Hundreds of Turkish citizens have applied for asylum in the countries of the Balkans since a failed 2016 coup, seeking protection from a crackdown being waged well beyond the borders of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, BIRN has discovered.
If it was once rare for Turks to seek asylum in the countries of the Balkans, since mid-2016 it has become a regular occurrence, according to an investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
While the reasons behind any individual request are confidential, the timing of the rise points to a widespread fear of the long arm of Turkish law under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since he put down a coup attempt in July 2016.
The asylum requests have put a number of Balkan states in a diplomatic bind, caught between the diplomatic and financial benefits of warm relations with Ankara and the expectation of the European Union that they resist Ankara’s efforts to round up followers of the cleric it accuses of masterminding the failed putsch.
The trend is most obvious in Kosovo, notably since late March 2018 when six Turks were plucked from the streets and spirited to Turkey in an operation led by Turkish intelligence agents, outside of any legal extradition process.
Not a single Turkish citizen had sought asylum in Kosovo between 2014 and 2016. In 2017, according to the Interior Ministry, seven sought official refuge. In 2018, there were 76, of which 50 have been approved.
Altogether, in Kosovo, Bosnia, North Macedonia and Bulgaria, more than 250 Turkish citizens have submitted asylum requests since 2016, according to figures obtained by BIRN.
Nazmi Ulus, the headteacher of the Mehmet Akif school in Kosovo, part of an international network of educational institutions created by the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, was granted asylum in August this year.
He said the lives of his staff had been turned upside down since Ankara pointed the finger of blame for the coup at Gulen and showed its readiness to use covert means to round up his followers abroad.
“I try not to be alone, not to be late home and I always tell my wife where I am,” Ulus told BIRN.
“For security issues in Kosovo, most of our friends have asked for asylum,” he said.
Asylum as protection
Since crushing the coup attempt on July 15, 2016, Erdogan has waged a campaign of revenge; roughly 150,000 civil servants, soldiers, police officers, teachers, judges and academics have been fired or suspended from their public sector jobs over suspected links to the Gulen network, while more than 70,000 people have been jailed pending trial.
The EU and international rights group say he is using the coup attempt as a pretext to silence dissent. Ankara says the scale of the crackdown simply speaks to the depth of Gulen’s reach in the Turkish state.
But Erdogan has not stopped at the borders of Turkey. Across the Balkans and elsewhere, Ankara has pursued those linked to Gulen, be it through covert means or strong-arm tactics backed by Turkey’s diplomatic and financial clout in the region.
Turks who spoke to BIRN say they live in constant fear that weak authorities in Balkan states will buckle under the pressure. Judging by the figures, many see formal asylum as their only possible protection.
Like Kosovo, neighbouring North Macedonia has also seen a spike in asylum applications by Turkish citizens; from zero in 2016 the number jumped to 13 in 2017 and 10 in 2018.
In Bosnia, from zero applications in 2014 and three in 2015, before the coup, the number shot up in 2016 to 19, then 29 in 2017 and 22 in 2018. So far this year, 53 Turks have applied for asylum in Bosnia, bringing the post-coup total to 123.
In Kosovo, staff at the Gulenist schools fear another operation by Turkish intelligence like that carried out in March 2018.
“We can see that Erdogan is very powerful and Kosovo’s democracy cannot resist that pressure,” said one employee at the Mehmet Akif College, who declined to be named. Another, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Sometimes when we see the police we have mixed feelings; we feel protected but also scared that something like March 29 could be repeated.”
Ulus, the headteacher, said he suspected the Turkish authorities would try “other ways” to round up perceived opponents. “I suspect that our friends are still at risk everywhere,” he told BIRN.
In September 2018, seven alleged Gulenists were abducted in Moldova and flown to Turkey.
“Three of the seven teachers who were abducted in Moldova were my friends,” said Ahmet, whose real name and location BIRN agreed not to publish.
Ahmet said he feared he was next, despite the fact that the security services in the Balkan country where he currently lives have, he said, promised him and his friends protection.
But he also said security officers had warned him they would be helpless if Turkish intelligence mounted a covert operation.
The officers said he and his friends could be forced back to Turkey by sea or land. They could even be taken across borders in a diplomatic vehicle.
And although a court has rejected an extradition request Ankara sent for Ahmet, he said he remained fearful.
