The young woman from Melle, a town in the northern German state of Lower Saxony, was received like a guest of state. A government representative and several photographers met Elif Yaman in Ankara. A limousine took the 19-year-old to a hotel, where she fell, weeping, into her mother’s arms. It was all captured on live TV. The Turkish journalists and politicians had been waiting for these images, and for what Yaman then said: “I think it would have been nicer to grow up in a Turkish family.” It was the sort of thing Bekir Bozdag loves to hear. Bozdag, 48, is Turkey’s deputy prime minister and, even more important in the Yaman case, head of the Office for Turks Abroad. Seven years ago, a German youth welfare office deprived Yaman’s stressed single mother of custody for her daughter. The girl was sent to live with German foster parents and grew up in the German family. Her mother moved back to Turkey. A few months ago Bozdag began to take an interest in the Yamans. His boss, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is running a Europe-wide campaign against the supposed forced conversion of Turkish Muslim foster children. In fact, when Muslim parents lose custody of their children, German youth welfare offices try to place them with Muslim families. Only when this is not possible are children entrusted to parents of other faiths.
Bozdag denounces this practice as “assimilation.” “We are facing a great tragedy,” he said last year, promising to do everything possible “to rescue our little ones.” But his position is only fueling immigrants’ suspicions of German authorities. The Turkish media have been all too pleased to hone in on Bozdag’s accusations. “So they’re Nazis,” the tabloid Takvim wrote. German youth welfare offices are “destroying families,” Zaman, Turkey’s largest daily newspaper, remarked. The Turkish authorities hoped that the Yaman case would lend credence to these claims. When officials in Bozdag’s office organized a reunion between the mother and the daughter, they staged the encounter like the return of a missing child, as if the Turkish government had heroically fixed something the heartless German authorities had broken.
In the dispute over foster families, Prime Minister Erdogan is placing himself in a role in which he likes to be perceived: as the patron of Turks worldwide. During a campaign appearance in Germany in 2011, he told his supporters: “I am here to represent your interests. You are my family, and you are my siblings.” The most recent campaign is typical of Erdogan’s increasingly aggressive policy on the Turkish diaspora. While claiming to support the integration of Turkish immigrants and their children, his government is in fact achieving the opposite effect. In 2010, Erdogan created the Office for Turks Abroad, an agency in Ankara staffed with about 300 employees, responsible for roughly four million Turks around the world. “We are wherever one of our countrymen is,” Bozdag’s office promises. But in recent months the deputy premier has attracted more attention with his attacks against the German government. During a meeting with German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich in February, he criticized language courses for immigrants as a “human rights violation.”
The Turkish government is primarily pursuing self-serving goals with its diaspora policy. It seeks to gain the support of immigrants abroad for the AKP and portray itself at home as a champion of Turkish interests. The office for Turks Abroad’s official role is to assist the government in providing better support to Turkish citizens abroad. However, Murat Cakir of the left-leaning Rosa Luxemburg Foundation believes that the advisory council members are meant to act as lobbyists for the Turkish government, to promote, for example, a portrayal of the Kurdish conflict or the Armenian genocide in keeping with the party line.
Germany now has between 1.1 and 1.3 million Turks who are entitled to vote in Turkey. This makes the country the fourth-largest Turkish electoral district, after Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. However, until now, overseas Turks have been required to travel to Turkey to vote at an airport there. There is no absentee voting. Next year, Erdogan plans to have ballot boxes set up in the Turkish embassy and in Turkish consulates in Germany.
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