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Kurds in Turkey: Children of a Lesser God?

An old Kurdish adage says that “Kurds have no friends but the mountains”. A long history of persecution promoted by successive Turkish governments targeting Kurds adds weight to the argument. Among the Turkish populace, there is animosity toward Kurds: 2 in 3 Turks believe that Kurds, who make up an estimated 15-20% of the population, have a ‘‘very’’ or ‘‘somewhat’’ bad influence on Turkish society[1].

Most would certainly agree that the ongoing war between Turkish soldiers and the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) has had a very bad influence on Turkish society. Since 1984, more than 40,000 people have died due to the conflict in the southeast of the country, where the majority of the population is Kurdish. The war triggered the displacement of 1-3 million Kurds between 1990 and 1998 under the so-called “Kurdish forced migration”[2]. Government-led military and security groups forced Kurds to abandon their villages and many were victims of “enforced disappearances”.

Thousands of civilians were killed. One clandestine organization became particularly famous for its cruel methods such as mystery killings, torture, assassinations, and excessive use of force: the Gendarmerie Intelligence and Counterterrorism Unit (JITEM). As the Der Spiegel puts it, “when members of the special Turkish police unit JITEM arrived at night, Kurdish inhabitants of southeast Turkey knew there would be another disappearance”[3].

Even 20 years later, the Immigration Monitoring Association estimates that 3,638 people lost their lives between 2015 and 2018 during long curfews imposed by the Turkish army in the southeastern region[4]. In 2016, Amnesty International called for an end to  the “draconian restrictions “ which “resemble[d] collective punishment”[5].

Furthermore, a 2017 report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights[6] documented “serious human rights violations”, including “numerous cases of excessive use of force; killings; enforced disappearances; torture; destruction of housing and cultural heritage; incitement to hatred; prevention of access to emergency medical care, food, water and livelihoods; violence against women; and severe curtailment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression as well as political participation”. The UN calculates that some 2,000 people died between July 2015 and December 2016 and that approximately 1,200 of them were civilians. The same report shows that during this period, in which the fight against the PKK extended from the mountains to urban areas, between 355,000 to half a million (most of them Kurds) became “internally displaced people”.

Despite all this, calls for peace are oftentimes not well received. In 2016, more than 2,000 people, known collectively as the Academics for Peace, signed a petition asking for a negotiated and peaceful solution to the conflict. The signatories have since been accused of “making propaganda for a terrorist organization [PKK]”. The same year saw Ayşe Çelik, a Turkish teacher, being sentenced to 15 months in jail for “propagandizing for a terrorist organization”. Her crime? Asking for peace during a phone call on a popular Turkish TV show. Calling in to the talk show she exclaimed, “what is happening here is misrepresented on television. I cannot really say more, please don’t stay silent. Please show more sensitivity as human beings. Don’t let people die. Don’t let children die. Don’t let mothers cry”[7][8].

Ironically, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who now accuses the Academics for Peace of “treason”, is the very same person who was on the verge of reaching a historic peace agreement with the PKK. In December 2012 Erdoğan, then prime minister, announced that there were negotiations going on between state officials and Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdish militia, in order to end the PKK insurgency. A ceasefire was called by Öcalan and the PKK in March 2013; however, that ceasefire would break down in July 2015. The peace process came to an end after Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority power in the June 2015 elections, when several attacks on Turkish policemen and soldiers were blamed on the Kurdish militant group.

The conflict’s beginnings

Following a military coup in 1980, the Turkish government launched an incredibly harsh crackdown on Kurdish people. The prison in Diyarbakır (Kurds symbolic capital)  became known for the innumerous acts of torture and human rights violations taking place there after the coup. Once named one the world’s worst prisons by “Time Magazine”, inmates were, for instance, forced to eat faeces. Veteran Kurdish politician, Ahmet Türk, who was imprisoned there, claimed that the prison “was worse than Hitler’s camps” and that prisoners “suffered under torture enough that [they] wished for our death”. Gültan Kişanak, who later became mayor of Diyarbakır, says she “was kept in a dog kennel for six months because [she] refused to say ‘I am not a Kurd but a Turk’”[9].

