21st Feb 2024


From Turkey to EU freedom: an exile's journey

  • Emrah Buyuktas swam for his life across the Evros River before claiming asylum in the EU (Photo: EUobserver)

Floating half-naked in the Evros River that divides Turkey from Europe, and freedom, Emrah Buyuktas, a Turkish policeman, felt like he was in a film scene.

He had just left behind everything he knew and loved after losing his job, his friends, and his identity - and all because he had earned good grades in an exam, which was enough in Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's regime to label him a potential enemy of the state.

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  • The 28-year old was a high-flyer in local police (Photo: EUobserver)

Speaking to EUobserver from The Netherlands, were he later claimed asylum, Buyuktas is one of tens of thousands of people who fled from the EU candidate country and Nato ally following the failed putsch in 2016.

The EU and Turkey are in talks to repair diplomatic relations.

But increasing numbers of people fleeing the regime indicate that Erdogan's crackdown continues unabated.

The rising rates of positive EU asylum decisions also indicate that member states trust less and less in Turkish rule of law.

Sinister turn

Buyuktas had a happy life before the failed coup.

He had a high-profile job. He loved his country, his family, and friends and he played football for a local team.

The 28-year old graduated from the Turkish police academy in 2014.

With excellent grades, he rose quickly to be commissioner of the fugitive investigation bureau, the patrolling bureau, and the counter-prostitution bureau in Sinop, a city on Turkey's Black Sea coast.

He used to take pride in what he did, but his job took a sinister turn when Erdogan's post-coup purge began.

Buyuktas was made to maintain public order at courts, transport suspects, and report court decisions to superiors.

He saw people unjustly dragged to jail - "police officers, judges, teachers, or anyone from any position according to previously prepared lists", he said.

He had worked with some of them. Others were friends. But now, he was escorting the same "good, innocent people" into detention as "terrorists" with his own hands.

He had to be careful not to show emotion or betray familiarity, because that could have seen him face charges himself.

His new role as a servant of the purge caused him sleepless nights.

He recalled one incident in which a janitor was arrested because he had worked at a Gulen-linked school.

Fethullah Gulen is the head of a religious movement who lives in the US and whom Erdogan blames for plotting the coup.

Buyuktas was tasked with getting the janitor to court. He saw his children hugging him and crying as he was taken away, in scenes which left Buyuktas traumatised.

The once proud policeman later hid in a bathroom and cried for what he had done.

On the run

On 3 October 2016, Buyuktas was summarily dismissed.

He was not surprised. Many senior police officers, especially ones who had graduated from the academy with good grades, had been suspected of Gulenist ties.

Erdogan ended up detaining more than 70,000 people and dismissing 150,000 public sector employees.

But already back in 2016, the police bureaus were almost empty of high-ranked staff, Buyuktas told EUobserver.

After losing his job, he sat at home waiting for a knock on the door that would mean one of his former colleagues had come to arrest him.

"I'm innocent ... but they don't care if you're innocent," he thought.

After a few weeks, he moved back to his home town of Istanbul to try to rebuild his life.

"You just fall into a mess. People hesitate to talk to you. You face different reactions from your close circle and it's hard times without a salary," he said.

Things became harder in November 2016, when his dismissal was officially decreed.

He had had job interviews, but employers turned their back when they found out. His father was fired from his job and some of his friends were arrested, plunging Buyuktas into depression.

The former police commissioner, who hated lying, took a job as a waiter using a false name and fake CV.

But by then, it was being said that he had used ByLock - a secure messaging app which Turkish authorities claimed was used to orchestrate the coup.

Buyuktas knew all-too well what would happen if he was found - he would face a show trial and go to prison, just like the innocent people he had carted off himself.

He left home and kept changing his address.

Every time he saw a police car in the street, he shuddered with anxiety.

Evros crossing

His fugitive life went on for one year.

But in mid-2018, he contacted two friends who had been released from jail and the three of them decided to escape to the EU.

They joined three others and the group of six chose a day in August on which to flee.

They could not afford to pay the human-smugglers who operate on the EU border and they did not trust them, so they bought their own equipment and mapped a route to Greece.

The day came. They left Istanbul after nightfall and by 4AM the following morning, they found themselves on the banks of the Evros River under a full moon.

They began rummaging through thorns to try to launch their boats when, Buyuktas recalled, the others suddenly rolled to the ground.

The red lights of a military patrol car flashed in the darkness. Soldiers jumped out, torch-beams glaring, and chaos erupted.

Buyuktas had 10 metres on his pursuers and realised that his only chance was to jump in the river.

One of his friends did the same, but the others stayed on shore, trying to burrow into bushes.

In the water, Buyuktas realised that he was far from safe.

The Evros River has claimed the lives of many like him in the past.

His skin lacerated by the thorns, he had to drag himself and his backpack through swamp and then fight the current.

The soldiers yelled curses, calling him a traitor, and he was scared that they might open fire.

He kept swimming to the Greek shore, 100 metres away, without looking back, until he heard his friend's cries.

The other man who had jumped in was screaming for help after getting into trouble in a strong current, but there was nothing Buyuktas could do.

