Air Date: July 30, 1996||
Toktami_ Ate_, columnist, Cumhurriyet newspaper
Biltin Toker, Urban Dynamics Institute, Istanbul
Yurdanur Dulgeroglu, Istanbul Technical University
Hayrettin Turan, Foreign Editor,
Ilhan Tekeli, Middle East Technical University, Ankara
Residents of Istanbul squatter settlements
Kurdish refugees and relief agency workers
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This is Common Ground. Istanbul, Turkey, the seat of three
world empires and where East meets West. This June, Istanbul was the center of another kind of
meeting between the North and the South, the rich and the poor. The gathering was the second
World Conference on Human Settlements, known as Habitat II, an effort to figure out how the world
will accommodate its mushrooming population—especially in the cities where experts predict the
majority of people will soon live. We’ll be exploring Habitat II’s host city and country during
this next half hour of Common Ground.
Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced
by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
A group of us from the Habitat conference spent a day visiting the squatter settlements, or
informal settlements as they’re more commonly known in Istanbul, that are scattered throughout
the city. We’re invited into a house owned by a man named Tajatin(?), who came to Istanbul from
eastern Turkey when he was still a child.
TOKTAMI_ ATE_: There’s no water, and they are not connected to the city network. They
provide water from the municipal water tanks which come here every week.
MALE: How did they build the house?
TAJATIN: Using his own assets as well as work force, he built it himself (that is what he
says) in his spare time.
DAVIDSON: Actually, Tajatin’s house is somewhat of a surprise to me. When we were told we
were going to see some squatter settlements, I had expected falling down shacks. And from the
outside Tajatin’s house does look thrown together. The window frames are cockeyed, as is the
doorway. But it’s a solid house. It has a concrete foundation and a concrete block frame that’s
covered with a white stucco-like material. Inside, the floors are covered with handmade woolen
carpets. There is a tiny bedroom. The living room is about 10×12 feet. The kitchen has just
enough space to turn around, like in an efficiency apartment.
Five people crowd into this small space—the middle-aged parents, two young children, and a
grandmother. What really surprises me is the electricity and even a colored television. But
that’s not uncommon, people can often siphon electricity from a main line. And they may be able
to scrape enough together to buy a TV or maybe find one that’s junked. However, many people would
never get enough capital together or a line of credit to actually buy a house.
Jacobo Rubenstein, who works for a housing advocacy group in Venezuela, says it’s the same
RUBENSTEIN: You see that the family is doing a lot to furnish the inside of the house and
is part of the fact that they are very poor.
DAVIDSON: But did you notice the television in there?
RUBENSTEIN: Yes, of course.
DAVIDSON: They told me that 100 percent of these houses have televisions.
RUBENSTEIN: Yes, of course. It’s always so everywhere. In South America and the slums,
the first item is a television set.
DAVIDSON: Our guide to this informal settlement which stretches for miles up a hillside
is Yurdanur Dulgeroglu, who teaches at the Faculty of Architecture at Istanbul Technical
University. She says this settlement is not uncommon. In fact, 60 percent of the housing in
Istanbul is informal or what others would call squatter settlements.
YURDANUR DULGEROGLU: The market for informal housing, at this point, has its own rules.
It’s not to be obtained by invasion. People have to pay for the land or the house, even in those
DAVIDSON: Who would these people buy from?
DULGEROGLU: The original owner of the land could be the public agencies. That is the most
frequent case. Or it can be purchased from another private owner who has not necessarily paid for
the land, who may have been an invader himself. In the second case, it is a small entrepreneur
who does the invasion and sells the land afterward.
DAVIDSON: I was talking to a man who use to be an advisor to the mayor of Istanbul, and
he told me that quite often the mafia sells deeds to property. Do you know anything about this?
DULGEROGLU: Mafia would be too strong a word. We call them, as I said, small-scale
entrepreneurs, usually the middle-income class people who try to make profits out of the needs of
DAVIDSON: Maybe you could give me just a little bit of history on squatters.
DULGEROGLU: The first squatters were the rural, urban migrants coming from the villages.
The major reason for leaving their villages in the late 1940s was mechanization, which was
brought to the farming areas in those villages. They were left either landless or they had to
become hired workers on somebody else’s land. Because of the economics of scale, tractors would
not require manpower anymore. So those people who were rendered jobless migrated into the cities
to find jobs. They were employed mostly in the marginal jobs of the service sector.
