Turkish asylum claims up 5-fold in Canada amid Erdogan's 'witch hunt'
'Whenever I get good feelings, the second thing that comes to my mind is how my friends are doing in prison'
One year after a dramatic military coup unfolded and ultimately failed live on Turkish state television — with defiant soldiers commandeering warplanes and facing off against government supporters on a bridge over the Bosphorous Sea — the government crackdowns that ensued continue to be felt as far away as Canada.
The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada says asylum claims from Turkey shot up to more than 1,300 during 2016 — close to five times as many as the year before — with about 398 claims accepted, about four times as many in 2015. This year, the agency says, there have already been 590 claims, 248 of which have been accepted so far.
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Toronto-based lawyer Britt Gunn says many of those claims are from those afraid of being classified as terrorists under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's crackdowns. So far, tens of thousands of people with real or perceived links to polarizing cleric Fethullah Gulen — once a close ally of Erdogan's and now the leader of the Gulen movement living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999 — have been arrested, detained or expelled.
"People are afraid they're going to go back, be arrested, languish in prison for who knows how long, not have access to a lawyer, not really know what the charges are against them and essentially become the victim of this witch hunt that's being carried out," said Gunn, who says she has about 25 clients from Turkey at the moment.
'It was fear that led me to book my ticket'
CBC News spoke with a Turkish journalist who is in Canada as a refugee. He did not want to be identified by name for fear that his family and friends back in Turkey could face repercussions for his comments against the government.
"It was fear that led me to book my ticket from Turkey," the journalist said in an interview on the anniversary of the coup, when more than 100 newspapers in the country were shut down.
"People were chanting slogans and cursing perceived state enemies," he said. And while he managed to escape to Canada, he said many of his friends were not so lucky, handcuffed and jailed on television screens across the country.
Duncan Pike is a campaign coordinator with the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression who has worked with about a half a dozen Turkish journalists who have had to flee under the same circumstances. He ties the uptick in asylum claims directly to the last year's "purge."
"The last thing the government in Turkey wants is there being independent opposition voices who are able to still write and talk about what's happening," he told CBC News.
That, he says, is the reason for the government's tight grip on the media in Turkey.
"They want to present a picture that they're doing this because the country is full of traitors and terrorists who are trying to attack democracy," said Pike.
"And if there's another media source saying that's not what this is about, that Erdogan is using this coup as a pretext to essentially become a dictator in Turkey, that's not a narrative they want told."
'The country's being hijacked'
But at a luncheon in Toronto celebrating the failure of the coup one year on, some expressed a very different sentiment.
Ayse Yilmaz, a Canadian citizen and teacher by profession, was among them.
"We're here to remember how tragic it was, but at the same time how glorious it was that a whole nation came together to stand up for democracy," said Yilmaz. "They saw that democracy was at stake and they listened to the call of their leader."
Yilmaz was on vacation in the Turkish city of Sakarya on the night of the coup, having ice cream with her family and children in tow, when chaos erupted.
"People are in a panic. We hear, 'Everyone, you need to go to your hotel and houses,'" she recalled. "At this point my little son, who was nine at the time, was panicking."
"'Mom, what's going on?'"
When they got back to their room, they turned on the television to reports that Erdogan may have been taken, she said.
"The feeling was fear, we were so afraid. We were like, 'This is it, the country's being hijacked. What are we going to do?"
But by morning it was jubilation, she said.
After hours of mystery surrounding the president's whereabouts, Erdogan stunned the nation, appearing on Turkish television via Facetime from an undisclosed location and calling his supporters to the squares and streets to celebrate.
Yilmaz acknowledges the suffering of countless families whose loved ones have been jailed without charge for months on end, but says the justice system needs to play out as it will.
"When a nation goes through something as enormous as this, you're always going to have people that do suffer, but again you have the consider the aspect of the whole nation and the freedom of the people who are living in that nation," she said.
Ottawa 'alarmed' by scale of detentions
Meanwhile, Turkey remains a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) along with Canada.
That relationship is one that Pike says Canada must use to push back against what many see as a growing dictatorship there, under which independent journalism has shrunken dramatically and civil liberties have been seriously constrained.
"I think what we'd really like to see in terms of immigration and refugee lawyers is an improved, faster processing of the permanent residence applications of refugees, so that people have a better chance of getting their family members here before the passport cancellation happens back home," she said.
Global Affairs Canada says the government has consistently urged Turkey to respond to security challenges in a way that doesn't violate the rule of law or human rights.
"Recently, we have been alarmed by the broad scope and scale of dismissals and detentions under the state of emergency in Turkey. While we recognize the national security threats that Turkey is facing, Turkey's right to defend itself from terrorism should never be used to justify the silencing of the political opposition and opposing voices," a spokesperson for Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland told CBC News.
Meanwhile, the Turkish government announced Saturday that it would extend the country's state of emergency — brought in one year ago — by an additional three months.
For his part, the Turkish journalist who spoke with CBC News says his heart remains with his family and friends back home. First thing every morning, he says, he immediately reaches for his phone to check for the news he fears most — that they too have been arrested.
"I'm here in Canada and Canada is treating me well." But, he says, "it is a bitter feeling that whenever I get good feelings, the second thing that comes to my mind is how my friends are doing in prison back home."
With files from Kira Wakeam, Lorenda Reddekopp