Murky forces are at work in Istanbul

Protests and police brutality.

If you've ever flown in or out of Istanbul by day, and happened to look down, you won't have seen much more than a sprawling expanse of white. With few green interruptions, the city stretches into a concrete mass about thirty miles deep, and the best part of two hundred miles from it's eastern to western extremities. Due to the heat-absorbent qualities of concrete, and Turkey's hot climate, the city becomes largely unliveable for about two months of the year.

In this urban setting, Turkey's ruling AK Party (AKP) government are pressing ahead with plans to demolish one of central Istanbul's last remaining green spaces, Gezi Park, removing trees, grass and a children's park to make way for one more installation of that essential urban space. the shopping mall. The city this week witnessed bloody clashes between the police and protesters defending the park. Turkey is a country familiar with protests against the socially conservative AKP government, and policies ranging from abortion rights to Turkey's world-leading record on incarcerated journalists, but the popular and growing resistance to the destruction of Istanbul's trees has taken politicians by surprise.

Thousands of protesters are staging an occupation of the park (on the hashtag #OccupyGezi), and have been visited with messages of support from celebrities and members of opposition political parties. The breadth of the resistance has been matched only by the excessive use of force by the police, rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon have all been used with a brutality condemned by Amnesty International as "excessive". A woman being tear gassed at close-range was made an editor's choice photograph at Reuters, but the response of international news agencies has been slow, even as dawn raids by the police left scores of injured protesters admitted to Istanbul hospitals.

Behind the environmental politics, however, murkier forces are at work. First of all, Turks have witnessed Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, responding to protests with an assurance that the mall would be built anyway, a clear instance of the anti-democratic philosophy at the heart of his government. Erdogan and the AKP have slowly adopted a form of rule that participates in democracy at election time, but disregards it flatly during the interim periods. Second of all, central government commitment to a shopping mall project might seem surprising to a western audience, yet the involvement is a clear illustration of the cosiness that now exists between government and Turkey's largest construction companies. As was feted by former-IMF economist, Jeffrey Sachs, in a recent, rose-tinted visit to Turkey, the country's construction firms have expanded into central Asia and north Africa, yet the Istanbul property market - by no means immune to bubbles - has provided a solid bedrock to these foreign ventures. The construction contract for a new development of luxury flats was recently awarded to GAP Insaat, the CEO of which is a son-in-law of Prime Minister Erdogan.

Lastly, the protests have shown the outside world the brutality of the Turkish police. International commentators have championed the AKP's dismantling of the Turkish army's political apparatus, citing it a victory for democracy, while at the same time ignoring the rise and rise of the Turkish police as a force in national politics. Whereas the Turkish military have always been staunch defenders of the country's secular republic, and thus offered some balancing of power, the police have proved to be a much more pliant custodian of power, and the upper echelons of the force contain individuals known to be close to the AKP.

The enthusiastic fashion in which officers have used force against the Gezi Park protesters betrays not only Turkish culture's traditional indulgence for the culture of the strongman, it also demonstrates the confidence by which the Turkish police can act without fear of accountability or reprimand. The Gezi Park protests have prompted demonstrations across Europe, with events organised in Rome, Paris, Athens and London's Hyde Park. As organisers in Istanbul have highlighted, government-backed construction of a shopping centre in Hyde Park, Central Park, or Berlin's Tiergarten would all be inconceivable.

Support has also been forthcoming from inside Turkey's corporate sector, and some of Turkey's leading fashion brands, in a move of solidarity, have released statements saying they oppose a development so clearly at-odds with popular sentiment, and that they would not wish to participate in any prospective mall on the site of Gezi Park. If the development can be halted, or if the brutality with which the protest is suppressed can help draw a light on some of Turkey's gravest and most entrenched problems, some good may yet come of the ongoing violence.

Protests in Istanbul. Photograph: Getty Images

Julian Sayarer is cycling from London to Istanbul, he blogs at thisisnotforcharity.com, follow him on Twitter @julian_sayarer.

Photo: Bulent Kilic/Getty Images
Show Hide image

We need to talk about the origins of the refugee crisis

Climate change, as much as Isis, is driving Europe's migrant crisis, says Barry Gardiner. 