So they formed squatter housing, mostly on the public land through invasion at those times. In
1966, for the first time, there was a law particularly on squatter housing. By that law most of
the squatter housing which was constructed until that time was forgiven.
DAVIDSON: Biltin Toker is the aide to the former mayor of Istanbul I was talking to. He
is a professor at the Urban Dynamics Institute in Istanbul. He says the growth of these squatter
settlements, which has grown dramatically since that law back in 1966, leaves these people very
BILTIN TOKER: Those who have been in Istanbul 30 years and more constitute just over one
million. All the rest are newcomers. I will give you some figures. The population of the city was
three and a half million in 1980, and now it’s just over 12 million. Now there are two
exploitations. Exploitation number one is when they come to the city—it is cheap labor for the
industry. In other words, they are not unionized, and they work for something like half the
minimum wage. The minimum wage at the moment happens to be around a $110 to $120 a month.
DAVIDSON: A month. Is that a livable wage?
TOKER: Not really, if they don’t have a home. Even if they do and that person has to
support the family, no. The second exploitation is that 25 percent of all the consumption in
Turkey takes place in the neighborhoods where these people have come from—in other words, around
Istanbul where these illegal houses are built. The most striking part of the whole picture is
that those who are in Turkey and especially in Istanbul, who take 85 percent of the national
income pay 15 percent of the taxes. Those who take 15 percent of the national income pay 85
percent of the taxes.
DAVIDSON: Istanbul has been a city of immigrants all the way back to the Roman era, Toker
says. More recently it has become a city of refugees.
TOKER: The first squatter housing took place near what is now known as Topkapi Palace,
which was originally the Great Palace of the Byzantines. The houses that were built there,
illegally, were a center of theft, a center of where all the murderers and everyone else lived.
And, of course, most important of all it had political implications, because all the uprisings
came from that area. That is why around the 8th or 9th century it was decided by the emperor to
build social housing, which is very interesting because it’s probably one of the first social
housing schemes in the world.
Now the second characteristic of the city is that it has always been a city of political
refugees. About one-tenth or one-twelfth of the population of the city has always consisted of
political refugees since the Roman times, including now.
DAVIDSON: From where?
TOKER: From everywhere in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and so on—all parts of the
world. The first big influx was from Spain of the Jews who were running away from the
Inquisition. No European country would admit them, so they had to come Istanbul.
DAVIDSON: We will take a short break. When we return we will hear from the Turkish
government about its plans to improve housing and human rights, and the Islamic resurgence in
We’re talking on this edition of Common Ground about Habitat II, the United Nations second
World Conference on Human Settlements held this June in Istanbul, Turkey. This is the third
program in a series about Habitat II, and we are focusing this half hour on the host country and
Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the
broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit,
nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and
encourage dialogue on world affairs.
The government of Turkey used Habitat II to release its national report on housing. And Ilhan
Tekeli of the Middle East Technical University in Ankara was the chief spokesman for that report.
ILHAN TEKELI: We are putting emphasis on six principles. The first three principles
define what is a good society. The first one is sustainability, which comes from the Rio
conference. The second principle, which we are putting more emphasis on, is the livability
principle. It tries to define what is good settlement.
These good settlements are defined on the basis of human rights. Human rights are abstract
principles, but answers to the daily practice of the individual in the settlement level. For
example, the right to live is directly related with the amount of sulfur dioxide in the air, air
pollution. Also, the dignity of human rights is directly related with the historical conservation
of the monument, identity of the society. Therefore, the livability principle, we believe, had to
be the hard core of this conference.
The third principle is equity. We have three more principles, which are the instrumental
principles. These define how we will reach these goals.
DAVIDSON: While Turkey’s national report talked about the importance of human rights and
making livable communities, Turkey’s human rights record is often under fire in the international
community. At issue in particular is the government’s response to the Kurdish rebellion in the
southeast of the country. About 20,000 people have died since 1984 in a campaign by the outlawed
Kurdish Workers Party (or PKK) for an autonomous or independent Kurdish state.
