Forced Migration from Diyabakir to Athens: Part 1

Aegean Migrant Solidarity interviews a Kurdish man from Diyabakir accused of human smuggling after arriving in Greece.
A small fishing boat is half submurged in the water at port. It is dark and there is a large cargo ship out at sea with its lights lit up on the skyline.

N.U. from the Aegean Migrant Solidarity team interviewed F., a Kurdish man from Turkey, accused of human smuggling after arriving in Greece.[1]  

F became politically active as a student at Cerrahpaşa Medical Faculty when he was faced with a nine-year prison sentence on ‘copy-paste’ accusations, a tactic used against those in the Kurdish movement. His solution was to cross the Aegean waters with dozens of refugees on a makeshift boat, but his 13-month struggle for rights began when Greek authorities put him into three different prisons on the Greek islands. This is part one of the interview.

NU: What happened? How did you end up becoming a political refugee?

F: I have been a political refugee in Greece since 2016. I had to quit my studies in medicine in Istanbul. I was born in 1988 in Tah village in the Lice district of Diyarbakır [Turkey]. Tah has a much older history than Lice. It was an Armenian village, but now Kurds live there. The previous Armenian place names are still used. Lice is a region that has never accepted the Turkish State’s authority. It was a place where war, massacres, burning villages and evacuation were common in 1990s Turkey. There are numerous unsolved murders from family members who refused to be village guards working for the State. Our family was also forced to migrate. I was five years old when we came to Diyarbakır center. I went to primary school, middle school and high school there. Then, I enrolled at Istanbul University’s Cerrahpaşa medical faculty. I started to discover my identity and think about political struggles through the student clubs in which we studied culture and art. The more I learned, the more I wanted to take responsibility. I took part in the People’s Democratic Party’s (HDP) youth organization. I was participating in some political activities outside of Istanbul. Because of this, charges were filed against me, and I was detained many times. I was arrested in Izmir and spent a few months in prison.

NU: What was the reason for the arrest?

F: I was charged with false evidence for taking part in the HDP’s university youth organization. It was a “copy-paste” type of indictment imposed on everyone in the youth organization. The authorities released me due to a lack of evidence, but the investigation continued. I went back to Istanbul and continued school and political activities. In 2014, at the trial’s end, even the prosecutor requested our acquittal because of the lack of evidence. But they dismissed that prosecutor from the case, and the new prosecutor demanded the most severe penalty. In May 2014, I was sentenced to 11 years for ‘membership of a terrorist organization’ and ‘resisting arrest’. An arrest warrant was issued against me. Since then, I have been on the run. I didn’t want to leave the country to become a refugee. I already felt like a refugee in my own country. I waited because I thought the Supreme Court [where the appeal would be heard] might be fairer, it could revoke the unjust decision, and the file could be dropped. I had this expectation because it was during the ‘peace process’ between the Kurdish liberation movement and the Turkish State, and there was less political tension in those days. Also, there was no concrete evidence against me. At the end of 2015, the Supreme Court announced its decision; it only overturned the punishment of ‘resisting arrest’. The court maintained a nine-year sentence for the charge of ‘membership of a terrorist organization’. So I looked for a safe way to go to Europe. Maybe because of my incompetence, I couldn’t find it for a long time. But when Syrian refugees started migrating en masse to Europe, I decided to go to Athens via Çeşme. The smugglers made various promises to me, just like other refugees.

NU: With whom and how did you set out from Çeşme?

F: The real story starts here. What the smuggler promised me did not turn out to be true. I was expecting a big boat. But I came across a fishing boat that could accommodate a maximum of 20-25 people. The smuggler put 150 people on the boat. The boat clearly could not carry so many people to Athens. As soon as I saw the situation, I said I didn’t want to get on. We argued with the smuggler. He was a fascist; he threatened to turn me over to the police. ‘The cops are there; either I can give you to them, or you get on this boat. It’s your choice’, he said. I got on, helpless. Families, children, Syrians, Kurds, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis. I was the only one from Turkey, which was why I had so much trouble afterward.

NU: How was the trip?

F: It’s a difficult feeling to describe. People are fleeing their country, escaping death, but in fact, they do this by risking death, by moving towards death. That day the sea was very rough. With every wave, people screamed, vomited, babies cried. I vomited along the way; I was miserable. I did not eat or drink anything. I fell asleep in the middle of the night. I woke up to smoke and shouting. It had been four hours since we started the journey. The boat broke down near Milos Island, and it could no longer discharge water, so it started taking water on board. Everyone was in a desperate panic. I was the only one who spoke English on the boat. I tried to inform the people that I could reach by phone that our lives were in danger. I called my family and friends in Turkey, and I called my friends in Greece. Finally, I found the number of the Greek Coast Guard. I explained the situation and asked for help. We didn’t even know where we were.

NU: What did the Coast Guard do?

F: They said, ‘We will try to find your location.’ Two hours passed. Then a cargo ship picked us up. The boat was close to sinking because of the waves caused by the ship. Luckily we survived. After a while, the Coast Guard came and took us to Milos Island. We stayed in the port for two days. They carried out routine procedures such as registration and health checks. Milos is a small island, and there are no refugee camps. On the second day, at midnight, the soldiers came and woke me up. They said ‘we are going’. I did not understand anything. They didn’t even let me put my shoes on before they put me in handcuffs. Two Moldovans, the captains of our boat, were also detained. Police in Greece use completely arbitrary methods to detect smugglers. For example, if everyone on the boat is from the same place, and there is only one person not from that region, they immediately label him as the smuggler. They accused me of being the person communicating between the captain and smugglers in Turkey. All this happened to me because I called the coast guard when the boat broke down, I knew the language, and I had helped the Kurdish speakers during the registration process. Nothing would have happened to me if I didn’t speak at all. Even the captains blamed me too because they thought I had informed the police on them. I was also the only one from Turkey in the boat; therefore, the charges were plausible in the eyes of the law. I asked for an interpreter when I was in prison under custody, but they did not provide one. We were sent to Syros Island. I had the chance to prepare my documents regarding my asylum case and why I had to leave Turkey.

NU: What did they ask in court?

F: An investigative judge and prosecutor were supposed to make a joint verdict on my pre-trial detention. The judge asked questions like, ‘How much money did you get?’ and ‘who were you working with?’ He never listened to me. The prosecutor initially did not ask anything. When I started to explain a little, he asked: ‘Do you believe Europe is still the salvation of refugees?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘but I have nowhere to go. I came because I was sentenced to prison in my country. I know this is not salvation.’ Europe, which acts as the ruler of the world, and claims to have created democracy and human rights, has come to the point of collapse with the arrival of several hundred thousand refugees. It has proved how empty those statements were. The European Union, a structure established with the motto ‘we will remove the borders’, closed its borders and came to the point of disintegration. Some countries even left it. It is astonishing that a structure built upon neoliberal ideas, assertive about democracy and human rights, has completely surrendered to nationalism. I have no faith in Europe or borders. I explained this to the prosecutor and the judge. The two judges at the court could not agree among themselves. The two captains had been sentenced and sent to prison in Chios. They said that a new third judge would come the next day to make a final decision. The Coast Guard officers from Milos objected to this. They wanted the decision to be made that day because, they said, they had no place to stay in Syros. Within 5-10 minutes, I was charged with smuggling. At first, I thought it was a joke. I fled my country, risked death in the sea, and now they accused me of human trafficking. At the police station on Syros, I waited alone in a cell for fifteen days before I was transferred to Chios. They waited for another prisoner to come so that they could take us together, but after 15 days with no other arrests, they had to send me alone.

[1] First published in

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