Roma:
"Roma suffer from discrimination and prejudice in all aspects of life. The main problems of the Roma, both in Europe and Turkey, are classified under four titles: employment, housing, education and health. They face various forms of prejudice in all these fields. When they apply for a job, for example, the fact that they live in quarters like Sulukule or Sarıgöl (Roma neighborhoods in Istanbul) may be seen as a sign of them being a Roma and this may lead them to be refused the job."
Prejudice starts from the language
If the daily use of a language has discriminatory idioms should the dictionaries of that language include these idioms? Should the dictionaries be seen as neutral reflectors of a language and its sometimes not so politically correct use or should they have a responsability in avoiding the legitimization of discriminatory remarks?
“Becoming a Gypsy” (Çingeneleşmek): displaying stingy behaviour
“Gypsy’s debt” (Çingene borcu): an unimportant debt.
“Gypsy plays Kurd dances” (Çingene çalar Kürt oynar): a place where there is a lot of commotion and noise.
“Gypsy tent” (Çingene çergesi): a dirty and poor place.
“Gypsy wedding” (Çingene düğünü): a crowded and noisy meeting.
“Gypsy fight” (Çingene kavgası): verbal fight in which vulgar language is used.
These entries in two Turkish dictionaries that were partly financed by the government were the causes of a controversy between a Turkish Roma - Mustafa Aksu - and the European Court of Human Rights a few years ago.
Mustafa Aksu, complaining that the dictionaries by the Turkish Language Institute and a book written by an associate professor and published by the Ministry of Culture were insulting the Roma people, brought proceedings against the Ministry of Culture. But the Turkish courts' verdict was that the definitions and expressions in the dictionary and the book were "based on historical and sociological reality and that there had been no intention to humiliate or debase an ethnic group."
The courts' decision did not assure Aksu that he and the Roma people in general were not discriminated against because of their identity, and he took the case to the ECHR.
The ECHR's Grand Chamber said in its 15 March 2012 ruling:
"The Chamber had regard in particular to the fact that the definitions provided in the dictionaries had been prefaced with the comment that their use was “metaphorical”. It therefore found that these expressions could not be considered as harming the applicant’s ethnic identity. As a result, the Chamber found no violation of Article 8 of the Convention."
Regarding the book "The Gypsies of Turkey", which contained passages that depicted the Gypsies as being involved in criminal activities, the ECHR said:
"Although the passages and remarks cited by the applicant, read on their own, appeared to be discriminatory and insulting, when the book was examined as a whole it was not possible to conclude that the author had acted in bad faith or had any intention to insult the Roma community. The Chamber had particular regard to the conclusion to the book, in which the author had made it clear thatThe Gypsies of Turkeywas an academic study which conducted a comparative analysis and focused on the history and socio-economic living conditions of the Roma people inTurkey. The Chamber concluded that the author had referred to the biased portrayal of the Roma in order to demonstrate the perception of the Roma community by the public. As a result, the Chamber found no violation of the applicant’s rights as protected by the Convention."
The verdict was reached by a vote of 16 to 1. The only judge to present a dissenting opinion, Alvina Gyulumyan, said:
"I am not persuaded “that the case does not concern a difference in treatment, and in particular ethnic discrimination”. The majority reached this conclusion only on the basis that “the applicant has not succeeded in producing prima facie evidence that the impugned publications had a discriminatory intent or effect”...
The Court did not take into consideration the environment in which the three publications were issued and was satisfied by the assessments made by the Turkish courts. These courts usually take a very different approach when dealing with cases concerning the denigration of Turkishness (Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code)...
When it came to the national feelings and traditions of Roma people the Turkish court took a radically different approach, which in itself suggests a difference in treatment based on ethnicity."
Judge Gyulumyan warned that the ECHR should not tolerate incitement to discrimination saying, "The continued stereotyping of the Roma must come to an end. It would be highly unfortunate for this Court to be seen to condone incitement to discrimination of the kind contained in the books in question."
The ruling, much criticized by Roma associations and human rights activists, is far from having resolved a controversy that still lingers today.
A more recent dispute stemming from the prejudicial representation of Roma people was about a book in the schedule of primary schools.
Named "Yonca Kız" and included in the Education Ministry's "100 Essential Books" list, the book was telling the story of a girl kidnapped and tortured by a Roma.
