segunda-feira, 4 de abril de 2016
Europe’s migrants, Turkey’s problem
Europe’s migrants, Turkey’s problem
As migrant routes are blocked to the EU, tensions rise between Syrian migrants and their Turkish hosts.
By ROY GUTMAN 4/4/16, 6:00 AM CET Updated 4/4/16, 8:11 AM CET
DIKILI, Turkey — Closing the migrant escape valve provoked an unexpected event in this beach resort, one of the closest points on the Turkish mainland to the European Union. The asylum seekers, who were risking their lives to get to Europe and got stopped when its shores appeared in plain sight, became angry and turned on the local authorities.
The EU migrant crisis is now Turkey’s problem, too.
Since the EU-Turkey deal went into effect March 20, Turkish authorities have cracked down on smugglers and migrants alike, on the sea and on the coast, significantly lowering the numbers of those leaving for Europe.
Packed into inflatable dinghies, thousands of refugees used to sail each day from the area of Dikili to the Greek island of Lesbos that is just 24 kilometres away. Now it’s down to hundreds.
On March 18, as Turkey and the EU were sealing the deal in Brussels, Turkish security forces were setting up roadblocks and checkpoints along the road leading to the resort town. They started patrolling the beaches and bays around Dikili, and launched raids on hostels, suspected of hosting migrants. On the sea, the Coast Guard began intercepting boats crossing the Aegean strait. Bus companies, airlines and travel agencies were told not to take Syrians on board unless they had special travel permits.
That day alone, authorities detained about 1,700 people, at least half of them Syrians, and brought them to two sports halls in Dikili to be registered and processed. They rebelled and demanded to be freed. And when they were not, they rioted, setting fire to blankets and mattresses, breaking windows and smashing toilets, according to city officials.
“Usually it takes two to three hours to be processed, but last weekend, thousands were detained, and they had to stay one or two days. They rebelled because of it,” said Mustafa Nazmi Sezgin, the district governor in Dikili, in an interview.
“They were angry with us,” said Cigden Elibol, the deputy mayor. “They told us they just wanted to go to Greece.” Police and fire department quickly quelled the disturbance in Dikili, and moved the detained migrants to Izmir and other cities. But the unrest left a mark on the town where Turkish authorities agreed to build a reception center for migrants, who will be expelled from Greece in line with the provisions of the EU-Turkey pact.
The first 400 to 500 to be sent back to Turkey from Greece are expected here on Monday and local officials are not looking forward to receiving them. Neither are townspeople, who’ve started a petition drive to stop the center from opening.
“People will be so angry,” said Elibol of the returnees. “They went to Europe and now they’re being sent back. If someone loses all hope, if they feel they have no choices left, they can do anything.”
For now, the crackdown appears to be working. The number of refugees crossing illegally from Turkey to Greece is down to 400 a day from its peak of 6,800 last October, deputy Foreign Minster Kaci Koru said a week after the measures went into place.
The word is out on the street and on the social media: Don’t go. Two smugglers, both Syrians, told POLITICO they refuse to arrange any further trips.
No exit for Syrians
With policing firmly in place on its shores, the question is how Turkey will deal with the new reality, in which millions of Syrians are not allowed to leave the country.
The numbers are huge. Officially, there are 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Authorities estimate that another 300,000 Syrians are roaming the country without ever registering. The real number of the undocumented could be much higher, according to Esra Simsir, the Izmir representative for the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants, a Turkish NGO. “We think it’s double the registered number,” she said.
For Recip Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s increasingly autocratic president, the deal with Europe implicitly acknowledges Turkey’s role as a bridge between Middle East and Europe. The fact that Syrians are welcome to stay when Europe has all but shut its door in their faces plays into his assertion that Turkey is a sanctuary for the refugees, not a detention center.
But the claim has come into question after Amnesty International’s report Friday charged Turkey with “rounding up and expelling” thousands of Syrians, fleeing violence there, back to Syria, a violation of international refugee law. The Turkish Foreign Ministry denied refugees were being sent back to Syria against their will.
It’s in Turkey’s long-term interest to pull the EU from the brink by helping solve the migration crisis. If the collaboration wins Turkey some understanding in Brussels for its preferred course to ending the Syrian conflict — to step up aid to moderate Syrian rebels, fighting the regime of Bashar Assad rather than arm Syrian Kurds to fight ISIS — it will ease Ankara’s growing sense of isolation, caused by a falling out with Washington.
If Turkey’s multi-layered security forces are indeed able to halt the migrant outflow, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU leaders will be in Erdoğan’s debt, one they might be asked to pay back as he pushes for constitutional changes to turn his already powerful role into a U.S.-style presidency with extensive executive powers.
If the EU fails to deliver on its part of the bargain, Erdoğan is likely to play hardball. His European affairs minister has publicly warned that if the EU welshes on visa-free travel, the March 18 deal is off — and Turkey will cease accepting back large numbers of illegal migrants from Greece.
Under the agreement, any illegal migrant arriving to the five Greek islands after March 20 will be returned to Turkey, except those who are granted asylum in Greece. For every Syrian returned to Turkey, a Syrian refugee in Turkey will be relocated to the EU, up to 72,000 in all. If illegal crossings are halted, individual EU states will volunteer to take in even more refuges. In exchange, the EU agreed to speed up visa liberalization for Turks traveling to the EU.
