When 28-year-old Turkish journalist Hülya Emeç applied for political asylum in Switzerland this January, she hoped her request would be approved quickly. Five months later, she is not so sure.
“I may have to wait for two more weeks, or two more years,” she said.
Emeç is one of thousands of Turkish citizens who have applied for political asylum in European countries following the failed coup attempt in July 2016. The Ankara government imposed a state of emergency immediately after the coup attempt, and it is still in force almost two years later.
Emeç is currently in a centre for asylum seekers and refugees near Zurich, Switzerland. If her request is rejected and she is sent back to Turkey, she will be detained at the airport and taken straight to prison.
Asylum requests from Turkish citizens in European countries significantly increased in 2017, with more than 14,000 applications made in Germany, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium and Greece. Most of these claims were related to persecution and political pressure of opposition figures, journalists and activists.
Many applicants face an uncertain future. In Germany, by far the preferred European destination for those fleeing Turkey, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper reported last year that the state had rejected nearly 5,000 requests out of some 6,5000 claims made by Turkish citizens since July 2016.
Switzerland has come in for criticism from Amnesty International for its sometimes rigid treatment of asylum seekers. There have also been cases where people who had their claims rejected were sent back to countries including Turkey.
Emeç used to work for the Firat News Agency, an independent outlet known in Turkey for its focus on Kurdish issues and which was shut down in the immediate aftermath of the attempted coup.
As a consequence of her reporting, Emeç was charged with membership of an illegal organisation and sentenced to seven years and six months in prison, a term confirmed by the Turkish Supreme Court in January 2018.
Emeç has already served a prison sentence for her work as a journalist.
Ten years ago, when she was only 18, Emeç was reporting for a Kurdish media outlet on protests against the mistreatment of sick prisoners in Turkey’s detention facilities.
As a result of her work, she was also charged with membership of an illegal organisation and sentenced to two years and three months in prison.
Emeç said that the time she spent in Istanbul’s Bakırköy women’s prison made her grow up fast.
“I could not go outside, and was sleep deprived,” she said.
While her decision to leave Turkey was not an easy one, Emeç said that she felt that she had no other choice. Spending another seven years in detention was not an option.
“I constantly have to pay the price of being a Kurd, as well as a woman journalist, in Turkey,” she said.
She left her home without saying a proper goodbye to her mother, boyfriend and friends, and decided to go to Switzerland after reading that it was considering asylum applications from 408 Turkish citizens wanted by the Ankara government following the 2016 coup attempt.
In December 2017 she fled Turkey and, after taking a circuitous route that involved stopovers in Georgia and Brazil, arrived in Switzerland a month later where she immediately claimed asylum.
She was kept in a detention facility at Zurich airport for almost a month before the Swiss authorities finally allowed her to formally enter the country on February 10.
She now spends most of her time in a cramped room which she shares with an Iranian-Kurdish asylum seeker at the camp near Zurich.
Emeç said that she has found it hard adjusting to Switzerland’s cold climate, and has been diagnosed with anemia and vitamin D and B12 deficiency.
“I am used to sunshine, which I had almost every day while I lived in Turkey. Switzerland’s cold and gloomy weather affects both my physical and mental health,” she said.
And not knowing when she will receive an official response to her asylum application makes Emeç feel as if she were still a prisoner.
“My biggest delusion was thinking that, once I reached Switzerland, I would be free,” she said. “However, after spending almost a month in detention at the Swiss airport, and then swapping one detention facility for another, I now understand that I will probably never be truly free.”
Emeç stressed that she had not expected a red carpet welcome for Turkish asylum seekers like her in Switzerland.
But she said she was baffled why, when the whole world could see the persecution of journalists and human rights activists in Turkey, she was being treated with such apparent suspicion.
“I cannot understand people who think that we have come to Europe willingly, easily and in search for pleasure. I am not judging Swiss people nor their laws, but I don’t really feel that I will ever belong here,” Emeç said.
She is now focusing on learning German, the official language of this part of Switzerland, hoping to resume her career as a journalist as soon as she gets a work permit.
But she made clear that she fully intends to return to Turkey one day. She added, “When my country is free from cruelty, I will go back, as will many other Turkish citizens spending their lives in exile all over the world.”