On 12 June, an Istanbul court ruled in favour of the cancellation of the urban renovation project targeting Sulukule, the oldest Romani settlement in Europe, located close to the city’s old Byzantine walls. The court established that the Fatih Municipality’s Sulukule renovation project is “not in the public interest”, and is in violation of Law no. 5366 on the “Preservation by Renovation and Utilisation by Revitalising of Deteriorated Immovable Historical and Cultural Properties”, as well as UNESCO’s criteria on preservation of historical heritage. The project formed a small part of a huge restructuring drive in Istanbul, underway for the past two decades.
The ruling comes too late to save the Sulukule neighbourhood. Aside from one Romani-owned, wooden Ottoman house that was preserved on historic grounds, all the buildings have gone. For its thousands of former inhabitants, relocated many miles away or living in the ruins of the settlement, the ruling is of cold comfort.
The demolition of the neighbourhood went ahead despite an international campaign to ensure democratic consultation with the residents, to galvanise support and to build a case for the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The campaign involved many people and organisations including the Sulukule Romani Association, the Sulukule Platform, the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), the International Romani Studies Network, the National Federation of Turkish Romani Associations and others. Other Romani and Traveller communities facing forced eviction and demolition of their homes pledged support, such as the Dale Farm Association in the UK.
The campaign took many forms. It organised children's art and culture workshops, demonstrations in the city centre, events at the Swedish Consulate and the French Culture Centre, among others, to exhibit the international support for the Romani residents. Former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg visited on a number of occasions and listened to the concerns and pleas of campaigners and residents to defend their rights. The ERRC, Helsinki Citizens' Assembly and Edirne Romani Association project “Promoting Romani Rights in Turkey” (2006-08) gathered evidence and testimony to support the case against the municipality.
Despite this activity, the physical destruction of most of Sulukule took place in February 2010. The crumbling Ottoman wooden tenements were bulldozed as crowds of Romani people watched, to be replaced with neo-Ottoman, two-storey villas complete with parking for every household. A shopping mall and sports centre complemented this gentrification and the much promised culture centre for the Romani people who used to live there never materialized. The alternative for a few of the 3,000 residents was the Taşoluk village, newly built 45 kilometres away from Istanbul, where families of seven were offered 50 square metres to live in. There is no hospital, no school, no regular transport to the city, one small bakkal (grocery store) and a taxi or two. The rent for these apartments was too high for the former residents of Sulukule and they moved back to live in shanties in the newly renamed “Karagümrük” neighbourhood, on the ruins of their former homes.
In March 2010, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan organised a gathering of 10,000 Romani people in the Abdi Ipekci Sports Hall in Istanbul and promised them that problems with housing and education, and the second-class status of Romani citizens of the Turkish Republic would be addressed. The new Constitution will reflect the diversity of the Republic, giving Romani citizens parity with other cultural and religious groups (such as the Alevis).
Erdoğan had grown up in the Romani neighbourhood of Kasımpaşa near Istanbul, along with Balık Ayhan, a Romani celebrity, and claimed an affinity with the Romanlar, apologising for their past treatment at the hands of the state. As 10,000 Romani people chanted, beat their big drums and blew their zurnas, the Prime Minister pulled their support away from the opposition party, the traditional home of Romani voters in Turkey.
Erdoğan has claimed a common past with Romani people in Istanbul, living side by side with them in the poor, narrow streets not far from Beyoğlu’s expensive shops, restaurants and bars. He has promised to improve the situation of the Roma, to ensure their rights as Turkish citizens are properly observed and respected by all. Challenging the unscrupulous development of Romani neighbourhoods is one step to achieving that. Though the government’s commitment to fewer Roma evictions is necessary, it is not sufficient.
As land becomes more valuable, demand for renovation will only grow, as it has in the Fener and Balat districts of Istanbul. Thus the relationship between Romani people and policy makers as well as accountability mechanisms in the face of evictions must also be addressed. More inclusive and participatory regeneration projects are possible too. The Fatih Municipality has undertaken this approach in another Romani neighbourhood, Lonca, where buildings have been painted and partially renovated by the municipality. The changes have made the district more attractive to tourists offering the Romani residents a new source of income.
Sulukule illustrates wider challenges of inclusion faced by Roma in Turkey and in Europe as a whole. The introduction last year of an EU framework for national Roma integration strategies was deemed a huge step forward for millions of Roma in Europe. To improve the situation of the estimated 3.8 million Roma just outside the EU, in the western Balkans and Turkey, the European Commission stated its intent to step up support for integration. The European Commission also highlighted housing, and in particular the Sulukule and Küçükbakkalköy demolitions, in its reports on progress towards accession in October 2011. A year later, the commitment of countries in and outside the EU to follow through on Roma integration remains unclear. Turkey’s EU Minister Egemen Bagis regularly states his country’s commitment to Roma as equal citizens—“unlike France”, he provocatively adds on occasion. Turkish membership of the Roma Decade would be one tangible step towards achieving this goal.
Evictions of Roma like the one in Sulukule form one chapter in the history of Roma rights violations in Europe. Evictions of Roma happen across the continent, often initiated by business or political interests. These evictions usually do not comply with UN eviction norms and standards and most of them lack a plan for long-term resettlement of the evicted Roma families. Many evicted Roma end up on the streets, and are pushed to restart their lives from the beginning. This constant displacement and restarting of lives is a never-ending cycle for many Roma in Europe.
Evictions are about more than property; they interrupt the entire life, education, employment and progress of a family, possibly irreparably, and hasten the decline of the Roma people. Evictions must be viewed and addressed in this light. Though governments may be concerned about and committed to better Roma integration, they must be equally committed to fewer Roma evictions. We cannot have one without the other.