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Roma Lose in Urban Development In Turkey

A massive urban redevelopment drive in Turkey victimizes already disadvantaged communities, especially the Roma.
Turkish gypsies stand next to a fire during the celebration of the annual Spring Festival "Hidirellez", on May 5, 2013, 2013, in Edirne, south-western Turkey. Gypsies celebrate the beginning of the spring season according to their calendar. Hidirellez is celebrated as the day on which Prophets Hizir (Al-Khidr) and Ilyas (Elijah) met on earth.  AFP PHOTO/GURCAN OZTURK        (Photo credit should read GURCAN OZTURK/AFP/Getty Images)

One day in the future, the Roma may be telling a story like this: “All of a sudden, the white man in Turkey came along, holding a law called ‘urban transformation.’ When we opened our eyes, our homes had disappeared and the white man’s plazas were rising in their place.”

A feverish process of redevelopment and construction has been underway in Turkey in recent years. The shanty towns in big cities are being evacuated, with their residents moving to cluster housing complexes that are being erected for them.

The undertaking may sound nice at first, since many regions in Turkey are first-degree seismic zones and homes there must be resilient to earthquakes and other natural disasters. Based on this seemingly justified consideration, thousands of homes are being confiscated and tens of thousands of people face compulsory migration.

The Roma community tops the list of those who are most affected by Turkey’s “urban transformation” policy. The Roma are being uprooted from their neighborhoods and traditional living spaces, forced to move to “modern” apartment blocks.

According to figures provided by the Budapest-based Roma Rights Center to the Radikal daily, 10,000 Roma people have been displaced in Turkey over the past seven years.

A story published in Radikal on Sept. 25 illustrates the social tremor caused by “urban transformation” projects. According to the report, a person from the northwestern province of Bursa sent a letter of complaint to parliament over Roma families who had moved to his neighborhood as a result of urban redevelopment. “Since the demolition of the Roma neighborhood our, life has become unbearable. We are sick and tired of the rows, noise and firearms of the Roma, who have now become our new neighbors,” the plaintiff wrote.

Upon receiving the letter, parliament’s Petition Commission contacted the Bursa governor’s office for further information. The reply of the governor’s office reveals awful prejudices and discrimination. “It is being observed that, in general, Roma citizens lack crafts and professions of legal income-earning and therefore sustain themselves either through drug peddling or crimes such as theft, pickpocketing, purse-snatching and robbery,” it said.

The letter not only reflects an institutionalized racist attitude, but at the same time obscures the serious injustices and hardships the Roma face. The 2011-2012 Turkey report of the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) outlines the major risks posed by Law Number 6306, the legal basis of the current urban redevelopment drive.

Under Article 4 of the law, all public services, including electricity, water and gas, are cut off in areas considered to be at “risk” of natural disasters. The ERRC says this amounts to forceful evacuation. Article 5 says the public authorities could provide accommodation to those who cooperate with them in evacuating their homes, but the ERRC says the provision is not sufficiently obliging. And indeed, many complaints are coming from the Roma community on the issue. Even those who have received new accommodation say that construction work in their homes is often incomplete. As the ECCR underlines, the most troubling part of the law is Article 6, which restricts judicial means of objection to the decisions and practices of the authorities.

So, such are the circumstances in which the Roma people that the Bursa governorates stigmatizes collectively have been displaced.

While the Roma are losing their homes, countless contractors are getting richer as they raise new buildings in old Roma neighborhoods, while the fallout of this social tremor is blowing back to the Roma in the form of stronger prejudices and stigma.

The words of a Roma man by the name of Ibrahim, reported by Ayca Ozer in Radikal, provide a stark illustration of how things work on the ground.

“I was born and raised in Kuçukbakkalkoy, and so were my parents. Then, one day, they said we were living in an unlicensed building and razed our home. When we produced a document of title deed allocation, they paid us a few liras per square meter. Our old places have now become plazas and we are left without homes. Our kids cannot go to school. They treat as lepers in hospitals. I’d be just fine if I could get a job on a daily rate of 10 liras and have a roof above my head. It’s been five years since I last bought gas for heating. And our meal has been just bread and cheese,” Ibrahim says.

Life in Turkey must be looking quite different to those who own the high-rise that is standing in the place of Ibrahim’s home. Turkey’s urban redevelopment plans appear to be promising very disparate futures for the Roma and those who raise the new buildings in their old neighborhoods. 

Orhan Kemal Cengiz is a human rights lawyer, columnist and former president of the Human Rights Agenda Association, a Turkish NGO that works on human rights issues ranging from the prevention of torture to the rights of the mentally disabled. Since 2002, Cengiz has been the lawyer for the Alliance of Turkish Protestant Churches.

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