Sailing by dinghy to the European dream
As tens of thousands of migrants knock at Europe’s doors, still greater numbers of refugees remain stranded in Turkey, writes Salah Nasrawi
In a coffee shop in the rundown old quarter of the Turkish capital Ankara, a Syrian refugee spent nearly an hour negotiating with smugglers. He wanted them to take him and his family across the Aegean Sea to neighbouring Greece, their gateway to the European Union.
The trouble was that with so much demand from Syrians and other refugees in Turkey to travel to the continent, the smuggling networks have increased their fees. In exchange for hefty payments, the smugglers help illegal migrants cross the waterway, which is patrolled by Turkish coastguards and Frontex, the EU border agency.
Amidst the biggest wave of migration to Europe since World War II, fast-growing trafficking networks in Turkey are smuggling Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and other migrants to Greece, their stepping stone to other countries in Europe.
Running out of options and after nearly an hour of haggling, Bassam, the Syrian refugee, accepted the fee demanded by the smugglers’ brokers and made a down payment for a journey by inflatable dinghy.
“I have no other option,” he said. “They claim that the cost is rising because law-enforcement officers have intensified their activities along the Turkish coasts, and this increases the difficulty and the cost of getting clients successfully across the waterway.
“This is our best and last chance to get into Germany. Either that or we will be stuck here forever,” said Bassam, who like all the Syrian asylum-seekers in Turkey had fled the civil war in his country.
Bassam, who did not wish to give his full name, said that he and his wife and two children have been waiting for registration with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Ankara for months.
The UNHCR office set a date in 2023 for an interview, which is the first required step for refugees seeking resettlement in a Western country. Western governments have also been refusing to let them in by legal means.
“I have run out of money, and if we stay here any longer we will have to start begging for food. By 2023 we will be dead and buried,” Bassam told the Weekly after he had struck a deal with the smugglers.
For months, Bassam, 36, was reluctant to take his family on the risky sea route from Turkey’s western coast to the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, where news of migrants drowning after their boats capsized has been world news for months.
But after thousands of Syrians and other refugees succeeded this month in making their way through Europe to Germany, Bassam gave up his hesitation and convinced his wife to make the perilous journey, regardless of the risk.
For safety, Bassam has decided to use the little money he has left to buy life jackets and rubber rings. ”Probably, my kids will have a better chance of surviving than Aylan,” he said, referring to the Syrian boy whose body washed up on shore alongside his brother Gylip and mother Rehan after their boat capsized. The photograph of the drowned boy went viral on news outlets and social media sites.
Many of the refugees in Turkey say that the harrowing image of Aylan lying on the shore, which has reawakened the world’s attention to the tragedy of millions of Syrian refugees, will not deter them from following the same route taken by the dead boy’s father.
“Death will overtake you, even though ye were in lofty towers,” said Bassam, reading from Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an.
Bassam, an Arabic teacher, did not know much about Turkey before he arrived last year, fleeing from his hometown of Idlib, one of the flashpoints in Syria’s apparently endless civil war. Several of his neighbours have been killed in shelling or in bombardments by either government forces or the rebels.
Encouraged by Turkey’s lenient visa and residency policy, which makes living there easier, Bassam decided to come to the country in the hope that he would find a job. Many of his friends also fled the bloodshed in Syria for Turkey, which is only a short hop away from Idlib.
But after nearly a year in Turkey, Bassam has failed to secure employment and has started running out of cash, mostly taken from his life savings and from selling his wife’s jewellery.
The influx of more migrants to Turkey has also made life for them more difficult. Though refugees have a recognised status and are allowed to stay in Turkey, most of them depend on agency or charity handouts or informal work to survive.
Children’s education and health care are often available, but the enormous number of refugees makes these services largely ineffective or inaccessible.
In recent months, the number of refugees living in such a state of limbo has increased, mostly because their stay away from home has been becoming increasingly costly on both the financial and human levels.
With no hope that Syria will return to normal soon and only a tiny number of refugees being accepted for resettlement in Western countries such as the US, Canada and Australia, many refugees in Turkey have begun thinking of taking the risk of the sea crossing to Europe, even though they know the journey is extremely dangerous.
Like Bassam and his family, most of the refugees are buying slippery seats in a rubber dinghy to cross to Greece. Others have enough money to pay for a journey on safer boats or ships. A few push their way through the tight-security borders with the Balkans, smuggled in vehicles, travelling overland in a bid to reach Germany.
In at least one well-publicised case, a young Syrian, Hesham Moadamani, 24, swam six hours from Turkey on an epic journey to a Greek island before he continued his trek to Germany.
Those refugees who can afford it can make the journey all the way by chartered business jet straight to the refugee haven of Sweden where they can immediately ask for asylum.
In Turkey itself, the locals are becoming increasingly hostile towards the refugees and less willing to allow them to settle permanently. Frictions between the locals and the refugees, with many seeking to make ends meet by begging, are becoming a daily routine.
