Cablegate: Redevelopment Pushing Out the Roma

DE RUEHIT #0166/01 0951631
P 041631Z APR 08




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: 06 ANKARA 06580

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Redeveloping Sulukule

1. (U) The Fatih municipality of Istanbul is demolishing
substandard homes in the predominantly ethnic Roma area of
Sulukule to renovate the district before 2010, when Istanbul
is slated to become the "Cultural Capital of Europe". A
total of 541 homes adjacent to the ancient Byzantine city
wall will be destroyed to make way for 503 faux Ottoman
townhouses. This renovation will displace about 3,000
people whose roots in Sulukule, according to academics,
predate the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453. Despite
opposition to the project from some human rights groups and
international media, the municipality has already destroyed
around fifty homes. The municipality also instructed all
residents to abandon their homes by mid-June.

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Roma Accuse the Municipality of Discrimination
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2. (SBU) Sukru Panduk, President of the Sulukule Romani
Culture Solidarity and Development Association, says the
Fatih municipality's neighborhood renewal is the last stage
of a long-term plan to drive Roma out of Sulukule. Panduk
told us that current and past governments have discriminated
and harassed his community. He claimed that the municipally
closed Sulukule entertainment venues in 1992 under the
pretense of unpaid taxes, thus depriving residents of their
primary source of employment and income. Sixteen years of
limited employment opportunities have taken a toll on the
community, driving Sulukule to impoverishment and
dilapidation. Panduk added that the final phase of the
municipality's plan is eviction of the Roma.

3. (SBU) Panduk supports the development of Sulukule for the
benefit of current residents, but he criticized the
municipality for using economic development and urban renewal
as a tool for the displacement of Roma. Despite some Roma
holding Ottoman era land deeds, the municipality under Act
5366 expropriated their land at a fraction of its market
value. The 2005 act gave local government greater powers to
redevelop shoddy housing. Panduk accused Fatih Mayor Mustafa
Demir of selling land in Sulukule to fellow Justice and
Development Party (AKP) investors, who then resold the land
for a considerable profit. Local Istanbul mayors, including
Fatih Mayor Demir, say Act 5366, the "Renovation and
Utilization of Deteriorated Cultural Properties Act," is a
tool designed to return land management to cities. The
gecekondu problem in Istanbul is legendary and replacing
"gecekondus"--literally houses built overnight--is necessary
to attack building code violations as well as to recover
government property expropriated by squatters (reftel).
Panduk, however, stated that this "renovation" comes at the
expense of the poor who live in gecekondus. Even those who
own property in these communities are harmed. Act 5366
requires fair compensation to owners of expropriated lands,
however the committee responsible for accessing the true
value typically provides an estimate less than the fair
market value, according to Panduk.

4. (SBU) The Fatih municipality intends to relocate
residents of Sulukule over 40 kilometers away to government
housing in Tasoluk. According to Panduk, this would take
Roma away from the primary source of income, nightclubs
around Beyoglu. Furthermore, most Roma families will find
even the subsidized rates of the 280 to 450 YTL monthly rents
at the public housing project in Tasoluk prohibitive.
Sulukule residents currently pay about 150 YTL per month and
higher rents may force them to live on the streets. Panduk
told us that as of April 4 no Roma have yet relocated to
Tasoluk despite home demolition, choosing instead to live
with friends or relatives in Sulukule.

--------------------------------------------- -------
Fatih Mayor: "All Gecekondus Must Go"
--------------------------------------------- ------

5. (U) Fatih Mayor Demir said the city needs to create safe
housing that meets earthquake and other standards. At a
February meeting of the Urban Land Institute in Istanbul
(ULI), Demir showed a video to contrast overcrowded and aged
Sulukule housing, with architectural drawings of faux Ottoman
townhomes designed to replace existing homes. As compared

ISTANBUL 00000166 002.2 OF 003

to existing structures in Sulukule, the new buildings will
have modern utilities and be built to international
earthquake standards. The residents of Sulukule were offered
modern low cost public housing without going through the
lottery process; the typical procedure for government
subsidized housing. Without mentioning the Roma by name,
Demir stressed that this project would improve the lives of
those living in these deprived conditions.