In the book the Roma were defined as "cursed people (who) steal whatever they find". A character in the book is refered as "as baseborn as a Gypsy woman".
Roma rights groups asked for the removal of the book from the list, mentioning that the book reinforced discrimination and hate-mongering in a country where children are told "I'll give you to the Gypsies if you misbehave".
After a fierce counter-campaign by the rights organizations, the ministry, 6 years after including the book in its suggested reading list, agreed to remove it from the list last year.
Although applauded as a step taken in the right direction, the removal of one book from a list does not solve the problem of prejudicial reppresantation of a people in educational tools.
Rights activists and NGOs are calling for a legal frame to avoid reinforcing the harmful stereotypes within schools. Stating that prejudice starts from language and that education is the starting point to eradicate the misconceptions they are calling for implementation of a rule-based anti-discriminatory approach.
Public officials and media fanning the flames
A Turkish governor's plans for training the Roma children as Islamic preachers, and a columnist's not-less-stereotypical reaction to it showcases the role of the public authorities and the media in nurturing the prejudicial rhetoric against the Roma.
The governor of Edirne, a city with a large Roma population, announced on February 11 that the Roma will be trained as preachers and members of an Ottoman army band (mehter). Governor Dursun Ali Şahin said, "to make use of their good voices" the Roma children will be trained in special centers as Islamic preachers (hafız) and Ottoman army band members.
Governor Şahin also boasted that the Roma children attending these courses will be given scholarships of 100 Turkish Liras (36 euros) and all their daily expenses will be covered.
They will later be appointed as Islamic clerics in mosques, which "will make the Roma community even stronger" he continued.
While rights defenders were scratching their heads as they tried to decide whether the presumption that the Roma children all have good voices and should be directed to a career based on their voices instead of being offered other options, or that there is a religious motive behind the governor's initiative was worse, a popular columnist baffled them even more. Emin Çölaşan, writing in the nationalist Sözcü newspaper aimed at criticizing the governor. But his reasons for opposing the initiative revealed yet another prejudicial view of the Roma people.
He wrote in his 13 February 2015 article,“You know Romani people…They are the kind of people who live their life by singing songs, playing instruments, dancing, they take life on the light side, have nothing to do with religion and belief, they earn their life hard. This is the same everywhere in the world."
These words, published in a newspaper with a daily circulation of more than 300,000 caused a further furore.
Romani People’s Rights Association sued Emin Çölaşan for discrimination. The association complained that Çölaşan's article constitutes discirimination and defamation against Roma people.
600 university students out of a population of 5 million
Hacer Foggo, the European Roma Rights Centre's (ERRC) Human Rights Monitor in Turkey, replied Çölaşan with an article saying:
"You know people like Çölaşan... They live their lives by not accepting the economically, socially, ethnically different identities and by trying to "whiten" them. They ignore the trauma caused on these people by the hatred flowing from their pens and they obtain benefits from this hatred."
In an interview with Babelmed, Hacer Foggo criticized the governor's plans with having the intention of religiously directing the Roma children."Although the Roma people living in Turkey are Muslims they have their own culture and traditions. And the dominant culture tries to adjust the ones who don't resemble the majority", she said.
She underlined the main problem in this case as being "the fact that only 600 Roma people out of a population of 5 million goes to university". "Roma people should be able to go to the university, and then they can preachers again but they can also be doctors or teachers" she continued.
A tv-series ruins the results of a years-long battle
As for the maimstream media's role in the continuation or even strengthening of the stereotypes and prejudices against the Roma, Foggo told Babelmed about another example about the misrepresentation of the Roma people in the media:
"I have been figthing against the discrimination against Roma since 12 years now. But a tv series (Roman Havası - Roma Rythm) put on the air on Show Tv (a popular private Turkish tv channel) has almost managed to eradicate the results of this years-long fight by reinforcing the prejudices. Turkish Roman Rights Forum (ROMFO), of which I am a member too, has started a campaign against the tv series asking for it to be put off the air. ROMFO said, '(This tv series) represents Roma people as dancing in the streets day and night, eating seeds, fighting with neighbours, walking around in strange shiny clothes, talking weirdly, careless, thieves, lacking in character and thus sets the grounds for racism."
"Giornalists want to see 'a dancing Roma' even in the press conferences about demolished houses of the Roma", Hacer Foggo continued.