NOWHERE TO RUN TO
As 65 million people flee for safety, destination nations turn inhospitable
As 65 million people flee for safety around the globe, destination nations turn inhospitable. Read the special report from Istanbul.
W hen Syrian high school English teacher Ishan Moazzen, one of the world’s 65 million uprooted people, faced conscription into President Bashar Assad’s army, he fled his home in the battered city of Aleppo and reached Turkey.
“I could be dead now. Or I could be captured and held in a Free Syria prison,” Moazzen, 30, said in an Istanbul backstreet where he was tending shop, selling saffron and candies to veiled Saudi Arabian tourists.
If he stayed in Syria, as a soldier, he could have been ordered to fire on fellow Syrians in the war, he said. “I would have to shoot or be shot.”
But his morality-based move has proved punishing. A migration crisis is shaking governments. And a backlash against refugees (Central Americans fleeing for U.S. cities such as Denver, Syrians and others aiming for Europe and North America) increasingly impedes their search for safety.
Once-receptive nations such as Sweden, fearing overwhelming masses in cities, hold asylum-seekers in isolated rural camps. Australia detains asylumseekers for years on a South Pacific island, Nauru — shrugging off human rights criticism.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security imprisons Honduran, Guatemalan and El Salvadoran women and children who fled persecution by gangs. U.S. officials now hold some asylum-seekers in a third country, Costa Rica, while backlogged applications are processed.
President-elect Donald Trump has vowed he will build more walls, register Muslims, and bar resettlement of more refugees in the United States, unless security vetting, to weed out terrorists, is increased, even though multiple federal agencies already investigate refugees before they board planes to assigned cities.
United Nations officials bristle at the backlash.
“Access to safety for persons in need of international protection in the region (Turkey) and beyond is crucial,” UN High Commission for Refugees spokesman Selin Unal said. “We need all countries to keep their borders open for purposes of protection and asylum and to provide much needed opportunities for those Syrians in need of humanitarian admissions beyond the immediate region.”
This fall, UN leaders held a first global refugee summit. They proposed to bring countries together to hash out a coordinated approach that shares burdens, but member states, including the United States, balked at taking any action.
No matter how this plays out, the pressures uprooting people probably won’t go away. Environmental change may churn out more refugees.
In our world, people have been migrating since before nations were formed. So what does it mean now if the world’s neediest people can’t find safe space to resettle?
Moazzen lamented that, after two years scrambling to survive in Istanbul with Europe and the United States looking inhospitable, he was considering crossing back into Syria. Bombing in Aleppo was intensifying last summer as we spoke.
“It feels really bad,” he said, comparing himself to the fisherman in his favorite book, Ernest Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea.”
Turkey stands out. It is struggling to absorb 3 million refugees from neighboring Syria. Thousands sleep on streets. Thou- sands more cram into abandoned buildings, squatting. Many need health care. Few speak the language. Children toil in sweatshops so their families can eat. Turkey issues few work permits and grants “temporary protection” rather than recognize legal refugee status.
Turkish officials are tracking Syrians, requiring credit cardsized paper ID cards for access to limited health care and schools. They’ve registered 400,000 in Istanbul (population 14 million) and International Organization of Migration officials say many more likely reside in the city. The situation is comparable to a surge of 80,000 non-English speakers into metro Denver — more than all annual refugee admissions into the United States.
European Union officials have been pressing Turkey to act as a buffer, preventing mass uncontrolled migration into Europe. After 2015, when more than 1 million Syrians and Africans entered Europe at a time when terrorism linked to immigrants was rising, the EU negotiated to pay Turkey $6 billion if it accepted refugees turned back from Greece.
Being Europe’s buffer against migrants presents one more challenge for Turkey, a nation already teetering on the cusp of so much: tradition vs. modernity, secular vs. religion, democracy vs. dictatorial rule.
When I was in Turkey, during the purges the week after the bloody failed coup in July, Turkish officials indicated they might reject the deal — unless Europe paid the $6 billion as promised and granted Turks benefits including visa-free travel in Europe.
The surge in migration looms so large at UN headquarters that the replacement for retiring Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will be the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres who has focused on migration since 2005. Here are the key trends: •More uprooted people — Beyond the wars in Syria and Iraq and unrest in Africa that are churning out record numbers of refugees, UN agencies predict climate change will uproot millions more. The UN estimates 22.5 million people a year were displaced since 2008 due, in part, to natural disasters and climaterelated factors. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN’s global science advisory board, projects an accelerating increase. “People are twice as likely to be displaced now than they were in the 1970s,” the IPCC said in a recent report. “Unless strong climate mitigation and adaptation measures are implemented worldwide, alongside disaster-preparedness and disaster risk reduction measures, this trend is expected to increase.”
•Burden shifts to cities — Migrants increasingly shun borderland tent camps and move into cities because of perceived better opportunities to meet basic needs and move on. In Turkey, fewer than than 10 percent of the Syrian refugees have stayed in refugee camps.
•Closing doors in the U.S., Australia and Europe — Countries that traditionally absorbed the most migrants increasingly restrict access. Nationalist backlash movements in Sweden, Norway, Germany and France are forcing leaders to close doors. British Prime Minister Theresa May, after the “Brexit” driven in part by anti-migrant sentiments, said migrants ought to be kept in countries they flee into first — such as Turkey.
•Rising security worries — The terrorist bombing at Istanbul’s airport, after the attacks in Paris linked to Islamic State militants, has piqued security concerns. UN officials have agreed to cooperate with national authorities to conduct more careful screening of migrants who claim to be refugees. “It’s always possible that people that enter countries as refugees commit crimes and, when somebody does that, the person has to be pursued according to the principle of criminal law,” UNHCR spokesman Unal said. “The fact that they are refugees does not exempt them at all from national law. But it would be dangerous to generalize and to say that because one refugee, or a few, have done something wrong that all refugees are criminals. It’s important to remember refugees are fleeing for their lives.”
For Moazzen, frustration sets in as tourists come and go and he feels his life slipping away. The land of the free that produced Hemingway no longer appears to be an option, he reckoned, saying he’s heard that an application for asylum in the United States would require evidence he’d be killed within hours if returned to Syria.
He shook his head. The claim that Syrians fleeing war may be dangerous Islamic State sympathizers “is pretext” for rejecting refugees, he said. Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq often are disaffected immigrants from Europe or North America, not Syrians, he said.
Another Syrian stuck here — Samer Alkadri, 42, who fled Damascus via Jordan with his wife and children — said he now views Europeans who want Turkey to be their buffer and Americans who reject refugees as morally bankrupt.
He’s given up trying to move on. Instead, he said he’ll make the best of being marooned in a crowded Fatih neighborhood in Istanbul next to ruins of a Byzantine church. Alkadri founded the Pages Bookstore Cafe, catering to the growing numbers of Arabic-speaking refugees, with a play area for kids and aspirations of becoming an oasis for cultural mixing. The idea is to be second home that gives intellectual sustenance to refugees who increasingly are left in limbo.
Pages reflects a spirit of humanity at a time when too many people turn their backs, Alkadri said.
“We need a new system,” he said. “for humanity.”
A boy plays in a puddle at a makeshift camp occupied by migrants and refugees at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni on March 24.
Syrian English teacher Ishan Moazzen faced conscription into President Assad’s military and fled to Turkey, a morality-based move that is proving punishing. Photos by Bruce Finley, The Denver Post