Education: A fundamental human right or a tool to play: Op-ed
While discussions around an exclusive economic zone between Turkey and Greece heats up, another big issue is laying on the table: The pressure of Greece on the Turkish minority in Western Thrace. European countries should pay enough attention to that intense pressure on the Turkish minority and they should rapidly act in order to prevent any circumstance that would damage the stability of the region deeper.
In order to understand what the real situation is, we should firstly look at the history of the region. For centuries, Western Thrace was a part of the Ottoman Empire until 1913, when it was occupied by Bulgaria and subsequently France, at the end of the First World War. In 1923, the region was formally transferred to Greece – this was a key moment in the region’s history, that continues to shape the experiences of its large Turkish minority population, even today.
Greece and Turkey agreed on a population exchange back in 1922- 1923, but Turks in Western Thrace and Greeks in Istanbul were exempt from this population transfer. That exchanges were made following a bilateral agreement betwen Greece and Turkey dated back 30 Jan 1923 and the same bilateral agreement officially referred and guaranteed afterwards with Lausanne Treaty article Number 142. Although Lausanne Treaty Articles 37- 45 ensures free access to education, mobility, justice and and equality as well as usage of mother tongue to enjoy any governmental service for Turks in Greece, a big percentage of the Turkish population in Greece including a large majority of Western Thrace’s inhabitants, have emigrated throughout the years, because of a variety of different reasons including the social, financial and political pressure on them, whilst living in this region.
It is important at this point, to understand what the standpoint is at a European level, in terms of what minority rights are and specifically rights to access education and to learn in their own language. The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) of the Council of Europe states that: “The upheavals of European history have shown that the protection of national minorities is essential to stability, democratic security and peace in this continent.”
Moreover, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is the European convention for the protection and promotion of languages, used by traditional minorities including the Turkish minority in the EU Member state of Greece. Together with the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities they constitute the Council of Europe’s commitment to the protection of national minorities and enable minorities to use their own languages in private as well as public life.
Greece is also a member state of the European Union and Council of Europe, however, it did not ratify this particular convention. This action by Greece received intense criticism centred on the fact that the primary motivation of not endorsing this convention was to avoid the pressure to provide the Turkish minority in Western Thrace with their critical fundamental rights, including the freedom of language and access to education.
In terms of education, after 1952, there were minority schools in the region, teaching in Turkish, medrese (madrasah) schools and Celal Bayar Minority schools. These schools educate pupils for six years and are equivalent to a high school degree. After the 1980’s the Greek authorities started to put increasing pressure on these minority schools. No teacher from Turkey was provided with a permit to go and work in these schools to teach in the Turkish language. Shortly after, Greek teachers were deployed to teach in medrese schools, with the explanation that no teachers could be found by the school managers. There were protests in 1983 against this new system of recruiting teachers, subsequently Greek authorities stepped back for a while. However, this recruitment system became the norm and even now many Greek teachers are deployed to go and teach in the Greek language in these schools.
In 2018, the Greek Ministry of Education released a decree, that there were too many lectures in the Turkish language and also that the entire school curriculum should be changed, this included the language of the curriculum. Parents and students started a protest campaign in response to this new decree which gathered huge momentum and as a result the Greek authorities had to back track on their plans for Turkish minority students again.
A meeting was held in Athens, with the parents’ union of the medrese schools in Komotini, students of the schools, school management and Greek authorities. It was promised that an improvement would be ensured and that there would be a solution for these existing problems in the education system for the Turkish minority. Although it has been more than two years since this promise, there has been no change. Protests at the start of the current semester are still continuing and becoming even stronger.
The main origin of these problems is the fact that Greece does not accept the Turkish minority as a separate minority group, and defines the population as “The Muslim Minority in the Western Thrace.” Due to this reason, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Greece in 2008, but unfortunately Greece has defied these rulings, and refused to implement them which would allow members of the Turkish minority to practice their religion, culture and receive education freely.
It has been recently agreed by mainstream NGOs from the region and other parts of the world, that these sanctions applied by Greece are against their human rights and also the U.N. recommendation of provision of universal access to high quality education for everyone. The U.N. has also referred to this fundamental right with a new global education goal (SDG-4) which has been introduced to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” Recently various civil society organizations have started the foundations of a new campaign against the Greek authorities’ unlawful applications.
These problems caused by the Greek authorities increased skepticism against the freedom of its own citizens and still awaits a fair solution and a clear message to ensure international community to prevent these kind of violations of international laws in the future.
*Abdullah Eren is the President of Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB) of Republic of Turkey.