As speaking Kurdish was forbidden all over the country, and since many of their relatives were not able to speak Turkish, many inmates were not even able to talk to their family. As one former inmate at Diyarbakır Prison recalls: “For six months I could not speak to my mother because she could not speak Turkish and I was not allowed to speak Kurdish. My mother used to visit me regularly. But all we could do was to look into each other’s’ eyes without uttering a single word… For six months I could not ask my mother how she was.”[10]

Many believe that the abysmal conditions of the prison led to the rise of the PKK. Established in 1978, the PKK launched its first armed attack in 1984 as a response to the Turkish government’s crackdown on the Kurdish people. The PKK mostly targets its attacks on Turkish security forces however, it has also been known to target civilians who refuse to cooperate or assist. Since its creation, it has been named a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

The socio-economic picture

The war is far from being the only problem confronting Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. A 2016 report by the Turkish Statistics Institute[11] shows that 9 out of the 10 poorest cities in Turkey are predominantly Kurdish: Batman, Bitlis, Diyarbakır, Hakkâri, Mardin, Muş, Siirt, Şanlıurfa, and Van. It does not come as a surprise that unemployment rates in the region are the highest in Turkey: on average, they are two times higher than the national rate[12]. The problem is twofold for young people in the region: in 2017, the youth unemployment rate among Kurds was 40%, compared to a national average of 21%[13].

Those most vulnerable are the hardest hit. More than half (56%) of children in the southeast of Turkey live in extreme poverty[14],the highest rate in the country. Some prevailing habits  in the region do not contribute to the improvement of the situation. For example, the ten provinces with the highest total fertility rates are all Kurdish-dominated ones[15].  Ibrahim Sirkeci, an expert on Turkey and demographics claims that the situation “has something to do with less education and also a lack of economic opportunities” especially among Kurdish women[16]. In 2017, the national average was 2.07% however, within the top ten provinces, that rate was no lower than 3% – in Şanlıurfa, the total fertility rate was 4,29%.

What awaits many of these children at school is not good: they will be taught in Turkish, and not in Kurdish, their native language. What follows are “communication problems, trauma, feelings of exclusion and shame” as Kurdish children “are less likely to succeed in school, and more likely to drop out early”[17]. A possible solution could be dual and/or multilingual schools, whereby Turkish-Kurdish bilingual education could be offered. A regional study shows that this solution is favored by more than half of southeastern residents and is even preferred to a Kurdish-only curriculum [18]. This would also require a huge effort to enroll Kurdish children in preschools where they would have the chance to learn Turkish and avoid the current situation in which many Kurds go to primary school at age 5 not knowing how to speak their country’s main language.

The southeastern province of Anatolia performs much worse than the other Turkish regions when it comes to academic performance[19]. According to Mehmet Güçlü, a researcher of regional unemployment disparities in Turkey, the low level of education attainment is “the most important factor” of the region’s high unemployment rate[20].  Functional literacy rates are extremely low (approximately 40%) compared to the rest of Turkey (90%)[21]. A 2009 study showed that almost half (46%) of Kurds had not completed primary education compared to a national average of non-primary-educated citizens of 9%[22]. Furthermore, 37% of Kurdish-speaking citizens are illiterate, a problem which is more acute among Kurdish women as 8 in 10 are either illiterate or did not finish primary school.

There are two other social issues enormously affecting women in the region. Firstly, child marriage: a third of marriages in the eastern and southeastern provinces of Turkey involve brides under the legal minimum age of marriage[23]. “Traditional considerations regarding the protection of family honor” are decisive to understanding what leads to this situation: in the southeast region of Turkey, there is still a very prevalent mentality of patriarchal family dominance, in which adult males take decisions over women and children[24].

Secondly, honor killings, in which relatives, especially girls or women, who are perceived to have brought dishonor on the family, are murdered by family members, continue to be a problem. A Turkish scholar quotes data showing that “the number of persons who committed honor killings who were born in the Eastern and Southeastern part of Turkey is much higher than the number of murderers in other regions”. This she relates to some “Arab tribal practices” prevailing in the region which “claim the right to kill women for their ‘dishonorable’ deeds”[25].

