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October 16, 2012, Tuesday

Tragedy in Western Thrace

Last Sunday, a meeting was held under the sponsorship and auspices of Burhanetting Hakgüder, chair of the Western Thrace Turks Solidarity Association, to address problems of Turkish journalists in Western Thrace and issues of the Turkish minority there. The meeting was attended by 80 journalists from Turkey and Western Thrace, as well as Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Edirne deputy Mehmet Müezzinoğlu and Republican People's Party (CHP) Edirne deputy Kemal Değirmendereli.

As with Cyprus, the rights, issues and freedoms of the Turks of Western Thrace represent a national cause for us. But unfortunately, the media and the public remain indifferent to this cause. Hearing the Turkish journalists from Western Thrace, it sounded as if they worked in a totalitarian regime rather than an EU member state. Democracy was restored to Greece after the junta administration of the '60s and '70s, at a time when democracy was considered a luxury for the Turks. But, interestingly, the Turkish minority are treated like stepsons of the country, despite the EU being aware of the situation in Greece.

Turkish journalists are not allowed to become members of media associations in Greece. They have become targets of a campaign of intimidation; they are fined large amounts of between 150,000 and 250,000 euros for transgressions, while in reality the fines should never exceed 6,000 euros. Let me give you an example of this pressure and intimidation: the Millet daily is not allowed to register its name. Why? Its name resembles that of the Milliyet daily in Turkey. Businesspeople, as well as institutions and corporations, including the Ziraat Bank and Turkish Airlines, are unable to advertise in these papers.

The problems of the Turkish minority in Western Thrace are even graver than the problems experienced by the media. Besides, the economic crisis has exacerbated the problems of racism and Islamophobia in Greece, as it has in Europe in general. The 150,000 Turkish-Muslim people in the country have been the victims of racist assaults. They also have to deal with threats from the far-right and racist Golden Dawn Party.

The greatest problem is the denial of the Turkish identity. The Greek government does not allow the establishment of any institution or association bearing a title that includes “Turk” in Western Thrace. The second most important problem is education. The Turkish minority has established its own schools; but cannot offer elementary or secondary education. The Greek government has reserved a 0.5 percent quota in universities for the minority since 1998, but young people who have not received a good education fail to perform well at Greek universities. Those who study in Turkey face qualification problems and issues of recognition of their diplomas. Turkish preschool institutions are also rare, with 7,000 out of 12,000 children having to attend Greek institutions.

The Greek government does not recognize the elected muftis, despite the Treaty of Lausanne; it appoints its own muftis. There are also serious problems in the Turkish foundations; the Turkish minority in Western Thrace is not permitted to elect the managers of its foundations. The foundations face constant taxes levied by the government.

Another problem concerns Article 19 of the citizenship law, which victimizes Turkish citizens. Under it, a person of non-Greek ethnicity who leaves Greece without the intention of returning can lose their Greek nationality. According to the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), there are 60,000 Turkish people who have been victimized by this article. ECRI notes that affected people must be readmitted as Greek citizens.

Another problem, in the heart of the EU, is the prevention of the election of Turks to office. Independent candidates must pass the three percent threshold for election, which means gaining the support of 200,000 voters. However, the number of voters in the minority is around 150,000. In other words, Turkish candidates are virtually barred from election as independent deputies. They must become members of Greek parties, and even taking this into consideration hold only three seats.

The EU treats the Turkish minority in Greece like its stepsons. We have to resolve the issue of Western Thrace through EU institutions. The issue has to become a leading one in the EU's enforcement of basic human rights and freedoms.

Let me add a note: What is the reason for the current regulation under which college students from Western Thrace have to study with foreigner status in Turkey?

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