Last Monday, the UTM Campus Conservatives and Conservative MP Garnett Genuis hosted a panel titled “Rights and Wrongs: The Declining Human Rights Situation in Turkey.” Genuis opened the discussion with a question: “How should Canada be responding to human rights in Turkey?”

The panel featured speakers who have been impacted by the current government of Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been in power since 2003. Many claim the government is disregarding the rights of people, especially those of minority groups living in Turkey.

Those outside of Turkey critical of the Erdoğan government created a website called turkeypurge.com that records the number of citizens reportedly “purged” for their views, where some individuals lose their jobs and others are jailed. The panelists claim that the government is systematically attacking media outlets across the country, silencing those who do not share the same views. As many as 180 media outlets have reportedly been shut down in recent years, supposedly in connection to a crackdown by the Turkish government. The panel uses this to explain why so many cases of misconduct by the government go unreported within Turkey. “How can [the Turkish government] be held accountable if there is no free media?” the panelists asked.

Arslan Ayan, a political science teaching assistant from York University and member of the panel, described his own experiences of being a journalist in Turkey, where he now feels unsafe to return. Ayan addressed the attempted coup of the Erdoğan government in 2016 as a point that saw an escalated crackdown on dissenters. He claims that as many as 170,000 “normal people” have been dismissed for their views. These people are described by the government as “coup-makers,” whether or not they were directly involved with the coup attempt.

Umut Duygu Uzunel, an ophthalmologist from Turkey, gave the audience a rundown of her experience as a political refugee now living in Canada. She discussed the difficulties that refugees face when adjusting to a new culture, including learning a new language, needing accreditation of a previous job, and in some cases coping with living alone. As a doctor from Turkey, she explains the challenge of getting back into her job, especially in the health sciences, and the difficulty of reuniting her family in Canada.

Many of the panelists remain doubtful of Turkey’s future as they see the need for a new civil constitution. Currently, they describe policies of “Turk-ification,” where the names of families of minority groups are renamed to Turkish ones. This also extends beyond Turkey. A panelist from Cyprus spoke about Turkey’s invasion of his country in the 1970s. The island nation consists of two major ethnic groups: Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. The panellist explains that, at the time, the Greek Cypriots felt like “refugees in their own country.” Some of the grievances he listed included Greek Cypriots being denied right of religion, right to pass on property to their family, and the right to their own teachers.

At the end of the discussion, MP Genuis expressed his optimism that the situation in Turkey will improve and the event concluded with a question period for guests to ask questions directed at the panelists and their experiences.