'We could not ignore this any longer!' Interview with Izmir migrants rights activist

Interview by Lisa Groß

 A. is a member of the Izmir Alarm Phone team, who has been actively involved as a migrant rights activist for many years.

 Lisa: How did you get involved in the Alarm Phone?

A: Izmir is one of the hubs for those, who are trying to cross from Turkey to Greece. As a migrant rights activist living in Izmir, it was impossible to ignore all the violations that were happening in the Aegean – mainly push-backs and interceptions by the Turkish authorities. We were watching desperately, when people were getting detained, deported, violently pushed back and killed at the borders. When we spoke up about this, the answer we got was that these were rumours and that we did not have any evidence. For this reason, when we first met with Alarm Phone members, we were quite excited, because this network was not only going to give us the means to collect evidence, but it also had the potential to prevent violations from happening in the first place.

 L: Despite the shameful EU-Turkey deal and the horrendous situation on the Greek islands, people still cross the Aegean to Greece. What changed since the deal?

A: Sure, some people still manage to reach the islands, but many are being intercepted at sea or even before embarking. The Aegean Sea became further militarized: NATO boats are patrolling the area and informing the Turkish coast guard, when they see boats crossings, asking them to intercept the boats before they even reach Greek waters.

 While the authorities usually release Syrian nationals on the same day of the interception, non-Syrians are directly sent to deportation centres. They can apply for asylum while their deportation process continues, but detention centres are very problematic places – like everywhere else; Turkey is no exception to that. And even if they are released and their asylum procedure starts, there is no long-term solution for them in Turkey.

 In Basmane, a district in the center of Izmir, the situation changed completely: Whereas, from summer 2015 onwards the streets of Basmane were full of people, who were waiting to cross and the trips were being organized out in the open, visible to anyone, Basmane is now much quieter. Many people do not want to take a perilous journey, which might result in deportation to Turkey and from Turkey back to their country of origin.

 L: Did you ever experience a pushback case in your shift? What role can the Alarm Phone play in these cases?

A: The Alarm Phone has become an import preventive mechanism. In the past, authorities were violating migrants’ rights, confident that nobody would ever find out that were violated in their rights, or even if they did, that no one could prove it. Now when migrants inform an actor like the Alarm Phone and we follow up with the authorities, we pressure them to act within the legal framework.

 So, pushbacks are happening far less compared to previous years, but since interceptions by the Turkish coastguard are within the legal framework, a lot of people still get intercepted. I have not experienced a pushback case during my shifts with the Izmir shift team, but we heard about such cases from our migrant friends many times. I hope this method will never be used again… It was a horrifying and traumatic experience for everybody on the boat, thinking their lives would be over…

 L: What does it mean to be an activist in Turkey these days?

A: Since the coup attempt in July 2016, the situation for anybody with a critical view towards the government is quiet dismal – whoever you are, a journalist, an academic, or a human rights defender. Some of our friends are in prison waiting for their trials, which might only take place a year from now. Others have been dismissed from their jobs without any compensation and explanations. Some NGOs advocating for refugee rights have been targeted by the pro-government media, which claim that these organisations are working for Europe as agents and are producing fake reports about the situation of refugees in Turkey in order to provide more leverage to the EU. This creates anger and fear at the same time. Nevertheless, we continue our work, knowing that we are not doing anything wrong or illegal!

 L: Thanks for the your insights! Let’s keep fighting together!