The European Parliament and the national parliaments of European countries rarely pass up the chance to debate the hot topic of human rights. These discussions generally peak on specific days, such as Human Rights Day, to draw attention to people suffering around the world. However, the plight of Meskhetian Turks has remained off the table. The lack of attention regarding Meshketian Turks in European media has left the bloc's citizens in the dark on the issue. Widespread attention has been allotted in the West for Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's crimes, including movie productions and best-selling novels, that point out atrocities committed during the bloody ruler's reign; yet, all of this attention has completely ignored the trauma suffered by Meskhetian Turks. I plan to rectify this selective coverage today.
Part of the Ottoman Empire until 1829, Meskheti is now located within the borders of modern-day Georgia and 15 kilometers from Turkey's northeastern city Ardahan. The city’s fate was sealed with the Treaty of Edirne signed after the Ottoman-Russian war, when Meskheti became part of Czarist Russia. The oppression and persecution inflicted during the Tsarist Russia era continued during the Soviet rule in Georgia as life for Turks and Muslims in the region became even more difficult and increasingly unbearable in the Stalin period. The foremost luminaries of Meshketian Turks were taken into custody based on accusations and were either exiled or murdered. Many Meshketian Turks' surnames were changed. Thousands of Russian soldiers settled around Meshketia in order to “protect the borders.” Meskhetian Turks, who were not drafted into the military until World War II, and were drafted into the army once the war started. Some 40,000 were sent to the frontlines to fight against Germans. The women and elderly left behind were forced to work on the construction of railways. What they didn't know was that the railway line they were working on would later be used to send them into exile. Nov. 14, 1944, was recorded as a dark day in history when the Soviet government ordered the exile of 86,000 Turks and Muslims. One winter night, thousands of people living in over 200 villages and towns were whisked away on cargo trains. Some 17,000 of them perished before seeing the end of the journey due to severe weather conditions and food shortages. After the exile, 30,000 more Meshketian Turks died due to pestilence in the areas of Central Asia they were exiled to.
Seventy-five years later, the suffering of generations remains fresh in families' memories. Over 600,000 Meshketian Turks – 60,000 in Turkey, 200,000 in Kazakhstan, 110,000 in Russia, 90,000 in Azerbaijan, 50,000 in Kyrgyzstan, 50,000 in Uzbekistan, 8,000 in Ukraine, 2,500 in Georgia, 1,801 in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and 16,000 in the U.S. – still yearn for their homeland. Unfortunately, Meskhetian Turks have been denied a return to their homeland for decades. Despite a law enacted in 2007 regarding a return, the Georgian administration has yet to take any solid steps. If the European Union provides support for the cause, Georgia would then be forced to facilitate steps for a return, but the European Union and the European Parliament have remained passive on the issue. However, the European Parliament should have prioritized the protection of Meskhetian Turks, who were among Stalin's victims. The assumption that Europe has held Meshketian Turks at a distance because they are Muslims and Turks might be accurate.
Of course, Meskhetian Turks are not alone; Turkey has been supporting their justified struggle for years. More specifically, Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has spent a great deal of time and invested effort in the Meskhetian Turks' cause so that they can return to their homeland. To draw attention to the issue, a large event in their honor was held in the presidential social complex in the country's capital Ankara. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated Turkey's determination in this matter to the entire world by saying: “75 years ago in Meshketia one of the most shameful events in history took place. Many people were exiled to many corners of Soviet lands within a couple of hours, torn from their lands by Stalin. The Soviet administration sent Meshketians to labor camps. Many of our Meshketian brethren became victims of cold and inhumane treatment in these camps. Because of this, I want them to be able to return to their lands and with respect, I send my regards to my brothers that lost their lives. To our elders who have suffered in exile and are spread across nine countries worldwide, I hope Allah grants them long lives. Over 550,000 Meshketian Turks are living out their lives away from their homeland. Many of these brothers of ours are struggling to return to homes they left 75 years ago. We don't want what is someone else’s, but we will not allow anyone to reach for what is ours either. Even if everyone is to remain silent, we, on every possible platform, will keep defending the case of Meskhetian Turks. I feel the need to repeat a fact once again. The only way to ease the pain within the hearts of our Meshketian brothers is to allow all those to return to their lands who wish to do so.” Honestly, when will the European Union act on this matter? If European countries with close ties with Georgia push for it, Meshketian Turks would be able to return to their lands much faster.