--------------------------------------------- ---------
Destroying the Cultural Heritage of Sulukule
--------------------------------------------- --------

6. (U) Demir, and the other local mayors who spoke at the
ULI conference maintained that legislation such as Act 5366
is critical to tackling gecekondu proliferation. These
unplanned substandard buildings posed a safety risk and make
coordinated urban planning nearly impossible. Also Act 5366
calls for the restoration of cultural properties, which Demir
emphasized that Fatih municipality took great pains to
identify and then preserve. Academic and media skeptics in
the audience questioned the plan's commitment to preserving
the historical aspects of Fatih. One academic stated that
building modern townhouses adjacent to the ancient city walls
fails to maintain the historical heritage of Sulukule. Demir
disagreed, stated that the municipality worked with the
architects to preserve the area's character.

7. (SBU) Panduk also criticized to us the municipality's
efforts towards cultural preservation. Panduk showed us a
modern public swimming pool complex only meters away from the
old city walls, a Fatih municipality redevelopment project.
In additional to the stark architectural contrast with the
Byzantine walls, Panduk criticized the project's lack of
connection to the community since most Roma do not swim,
preferring to dance and sing. As evidence of the Mayor's
lack of commitment to preservation, Panduk also showed us a
deteriorating Ottoman house that the municipality listed as a
cultural preservation site. Finally Panduk stated that
expelling the Roma with its deep roots in the area, would be
the greatest cultural loss to Sulukule.

International Criticism

8. (U) The plan to evict Roma from their millennium-old
neighborhood has garnered mostly negative local and
international press attention. Stories mention Sulukule as a
venue for Turkish music and belly dancing and scenes from
007,s "From Russia with Love" were filmed in Sulukule. An
Italian website offers visitors a chance to sign a petition
calling for protection of "the oldest Roma community in the
world." UNESCO, according to press reports has designated
the area a World Heritage Site. For his part, Panduk hopes
international criticism places Istanbul's designation as 2010
Cultural Capital of Europe in jeopardy if the municipality
continues its plan to "destroy the cultural heritage of
Istanbul." Prime Minister Erdogan vehemently disagreed with
the critics of this project, saying those who wish to
preserve Sulukule have never visited the "ugly" site.


9. (SBU) Istanbul's Roma minority was likely able to stay in
Sulukule for centuries since this location was literally the
edge of the city wall. However a rapidly growing population
and increased land competition with attendant hikes in real
estate prices have turned Sulukule into prime real estate
with profits to be made in upscale Sulukule housing.
Sulukule, like many other older, low-income Istanbul
neighborhoods is a squalid area that could benefit from urban
renewal, yet the municipality appears to be taking advantage
of this situation to evict a longstanding Roma population
including some landowners with clear title to their property.
The GOT has made some efforts to provide for the relocation
of the Roma, yet Panduk raised valid concerns regarding
families' ability to afford public housing as well as the
lack of traditional employment opportunities in the remote
location. This episode demonstrates the enhanced powers that
municipalities now have to create "urban renewal". While
local governments do need to eliminate the vast problem of
"gecekondus" that have proliferated over the county, Act 5366
provides officials with a powerful tool to reshape their

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jurisdictions that could potentially be targeted against
political opponents as well as ethnic minorities. The
apparent ease with which the Fatih municipality is evicting
the Sulukule Roma may encourage other mayors to gentrify
rundown neighborhoods that process "undesirable" residents.

10. (SBU) Although nearly all of the existing homes in
Sulukule are shoddy 20th century structures with no
historical or architectural value, academics have complained
the proposed re-development fails to live up to the area's
rich cultural legacy. The artist's drawings for the planned
development look like a modern suburban community, completely
without reference to the neighboring historic areas including
Istanbul's Byzantine-era city walls. The newly built
swimming pool complex also appears to be at odds with the
municipality's stated goal that the redevelopment of the
district will reflect the historic and cultural assets of the
ancient city. Although destroying most of the structures in
Sulukule would not be a great loss; removing a community who
has ties to the land for centuries would be an irrevocable
cultural calamity. Despite media attention to this issue,
there is apparently no strong international pressure to
abandon this project and at this stage, additional influence
would unlikely reverse the decision to evict the Roma.


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