A new exodus? Europe fears more Syrians will start leaving Turkey

The EU has pledged $1.1 billion to help Ankara cope with the flood of refugees, but some say it's too little, too late

Syrian migrants hold a sit-in protest in Edirne, Turkey, as they wait to be allowed to continue their journey to Greece or Bulgaria, Sept. 22, 2015. Amid deep mutual suspicion between Brussels and Ankara, the European Union is groping for ways to persuade Turkey to do more to keep Syrian refugees on its territory and stop them from traveling to Europe.
Yagiz Karahan / Reuters
Migrants stand behind a door of a mosque as they wait for a bus at the main station in Istanbul, Turkey, Sept. 17, 2015.
Yagiz Karahan / Reuters

ISTANBUL — The wait at the main bus station had reached its fourth day. Police had cordoned off much of the area. Dozens of exhausted people peered out vacantly from behind the metal gates of a nearby mosque, where they had set up their sleeping quarters. Outside, men and women slumped among suitcases, blankets and bundles of clothes.

As many as 3,000 people, most of them Syrians, showed up at the station in mid-September, hoping to catch buses to Edirne, near Turkey’s border with Greece. From there, they planned to march onward to Europe, joining the more than 520,000 migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East, especially Syria, who have already done so this year. That hope was slowly wasting away. Bus companies refused to sell the refugees tickets. The Turkish authorities had announced they had no intention of letting the refugees through. Some had already begun packing their bags, faced with a choice between heading home, assuming they had one; waiting elsewhere; or attempting the much more dangerous, and often deadly, sea route to Europe. 

Below the mosque, next to a ramp where a number of buses were parked, some of the refugees had tied a rope to a metal barrier. Along it they had hung small paper and cloth placards bearing messages addressed, presumably, to Western leaders. “Don’t let us drown,” read one. “Thank you Turkey,” another said. A boy, no older than 5, trotted up to a group of policemen with a cardboard sign of his own. “Please help,” someone had scribbled on it in capital letters.

Aziz, one of the men outside the mosque, had arrived in Turkey two years earlier from Hassakeh, a Syrian city ravaged by clashes between the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, regime forces and a Kurdish militia. He had been living in Istanbul with his wife, their two kids and his three nephews. (Their father, he said, had been tortured to death by Syrian intelligence officers.) Back home, Aziz, who declined to provide his full name, had been a high school computer teacher. In Istanbul, he had only been able to find work at a tourist trap of a restaurant, which paid him to stand on a crowded street and lure passersby, preferably visiting Gulf Arabs, to a table and an overpriced meal. “Buyrun, come in, come in, effendi. Please have a seat,” he said, mimicking himself at work.

Aziz could no longer make ends meet. “The rent alone, it’s more than half of what I make,” he complained. “Then the bills, the food for the family, the milk for the kids and the medicine for my diabetes — it’s all too much,” he said. “Turkey has been good to us, but we can’t survive here anymore. We want Europe.”

Since 2011, more than 2.2 million Syrian refugees have settled in Turkey, the most in any country. Although the vast majority of them have stayed put, growing despair, compounded by unemployment and poverty, is forcing more and more to leave Turkey in the hope of finding permanent sanctuary elsewhere. That threatens to further deepen the refugee crisis in the Balkans and Europe. (Turkey is already the main route into Europe for Syrians escaping the horrors of war back home or the miseries of exile in Jordan or Lebanon.)

‘At the beginning [Syrians] may have wanted to stay here, but they’ve seen no improvement in their living conditions.’

Doğuş Şimşek

Migration Research Center at Koç University

A Syrian man, right, who fled the war in his homeland sits outside his coffee shop in a low-income neighborhood of Ankara, Turkey, Sept. 29, 2015. Tensions are simmering between Turks and Syrians as Ankara struggles to integrate a population that does not speak its language and is largely prevented from working.
Umit Bektas / Reuters

For the time being, and to the West’s undisguised relief, Syrian migration from Turkey does not appear to have reached dramatic proportions. According to an official from Turkey’s disaster and relief agency, AFAD, the population of the country’s 25 state-of-the-art refugee camps, which hovers around 260,000, dropped by only about 2,000 over the summer. The movements of the nearly 2 million Syrians living outside the camps, mostly in cities like Istanbul, Ankara and Gaziantep, have been much harder to track, but they too do not suggest a mass exodus.