In order to deal with these two problems, as one study[26] suggests, governments, non-governmental and human rights organizations should work together to increase the educational level of both women and men and give women the means to achieve economic independence (and, consequently, less dependency) from their families. At the same time, public health and family planning organizations ought to raise awareness of the effects related to early marriage on the physical, mental and emotional well-being of young women. Furthermore, the Diyanet, Turkey’s directorate of religious affairs, could also take a more active role in denouncing this kind of behavior as religiously unacceptable. Last but not least, the high fertility rate among Kurdish women, one of the main causes of underdevelopment and poverty[27], could be tackled by promoting girls’ education and gender equality and improving the availability of contraception and family planning services.

Political developments

Millions of Kurds are continually being accused by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of voting for terrorists, as, in his view, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) “equals the PKK”. Since the 2016 coup attempt, over 90 elected mayors of the HDP and its local sister parties in the southeast have been arrested on charges of terrorism. They were replaced by government appointees, arguably a way for the AKP to seize power in places where it cannot win elections. Before the last local polls, Erdoğan threatened to do the same: “If you happen to send the opportunities provided by the state to Qandil, we will once again, immediately and without waiting any further, appoint our trustees”[28]. Selahattin Demirtaş, the HDP’s former co-chair and former presidential candidate, along with 16 HDP lawmakers and other thousands of other members of the party were also jailed.

After the massive crackdown on media in the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup attempt, it has become harder and harder for Kurds to follow such developments and other news in Kurdish media, as a huge number of Kurdish outlets were closed and dozens of Kurdish journalists were arrested and charged with ties to the PKK[29]. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, said that “Kurdish media has been decimated”[30].

While the treatment of Kurds by successive Turkish governments has been horrific, one must not minimize the appalling influence of the PKK in Turkey. The organization is undoubtedly one of the main causes of several problems in the southeast region of Turkey. However, it is also wrong to view the PKK as representative of Kurdish people. For this reason, it must concern everyone that the constant attacks by the Turkish government on Kurdish movements along with the terrible socio-economic conditions described above have been attracting more and more young Kurds to the PKK[31]. A teacher told “The Guardian” that “first graders in Sur [the ancient center of Diyarbakır which was largely destroyed in 2015 during urban conflicts between the Turkish Army and the PKK] don’t dream of becoming doctors or engineers; they want to become guerrilla fighters”. Something is terribly wrong when children regard their own government as an enemy against whom they should fight.

It is hard to imagine a new peace process starting while Erdoğan’s AKP is in coalition with the ultranationalist Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (MHP). The MHP vehemently opposed negotiation talks with the PKK some years ago and has always taken several stances against the recognition of political and cultural rights of Turkish Kurds. There has been some speculation about restarting peace talks between the government and the PKK after Abdullah Öcalan had been allowed to meet his lawyers for first time since 2011, even though it is quite likely that this was a mere electoral move by the AKP-MHP alliance to try to attract Kurdish voters ahead of June 23 elections in Istanbul.

Hence, it seems there are no political conditions for the AKP to engage in conversations with the PKK without creating a serious crisis with its coalition partner. And there is no pressure from Turkish society for it to happen, as in a public opinion survey taken shortly after the 2018 election, less than 1% of Turks cited the Kurdish problem as Turkey’s most important issue[32]. At the same time, the main opposition parties are all united against Erdoğan in the name of democracy. This includes the HDP, which makes a possible partnership between the AKP and the HDP, in which the HDP would support the AKP in exchange of the relaunch of the peace process and broaden rights for Kurds, more and more implausible. This is not to mention the smear attacks coming from AKP-MHP that equate the HDP to the PKK.

Instead, if Erdoğan decides to start conversations with the PKK and the MHP finds it reason enough to withdraw its support to the government, the Turkish president could think about calling early elections and rely on the Kurdish vote, especially in the southeast, in order to prevent the HDP from crossing the electoral threshold of 10%. Having the HDP out of the parliament would mean that the AKP, predominantly the second most voted party among Kurds (and in predominantly Kurdish regions), would get the HDP votes in the region and, almost for sure, a parliamentary majority which would allow Erdoğan’s party to govern alone.

