The ever-increasing size of diasporas in the European Union brings many benefits and opportunities to the countries in which they live, but also the responsibility to protect these communities. Authoritarian governments are active on the territory of European countries, targeting dissident citizens with surveillance, intimidation, and physical violence. Through transnational repression, domestic and international politics become intertwined. Its consequences threaten the integrity of democracy and freedom for all.
Events such as the March 2019 poisoning of former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter by Russian intelligence in England, and the October 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi officials in Istanbul, propelled transnational repression onto the news agenda. Though the term is recent, the practice of targeting “enemy“ citizens abroad is not new. Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier was killed in a car bomb by Augusto Pinochet’s secret police in Washington, D.C. in 1976. Bulgarian writer and BBC journalist Georgi Markov was killed by a poison-laced pellet in London in 1978, allegedly by a Bulgarian state agent.
More recently, digital technology has allowed exiled activists such as Belarusian opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to influence the political situation in their home countries from abroad. Authoritarian states such as Russia, Iran, and China have exploited the same technology to target dissidents with spying and online harassment, as well as harnessing more prosaic forms of repression, such as assassinations, kidnapping, threatening family members back home, or issuing international arrest warrants and Red Notices via Interpol. Transnational repression is on the rise, and Turkey is one of the worst perpetrators. The case of the Turkish diaspora, one of western Europe’s largest and most diverse, constituting approximately 5.5 million people, illustrates how multi-faceted transnational repression is among the most insidious geopolitical challenges of the 21st century.
The roots of the diaspora
The bulk of the diaspora traces back to a labour agreement signed in 1961 between Germany, desperate for workers, and Turkey, suffering from chronically high unemployment. Similar accords were signed with Austria, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and others. These countries continue to be home to some of the largest diasporas with roots in Turkey.
These Gastarbeiter – guest workers – mostly poor and from rural Anatolia, amounted to over 2.5 million people by the late 1970s, with entire villages sometimes migrating together. Needless to say, most of the “guest” workers stayed, and their families soon joined them, helping to build Europe’s strongest economies but forming a marginalised underclass in the process. This first generation still constitutes the majority of the diaspora in Europe today.
Following the 1980 coup and three-year military dictatorship in Turkey, these economic migrants were joined by a flood of political refugees – largely leftists, but also many Islamists – seeking asylum in Europe. Islamist, leftist, Kurdish, and Alevi associations, severely restricted or outlawed in Turkey, began to flourish in Europe. This included the Millî Görüş (National Outlook) Islamist movement, out of which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan originally emerged. The 1990s saw a third wave of migration as large numbers of Kurds arrived, fleeing government persecution and an insurgency.
When these newcomers began to raise the political consciousness of the diaspora, the Turkish government decided to keep a closer eye on them. Ankara deployed its State Directorate for Religious Affairs (Diyanet) to send imams to mosques all over the continent who would keep the more radical Islamist groups in check. There are around a thousand Diyanet-controlled mosques in Europe today. Large numbers of teachers were also sent from Turkey’s education ministry to teach Turkish in Germany and other countries.
Crackdowns at home and abroad
In the past decade, the diaspora has been joined by many thousands of Turkey’s most highly educated citizens, escaping political and economic instability, as well as political refugees fleeing Ankara’s wrath. President Erdoğan used the brutal failed coup of July 2016 as an excuse to launch a crackdown against hundreds of thousands of people. The primary targets have been followers of Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan’s partner-turned-enemy and leader of a global Islamic movement, who is blamed by Ankara for the coup. Others include leftists and Kurdish nationalists critical of the government, among them many top academics and journalists. The vast majority of these people had nothing to do with the coup or any other violent acts. Erdoğan’s crackdown soon became transnational, as Ankara pursued its enemies, many of whom hold citizenship in EU member states, in dozens of countries across the world. Democracy watchdog Freedom House found that Turkey has rendered – essentially kidnapped, usually with the help of local state authorities – more opponents from abroad than any other country in recent years. The organisation has documented 58 people rendered from 17 countries, acknowledging that this is likely an undercount. The Turkish government has itself boasted of arresting 116 “terrorists” from 27 countries.
Freedom House found that Turkey has more opponents from abroad than any other country in recent years
“Turkey is quite proud of this campaign,” explains Yana Gorokhovskaia, an expert on transnational repression with Freedom House. “They often take credit for kidnapping someone and bringing them back to Turkey, and that’s presented in the media for the domestic audience as a success.”
Most cases have happened outside of the EU, but not all. Several alleged Gülen supporters have been taken to Turkey from Bulgaria, in at least one case despite two local courts ruling against extradition to Turkey because they cannot be guaranteed a fair trial.
Ankara has also obliterated the norms of statecraft in its pursuit of political opponents in other ways. Interpol has been flooded with requests to extradite or provide information on Erdoğan’s political targets, for which German Chancellor Angela Merkel sharply rebuked Ankara. Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) reportedly handed German intelligence a list of over 300 Gülen supporters to be put under surveillance; instead, the Germans warned them to be careful and avoid Turkey and Turkish consulates. In September 2021, police in Düsseldorf arrested a man believed to be working for Turkish intelligence who was found with weapons and a list of Gülen supporters. Even German parliamentarians have been warned they may be under Turkish surveillance. Switzerland and Austria have also complained about Turkish spying on dissidents.
The long arm of the Turkish state
Aside from its intelligence operations on European soil, Ankara has mobilised a host of other resources against its perceived enemies. Ordinary people at home and abroad have been encouraged to inform on their fellow citizens. Imams at mosques run by the Diyanet, superpowered with funds under the Erdoğan government and full of party loyalists, spy on Gülen followers. Turkish consulates in Germany have allegedly told Turkish teachers and students to spy on teachers and report any material that is critical of Erdoğan’s government.
