Turkey Facts
Area:    779,452 sq. km.
Capital:    Ankara
Total Population:    54,567,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The situation of the Kurds in Turkey has slightly improved in the past few years, although significant obstacles remain and Kurds still face serious discrimination. Kurds are denied autonomy and although military skirmishes have greatly lessened in the wake of Ocalan's arrest in 1999, occasional fighting occurs between the PKK and government forces (having claimed more than 30,000 victims to date). Turkey's Kurds still suffer from discrimination that includes serious restrictions on their language and any expression of Kurdish culture, as well as restrictions on non-violent political organizing. These restrictions are enforced at times by mass arrest. The greatest hope for Kurdish rights likely will stem from the international arena, as Turkish policies have been criticized by Turkey's NATO allies and are a barrier to Turkey's economic integration into Europe. For the time being at least, Turkey seems to be willing to pay this price in order to counter the perceived threat posed by the Kurds to its national security, but further international pressures may eventually help the Kurds of Turkey gain greater minority rights.

Analytic Summary

Kurds in Turkey consist of approximately one-fifth of the population, although it is difficult to measure their exact numbers due to undercounting in Turkey's census, substantial assimilation within western Turkey, and Turkey's long standing policy of "Turkification", which denied the very existence of a distinct Kurdish ethnicity until 1991 (e.g., Mustafa Ataturk referred to Kurds as "mountain Turks"). For this reason estimates have ranged from 10% to 24% of Turkey's population. The majority of Kurds reside in the mountainous southeast of the nation, but a great many Kurds who have renounced public expressions of their culture have been assimilated into mainstream Turkish society and live in Istanbul and its surrounding suburbs (GROUPCON = 3).

The Kurds in Turkey are mainly Sunni Muslims (with a minority of Shi'a), but they belong to a different school of jurisprudence than the Sunni Turkish majority (BELIEF = 1). The unassimilated Kurds of the southeast speak the Kurmanji and Zara dialects of Kurdish (LANG = 2; CULDIFX2 = 2), which are mutually unintelligible, and are divided into local tribes that tend to receive more loyalty than the Turkish government. Their social customs also differ significantly from Turks, who have progressively become more secular (CUSTOM = 1; CULDIFX5 = 2). The rural Kurds in the southeast depend upon agriculture for their livelihoods and some are still semi-nomadic; however, this region receives much less governmental aid and investment of much of the region's surplus capital. An earthquake in May 2003 primarily affected the southeastern region (DMENV03 = 3).

Any discussion of discrimination of Kurds in Turkey must be qualified, because if a Kurd renounces his culture, all forms of social progress are open to him. Yet unassimilated Kurds face a great deal of cultural, economic, and political discrimination in Turkey (ECDIS03 = 2; POLDIS03 = 4). For example, authorities often censor pro-Kurdish newspapers, particularly in the southeast Kurdish region (POLIC101-03=2). In some towns, local authorities prohibited Kurdish New Year celebrations, and arrested scores of persons for participating in the celebrations (CULPO401-03 = 2; REP0203 = 2). The government continued to arrest many Kurdish activists and leaders (REP0201-02 = 1; REP0301-03= 1), and many unsolved killings occurred in the southeastern region (REP0801-03 = 3). Kurds face restrictions on speaking, publishing, and instructing in their native language (CULPO203 = 2; CULPO303 = 3) as well as forming organizations that promote Kurdish culture (CULPO703 = 3). For example, since 2001, authorities closed the Mesopotamia Cultural Center, established to promote Kurdish language and culture, and the Kurdish Institute, another cultural institution. However, the climate for Kurds has slightly improved, particularly in 2003 (POL#03 = 1), since the country's leaders began pushing for admittance into the European Union by meeting democratization goals. For example, in 2002, parliament passed laws allowing parents to give their children Kurdish names. In some cases, classes on the Kurdish language are allowed now, and Kurdish broadcasters may set up their own television station. Early in 2003, the government lifted emergency rule in the southeastern part of the country (REP1602 = 2; REP1603 = 0), although the military remained in the region and frequently clashed with armed members of the Kurdish Worker's Party (REP1703 = 2; REP2001-03 = 1). Overall, though, while some expansion in some political and cultural rights has occurred, restrictions in public policy keep Kurds as second-class citizens.

The political life of Kurds is an especially interesting case, because as aforementioned, open displays of "Kurdishness" are restricted, if not prohibited in many cases. This has not stopped certain Kurds from attempting to end Turkish policies conventionally however. The People's Labor Party (HEP) was founded in 1990 when 10 pro-Kurdish members of parliament broke off from the Social Democrats, Turkey's main opposition party. In 1993 the HEP was outlawed for being pro-Kurdish and its members founded the Democratic Party (DEP), which was outlawed in 1994 when its members formed the People's Democracy Party (HADEP). This party was not officially Kurdish, but in practice its members attended Kurdish rallies (PROT02-03 = 3) and often yelled out Kurdish slogans in Parliament. It faced sizable restrictions, and its pro-democratization campaign was viewed with suspicion by the government because of the pro-Kurdish undercurrent of the party. The government closed HADEP in 2003 (POLIC403 = 2).

HADEP was believed, although it denied, to have had ties to the Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK), a militant organization comprised of approximately 10,000 troops that have been engaged in large-scale guerrilla activity in the southeast from 1984 to 2000 (REB99-00 = 6), seeking an independent Kurdistan and union with Kurds living in Iraq, Iran, and Syria. The PKK has taken advantage of the no-fly zone instituted in northern Iraq since the end of the Gulf War by conducting cross-border raids and at times, the Turkish military has pursued these militiamen into Iraq. In 1999, the PKK's founder, Abdullah Ocalan was arrested in Kenya and is currently the sole inmate in an island prison off Istanbul (REP0399-00 = 1). Initially sentenced to the death penalty, Ocalan's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, commiserate with Turkey's new parliamentary abolition of the death penalty in the hopes of getting into the European Union. After Ocalan's arrest, PKK demands have focused mainly on gaining more political rights rather than Kurdish independence. Most of the PKK fighters have withdrawn to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq (at the urging of Ocalan from prison), so guerilla activity has decreased to a small-scale guerilla resistance in recent years (REB01-03 = 4).


Chaliand, Gerard (ed.) People Without a Country, Westport: Lawrence Hill, 1978.

Gunter, Michael M. The Kurds in Turkey, Boulder: Westview, 1990.

Laber, Jeri "Turkey's Nonpeople" Cultural Survival Quarterly, 12(2), 1988. pp. 58-62.

Minorities at Risk Phase I code sheet.

The Christian Science Monitor, 1990-1994.

Keesing's Contemporary Archive, Keesing's Record of World Events, 1990-1994.

The Kurdish Times, 4 (1-2), Summer-Fall 1991.

The Kurdistan Times, 1, Winter 1990.

The Kurdistan Times, 1 (2), Summer 1992.

The Kurdistan Times, 3, December 1993.

Reuters News, 1990-1995.

US Department of State Human Rights Reports on Turkey for 1991 & 1993.

The Washington Post, 1990-1994.

Lexis/Nexis, 2001-2003.

US Department of State Human Rights Reports on Turkey for 2001-2003.

The New York Times, October 24, 2003, "Kurds Are Finally Heard: Turkey Burned Our Villages." http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe Date accessed: 3/15/2004.


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