Turkey has embarked on a campaign to retrieve children of Turkish immigrant families living in Europe who are fostered by foreigners, and instead place them in homes where their cultural identity can be preserved.
The step comes after a court in the Netherlands refused last week to return nine-year-old Yunus -who had been taken into care by a Dutch lesbian couple - to his biological Turkish family, reportedly citing the mother’s inability to speak Dutch.
Turkey fears that children placed in Christian homes will forget their Muslim roots, and also disapproves of placements with gay couples.
A statement from Turkey’s expatriates authority YTB said that Yunus’s foster parents frequently took him to church, and that “out of his confusion about the family institution,” he calls both foster parents “mother.”
Following the verdict, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag told reporters: “Turkish families just do not want to give their kids to gay or lesbian couples.”
“It is important for kids to be raised in an environment similar to (their) home culture.”
Turkey had since stepped up efforts to guide the family through legal procedures to get Yunus back. Failing that, Bozdag said, authorities would push to get the boy placed with parents the family would approve of.
Unlike some European countries, same-sex marriages are not recognized in Muslim-majority Turkey where homosexuality remains taboo.
Former Families Minister Aliye Kavaf found herself at the center of a public row in 2010 after she described homosexuality as a “disease that needs to be treated.”
The campaign specifically concerns the children of Turkish families living in countries like Germany or the Netherlands, both home to large Turkish expatriate populations.
Germany is home to at least three million Turks, who make up the country’s largest minority, while around half a million Turks have set up home in the Netherlands.
Turkey’s parliamentary Human Rights Commission estimates that at least 5,000 Turkish children in Germany have been placed in foster care.
While the commission has not submitted any formal request to retrieve Turkish children, international conventions do give Turkey the right to do so, ruling party lawmaker Ayhan Sefer Ustun, who heads the commission, told AFP.
“We might exercise that right if protective measures continue to pose this problem,” he warned.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Levent Gumrukcu confirmed that Ankara was keeping a “watchful eye” on fostering abroad.
European fostering bodies take children into their care for different reasons: the death of the parents, poverty or parental negligence.
They say their priority is to place the children under the protection of the best possible caregiver.
“We try really hard to find the best possible match for the child in a foster home,” Hilje Wolfson, spokesperson for a Dutch foster foundation, told AFP.
“That’s why we always first look into the network: are there family members who can take care of a child?” she said. They did make efforts to keep Turkish children in their original environment so they could keep their ties with their culture, she added.
Part of the problem is that very few children are fostered by other Turkish families, usually only by European families.
“Throughout these 50 years we lived in Europe, we have established mosques, tea shops, restaurants... But apparently we never thought of our posterity,” said Kamil Altay, head of the Germany-based Umut Yildizi (Star of Hope), established to encourage Turkish expatriates to foster.
“There were virtually no Turkish foster families before this campaign - kids naturally end up with European families and forget their languages and culture,” he added.
“After years of foster care, they sometimes do not even know they are Turkish.”
In the case that a child needs fostering, the NGO helps families submit to court a list of potential legal guardians they know and trust, the head of Umut Yildizi's Dutch branch Kasim Akdemir told AFP.
“Families do not even know their rights... If more Turks step in, this will help relieve the Dutch authorities too,” Akdemir added.
“I think (children) are way happier if they are placed in Turkish families, who speak their language, cook meals the way their mother does,” said Nejla Buran, a 47-year-old Turkish activist. In 2007, she became a foster mother to two brothers, then aged two-and-a-half and eight.
Buran, who also has three children of her own, said she believes the boys would have suffered a “second trauma” if they had been placed in a German home, with parents who did not speak their language.
“The welfare agency instructed the boys to address me as Frau (Mrs) Buran but they switched to ‘auntie’ right away,” she said.
And, she added: “Our doors are also open to the biological family any time of the day.”