Violent groups with close ties with Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), such as the biker gang Osmanen Germania, banned by Germany in 2018, are also used by Ankara to target dissidents. According to the German authorities, AKP member and Erdoğan confidante Metin Külünk funded the gang, whom he told to “beat Kurds over the head with sticks”.
In July 2021, Turkish journalist Erk Acarer was attacked by unknown Turkish men in Berlin who told him to stop writing. At around the same time, German police in Cologne warned journalist Celal Başlangıç that his name had been found on a list of targeted dissidents.
Erdoğan’s campaigning abroad highlights the real discrimination faced by the diaspora in Europe
This repression has left a fog of bitterness in Europe. “There’s this real dislike of MİT, what it does, and how it pressures the diaspora [and] causes trouble,” explains Alexander Clarkson, a specialist on the Turkish diaspora at King’s College London. He says European authorities are hesitant to react too harshly because MİT is the intelligence agency of a NATO partner. Various EU states have, however, cracked down on Diyanet. The German government has investigated imams working for the Turkish government and started training its own. Other countries have expelled and blocked the visa applications of Diyanet imams and closed Turkish mosques. Paris has placed restrictions on the foreign funding of mosques.
Turkish politicking within EU borders and harsh rhetoric from Erdoğan and other AKP politicians, particularly in the last five years, has not helped with relations between Europe and Turkey. In 2017, a row erupted over restricting Turkish politicians’ rallies in Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands ahead of a vote proposing to massively increase Erdoğan’s presidential powers. Erdoğan and other top politicians likened European governments to the Nazis and, later that year, told members of the diaspora to have more children and that they should “teach a lesson” to Germany’s “anti-Turkish” mainstream political parties in the 2017 federal election. Turkey is a unique case for the European Union due to the country’s candidate status, its diaspora, and the huge amount of trade via the customs union. As Sinem Adar, a specialist on Turkey’s diaspora policy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) notes, for the EU, Turkey is both a domestic and foreign policy issue. “A functional relationship with Turkey isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity,” she explains.
Under the AKP, Turkey has asserted itself internationally and expanded relations and influence in Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Over the past decade, this policy has taken an aggressive, militarised tack in the Eastern Mediterranean, with interventions in Libya and Syria. Coinciding with this foreign policy expansion, the AKP has deepened its institutional outreach to and influence within the diaspora. It has developed Turkey’s first proper diaspora policy under a new government agency which opened in 2010, the Presidency For Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB). Citizens were finally allowed to vote in Turkish elections from abroad in 2014 (previously a trip to Turkey was required), consular services have been improved, and a vast infrastructure of NGOs, think tanks, schools and cultural centres has been established under the aegis of the Union of European Turkish Democrats, essentially a branch of the AKP. These efforts would be commendable were it not for the fact that this infrastructure has been weaponised as a tool, not only of soft power, but of transnational repression. Like the rest of the Turkish state, it serves not the citizens of Turkey but rather the person of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party.
The price of inaction
There are a number of ways that EU countries can take on transnational repression. Clear red lines must be established and harmonised across the EU, with high costs for crossing them. These could include targeted, EU-wide sanctions involving asset-freezing and travel bans. Europe- based companies could be further restricted from selling surveillance technology to authoritarian regimes. Asylum programmes need to be streamlined and expanded, so that targets of transnational repression are not left waiting for years in countries outside of the EU where they are unsafe. Law enforcement agencies need to be trained in identifying and dealing with transnational repression; Interpol, though recently reformed, continues to list individuals who are targeted for political reasons. Migrants who are isolated are most at risk of transnational repression, and EU countries need to increase outreach, resources, job training, and integration efforts towards their diasporas, with special programmes for those at risk.
When it comes to Turkey specifically, the controversial 2016 migration deal, whereby the EU pays off Ankara to keep refugees out of Europe and which the Erdoğan government brandishes as a weapon against the EU, should be scrapped. It turns Turkey into an unsafe country for migrants at risk and gives Ankara powerful leverage. European countries also need to continue the delicate task of replacing Diyanet mosques with independent ones, without further marginalizing Muslim communities or resorting to Islamophobic policies or rhetoric.
Despite increasingly draconian border policies, diasporas in Europe will continue to grow. The EU only stands to benefit. In addition to further enriching European culture, migrants make a crucial contribution towards meeting labour demands and preventing demographic decline in the continent’s ageing populations. However, EU countries must do a better job of integrating and engaging with diasporas, who above all want to be treated as equal citizens. In the case of the Turkish diaspora, the AKP’s transnational repression campaign is made easier by the higher rates of support for Erdoğan in the diaspora than in Turkey. Erdoğan’s campaigning abroad highlights the real discrimination faced by the diaspora in Europe; meanwhile, he presents himself as their fearless champion. “You are never, never alone,” trumpets one cover of the YTB’s diaspora magazine Artı 90, which features a photo of Erdoğan waving in front of a crescent and star-emblazoned over European flags. This message appeals to many among the diaspora who do not feel fully accepted in their countries; diasporic communities are often the target of far-right politics and have disproportionately low levels of income and education.
Transnational repression is not some inconvenient front in a wider geopolitical picture. It is an assault on those fundamental rights
– the rights to life, liberty, and freedom of expression – on which the European Union is founded. The actions of Turkey and authoritarian states like it threaten not only the rights of diaspora communities, but those of all people living in Europe. By turning a blind eye to violations of human rights by undemocratic regimes on its borders and failing to enact a strong response to those taking place on its territory, the EU not only emboldens authoritarianism abroad, it effectively invites it in.