If a large number of refugees are held in the camp still to be built on the outskirts of Dikili, Elibol said he fears there will be street crime, competition for scarce jobs in this town of 18,000 will turn ugly, and all sorts of other problems will arise in summer, when its population swells to more than 300,000.
Like many in Europe, Elibol also said he fears that along with the refugees, some terrorists will land in her town. As the incident in Dikili illustrates, heads of government can carry out agreements that patch over their own political problems, but they ignore the human factor at their peril. For those fleeing barrel bombs or the tyranny of the Islamic State extremists, the EU-Turkey deal has created an existential crisis.
Jassem, 32, a math teacher from eastern Syria, who’d been working for the U.N. in Damascus, fled to Turkey in late December, primarily to avoid being drafted into the Syrian army. A short time later and hoping to join him, his girlfriend, Rahma, 19, left her home in a village under ISIL control in the eastern Deir el-Zour province in hopes of joining him.
Turkey closed its borders to Syrian refugees in April 2015, and she had to be smuggled across. She finally managed to get in, on March 16. “She tried more than 10 times in the past month alone,” Jassem said in an interview in Izmir, the largest city on the Turkish Aegean coast. The price went up — from $100 to $700 just to get into Turkey from Syria, he said.
On one attempt to cross, in the vicinity of the Kurdish-run town of Tel Abyad, Rahma said she saw the bodies of two would-be émigrés who had been shot by Turkish security forces. “You don’t have a choice. It was to be or not to be,” Jassem said. “It was a miracle that she was able to enter Turkey.”
Shortly after she arrived, the couple married, but then got the news that Turkey would block any departures — illegal or legal — to Greece. For Rahma, who arrived with just the clothes she had been wearing and no documents, and Jassem, who now has only his Syrian passport, after his U.N. identification was stolen while he was sleeping in a dormitory accommodation, it was a crushing disappointment.
“I don’t know what I can do,” he said. “I gave up my job, my family, my car, and my dreams. I can’t go back to my village, because Daesh took my house,” Jassem, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL. “They want my head. I worked for the U.N.”
And where should Rahma, his wife return, he asked? Her village is under control of ISIL and her father and four brothers are in Assad regime’s jails, after Bashar Assad’s forces marked them as regime opponents, he said.
Neither of them is working and savings will soon evaporate because life in Turkey is expensive. It’s no longer possible to stay in a cheap hotel, because the Turkish authorities have ordered hotelkeepers to stop admitting Syrians and other foreigners as guests.
Smugglers have quickly adapted to the new situation. Instead of offering boat rides to Greece they are now renting entire houses after they’ve been converted into dormitory-like accommodation for stranded Syrians and illegal migrants.
‘They are detaining people’
Some boats still go out, and the trip to Greece that has now become even more uncertain is now half the price, from $1,400 per head at the height of the crisis last summer to $700, with a life jacket free of charge.
Many smugglers suspended their operations. Amal, a 28-year-old from Damascus, who used to link refugees with smugglers, said she’d stopped working in mid-March after police raided cafes where smugglers had set up shop. Many were arrested, she said.
“I don’t want to take their money and throw them into Greece, where their fate is uncertain,” Amal said. “Most refugees come with their wives and children. I don’t want to be responsible for more suffering.”
There is no mercy from Turkish police for anyone who wants to go anywhere. “If the police wanted, they could prevent an ant from leaving Turkey,” she said.
On the Arabic language Facebook page “Terminal of the Homeless,” which has some 195,000 members, all who ask about journeys to Greece are told to stay put.
A Syrian living in Izmir told the forum that he was planning to travel after several days of storms last month, and he wondered what sort of reception would he have in Greece.
“Brother! Haven’t you read all the alarms that they are detaining people?” replied another Syrian. “Haven’t you heard of the agony of refugees? How can you talk about sailing to Greece in such circumstances? Take this sincere advice: Keep your money in your pocket, and stay where you are.”
Another smuggler, who spoke to POLITICO, also said he’s now advising Syrians not to take the chance with the trip. In the past 18 months, Ahmed, 26, who’s from the Deir el-Zour region in eastern Syria, said he’d sent some 1,500 Syrians to Greece.
“People are still coming to me, but I warn them that the way is closed. There is no way to go,” he said.
There will be a plan
With many Syrians staying in Turkey, and many more coming back from Greece, assisting them is “an increasingly big problem,” said Simser of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants.
“We don’t know how we will deal with it,” Simser said. Her group, which has 52 branches around Turkey, is the principal local implementing partner of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. The group stays in close touch with a Turkish government agency that runs a chain of widely praised refugee camps around the country. Simser’s activists provide advice, food and educational activities to refugees living outside of those camps.
Averting another violent incident that shook Dikili, is a top priority for Mustafa Nazmi Sezgin, the district governor. The return process would be organized and supervised by Turkish officials sent to Greece and Greek officials sent here.
The returnees will be brought to Dikili by ferry from Lesbos, and the town’s officials will be notified of the number of those aboard in advance. “I am not afraid of it,” he said. “We are all afraid of unexpected events. But this is expected. I know what will be done. There will be a plan.”
Duygu Guvenc in Ankara and Mousab Alhamadee in Gaziantep contributed to this article.