Big Story 10

Istanbul's ancient Roma community falls victim to building boom

ISTANBUL (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Uygun Dum lives with 17 members of his extended family in a ramshackle shed with no hot water in Istanbul’s Kucukbakkalkoy neighborhood.

Two of the Dum children stand outside their home in June, 2010. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Ciara Leeming

The 30-year-old laments the dire conditions in which he and his family live, though he admits it is one step above being thrown out on the street - a reality they all now face.

Last month, the Atasehir district municipality served an eviction notice on the Dum family, who live in what are among the last dwellings of a formerly thriving Roma neighborhood in Turkey’s largest city that has been all but eradicated.

It’s not the first time the family have faced eviction.

In 2006, their previous home - a more structurally sound cottage - and many of their neighbors’ houses were demolished for redevelopment, even though the Dum family held documents which should have protected them.

Uygun’s late father, Yüksel, held a “reservation certificate” for the cottage. This was not a full title deed but a document affording the holder certain rights, including the ‘right to buy the property prior to the initiation of any eviction or demolition procedures,’” the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) said in a letter to the Atasehir municipality.

“They knocked the houses down without allowing anyone to collect their furniture,” Dum told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Dum’s father built the flimsy hut where the family now live on the same block of land and filed a lawsuit against the municipality. But while legal wheels were still turning, the land was sold and his father and mother have since passed away.

“Since they are going to knock it down, I’m going to gather my furniture and settle in front of the district governor’s office,” Dum said defiantly.


The last decade in Istanbul has been defined by an unprecedented construction boom that has seen informal, shanty-town neighborhoods like Kucukbakkalkoy quickly replaced by apartment blocks built for higher income earners.

Istanbul’s Roma community, already marginalized in Turkish society, is one of the biggest losers in the gentrification process.

Roma migrated west from India and first settled in the Sulukule district in the 11th century during Byzantine times, 400 years before Mehmet the Conqueror stormed through Constantinople’s previously impenetrable walls.

But in 2009, the historic Roma enclave of Sulukule was demolished, prompting an international outcry given the tumultuous history of the iconic neighborhood.

New apartments were built in the area that is now home to large numbers of middle-class Syrian refugees who pay high prices to live in a shoddy complex, built in ‘Ottoman’ architectural style.

“The concept of ‘urban transformation’ began with Sulukule. Before 2006, it wasn’t as well known (in Turkey),” said Hacer Foggo, an activist with the ERRC rights group who has known the Dum family for a decade.

Activists and architects now view the destruction of Sulukule as a social disaster, uprooting more than 3,000 Roma whose ancestors had lived there for centuries.

Demolitions to make way for redevelopment in the Roma neighborhoods of Sarıgöl and Hacıhüsrev have also displaced hundreds of families, as informal housing is replaced by tower blocks.


There are no exact figures of how many Roma live in Turkey although some experts believe there may be as many as five million.

By and large, they live in poverty, although activists say they endure less social discrimination than Roma communities in some European countries including Portugal, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

In Turkey, the government has attempted to tackle their marginalization. In 2010 then-Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan launched the “Roma initiative” in Istanbul which aimed to unite thousands of Roma from throughout Turkey.

Erdoğan, now president, addressed the crowd saying: “From now on, your problems are my problems. Nobody in this country can be treated as ‘half’ a person.”

As well as symbolic significance, his remarks prompted meetings at the ministries of labor and education, but with few concrete results.

In 2015, Turkey’s first Roma parliamentarian, Ozcan Purcu, said in an interview that promises made to move Roma out of tents and shacks and into proper housing were not kept.

“There were some nice reports, but there are still problems regarding their execution,” said the ERRC’s Foggo.

Meanwhile, the Dum family try to survive by selling flowers in a kiosk next to their home, but the season has just ended and for now they collect rubbish for recycling while they wait for the growing season to resume.

Upbeat and welcoming despite their precarious situation, the family know they face an uphill legal battle.

“We will fight on,” Uygun said resolutely.