In Iznik, a small town in western Anatolia, a deadly dispute involving three men prompted a mob to go on a rampage in the town’s Roma neighborhood. Experts are voicing concern that the incident is a sign of rising intolerance against the Roma community in Turkey.
Over 2,000 residents took to the streets September 8-9 in the Iznik attack, which occurred after a local Roma man and his 16-year-old son were arrested over the shooting a 26-year-old man. The rioters smashed windows, destroyed cars and ransacked Roma shops before police restored order. Smaller-scale incidents have occurred in subsequent weeks, and tension continues to hover over the neighborhood.
“[The attackers] trashed all three of our neighborhood teahouses,” recounted a 47-year-old hardware maker, sipping tea with three companions in front of the local Roma association. For fear of repercussions, the men spoke on condition of anonymity.
The hardware maker added that his car and shop were destroyed. “My work benefits all of the farmers here. I have never done any of them any harm. And look how they treat me.”
His friends agreed. “We all know who was involved, the murderer has been arrested, everything is clear and out in the open,” said one. “But all of us are being punished, only because we are Roma. Where is the justice in this?”
In the first week of October, local police arrested 22 men in connection with racist attacks on Roma citizens, but all of them were ultimately released without any criminal charges being brought. “Every night they still throw stones at our houses,” said a 42-year-old toolmaker. “But the police do nothing.”
“Don’t we pay our taxes? Don’t we send our sons to the army?” another Roma man asked. “Why are we being denied basic rights as Turkish citizens?”
Racism against Turkey’s Roma is not explicitly seen in “state policy,” but it can easily be detected in the general public’s attitudes, commented Hacer Foggo, Turkey coordinator for the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), a Budapest-based rights-advocacy group. The ERRC estimates that as many as 5 million Roma live in Turkey, a country of 74 million. [Editor’s Note: The ERRC receives support from the Open Society Foundations (OSF). EurasiaNet.org is operates under OSF’s auspices].
“The biggest problem in Turkey is widespread prejudice in all segments of society, and the lack of effort to tackle hate speech and hate crimes against Romani people,” Foggo asserted.
Intolerance has become more pronounced as, with the start of Turkey’s negotiations with the European Union in 2004, Roma groups have organized and become more visible, she added. “This has created a backlash of intolerance that needs to urgently be addressed by the Turkish government,” Foggo said.
In 2010, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan famously promised, in front of a crowd comprising 12,000 Roma, to improve housing, education and health care for Turkey’s Roma population. But experts say Erdoğan hasn’t done enough to date to make good on his promises.
“He was the first Turkish prime minister to even use the word ‘Roma’ publicly and to address them and their problems in such a way,” said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a human rights lawyer and specialist on minority rights in Turkey. “But the so-called ‘Roma Opening’ did not bring any practical changes. It turned out to be empty underneath the surface.”
On his visit to Iznik in September, Münir Karaloğlu, governor of the region of Bursa, failed to visit the Roma neighborhoods that had been attacked. Later the same month, his office published an eyebrow-raising statement in relation to complaints made about Roma neighbors in a Bursa housing project.
“It has been observed that […] Roma citizens in general lack any profession or occupation to generate a lawful income, and for this reason they earn their living through drug-trafficking and criminal activities they find suitable for making income such as theft, pick-pocketing, purse-snatching, and robbery,” the statement alleged.
According to Cengiz, Turkey still lacks well-developed government policies concerning the Roma community. “Not a single political party has specialists for Roma rights; there are no party programs, no committees. Turkey has a substantial Roma population, and there are serious issues that need to be tackled, but, so far, nobody has made concrete steps in that direction.”
In Iznik, the men sitting in front of the Roma teahouse concede that things have not yet returned to normal. “Farmers still refuse to employ our women on their fields,” one of the men said, adding that many local families depend on the extra income, especially now, during the harvest season. “Suddenly, our children are called ‘gypsies’ in school. We are afraid to let our teenage sons out into the street for fear that there will be another fight.”
One local veterinarian, an ethnic Turk, regretted the animosity toward the Roma. “We have been living side by side for a long time without any problems,” the veterinarian said. “In the end, we all have to get along."
To encourage tolerance, Hacer Foggo stressed that the Turkish government needs to act before it is too late. “This is a bomb that is about to go off, a very urgent situation,” she said. “In Iznik and elsewhere, hate crimes against Roma need to finally be acknowledged and addressed.”
Constanze Letsch is a freelance writer based in Istanbul.