Students sleep in parks to protest rising rents in Turkey

For 18 months, in-person classes were suspended in Turkey because of the pandemic. When universities opened their doors again, many students were in for a nasty surprise: Rents have become almost unaffordable. This is partly because of inflation and the corresponding price fluctuations, which have also affected the housing market. On top of this, Turkey’s government has not ensured that state-run student dormitories have sufficient capacity. There are barely 700,000 dormitory places for about 8.5 million students.

This difficult situation has motivated many students to air their grievances in public. For days now, students all across Turkey — more than 2,240 of them, according to the Interior Ministry — have been spending the night in public parks. The Barinamiyoruz (We Can’t Find Shelter) movement began in Istanbul’s Yogurtcu Park and was quickly emulated in other Turkish cities. In an open letter, the activists write that they have been left homeless by rent increases of 70-290%. “Because we have nowhere we can live in decent conditions,” they write, “we will create this possibility ourselves.”

Yunus Emre Karaca, who studies international relations at Marmara University, spent the night with fellow students in Istanbul’s Yogurtcu Park. “We’re not sleeping on the streets for our own amusement,” he told DW. “We’re telling the story of millions of students.”

Kemal Yilmaz, who is on a communication studies course at Izmit’s Kocaeli University, also spent the night in the park. “When the universities opened, there was a stampede for the dormitories,” Yilmaz said. “The massive demand, along with daily rent increases, meant that accommodation inevitably became exorbitantly expensive. So, although the universities are now open again, many people can’t study.”

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Cayan Akbiyik, a philosophy student at Ege University in Turkey’s third-largest city, Izmir, was participating in protests there. “We started doing this in Izmir because we saw friends of ours demonstrating in Istanbul, so we went and slept in Asik Veysel Park,” Akbiyik said. But the authorities clamped down on their protest. “The police stopped students here,” he said, “but they weren’t arrested.”

Echoes of Gezi

The police action had the effect of increasing public interest in the students’ unorthodox protest. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu attempted to justify the police deployment by claiming that the majority of the protesters were not students. “It has been established that the protests were predominantly carried out by left-wing fringe groups,” he said, adding that he believed that members of alleged terrorist groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party had participated.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also condemned the “sleeping students” movement. After a Cabinet meeting this week, he claimed that rising rents were the result of increased demand for housing after a long lull during the pandemic. He echoed Soylu in implying that the student protesters harbored subversive ideas. “I can unequivocally say that some of those who have been lying on benches in parks and gardens have no connection to studies, even if they call themselves students,” Erdogan said. This is just another version of the Gezi Park incidents.” Erdogan was referring to demonstrations that began in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013 and spread across the country. Those protests were triggered by plans for a large construction project on the Gezi Park site, and escalated when police instigated a violent clampdown on demonstrators.

This is not the first time that Erdogan has clashed with students. In early January, he appointed Melih Bulu rector of Istanbul’s prestigious Bogazici University by presidential decree. In recent years, the government has tried to gain more influence over universities. Students and academics at the university said the appointment was “not legitimate” because Bulu is a member of Erdogan’s ruling Law and Justice Party. Weeks of protests followed, during which numerous people were arrested. The president also likened the student protesters to “terrorists” at the time,

Their protests, however, ultimately paid off. After months of resistance from students, Erdogan issued another presidential decree in July, removing Bulu from office. The students currently spending the night in Turkish parks may take encouragement from their peers’ success.


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