The recent release of a long-awaited study on the size of Turkey's population of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has refocused attention on this enduring problem, raising questions about Ankara's dedication to addressing the issue.
Turkey's IDP problem is connected to the turbulence of the 1980's and 1990's, when Turkish security forces battled guerillas from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the country's predominantly-Kurdish southeast region. More than 30,000 individuals on both sides are believed to have been killed during the insurgency.
In an effort to root the guerillas out of the countryside, Turkish forces forcibly evacuated thousands of villages. The number of those displaced has always been under dispute. The Turkish government insisted that some 350,000 Kurds were forced to move because of the fighting, while Kurdish groups and human rights organization put the number at anywhere from 1 million to 4 million.
Under pressure from the United Nations and the European Union, which Turkey hopes to join, Ankara commissioned in 2004 a study to determine the size of the IDP population and their living conditions. After some delay, the government released the study conducted by the Institute of Population Studies at Hacettepe University in Ankara in December.
The study estimates the IDP population to be between 950,000 and 1.2 million almost triple the government's original numbers. Observers say the study's data and its population estimate provide a solid baseline measure to assist in the reformulation of aid and development programs for IDPs. It also gives a clearer indication of the severity of the IDP problem.
"You are talking about masses of people who were displaced without any planning and are utterly impoverished. You had entire families emigrating overnight, often without any property, and without any national or international assistance," says Dilek Kurban, a researcher at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), an Istanbul-based think tank that has conducted its own research on the IDP issue. "These people have been displaced and abandoned for the last 10 or 15 years, and only now are we starting to talk about justice and compensation."
The Turkish government insists that it is tackling the IDP problem, pointing to a 2004 compensation law passed by parliament, intended to provide financial restitution to displaced Kurds. Officials also play up the Return to Village and Rehabilitation Project (RVRP), which is supposed to help IDPs make their way back to their homes.
But while describing both the compensation law and RVRP as positive steps, human rights workers and legal experts say there are serious problems with how they have been conceived and implemented. According to the Hacettepe University study, only 53 percent of the IDPs are aware of the compensation law, and 50 percent know about the RVRP. Meanwhile, in a recently released report, Human Right Watch said the compensation law failed to offer the IDPs "fair and appropriate redress."
"Turkey's compensation law offered hope that the government would finally compensate hundreds of thousands of displaced people for their losses at the hands of the military," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Now these displaced villagers have been victimized yet again by the arbitrariness of a compensation process that was supposedly established to help them."
Legal experts say one of the main problems with the law is that compensation is determined by local assessment commissions in the areas where villages were emptied, and whose members have little experience with legal work or restitution issues. According to the HRW report, this has often led the commissions handing out absurdly low compensation amounts. In one example, the damage assessment commission in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir awarded a family that has had no access to its house, crops, or silkworm business since they were destroyed by soldiers in 1993 an overall total of 5,000 Turkish Lira (TL) (US$3,350).
"The law was a political step," says Ilhan Bal, general secretary of the Istanbul office of Goc-Der, the main IDP advocacy group. "It didn't work to solve the real problem of the IDPs; it was merely done for appearance's sake."
The IDP issue goes beyond compensation, other experts contend. The IDPs mostly farmers in their previous lives have largely migrated to Turkey's big cities, where many have become part of the chronic underclass. "In terms of integration into urban areas, the government has not done anything," says TESEV's Kurban. "There is no plan to deal with these people, who need training, housing, education. They need everything."
Tamer Aker, a professor of psychiatry at medical school of Kocaeli University, near Istanbul, says the IDP population also presents a public mental health challenge that needs to be addressed. "The migration and displacement process have been very difficult for them. This was an involuntary migration. They didn't want to leave," says Aker, who has worked closely with IDPs in the Kocaeli area.
"There are so many traumatic issues. The problem is widespread and needs community mental health solutions," Aker continued.
In an Istanbul neighborhood mainly populated by IDPs, the offices of a branch of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) serve as the regular meeting point for a group of former villagers from the southeast. A 38-year-old who would only give his name as Ramazan says he has only been able to find sporadic work as a day laborer since being forced out of his village 18 years ago.
"I'm simply trying to survive in Istanbul. I'm in the big city and it's very difficult. I come from different earth," he says. "In the village, I was working the land and raising cattle. I just haven't been able to catch up to the technological life in the city."
His village, near the city of Tunceli in the southeast, is still considered an off-limits military zone, Ramazan says. Still, he longs to return. "My children haven't seen our village. I hope they get the chance," he said.
According to the Hacettepe study, close to 50 percent of IDPs said they would like to return to their villages. But Goc-Der's Bal says there are still serious hurdles that are keeping the IDPs from returning. Security in the southeast remains questionable, with clashes between government forces and the PKK militants resuming after a lull of a few years. Many cleared out villages are now surrounded by mine fields that need to be cleared, while their infrastructure -- roads, schools, sewage and electricity would have to be rebuilt.
"I think if the state did the necessary things, people would go back to their villages," Bal says. "These people need to be able to decide their own fate."
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.