27 Feb 2018

Turkish woman deported despite discrimination and sexual violence fears

4:13 pm on 27 February 2018

What constitutes serious harm?


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Photo: AFP

A Turkish woman has been denied refugee status in New Zealand despite facing discrimination, violence and sexual harassment in her home country.

The woman, who has name suppression, is a feminist, anti-Government activist.

If she returns to Turkey, she says her life will be at risk.

An immigration specialist has described the decision to effectively deport the young woman as surprising and says it raises wider issues about New Zealand’s refugee requirements.

The woman has lived here since early-2016. In April last year her claim for refugee and protected person status was rejected by Immigration New Zealand.

The 29-year-old has now unsuccessfully appealed the decision before the Immigration and Protection Tribunal.

Although she is agnostic, the woman’s family are Alevis - a Muslim minority that has historically faced discrimination from the dominant Sunnis in Turkey.

The woman was mocked at high school by both students and teachers and subsequently began hiding her background.

At university in Istanbul, she joined the modernist Turkey Youth Union, but backed out after members of an extremist group, some carrying knives, charged into the university cafeteria and beat students they perceived to be leftists.

In 2011, during her final year of study, the woman was attacked by a man near her home. She fought back and the man fled after neighbours emerged from their apartments. Her female landlord told her it was her own fault for going out late “like a prostitute”.

When she reported the attack to police the next day, she was told she was “looking for it” and was sent away.

After graduation, she was offered a position with the Government-run Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, but it was withdrawn when background checks revealed her family was Alevi.

She said she has been unable to find work in the industry.

In 2013 she took part in an anti-Government protest and was tear-gassed. She has also posted material critical of the Government on Facebook.

After travelling to Australia and New Zealand in 2014 and 2015, she returned to Turkey to visit her family in late-2015. While walking at night with friends, she was harassed by a man who repeatedly yelled at her to “turn around, we want to check your ass”. She eventually retaliated by slapping him. He then kicked her, and his friends had to hold him back from further assaulting her.

This time she did not report the incident to police, and her father warned her she could have been killed for defending herself.

She returned to New Zealand in February, 2016.

Since a failed military coup in Turkey in July that year, there have been mass arrests of those perceived as being opposed to the Government.

The woman told the NZ tribunal the Turkish Government has restricted people’s freedom of expression, and has taken more extreme measures against those it considers its enemies.

Turkish flags are waved in support of the Turkish president in Taksim Square in 2016.

Turkish flags are waved in support of the Turkish president in Taksim Square in 2016. Photo: AFP

The tribunal’s own evidence, sourced through the Commissioner for Human Rights, found that in Turkey more than 1600 people have been arrested for allegedly supporting terrorist organisations or insulting officials on social media. More than 10,000 have been investigated.

At least 195 Turkish media outlets critical of the Government were closed following the coup, and other outlets fired staff they perceived to be too controversial, for fear of Government reprisal.

The woman said the coup brought out the worst in far-right extremists, who seized the opportunity to harass and harm minorities.

She said if she were to return to Turkey, she would fear sexual harassment on a daily basis, whether she was taking the bus, the ferry, the metro or simply walking in the street. She said the President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has publicly announced he believes women are inferior, has encouraged sexist rhetoric.

If she was to be investigated, her history of activism both in protests and on social media would be seized upon by authorities.

The crux of her argument for refugee status was that she wanted to live a “free, independent life as a woman”.

She does not want to marry, but still wishes to raise children. She fears stigmatisation and harassment for this.

She said she would never stop retaliating against harassers, despite the risk of further harm and lack of police protection. She would also keep protesting a Government she believes is wrong, and advocating for women’s rights. She said she would never be “just a random sheep in the herd”.

She said she was raised in a family that taught her she was capable of accomplishing anything.

In response, the NZ tribunal said: “Sexist rhetoric [in Turkey] continues to be expressed in the public and private domain by state and non-state actors and reveals deeply entrenched stereotypes about women’s roles in society.”

“Within this environment, women continue to experience sporadic discrimination, harassment and violence, and the state response to such harms is uneven … [however] the risk of the appellant encountering such harm is remote.”

The tribunal said the two incidents in which the woman was attacked were “random and unconnected”, and while “unpleasant and distressing, they did not constitute serious harm.”

It said the risk was no more than having the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“The harassment from men in her daily life, and her inability to safely dress as she pleases, or hike outdoors alone, encroaches on the appellant’s rights to freedom of expression and movement. No doubt, should she choose to raise a family on her own, she may also encounter occasional incidents of stigma and ostracism,” the tribunal said.

“However, even cumulatively assessed over the course of her lifetime, such breaches of rights do not rise to the level of severity of serious harm.”

And so her refugee claim was denied.

The Wireless asked Immigration New Zealand if the woman had indeed been deported yet, and for further details of the case, but was denied for privacy reasons.

The woman’s lawyer also denied discussing the case.

Massey University pro vice-chancellor Paul Spoonley, who is researching the impacts of immigration and diversity, said he found the case particularly interesting, and the tribunal’s decision surprising.

“In the words of the tribunal’s own report, there are several grounds - political, sexual, religious - that would suggest that the applicant is likely to face some serious difficulties on returning to Turkey,” he said.

“It does raise some interesting issues in relation to those who are politically active in countries around the world, and whether they meet New Zealand’s regulatory requirements when determining whether someone is a genuine refugee or asylum seeker.”

He accepted the tribunal does its best to act on the country’s behalf, but personally, likes to see it act on the generous side.

“We do not always get these rulings correct,” he said.