Ahmet cited a judge in Azerbaijan who ruled last year that Turkish citizen Mustafa Ceyhan should not to be extradited. But he still ended up being bundled into a car outside the court and sent to Turkey.
“The Erdogan regime wants to kidnap people connected to the Gulen movement,” Ahmet told BIRN. “They try to do it everywhere. However, they only succeed when they have the permission of the countries these people live in and have made agreements with the government.”
“Turkey has cancelled my passport, but Interpol didn’t accept that,” he said. When his passport expires, Ahmet said he would be unable to renew it in the embassy so he would seek asylum in “a proper country”.
The March 2018 ‘renditions’ triggered the dismissal of Kosovo’s interior minister and security chief, after then Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said he had been kept in the dark. A subsequent parliamentary probe identified 31 violations of laws and procedures and said in February that it would send its findings to the prosecutor’s office.
But Turkey has tried more conventional methods too.
Pressure for extradition
Last year, North Macedonia received 17 extradition requests from Turkey, the justice ministry told BIRN, without giving figures for previous years. One person was extradited. In April this year, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar visited Skopje, where he called for the extradition of “terrorist structures” of the Gulen movement.
Akar also visited Pristina during the same trip, but authorities in Kosovo did not respond to BIRN questions regarding the number of extradition requests it had received from Turkey since the coup.
Bulgaria, too, has seen a rise in the number of asylum applications and extradition requests.
In 2014 and 2015, Turkey sent a total of 11 extradition requests to neighbouring Bulgaria – five and six respectively – according to data from the Bulgarian Ministry of Justice. One request was approved in 2014 and three in 2015.
The rate picked up after the coup, with seven requests in 2016, 11 in 2017 and eight in 2018. Half were approved. Besides those Turks extradited, another eight were deported from Bulgaria in 2016, a swifter and legally less complex process than extradition.
In August 2016, for example, Turkish businessman Abdullah Buyuk, a Gulen follower, was deported from Bulgaria to Turkey even after two Bulgarian courts ruled against an extradition request from Turkey. The Bulgarian Interior Ministry alleged he did not have the necessary legal documents to remain in the country, meaning he could simply be deported.
Mehmed Yumer, one of the publishers of the Bulgarian-Turkish Zaman newspaper that closed down soon after the attempted coup, said Bulgaria was not a destination of choice for many Turks.
“After the Buyuk case, the message was spread, ‘Don’t come to Bulgaria’,” he said. “And they don’t come anymore, even people who have worked here. This was the litmus test.”
Even so, the number of asylum applications in Bulgaria is slightly up – from around 10 in 2014 and one in 2015 to 17 in 2016, 18 in 2017 and 13 in 2018, according to statistics obtained by BIRN from the State Agency for Refugees via a Freedom of Information request. BIRN could not ascertain whether the 2018 figure was the full figure for the year.
Only one of the applications was successful, in 2014.
Members of the Gulenist circle in Bulgaria said things had changed for the movement.
“The so-called intellectual circle still exists,” said one, on condition of anonymity. “But its means of expression, such as the Zaman Bulgaria newspaper, were shut down,” he told BIRN.
“People who still hold connections to Turkey withdraw from you.”
Unlike Bulgaria, Bosnia has resisted pressure to extradite any Turks, despite strong ties between Sarajevo and Ankara.
At least 10 Turks in Bosnia are reportedly on a Turkish ‘blacklist’ for extradition, but Bosnian courts have so far rejected all extradition requests on the grounds that neither the European Union nor the United Nations or individual European states recognise Gulen’s movement as a “terrorist organisation”, as Turkey claims.
Speaking at a press conference in July, Nedim Ademovic, one of the lawyers for the wanted Turks, said Bosnia was under pressure to resolve the case not by legal means but “through political deals”.
“Bosnia is a small country under big pressure,” he said. “It should defend its international legal reputation.”
Last year, with 7,918 Turks were registered as crossing illegally by land and sea to Europe via the so-called Eastern Mediterranean Route used by migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
The European Asylum Support Office reported around 24,500 Turkish asylum requests in 2018 in the EU, a 48 per cent increase on the previous year.
In 2018, Turks predominantly filed their requests in Germany and Greece – 10,160 and 4,820 respectively.
In the first two months of this year alone, a total of 996 Turks passed into Greek territory, FRONTEX, the agency that manages the protection of European borders, said.