Leaders get things wrong. Of course they do. They have imperfect information. They face competing political pressures. Ultimately they are human. The mark of a bad leader is not to make the wrong decision. It is to make no decision at all.

David Cameron’s paralysis over the unfolding human tragedy of Syrian refugees should haunt him for the rest of his natural life. At a time when political and moral leadership was most called for he has maintained the most cowardly silence. 

All summer, as Italy, Greece, Hungary and Macedonia have been trying to cope with the largest migration of people this continent has seen in 70 years, Downing Street has kept putting out spokespeople to claim the government is working harder than any other country “to solve the causes of the crisis” and that this justifies the UK’s refusal to take more than the 216 refugees it has so far admitted directly from Syria. The truth is it hasn’t and it doesn’t.

Anyone who truly wants to solve the causes of the nightmare that is Syria today must look beyond the vicious and repressive regime of Assad or the opportunistic barbarism of ISIL. They need to understand why it was that hundreds of thousands of ruined farmers from Al-Hasakeh, Deir Ezzor and AL-Raqqa in the northeast of that country flocked to the cities in search of government assistance in the first place - only to find it did not exist.

Back in 2010 just after David Cameron became Prime Minister, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that, after the longest and most severe drought in Syria, since records began in 1900, 3 million Syrians were facing extreme poverty. In 2011 the International Institute for Strategic Studies published a report claiming that climate change “will increase the risks of resource shortages, mass migration and civil conflict”. These were some of the deep causes of the Syrian civil war just as they are the deep causes of the conflicts in Tunisia, South Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Egypt. So what about Cameron’s claim that his government has been working to solve them?

Two years after that Institute for Strategic Studies report pointed out that conflict as a result of  drought in countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia had already claimed 600,000 lives,  the parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls found the UK Government had issued more than 3,000 export licenses for military and intelligence equipment worth a total of £12.3bn to countries which were on its own official list for human rights abuses; including to Libya, Tunisia, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt and Syria. That was the same year that UK aid to Africa was cut by 7.4% to just £3.4billion. Working to solve the root causes? Or working to fuel the ongoing conflict?

A year later in 2014 home office minister, James Brokenshire told the House of Commons that the government would no longer provide support to the Mare Nostrum operation that was estimated to have saved the lives of more than 150,000 refugees in the Mediterranean, because it was providing what the government called a “pull factor”. He said: “The government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing, is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats.”

In fact the ending of the rescue operation did not reduce the number of refugees. It was not after all a “pull factor” but the push factor – what was happening in Syria - that proved most important. Earlier this summer, David Cameron indicated that he believed the UK should consider joining the United States in the bombing campaign against Isis in Syria, yet we know that for every refugee fleeing persecution under Assad, or the murderous thuggery of ISIS, there is another fleeing the bombing of their city by the United States in its attempt to degrade ISIS.  The bombing of one’s home is a powerful push factor.

The UK has not even fulfilled Brokenshire’s promise to fight the people smugglers. The Financial Action Task Force has reported that human trafficking generates proportionately fewer Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) annually than other comparable crimes because the level of awareness is lower. Prosecuting the heads of the trafficking networks has not been a focus of government activity. Scarcely a dozen minor operatives pushing boats on the shores of Turkey have actually been arrested. But it is not the minnows that the UK government should be concentrating on. It is their bosses with a bank account in London where a series of remittances are coming in from money transfer businesses in Turkey or North Africa. Ministers should be putting real pressure on UK banks who should be registering SARs so the authorities can investigate and begin to prosecute the ultimate beneficiaries who are driving and orchestrating this human misery. They are not.

That image, which few of us will ever completely erase from our mind, will no doubt prompt David Cameron to make a renewed gesture. An extra million for refugee camps in Jordan, or perhaps a voluntary commitment to take a couple of thousand more refugees under a new European Quota scheme. But if the UK had been serious about tackling the causes of this crisis it had the opportunity in Addis Ababa in July this year at the Funding for Sustainable Development Conference. In fact it failed to bring forward new money for the very climate adaptation that could stem the flow of refugees. In Paris this December the world will try to reach agreement on combating the dangerous climate change that Syria and North Africa are already experiencing. Without agreement there, we in the rich world will have to get used to our trains being disrupted, our borders controls being breached and many more bodies being washed up on our beaches.