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Turkish Political Refugees Flock to Germany, Seeking Safety

  • Associated Press

FILE - In this July 18, 2017 photo, Kurdish journalist Ismail Eskin poses for a photo during an interview with The Associated Press in Berlin. Eskin left Turkey just before he was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison on terrorism-related charges.

The Turkish judge sits in a busy cafe in a big German city. Thirteen months ago, he was a respected public servant in his homeland. Now he is heartbroken and angry over the nightmarish turn of events that brought him here.

The day after a 2016 coup attempt shook Turkey, he was blacklisted along with thousands of other judges and prosecutors. The judge smiles, sadly, as he recounts hiding at a friend's home, hugging his crying son goodbye and paying smugglers to get him to safety.

"I'm very sad I had to leave my country," he said, asking for his name and location to be withheld out of fear that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government might track him down. "But at least I'm safe and out of Erdogan's reach. He cannot hurt me anymore."

Germany has become the top destination for political refugees from Turkey since the failed July 15, 2016 coup. Some 5,742 Turkish citizens applied for asylum here last year, more than three times as many as the year before, according to the Interior Ministry. Another 3,000 Turks have requested protection in Germany this year.

The figures include people fleeing a long-simmering conflict in the Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey, but the vast majority belong to a new class of political refugees: diplomats, civil servants, military members, academics, artists, journalists and anti-Erdogan activists accused of supporting the coup.

With many of them university-educated and part of the former elite, "their escape has already turned into a brain-drain for Turkey,'' said Caner Aver, a researcher at the Center for Turkish Studies and Integration Research in Essen.

Germany is a popular destination because it's already home to about 3.5 million people with Turkish roots and has been more welcoming of the new diaspora than other Western nations, Aver said.

"Some of the highly qualified people also try getting to the U.S. and Canada because most speak English, not German. But it's just much harder to get there," Aver said. "Britain has always been popular, but less so now because of Brexit."

Comparable figures for post-coup asylum requests from Turks were not available for other countries.

More than 50,000 people have been arrested in Turkey and 110,000 dismissed from their jobs for alleged links to political organizations the government has categorized as terror groups or to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. Ankara blames the Muslim cleric, a former Erdogan ally, for the coup attempt. Gulen denies the claim.

The true number of recent Turkish arrivals to Germany exceeds official asylum requests. Many fleeing academics, artists and journalists came on scholarships from German universities or political foundations. Some got in via relatives. Others entered with visas obtained before the failed coup.

The judge, a slim man in his 30s with glasses, arrived illegally by paying thousands of euros to cross from Turkey to Greece on a rubber dinghy and then continuing on to Germany.

Two other Turks in Germany — an artist who asked for anonymity, fearing repercussions for her family back home, and a journalist sentenced to prison in absentia — also spoke of ostracism and flight.

Ismail Eskin, the journalist, left Turkey just before he was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison on terrorism-related charges. The 29-year-old worked for the Ozgur Gundem newspaper and the Kurdish news agency Dicle Haber Ajansi until the government shut them down shortly after the failed coup.

Eskin tried to write for different online news sites but the Turkish government blocked them too. He reluctantly decided to leave when the situation became unbearably difficult for journalists — about 160 are now in jail.

"I kept changing places to avoid being arrested, and I hid that I was a journalist," Eskin said, chain-smoking at a Kurdish immigrants' center. He hasn't applied for asylum but is studying German — an acknowledgment he might be here to stay.

The judge said he "never supported any kind of coup" and had no connection to the Gulen movement but took hurriedly packed a few belongings and went to a friend's place after learning he was among more than 2,000 judges and prosecutors being investigated.

A few hours later, police searched his apartment and took his computer.

His wife and children had been out of town during the coup attempt. While he was in hiding, his wife was told she had 15 days to move out. Friends and relatives stopped talking to her. After several months, he chose to leave.

"Since there's no independent justice in Turkey anymore, I would have been exposed to injustice, maybe be tortured, if I had surrendered," he said.

He sold his car and paid 8,500 euros ($9,910) to a smuggler for a December boat trip to a Greek island. From there, he flew to Italy and on to Germany. He brought his wife, son and daughter to join him a few weeks later.

The number of Turkish citizens fleeing to Germany has complicated the already tense relations between Ankara and Berlin. Accusing Germany of harboring terrorists, Turkey has demanded the extradition of escaped Turkish military officers and diplomats.

At least 221 diplomats, 280 civil servants and their families have applied for asylum, Germany says. Along with refusing to comply with the extradition requests, Germany has lowered the bar for Turkish asylum-seekers — those given permission to remain increased from 8 percent of applicants last year to more than 23 percent in the first half of 2017.

Some Turkish emigres have started building new lives in exile.

The artist from Istanbul lost her university job in graphic design before the 2016 coup because she was one of more than 1,000 academics who triggered Erdogan's ire by signing a "declaration for peace" in Turkey.

She went to Berlin on a university scholarship in September, not long after the attempted coup. In February, she discovered she'd been named a terror group supporter and her Turkish passport was invalidated.

"Now I'm forced into exile, but that's better than to be inside the country," the woman in her early 30s said.

The artist said she's doing fine in Berlin. She enrolled at a university and has had her work exhibited at a small gallery. Yet with her family still in Turkey, some days the enormity of the change weighs on her.

"In the winter I was so homesick," she said. "I really felt like a foreigner, in my veins and in my bones."

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