The Turkish government says its military campaign is necessary to counter terrorism waged by the
PKK. Most people in Turkey are uneasy even talking about the Kurds. Understandable in a country
where you can be imprisoned under Turkey’s antiterror law for expressing even nonviolent opinions
about the Kurds. Even at Habitat, demonstrators protesting housing and human rights violations
were attacked by the numerous police stationed around the conference, and they were jailed
I did meet a Kurdish man at the Habitat conference who had mounted a photo exhibition of villages
in southeastern Turkey destroyed by the government. Amnesty International says hundreds of
Kurdish villages have been destroyed leaving thousands homeless. A Turkish woman passing by the
photo exhibit offered to translate, and you can hear how careful she is in her interpretation of
How many people are living in these tents that are depicted in these photos?
WOMAN TRANSLATOR: It’s only estimated, because they have no records of that. At the
southeastern Anatolia about one to one and a half million people live in tents and outside in
very bad conditions. They have to leave their homes and come down to the cities or near the
environment of the cities.
DAVIDSON: What happened to their homes?
WOMAN: We will leave this question without an answer.
DAVIDSON: Are these people mostly Kurds?
WOMAN: We call them our eastern and southeastern Anatolian sisters and brothers.
DAVIDSON: Is your hope with this photo exhibit to let the photos speak for themselves?
MAN: Yes. The comments should be asked of the photographs themselves.
DAVIDSON: Can I ask you about some of them?
WOMAN: OK, but we will keep the right not to answer to some questions if they are…
DAVIDSON: Just below we have a picture of a group of children having their picture taken,
but behind them something is covered in plastic. What is that? What’s behind them?
WOMAN: That is a provisional home of a family of maybe eight or ten people who have lost
their homes. They couldn’t find their way back home; they got lost somewhere. They have helped
themselves to some cardboard boxes and plastic. It’s just like a home for them.
DAVIDSON: So that is a house covered in plastic sheeting.
DAVIDSON: For how many people did you say?
WOMAN: Normal, average southeastern Turkish families have about six or seven children. So
it would be the home for about nine or ten people.
DAVIDSON: Do you know how long these tent cities have been here?
WOMAN: Since 1991 there is this phenomena of people getting out of their houses and then
losing the road to go back and ending up in the prairie.
DAVIDSON: So the first step is that you are in one of these tents. The second step is in
this photo here where you got the plastic-covered boxes, and then you might move up to some sort
of crude house made with bricks and cement.
Here’s a picture of a little girl who is… Oh. Is she sitting outside her house? It’s a closeup
of the little girl, but you can see some plastic being held down by big stones.
WOMAN: That is her new house. As you see, she has found some big, big plastic shoes. And
she has some scars on her foot from the long foot march. She has only a couple of spoons of soup.
DAVIDSON: It’s pretty thin soup.
DAVIDSON: The sandals are about twice the size of her feet.
DAVIDSON: You don’t have much of a childhood when you live like that.
WOMAN: That is not a childhood. Some of the children’s faces have expressions as if they
are 40 or 50 years old.
DAVIDSON: A new organization in Turkey called the Association for Solidarity and Asylum
Seekers was created to help refugees and internally displaced people within Turkey. Two college
students were camped out in a refugee tent at Habitat to dramatize and explain the plight of
refugees within Turkey’s boarders.
Do you have any idea how many internally displaced people there are within Turkey and how many
refugees are coming from outside the country?
FEMALE STUDENT: About the people who are internally displaced, there is not a recorded
number. It is a critical issue. It is said that the state is in fact causing them to move out of
their houses, because of security reasons they say. So it’s a very critical issue.
MALE STUDENT: One of its main goals is to find out how many refugees there are.
DAVIDSON: Is this dangerous work for you? To talk about people being forced out of their
homes is a touchy issue.
FEMALE STUDENT: Yes. It is a touchy issue. In fact, what we are doing here is more talk
about the refugees in an international context, not in their displaced people.
DAVIDSON: Do you have a number on how many refugees come from outside to Turkey?
FEMALE STUDENT: Yes. For example, in 1988 when they first fled from this chemical weapons
of Saddam, the number was said to be around a million.
DAVIDSON: But this is from the Kurds mainly who are fleeing Saddam Hussein after the gulf
FEMALE STUDENT: Yes, because of the chemical weapons that were used there. They were very
afraid, but most of them in very short times returned back. The number that stayed in Turkey
after that not permanently, but for a much longer time, was around 500,000. Of course, this is
not a very definite number. I’m not telling it by heart, but it should be around 100,000 to
500,000. As far as I know in the camp in Silopi in southeastern Turkey (where this tent comes
from), there are about ten families that are left there. They either returned to their countries
or found third countries where they could be refugees and where they could settle permanently.
