“Their life is very poor, very deeply poor. How can you think of standing up for your rights when the only thing you can think about is where to get your next meal?” says Hacer Foggo, a long-time human rights activist working for the improvement of the rights of the Roma people in Turkey.
“In Turkey even though the middle classes are doing better, the poor are doing worse”. The poor definitely includes many of the members of the Roma community in Turkey. This injustice, according to Foggo, can be seen in the urban development projects that often target neighborhoods inhabited mainly by Roma: “For the sake of sports complex thousands of Romas have been thrown out to the streets and forced to leave their own culture, their neighbors and their history.”
According to the official numbers there are about 500,000 Roma people in Turkey. However, according to unofficial figures, Turkey’s Roma population exceeds 2 million. The Roma community consists of three separate groups; all have distinctive languages and cultures: The Rom who live in the Western parts of Turkey, the Dom in the Eastern parts and the Lom in the Northern parts. The majority of the Roma living in Turkey identify themselves both as Turks and Muslims as well as Roma.
In Turkey there are both nomadic and urban Roma and around 95 percent of them live a settled lifestyle. Entertainment such as music and dancing has been the main source of income for many urban Roma people. These days many of the Roma people also make their living as street vendors or paper collectors.
“There is a lot of discrimination in Turkey against the Roma” says Hacer Foggo. The word Çingene, the Turkish for “Gipsy” is loaded with prejudices and negative stereotypes. The word is also considered offensive by many members of the Roma community.
According to Foggo, besides discrimination “the Roma in Turkey have a lot of problems: housing, health, unemployment, low education, unfair treatment by the municipality police”. In addition to these, Foggo also points out the issue of underage marriages within the Roma community.
One of the most recent grievances faced by the Roma people was the destruction of a Roma settlement in Sulukule in the Fatih Municipality of Istanbul. Dating back to the 11th century of Byzantine period the Roma neighborhood of Sulukule used to be a lively center of entertainment until its life came to an abrupt end when the local government decided to move the Roma out in order to make room for the modern development of the place. “Out of the 5000 residents of the Sulukule neighborhood about 3500 used to be Roma” says Foggo.
It was in 2006 when the Fatih Municipality that was also responsible for the Sulukule district, started an urban transformation project there. The project included building expensive and luxurious houses in the place of the old dilapidated albeit traditional homes of the Roma community and transferring most of the old residents who could not afford to live in the renewed area to the remote neighborhood of Taşoluk, on the outskirts of Istanbul. In September of this year the English language Turkish daily, Hurriyet Daily News, reported that plots of land in Sulukule that used to be owned by the Roma residents of Sulukule had been put up for sale at a price five times than their original expropriation offer. “This would never have happened in the rich neighborhoods,” comments Foggo.
Although Sulukule gained a lot of media coverage and the attention of several human rights groups abroad and in Turkey as well as among the European Commission, nobody managed to reverse the tide..
In 2005 Act No. 5366 on the Protection and Revitalization of Cultural and Historical Property became the legal basis for many urban transformation projects that started all across Turkey. “If you look at 2006, out of 25 renovation projects maybe 15 or 16 of them were in Roma areas”, says Foggo and continues: “Under this very urban transformation project Roma neighborhoods have been demolished and the Roma were subjected to compulsory emigration while new housing and sports complexes were being built for high-income people. ”
According to Foggo: “Urban development should provide for improving the physical environment within a new approach to urbanism and provide for a healthy and balanced living to the inhabitants without forcing them to compulsory emigration, cutting their link with their culture, history and without throwing them out of their homes.” However, during the last few years, the opposite is true for the community.
The problem according to many NGOs working on the issue was the fact that the inhabitants that were affected by the transformation projects didn’t have a chance to get their voices heard during the preparation and decision making processes. According to Foggo, “The government approved the law and the municipal administrations made decisions about demolition and applied their own projects. A commission composed of local inhabitants, city planners, architects, economists, sociologists, NGOs, ecologists and legal experts that should have taken part in such a process was never set up. “
The story of Sulukule is not over. A couple of law suits are still being processed although nearly all of the old houses have been destroyed and building of new houses have started in their place, even though the European Court of Human Rights accepted the application of the Sulukule Roma Association against the project which was carried out by the Fatih Municipality in August this year. However, there is not much hope left for the old inhabitants of the area.
In spite of all, Hacer Foggo does not seem skeptical about the future of their mission. According to the Roma rights activist there has been an improvement thanks to the relative freedom introduced by the EU membership process in Turkey. Foggo says that this has “allowed them to start breathing somewhat more freely”.
As an example she points out that although in the past there were hardly a Roma organization representing the community, in recent years there has been a remarkable increase : at the moment there are around 110 associations and 11 Roma federations in Turkey. “Many Romans have chosen to join civil associations for the recognition of their identity and against prejudices and exclusion of their identity from the society in general,” Foggo explains.
“Things have changed since the establishment of several Roma associations. It seems like for the first time also the government is listening to their problems and worries of the Romas.” For Foggo one of the most important steps took place during the workshop on the Romas on December 10, 2009 when State Minister Faruk Celik admitted that the demolition of Sulukule was a mistake.
“Sulukule was in a way also a victory for us. It gained a lot of publicity and raised awareness of the grievances faced by the Roma people in Turkey,” claims Foggo.
With increased awareness over the rights of the Roma supported by the valuable work the Roma associations are doing around Turkey we can only hope that the life of this long suffering minority will improve in Turkey as well as across Europe.