Yet experts point to a number of reasons why it may be a matter of time before the trickle of Syrians leaving Turkey turns into a wave. Instead of permanent refugee status, Syrians in Turkey have been accorded “temporary protection,” which entails fewer rights and benefits and which can be revoked. With the government having denied all but a handful of Syrians the right to work, most are forced into the shadow economy, in which they are regularly exploited and underpaid. Poverty is rife. Educational opportunities remain limited. Of the roughly 550,000 refugee children of school age in Turkey, only about 150,000 are enrolled. A new directive requires Syrians to seek official permission before traveling outside the province where they are registered.

“At the beginning [Syrians] may have wanted to stay here, but they’ve seen no improvement in their living conditions,” said Doğuş Şimşek, a researcher with the Migration Research Center at Koç University. “The majority of the refugees I’ve spoken to would go [to Europe] if they had a chance. They do not see a future for themselves in Turkey.”

There are, of course, many exceptions. The costs and extreme perils of a journey to Europe aside, many Syrians cite a measure of cultural affinity, as well as free if limited access to education, health care and social services, as the main reasons for staying.

Samer al-Kadri, a children’s book publisher from Damascus, arrived in Turkey two years ago after a stint in Jordan. “If I wanted to, I could move to Europe tomorrow,” he said, sitting amid clouds of cigarette smoke outside his Arabic-language bookstore in Istanbul. “But I prefer to stay here.” He might not feel completely at home in Turkey, al-Kadri explained, but he feels closer to Syria, both physically and culturally, than he would anywhere else. “In Turkey, my daughters can go to a Syrian school, they can have a community, they can have Syrian friends,” he said. “I want them to grow up here.”

But what keeps al-Kadri from going to Europe more than anything else, he admitted, is the hope of returning to Syria. “The day after Bashar is gone, I will be back in Damascus,” he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Leaving Turkey, he worried, would mean giving up that dream. “The people who leave, the ones who go to Holland or Germany, they will never go back.”

The refugee crisis has been going on for five years, but Europeans closed their eyes until the fire began reaching their door.

Piril Erçoban

Association for Solidarity with Refugees

Many Syrians no longer feel they have anything to go back to, however. With hopes of returning home fading with each day, the idea of remaining in Turkey, which most Syrians initially thought of as a temporary refuge, is starting to make less and less sense.

“They are in limbo,” said Piril Erçoban, a coordinator at Association for Solidarity with Refugees (Mülteci-Der), a Turkish nongovernmental organization, referring to Syrians in Turkey. “They have no permanent status, no way to find real jobs, no possibility of a dignified life. This forces them to consider their chances outside Turkey.”

The prospect of a new refugee wave is finally starting to dawn on Western leaders, whose policy, until this summer’s crisis, consisted of outsourcing the refugee problem to Turkey without paying a significant share of the bill. To date, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Ankara has spent $7.5 billion to house, feed and educate the refugees, while foreign donors have contributed $410 million.

“This is no longer sustainable,” Erdoğan said during a visit to Brussels earlier this month. The European Union, for once, agreed, pledging to free up $1.1 billion worth of aid to help Ankara cope with the Syrian influx.

For the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have tried and failed to eke out a living in Turkey, it might be too little, too late.

“The refugee crisis has been going on for five years, but Europeans closed their eyes until the fire began reaching their door,” Erçoban said. “Now everyone must take responsibility. Europe must take a [share] of refugees. Turkey must give [Syrians] permanent status, must [ensure] local integration and regulate work permits. Unless this happens they will continue to move.”

At the Istanbul bus station, Usama Cafer, a student from Aleppo, said he was grateful to the Ankara government, and to the people of Turkey, but that he had nothing left to look forward to here. He had lived in Istanbul nearly three years. He had worked odd jobs, making just enough money to survive, but no more. He had nothing to lose at this point, he said, except his life, but he was not ready to put it on the line just yet.

Two weeks earlier he’d been on the coast. “I saw people drown, I saw the smugglers, how they stole from the people, how they piled them into those death boats,” he said. He prayed for safe passage, by land, to Europe. “They have two choices,” he said, referring to the governments on both sides of the border with Greece. “Let us through to Edirne or see us die at sea.”

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