New School professor explores plights of Turkish asylum seekers

Isabella Jiao, Reporter

Banu Bargu, associate professor of politics at the New School in New York City, spoke Monday evening at Northwestern on the recent protests of Turkish asylum-seekers held in detention centers around the world.

The event started with a moment of silence in remembrance of the victims of the bombing that occurred in Turkey on Oct. 10. The tragedy happened amid a peace rally carried out by major labor unions.

“I’m here with a heavy heart,” Bargu said.

Bargu began her speech with a grave tone by listing examples of refugees protesting by stitching their mouths shut using shoelace fibers and hunger striking. In January 2015, around 400 asylum-seekers in Australia went on hunger strike, 40 of whom stitched their lips shut. Some swallowed razor blades, while others drank laundry detergent, Bargu said.

“Self-destruction as protesting is becoming a trend,” Bargu said.

These kinds of demonstrations are done in an attempt to silently protest against refugees’ poor living conditions and lack of nutrition and health care, she said.

Bargu said underfunded detention centers and closed borders only make situations worse, referencing the overcrowding problems these centers face. The general reluctance of Western countries to offer refuge has also created other issues like human trafficking, she said.

Such protests are not only seen among Turkish asylum-seekers, she said. Iranian refugees in the U.K. have also sewn their lips, eyes and ears in protest.

“Their names are hardly known, and they hail from different detention centers from around the world,” Bargu said.

She argued that by dramatizing the truth, protesters made their political voices heard and demonstrated the injustice they faced. Lip-sewing is also done to fortify the protesters’ own determination to continue their demonstration.

“They are reminding us that an unjust life is not worth living,” she said.

Bargu said that such actions require great courage as there may be potential consequences for these demonstrators, including physical punishments, detention and even death.

Based on her personal interactions with former participants of hunger strikes and self-immolation survivors, she explained it was nearly impossible to trace these individuals’ backgrounds.

“The official records would categorize self-immolation as suicides, for example,” she said.

The talk, attended largely by graduate students, was organized by the Program of African Studies and the Buffett Institute for Global Studies’ Keyman Modern Turkish Studies Program.

Timothy Garrett, Middle East and North African Studies’ project coordinator, appreciated Bargu’s take on the idea of self-mutilation. He said connecting the longstanding idea of citizenship and applying it to the latest happenings around the world is very helpful in understanding the issue.

Ayça Alemdaroglu, associate director of the Keyman program, said she hopes more people know about the torture that refugees and protesters suffer through.

“The idea of bringing this to people’s attention is to show what measures people can take to voice their opposition,” she said.

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