Before long, he could neither see or hear his friend anymore, he told EUobserver, showing signs of emotion as he spoke.

He stripped off some clothes that were pulling him down and swam on his back.

Floating under the moon and stars, he felt like he was in a scene from the Turkish film Eskiya (Bandit), in which a fugitive is cornered by police on a rooftop as he looks at the night sky.

He was no longer thinking straight, he said in retrospect.

He got to the Greek shore, where he pulled himself out using thorn branches, covered in blood and half-naked, but not feeling the pain.

He walked without pause for 30 minutes to get as far as possible from the soldiers.

Destination Athens

He had no idea which way to go and, as the sun came up, he ate sunflower seeds and watermelon in some farm land into which he had wandered.

He also found wrapping papers from a Turkish brand of "Ulker" chocolates.

"I imagined that other Turkish refugees had walked this path," he said.

He pressed on for a further five hours, in temperatures of 40 degrees centigrade, before he found drinkable water.

He ended up meeting a Greek Turk who directed him to the town of Alexandrapolis, where he could get a bus to Athens.

Buyuktas reached the Greek capital after midnight - 48 hours into his ordeal.

He was unsure what would happen if he was found by Greek police. With no phone to contact anybody, he gave into exhaustion and slept rough.

The next day he used the last of his money to buy a phone and called his family.

They thought he had drowned, they told him.

The friend who had screamed for help had survived and had been taken by Greek police to a refugee camp, they also said, but the other four escapees had been caught and detained by Turkish police.

Buyuktas also called his Athens contacts, who let him stay at their flat.

He had made it to freedom's door, but still felt depressed.

It took a few weeks before his physical wounds and his mental state allowed him to make plans.

He decided to start a new life in The Netherlands, which he had admired since his childhood.

Getting there was much easier than crossing the Evros River, and, at the time of publication, Buyuktas was in a Dutch asylum seekers' camp awaiting a decision on his claim.

He feels lucky to have got away and plays for his camp's football team, but no matter what happens next, the 2016 coup transformed his life.

He is separated from his mother and father, among other loved ones. He is unemployed and his own country is a menace to his safety.

EU diplomacy

The former policeman spoke to EUobserver shortly before the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, and the EU foreign relations chief, Federica Mogherini, held talks in Brussels on 15 March.

The meeting was the first of its kind since the 2016 putsch and Mogherini said they should do it more regularly.

She also urged Turkey to stop using "emergency" measures and voiced "doubt" on whether people could rely on a "fair trial" in Turkish courts, however.

Mogherini spoke amid rising numbers of Turkish EU asylum claims, which indicate that Erdogan's purge is still in full swing.

There were about 9,000 after the coup in July 2016, 15,000 in 2017, and 22,000 last year, according to the European Asylum Support Office (Easo), an EU agency in Malta.

Rising rates of positive decisions also showed EU mistrust in Erdogan's rule of law.

Some 46 percent of Turkish first instance asylum applications in EU states were positive in 2018, compared to 33 percent in 2017, Easo said.

The EU should formally break off Turkey accession talks, the European Parliament (EP) also said, two days before Cavusoglu and Mogherini met.

The Turkish EU embassy declined to comment on the issues.

But Cavusoglu, the Turkish minister, had plenty to say last week.

To criticise Turkish courts was "interference in our internal affairs" and to deny extradition of Turkish fugitives was a "violation of trust", he said.

He called for EU help in going after "Fetho - the Gulenist organisation", amid other wanted groups.

He also accused the EU of "hypocrisy" and called the EP report "nonsensical".

Fair chance

The European Commission is to publish its assessment of Turkey's EU entry prospects after the EP elections in May.

It is also taking stock of three years of work with Turkey on stopping millions of Syrian refugees from coming to Europe.

In the meantime, Buyuktas has a fair chance of obtaining EU protection.

The Dutch acceptance rate for first instance asylum applications by Turkish nationals is around 70 percent, its interior ministry told EUobserver.

When asked if its asylum decisions had affected ties with Turkey, the Dutch foreign ministry said: "The Netherlands and Turkey can count on more than 400 hundred years of good bilateral relations ... the ties between our countries are diverse and strong".

It pledged to take a firm stance on "human rights and the rule of law" despite Turkey's strategic importance, however.

It also said EU relations were likely to remain frozen.

"It is not a secret that Turkey's accession negotiations have effectively come to a standstill and no further work towards the modernisation of the EU-Turkey Customs Union is foreseen," the Dutch foreign ministry said.

Buyuktas has a good chance, but his future remains uncertain.

The Netherlands also forced back home 120 Turkish nationals in the past three years, its interior ministry noted.

For her part, Dutch liberal MEP Marietje Schaake recently urged the EU to "attach consequences to Erdogan's authoritarian grip on power".

A centre-left Dutch MEP, Kati Piri, also urged EU authorities to help Turkish people in need.

"Sitting in a cell for 17 months without knowing what you are being accused of, that is the reality of today's Turkey," Piri said, in words that evoked Buyuktas' potential fate.


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