Starting on September 26, 2016, Turkish authorities detained approximately 50 Nigerian students enrolled in Fatih University, which was ordered closed based on allegations of connections with Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who authorities claim was responsible for a violent coup attempt on July 15, 2016. An unknown number of the students were later deported.
Following the July 15 coup attempt, Turkish authorities declared a national state of emergency, which has been extended multiple times, and remains in effect as of this report. Authorities have alleged that members of a movement led by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen were behind the coup attempt, and have taken a range of actions against members of the higher education community (among others) which they claim are intended to identify those parties involved, and/or to eliminate the Gülen movement’s influence within Turkish institutions.
On July 23, 2016, Turkish authorities closed the private Fatih University, along with 14 other higher education institutions, on the grounds that the university is linked to Fethullah Gülen (see report). Turkish authorities later requested that the Nigerian government close 17 schools in Nigeria that they allege are also linked to Mr. Gülen. Nigerian officials communicated their refusal to comply with this request not long before the detentions and deportations of Nigerian students began.
On September 26, 2016, Turkish authorities reportedly began detaining Nigerian students attempting to enter Turkey through Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport. The students were returning to the country after being required to travel to Nigeria to apply for new student visas. Reports indicate that 50 Nigerian students were barred from entering, stripped of their passports, and detained at the airport. Security officials reportedly interrogated the students about their studies and informed them that they were being held for alleged membership in a “terrorist organization.” The students were later deported.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary detention and deportation of students as a part of sweeping actions taken by State authorities against higher education community members. While State authorities have a right to maintain order and respond to legitimate security concerns, such actions must comply with States’ human rights obligations, including those relating to freedom of association, due process, academic freedom, and freedom of movement, which are protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Turkey is a party. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally.