Purged Turkish NATO Officer discusses Asylum Limbo

After the failed coup in Turkey, more than 200 NATO officers, including almost all Turkish diplomats stationed in Brussels’ headquarters, were ordered to return to their country. Firat’s* Turkish bank accounts were immediately frozen, his diplomatic passport was revoked and his university diploma was cancelled. He is saddened that NATO has barely responded to this. Firat applied for asylum in Belgium, and is expecting a decision from the Belgian authorities

The ex-officer testifies from his heart about the rule of law, how he experienced the coup far away in Belgium, and his new status as a pariah. For security reasons he wishes to remain anonymous.

NATO officers purged in Turkey

The failed coup of 15 July 2016 was a turning point in the lives of various Turks. Besides the shockwave this news created, the Turkish government took drastic measures to to crush dissent. The media was tarnished and more than 100.000 people in the public sector, including teachers and judges, were fired because they allegedly pledged their allegiance to Fethullah Gülen (the alleged brain behind the coup).

By means of an appendix to a Turkish decree, proclaimed under a state of emergency, more than 200 NATO officers were ordered to return to their country. Because most officials held a senior position, this caused problems for the NATO. One of the diplomats whose rank, position and diplomatic rights were revoked, is Firat. He talks about the heavy blow: “My country always came first. I was not even there when my wife was pregnant.”

Asylum becomes political game

The purge created an influx of Turkish political refugees. Firat applied for asylum in Brussels, where NATO’s headquarters is located. Despite his residence and work permit, his status is uncertain. Belgium has not decided on many Turkish asylum applications, which makes him an asylum seeker for an indefinite period.

“[Asylum] must be investigated on the basis of treaty principles. Other considerations are irrelevant. “

The ex-officer says: “Asylum is a human right. It has to be urgently investigated using treaty principles. Other considerations are irrelevant.” Firat hopes that the Belgian authorities will soon realise this (following, amongst others, the Germans). “It should not be that difficult to judge whether or not I’m entitled to asylum,” he says, “In the Belgian press, I read an interesting statement of a lawyer. Apparently our case is a clear textbook case. As such he did not expect any negative result.”

Guilty until proven innocent?

He claims to have had no involvement in the coup. When the images reached him in Brussels, he was dumbstruck. “I could not believe that this was Turkey in 2016. It seemed more like Africa in the 1980’s.” Firat strongly condemns the events: “I’m not a supporter of the current government, but Erdogan remains my President. Those who participated in the coup should be penalized after a fair trial … with the necessary transparency.”

“I could not believe that this was Turkey in 2016. It seemed more like Africa in the 1980’s.”

Why does he not try to prove his innocence in Turkey? Fear. NATO officers who adhered to the return order were arrested on arrival. After a few phone calls with the home front, Firat learned that a political purge was being carried out: “Neutral officials were not considered to be ‘loyal’ enough.”

A report from Amnesty International reveals that the criteria to provide evidence of wrongdoing are inadequate, giving rise to abuse. The fact that many perpetrators are caught by the current approach does not take away the importance of the presumption of innocence. Firat indicates that the rule of law is sometimes hard to find: “How in heaven’s name can a school teacher be involved in a coup?”

Why him?

Although he has never received any communication about his purge, he feels the root cause was his study in the United States. Turkey was (according to him) under the impression that those who go to the USA for educational purposes are recruited by CIA agents.

The Turkish security services know more about me than my parents.”

This is very troublesome, as the Turkish government (and most of the population) believes that the CIA is behind the coup. “Nonsense”, he calls this, “Turkish security officials know more about me than my parents. I have been closely monitored since I started at the military school at the age of fourteen. I’m not a CIA spy.”

Turkish spies in diaspora

The fact that he may be accused of espionage does not prevent him from pointing his finger to civilian spies. For fear of espionage by Belgian Turks, he has evacuated his office and rehoused to a region where fewer Turks live. “You cannot trust anyone,” he says, “not even in the diaspora.”

For many people of Turkish origin, he has become a kind of pariah. Fellow countrymen who do not report him, avoid him. “I understand that. They do not want to be associated with a so-called ‘traitor’. In addition to some condemning him, most do not want to end up in the same boat. “One call with a supposed Gülen traitor is enough to be discredited,” he explains.

Picking up the pieces

In order to minimise his emotional distress, he is trying to get his life back in order as fast as possible. He sends out numerous job application letters, speaks with organizations such as RefuTales, and is learning French and Dutch.

He thinks it underheard of that some Turks have lived in Europe for years without being able to speak the local language. He puts it down to unwillingness. “Although I reject the rhetoric from the extreme right, I also believe there needs to be more effort from refugees in their integration process” he explains, “There is a need for adequate rules, enforced by strong mechanisms that are beneficial for the refugees and the broader society.”

“I believe there needs to be more effort from refugees in their integration process.”

During his job applications, he comes across two obstacles: over-qualification and a one year work permit. This permit is renewed annually without reassessment. “Employers do not know the administrative procedure. They think I’m only available for a limited period.” His advice: Let the government launch an information campaign. This would greatly increase job opportunities.

Realistic goals

Firat emphasizes the importance of receiving support in the first two years as a refugee: “Someone who does not find work during that period becomes very demotivated, causing a loss of potential.”

Although his job coach recommends applying for senior positions, he wants to be realistic: “If I have to get a cleaning job to earn my money, then I will clean. Someone’s job, degree or rank is of no importance. Whether you’re called Donald Trump or Emmanuel Macron, the only thing that matters is who you are as a person.”

Whether you’re called Donald Trump or Emmanuel Macron, the only thing that matters is who you are as a person.”

Firat regrets that he never learned practical skills: “A plumber can earn a lot of money here. People like me who have invested in their brains find it much more difficult.” He does not know what his professional future looks like, but he is convinced that he will soon find a job: “If not, I will open a restaurant!”

* The officer wishes to remain anonymous. His identity is known by RefuTales.

Policy recommendations from Firat:

  • Do not let diplomatic considerations play a role in an asylum seeker’s application. Speed up the process.
  • Provide extra support to refugees during the first two years of arrival, with special attention to those highly educated.
  • Make integration obligatory.
  • Launch an information campaign for employers regarding the renewal of work permits.

Translated by: Veerle Masscheleyn


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