Turkish academics flee abroad to an uncertain life incognito

Ayse Yildirim set out to attend an academic conference in Germany in October last year, little suspecting that she would not be permitted to return to Turkey.

Yildirim – not her real name – is a professor of law and a member of the "Academics for Freedom" network.

More than 1,100 academics have signed the network's petition calling for an end to military deployments in Turkey's Kurdish regions.

The Turkish government has responded vigorously. Signatories have been detained temporarily and state prosecutors are conducting an investigation that includes Yildirim. She was fired under the terms of the state of emergency that was declared following the failed coup in July last year and decided not to return for fear of arrest.

Yildirim is now lecturing in Germany, presenting herself to her students in Germany as a "listed terrorist."

"For the past 15 years I have taught human rights and what it means to be subjected to civil death."

Now she really knows what it means. Following her dismissal, she lost all her rights, including her pension and she has ceased to exist officially as a Turkish citizen, although formally still holding Turkish citizenship.

Yildirim says that the Turkish embassy in Berlin refuses to issue her with any official documents, such as birth certificate and identification documents, saying that her personal identity number has been blocked.

Her lawyer has been unable to challenge this situation in the absence of a power of attorney.

"But I can't apply for a power of attorney," Yildirim says, as she needs the co-operation of the embassy. "It's Kafkaesque. The only document that the embassy is prepared to issue is a document for re-entry into Turkey."

More than 100,000 civil servants have been dismissed since the July 15 attempted coup, including thousands of academics, police officers, judges, prosecutors and doctors. Tens of thousands of passports have been cancelled. The authorities have completely shut down 15 universities for alleged links to Fethullah Gulen, the exiled Muslim teacher whom the government accuses of being behind the coup.

"There are no effective legal means to challenge these dismissals," Yildirim says. "Sacked academics are not able to get their jobs back or to apply for new passports."

University staff have always been under state control in Turkey, but pressure has risen markedly since the coup attempt, with a brain drain as the inevitable result. Many Turkish academics have opted for exile, or been forced into exile.

The U.S. network Scholars at Risk, which offers threatened academics refuge abroad, has registered more than 300 Turkish applications since the failed coup attempt, more than in the 15 years since it was set up.

Another academic, who declines to be named, is waiting in a European country for permission to travel to Germany to take up a research position in the autumn. She too signed the petition, only to be accused by her students of "treason" and to receive threatening letters.

"The potential for violence rose after the attempted coup," she says. "I felt trapped between the threats from the state and the threats at work."

She decided to leave after police used extreme force to break up a peaceful demonstration at her university in February. The academic, who has not been fired, is required to work at a Turkish university for eight years to pay off a state student loan. She now has to find other means to pay the loan, as she hopes to be able to return to her home one day.

The European Union shares the blame for what is happening in Turkey in her view.

"If the EU had not struck this dishonest refugee deal with Turkey, the situation in Turkey would not have deteriorated to this extent," she says angrily. Brussels is now dependent on Ankara and has issued the Turkish government carte blanche to violate human rights, she says. "Europe is turning itself into Turkey's willing accomplice."    (dpa)

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