Zehra Doğan, a Kurdish journalist and artist who was in jail for “exceeding the limits of artistic criticism”, recently asked in The Independent for “international powers (…) not [to] forget the many journalists, artists, students, academics and politicians under arrest as a result of their thoughts (…) and do what you can to help them”[33]. Many Kurds – and “pro-Kurds” – experience hell in prison every day. Those experiencing an economic, social, political and cultural hell outside of prison should not be forgotten either. In order to help them, the Turkish government, the country’s political institutions, the HDP, non-governmental and human rights organizations all need to work together and tackle these issues which are continually harming Turkey’s social cohesion. A stronger incentive from the European Union would certainly be a great contribution.

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[1] J. Dixon & M. Ergin, “Explaining Anti‐Kurdish Beliefs in Turkey: Group Competition, Identity, and Globalization”, Social Science Quartlerly
[2] B. Ayata, “The Politics of Displacement: A Transnational Analysis of Kurdish Forced Migration in Turkey and Europe”
[3] D. Steinvorth, “Turkey’s Dirty War against the Kurds”, Spiegel
[4] I. Erdem, Y. Tan & Z. Kibar, “Report on Human Rights Violations Against Women and Their Experiences During the Curfews and Forced Migration”, Migration Monitoring Association
[5] “Turkey: End abusive operations under indefinite curfews”, Amnesty International
[6] “Report on the human rights situation in South-East Turkey”, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
[7] “Turkish teacher jailed after call for peace set to win appeal – report”, Ahval
[8] Some days ago, Ayşe was acquitted by a Turkish court.
[9] L. Tas, N. Al-Ali & G. Kisanak, “Kurdish women’s battle continues against state and patriarchy, says first female co-mayor of Diyarbakir”, Open Democracy
[10] W. Zeydanlioglu, “Torture and Turkification in the Diyarbakır Military Prison”, Interdisciplinary Press
[11] “Kurdish cities are among the poorest in Turkey”, ANF
[12] S. Gursel & S. Koksal, “The Worst and Bests in Regional Unemployment”, Betam
[13] “Regions and Cities at a Glance 2018 – TURKEY”, OECD
[14] “38 percent of children live in extreme poverty across Turkey”, Hurriyet Daily News
[15] “Birth Statistics, 2017”, Turkish Statistical Institute
[16] P. Ghosh, “Turkey: High Kurdish Birth Rate Raises Questions About Future”, International Business Times
[17] C. Letsch, “Mandatory Turkish puts Kurdish pupils at disadvantage”, The Guardian
[18] B.A. Olmaz, “Toplumsal Sorunlar ve Yeni Anayasa”
[19] H. Gül, “Türkiye’nin Eğitim Sorunları, AKP’nin Eğitime Bakışı ve Çözüm Önerileri”, Toplum ve Demokrasi
[20] M. Güçlü, “Regional Unemployment Disparities in Turkey”, Romanian Journal of Economic Forecasting
[21] Sophia Pandya in “The Hizmet Movement and Peacebuilding”, pp. 138
[22] N. Baysal, “Turkish schools leave Kurdish students behind”, Ahval
[23] “Third of marriages in eastern Turkey involve child brides”, Hurriyet Daily News
[24] M. Ertem & T. Kocturk, “Opinions on early-age marriage and marriage customs among Kurdish-speaking women in southeast Turkey”, Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care
[25] S. Cesur Kılıçaslan, “Honor Killings in Turkey”, International Journal of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies
[26] M. Ertem & T. Kocturk.
[27] J.D. Sachs, “Lower Fertility: a Wise Investment”, Scientific American
[28] D. Jones, “Erdogan Threatens to Reverse Local Election Results”, VOA News
[29] D. Phillips, “Collapse of rule of law in Erdoğan’s Turkey”, Ahval
[30] D. Kaye, “Commentary: The high price of Turkey’s ‘witch-burning’ crackdown”, Reuters
[31] C. Letsch, “In a devastated Turkish town, teenagers dream of joining the Kurdish guerrillas”, The Guardian
[32] A. Makovsky, “Turkey’s Refugee Dilemma”, Center for American Progress
[33] Z. Dogan, “I was just released from prison in Turkey because of my art, but I refuse to be silenced”, Independent

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