DAVIDSON: Tell me about this tent. What’s unique about this tent? It looks like it is a
canvas tent. Right?
FEMALE STUDENT: Yes.
DAVIDSON: How many people might stay in this tent?
FEMALE STUDENT: This is suppose to be a tent for a family of four, ideally. But it
depends on the number of people who are fleeing. If it’s a vast number, they just squeeze in as
many as they can. And these are the actual materials they use for cooking and eating and for
DAVIDSON: Are these the kinds of beds?
FEMALE STUDENT: Yes. This is exactly what they use in Silopi, because it comes directly
from the camp in Silopi. In these conditions it looks good; but in the conditions of the native
land, it’s quite hard.
MALE STUDENT: As you mentioned… thousands of distance… I mean, it must be horrible I
FEMALE STUDENT: What is hard, as we experience the life in a tent, you have no private
life. Because we are always… we have to be together. This might sound quite stupid, but you
want something in your back, a solid thing to lean on. There isn’t an actual solid thing in this
tent you can lean on. I mean I’m talking about literally and also metaphorically. It is quite
DAVIDSON: People in general in Turkey seem to be looking for something to lean on,
metaphorically, but are still coming up short. That, in part, could explain the growing
popularity of Turkey’s Islamic party. People are tired of new revelations about government
corruption and governing coalitions continually collapsing. In fact, another prime minister
resigned right in the middle of Habitat II with all those visiting dignitaries in town.
Professor Toktami_ Ate_ is a political scientist and a regular commentator on political and
social affairs for Istanbul’s Hürriyet newspaper, a liberal daily. The Islamic Welfare
Party is supported by about 25 percent of the country’s population, by far the most popular of
the seven major political parties in Turkey—a country that has been strictly secularist since
its founding in 1923.
What is it that attracts people to the Welfare Party?
ATE_: The main reason, I believe, is the economic conditions and the dirtiness of
DAVIDSON: Corruption and politics?
ATE_: Right. The people don’t trust other parties. They vote for the Welfare Party not
because they want an Islamic state but because they want a better life, better conditions, better
education for their children, better health conditions, and other things. The reason is economic,
DAVIDSON: What’s happening in the Turkish economy these days? I know there is terrible
ATE_: It’s terrible inflation. The best inflation rate in the last 15 years is 42
percent. The best. It was between 50 percent and 100 percent.
DAVIDSON: Within one year?
DAVIDSON: Anywhere from 50 to 100 percent of inflation?
ATE_: Yes. In 1995 it was 77 percent, the inflation rate. It is not less than 80 percent.
In a country like that, with those economic conditions, of course there are radical parties that
DAVIDSON: I think the question that is on the minds of many Americans is whether Turkey
will eventually become an Islamic state?
ATE_: No. I don’t see a danger for it at this point, because of the foundation of the
republic. The people of Turkey have become used to the rights of being a citizen. It is a very
important thing to be a citizen. A citizen is a free man and an equal man. I don’t believe that
the people of Turkey will give their right of going themselves to immams and mullahs and other…
something like that. We have to remember that the Islamic countries, for example, like Persia
ATE_: Yes. Or like Algeria. The people there have never had the rights of being a
citizen. If people have the right of being a citizen, I’m sure they will not want to leave these
DAVIDSON: I’m just wondering what your thoughts are on the usefulness of Habitat II? I’m
also curious what people of Istanbul are saying about Habitat.
ATE_: Yes. The people in my environment are positive for Habitat. They don’t have an idea
what’s the aim of this Habitat and what Habitat can bring to the people of the world and to the
people of Istanbul. But it’s an interesting show in the eyes of the people.
DAVIDSON: Back in the Gulsuye squatter settlement of Istanbul one wonders what Habitat II
or the promises of any politicians will actually do for these children who’s only concern for the
moment is what this bus load of foreigners is doing in their neighborhood.
For Common Ground, I’m Mary Gray Davidson. Cassettes and transcripts of this program are
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Copyright © 1996,
The Stanley Foundation