The unabated flow of the refugees, mostly Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Africans fleeing political turmoil in their home countries, has put an additional burden on Turkey’s ailing economy, while contributing to social unrest in the provinces where most of the refugees are concentrated.
In recent weeks, the Turkish media has reported plans by the government to revise the country’s open-door policy, in which Ankara has kept open its borders to arrivals escaping unrest abroad in the face of mounting political and economic problems.
Hundreds of Istanbul residents, angered by the presence of Syrian refugees, clashed with police on 25 August in a violent protest in İkitelli, a suburb of Turkey’s biggest city. The protests, the latest violence amid growing tensions between Turkish locals and Syrian refugees, were sparked by claims that young Syrian men had sexually harassed a teenage Turkish girl.
Angry locals armed with sticks, knives and machetes attacked shops with signs in Arabic on their fronts and smashed cars belonging to Syrians and shouted anti-Syrian slogans.
Following violent protests against the presence of Syrians in the southeastern city of Gaziantep last month, the authorities moved hundreds of refugees into camps in a bid to calm the tensions.
Turkey says it has spent $5.6 billion to care for some 1.7 million Syrians and 300,000 Iraqis living in refugee camps or in Turkish cities. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly called on Europe to take in more migrants and refugees from Syria and Iraq, saying that Turkey has borne the brunt of the Middle East’s refugee crisis.
Following the boy Aylan’s death, Erdogan accused EU states of being responsible for the refugee crisis and for turning the Mediterranean into a “cemetery” for migrants. With Turkey now hosting the largest number of Syrian and Iraqi asylum-seekers and refugees in the world, according to the UN’s refugee agency, the Arab world is coming under fire for doing little to deal with the crisis.
The picture of the lifeless body of the Syrian toddler slumped on the sand and images of refugees swamping Europe have sparked international outrage over the migration crisis. Pope Francis has called on Catholics across Europe to offer sanctuary to migrant families. Meanwhile, the Arab world has remained largely indifferent.
Some 10 million Syrians have been displaced by the bloody civil war raging in their country. Most still remain within Syria’s borders, but around four million have fled into neighbouring countries, mostly Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Tens of thousands have also sought refuge in Egypt.
Yet, according to aid organisations and media reports, the oil-rich Arab countries in the Gulf have taken no Syrian refugees, though Saudi Arabia claims there are 500,000 Syrians living in the kingdom, along with millions of other expatriates.
Even after several EU countries declared they would be taking tens of thousands of migrants, wealthy Arab countries showed no signs of moving to absorb any Syrian or Iraqi refugees.
Although the oil-rich Arab countries have reportedly contributed $1 billion to aid agencies working with the refugees, the UK has still donated more than Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar combined. The United States has also given four times the Gulf’s contribution.
The comparison seems even more outrageous when the vast amounts of money Gulf countries have spent to support Syrian opposition forces fighting the Bashar Al-Assad regime and the cost of the war in Yemen waged against the Houthis are taken into consideration.
Meanwhile, in Europe, despite the considerable number of new refugees that some countries have agreed to accommodate, politics are impeding the reception of more refugees who are still stranded in Turkey and other countries.
A debate has been raging between those who portray the refugees as marauders who could soon hasten the collapse of European civilisation and others who think Europe should adhere to its ideals of solidarity with people suffering from oppression and fear.
The anxieties of right-wing and ultra-nationalist Europeans that the refugee influx could bring more shwarma stands to Europe’s streets, or overwhelm the continent with lazy migrants seeking generous social benefits, are neither well founded nor healthy, however.
On the contrary, the plight of the refugees could open a window of opportunity for both Europe and the Arab world to strengthen their historic relationships and advance their joint interests.
In the short term, the migrant crisis could promote a new policy for Europe towards the conflicts in the Middle East region, including the savage civil wars in Iraq and Syria. Europe could now be more proactive in helping to solve these conflicts and problems, some of which are deeply rooted in the region’s colonial legacy.
In the long term and looking at the situation from a larger strategic perspective, the newcomers could be an asset in creating a culture of receptiveness and integration that would challenge the preposterous theory of the “clash of civilisations” which some in the West still want to use to draw a battle line between Europe and the Arab world.
This influx of refugees is not about the clock reverting to 1529, when the armies of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman sultan, were at the gates of Vienna hoping to conquer Christian Europe. It is about a new generation of Arabs and Muslims who are fleeing oppression by autocratic regimes and Muslim extremists and looking for a better future for themselves and their children.
For the refugees who have made the journey across hundreds of kilometres — through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans — it has been about the pursuit of better opportunities in life, and even mere survival.
It is a dream shared by the hundreds of thousands of migrants still stranded in Turkey, many of them now waiting to cross the Aegean Sea and set foot on the European continent.
This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on Sept, 17, 2015