Is it safe to travel to Turkey?
Turkey was established as a secular republic by Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s, and that secular tradition was fiercely defended by the military which had a habit of deposing governments it felt were moving in the wrong direction. In recent years, however, secularism has been on the wane, with a concurrent growth in Islamic populism, and many observers detect a worrying drift towards authoritarianism. In 2017 the country switched to a presidential system, abolishing the role of prime minster, and placing key executive powers in the hands of President Recep Erdoğan.
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In July 2016, a coup attempt failed and ushered in a state of emergency that lasted for two years. During that time, thousands of judges, police, teachers, civil servants and journalists were detained indefinitely, and various human rights groups suggest that the government’s crackdown on free speech continues. The Gülen movement was accused of being behind the coup. This organisation promotes education and a tolerant form of Islam and is led by the cleric Fethullah Gülen, once an ally of Erdoğan but now living in exile in the United States.
Tension between the Turkish government and the Kurds is another volatile issue in Turkey. Around a fifth of the Turkish population are Kurds. The PKK, a militant and political organisation originally sought an independent Kurdish state, but is now fighting for equal rights and Kurdish autonomy. Years of armed conflict have left 40,000 people dead and the simmering insurgency continues to erupt frequently.
The ongoing Syrian civil war on Turkey’s southeastern border is another source of tension. Turkey has so far offered temporary protection to around 3.5 million Syrian refugees fleeing the ongoing civil war there. This is thought to be the largest refugee population in the world, with nearly half believed to be aged under 18. The situation has led to tension in several provinces, especially those in the southeast near the border, and put significant strain on public services. Turkey is no longer registering refugees and there are concerns it is engaging in forceful repatriation.
What do our operators say?
Ralph Foulds, from our supplier Encounters Travel: “Turkey is a fascinating country, but its geographic location bordering Iran, Syria and Iraq has posed challenges for a long time. There have been various security incidents in both Istanbul and Ankara, as well as the south and east of the country in areas bordering Syria and Iraq, and the threat of repeat attacks in these areas remains. In addition there was the recent attempted coup in 2016. The Turkish authorities seem to have a firm grip on the country now though and there are plenty of police check points on the roads throughout the country as well as a visible police presence in Istanbul and other cities.”
“Despite this, we continue to find Istanbul a very welcoming, friendly and safe city, as well as an exciting place to visit. Travellers feel safe exploring the bazaars, markets, city streets, bars and restaurants, and no more than standard caution is needed to explore alone at night, but you should avoid any demonstrations and be generally vigilant.”
“The south east of the country contains some really special places. The towns of Diyarbakir, Urfa, Harran and Mt. Nemrut are fascinating. We have checked out this region again recently and found it stable and very welcoming to tourists, but we still have concerns about the situation and are not yet ready to re-start trips there. However, Istanbul, the west coast, Cappadocia, the Black Sea region and Eastern Turkey are great places to visit at the moment. Sites and hotels are still quieter than they were a few years ago, which improves the experience for people visiting now.”
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What does the UK Foreign Office say?The political and security situation in Turkey is a lot calmer than it was in 2016. Current FCO advice states that there is an ongoing risk of terrorist incidents in the south and east of the country, as well as cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, so travellers should exercise due caution. ID checks are possible in places. The FCO advises against all but essential travel to certain provinces including Siirt and Hakkari, or to within 10km of the Syrian border. The same advice goes for Diyarbakir, unofficial capital of the so called Turkish Kurdistan, and its Sur district, which have seen heavy conflict between the Turkish military and the PKK in recent years.
Do I need special insurance?Naturally, you should ensure you have adequate travel insurance in place before any trip away, but many insurance providers will refuse cover if the FCO recommends against non essential travel to a destination. As of November 2018 most parts of Turkey are deemed safe to travel by the FCO so you should not have difficulty in finding insurance to visit places such as Istanbul, the Lycian Coast, Bodrum or Cappadocia. Should that situation change however, there are certain insurers that can assist with specialist policies. Campbell Irvine Direct, who we work with, offers specially tailored policies for anyone travelling to countries which have FCO travel warnings in place.
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