When there’s no go­ing back

Syr­ian mi­grants form part of the flood of refugees pour­ing into Europe in their des­per­a­tion in a for­eign coun­try, what­ever the cost

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It is early morn­ing on the Aegean prom­e­nade in the Turk­ish coastal town of Izmir. Hud­dles of peo­ple sleep­ing out in the open slowly wake up. They used to lead mid­dle class lives with homes and jobs, and most would never have thought they would one day sleep roughly in a for­eign land on a pricy jour­ney on which many of their fel­low coun­try­men have died. These peo­ple are from Syria, where a civil war has raged since 2011 and life has be­come so im­pos­si­ble that this per­ilous jour­ney is now con­sid­ered their only op­tion.

“You watch, the big Sur­vivor game,” one of the young Syr­ian men jokes wryly in bro­ken English. He chuck­les as he smokes a cig­a­rette with his friend. The night be­fore, they sought shel­ter around a sculp­ture of a shipwreck. Now they are hang­ing around for a boat to Greece, from where they will make their way up the Balkans to Ger­many or Swe­den. There, they say, their lives can go on.

“Syria [is] history. No longer Syria,” says his friend. The en­tire jour­ney costs $3 000 (R40 000), but trav­ellers pay their smug­glers for each leg, as if to in­cen­tivise them to get them there alive.

Of­fi­cial es­ti­mates are that 3 mil­lion peo­ple have fled the coun­try, and 6.5 mil­lion have been dis­placed in­ter­nally, while the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity dithers over their sit­u­a­tion.

A 39-year-old me­chan­i­cal engi­neer from Damascus runs his fore­fin­ger across his throat to in­di­cate why he doesn’t want his name pub­lished. “I’m wor­ried about my fam­ily back home; they might be killed,” he says.

His boat to Greece could come any day now. It’s a 14-hour jour­ney un­der cover of dark­ness.

Con­stant dan­ger

Ear­lier this month, six Syr­ian mi­grants, one a baby, drowned dur­ing the cross­ing. UN fig­ures sug­gest that 21 000 Syr­i­ans made the cross­ing to Greece by the mid­dle of this month. The UN es­ti­mates that, last week alone, 7 000 mi­grants suc­cess­fully crossed into Greece and up to Ser­bia.

The flood of Syr­i­ans is joined by mi­grants from Iraq, Afghanista­n and Le­banon who can af­ford the trip. The poorer ones re­main be­hind in Tur­key in gov­ern­ment-spon­sored camps.

“We would rather sleep like this in the open than un­der ex­plo­sions [in Syria],” says the engi­neer. “In Syria there is ha­tred and killing and it is dif­fi­cult to live there now.”

The con­flict in Syria has caused crit­i­cal food short­ages, and jour­neys to work that used to take 30 min­utes now take five hours. Eat­ing has be­come too ex­pen­sive for even those with jobs.

“The big prob­lem is that we are not with the sys­tem of Syria and of [Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad], and not with the Free [Syr­ian] Army. Our ba­bies like to play; we like that life and we like it as [much as] any peo­ple in the world,” says the engi­neer.

“The trou­ble is we are a good na­tion; we like all peo­ple in the world. We hate blood and we hate killing,” he adds.

This week it was re­ported that Ger­many – the most pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for Syr­i­ans – sus­pended an EU rule known as the Dublin Reg­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to which asy­lum seek­ers must be de­ported if they don’t ap­ply in the first EU coun­try they land in – in this case Greece.


As the sum­mit was in ses­sion, news broke of an aban­doned truck con­tain­ing the badly de­com­posed bod­ies of 71 mi­grants that had been found on the high­way from Bu­dapest, only 40km away.

Syr­ian mi­grants have been joined by 137 000 from Africa, of whom 2 300 have died so far while cross­ing the Mediter­ranean in ill-equipped boats.

Balkan coun­tries seem over­whelmed by the flood of des­per­ate peo­ple and, last week, Mace­do­nia closed its bor­der with Greece for a few days. Scores of refugees had crossed by train or on foot and had walked up the train tracks north­wards, of­ten for weeks.

Mace­do­nia was forced to re­open its bor­der af­ter throngs of mi­grants stormed past po­lice, at a rate, the UN says, that will soon reach 3 000 a day.

Once they reach Ser­bia, they are given 72 hours to pass through to Hungary, which this week will com­plete a new 4m-high fence along its 177km bor­der with Ser­bia to keep out un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants. Back in Izmir, a group of mi­grants are pre­par­ing for their ship, which they say might come that night.

The cheap life jack­ets they bought ear­lier that day for 50 Turk­ish lira (R225) each lie in black bags on the grass, ready with their few items of lug­gage. One lo­cal shop owner is selling 20 life jack­ets a day.

Muham­mad (22), a med­i­cal stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Aleppo, says his group has been trav­el­ling for a month from Syria and across Tur­key to get to the western coast.

He says they walked “through deserts and [over] moun­tains”, avoid­ing the main roads, to get there.

His friend, Shi­yar (22), a phi­los­o­phy stu­dent with a ruddy, round face, says he wasn’t afraid of the jour­ney. “It’s an ad­ven­ture,” he laughs. He is stay­ing in a lo­cal ho­tel while wait­ing for his pas­sage in “maybe two weeks from now”. The young men say their par­ents are still in Syria. Shi­yar makes a ges­ture of a plane with his arms to ex­plain that they will fly over once their sons have found asy­lum in Ger­many.

Most Syr­ian asy­lum seek­ers re­main in Tur­key where they find a friendly re­cep­tion, but dis­cover that it’s dif­fi­cult to make a life there. There are be­tween 2 mil­lion to 3 mil­lion of them.

Be­tul Dur­maz, a so­ci­ol­ogy lec­turer at Izmir’s Gediz Univer­sity, says the refugees find life tough in Tur­key, where many live in gov­ern­ment camps.

“We can’t col­lect data about their so­cial lives or get into the camps with­out gov­ern­ment per­mis­sion, but we know there are some prob­lems with ed­u­ca­tion be­cause they don’t know Turk­ish.

“They need ed­u­ca­tion, but gov­ern­ment isn’t sup­ply­ing ma­te­ri­als in their lan­guage [Ara­bic],” she says.

Tur­key is strug­gling with its own prob­lems – con­tin­ued at­tacks by Kur­dish armed group the PKK and a snap elec­tion in Novem­ber.

Many Syr­i­ans in Tur­key set­tle in eastern bor­der towns, where most are em­ployed as cheap labour. Those who make it to Is­tan­bul take what­ever jobs they can find. Many women and chil­dren walk be­tween cars in traf­fic jams in rush hour, beg­ging for food.

Mean­while, the engi­neer wait­ing in Izmir says he can­not speak Ger­man, but hopes his aunt, who has lived there for 20 years, can help him. He is des­per­ate for peace. And per­haps, with his skills, he might end up liv­ing a “good life”.


DES­PER­ATE TIMES A mem­ber of the Turk­ish Coast Guard hands out wa­ter to Syr­ian mi­grants on Thurs­day as they wait at a coast guard sta­tion af­ter a failed at­tempt to sail to the Greek is­land of Les­bos in a dinghy to flee from the civil war in their coun­try

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