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Refugee voices in Turkey: open the borders

“We don't want food, water or humanitarian help, we want to cross the border by land. We will cross or die here" say refugees in Turkey appealing for passage to Europe. 

Dogus Simsek
5 October 2015
Syrian refugees walk of hope to Europe (Sahan Nuhoglu/Demotix)

Syrian refugees walk of hope to Europe (Sahan Nuhoglu/Demotix)After the death of thousands of refugees during the dangerous and hard journey to Europe by the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea, refugees and migrants are seeking safe ways to reach Europe. Since September 10th - following a call started on a Facebook page ("Crossing no more"), thousands of refugees (mostly Syrians but also Afghanis, Iraqis and others) - started a protest to be allowed to cross the border into Greece. According to the City Governor, 8,000 refugees reached the border province of Edirne after September 10th but were turned away. On September 17th, there are approximately 3,000 refugees spread throughout Edirne, demanding access to Europe A reported 800 protesters were on a hunger strike.

On September 19th, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said on his Twitter account, “We are ready to send [refugees] to countries which open their doors to Syrians. But, unfortunately there is no offer from any states. I will write letters to world leaders to be the voice of Syrians for whom the international community has remained silent.” On September 23rd, despite the rain and cold, refugees remained in the Er arena, Edirne, demanding to cross into Greece. 

Refugees in Turkey 

This is the recent situation of refugees in Turkey, and it is not bright. In fact, the general situation for refugees has not been bright for some time. According to the UNHCR, more than 300,000 refugees and migrants have used the dangerous sea route across the Mediterranean so far this year with almost 200,000 of them landing in Greece and a further 110,000 in Italy. At the same time, some 2,500 refugees are estimated to have died or gone missing this year, trying to reach Europe. The vast majority are Syrians who flee from conflict in Syria who want to reach Europe because of tough living conditions in Turkey. But what are the living conditions of Syrian refugees in Turkey? What are the main reasons they are risking their lives en route to Europe?

Since 2011, the on-going Syrian civil war has caused more than 4 million Syrian nationals to flee to the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.  As of September 2015, the numbers of Syrian nationals in neighboring countries are as follow: 1,113,941 in Lebanon, 1,938,999 in Turkey, 628,887 in Jordan, 248,503 in Iraq and 132,375 in Egypt. It is assumed that more than two million Syrian refugees including the unregistered ones are residing in Turkey. Only 259,161 Syrian refugees live in the camps and about 150,000 Syrians have returned to their country according to the Directorate General for Migration Management’s statistics.

Compared to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, Turkey has received the highest number of Syrian refugees.

Since the crisis in Syria began, Turkey has adopted an “open door” policy for Syrians fleeing their country, like other neighbouring countries, and has opened twenty-five refugee camps in the provinces of southeast Turkey alone. The cost of the Syrian crisis had reached over $6.5 billion. Since the beginning of the crisis, Turkey has been generous towards Syrian refugees.

Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention and its 1967 Additional Protocol on the status of refugees in Turkey, however Turkey applies a geographical limitation to the 1951 Geneva Convention. In line with the geographical limitation that limits asylum rights only to Europeans and mass refugee influx situations, Syrians who have fled to Turkey are recognized as “guests” and not as “refugees”. ‘Guest’ status implies ambiguity about their presence, safety and rights in Turkey.

In 2014, Turkey introduced the new Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP). With the LFIP, Turkey implemented a new ‘temporary protection’ (TP) regulation for Syrian refugees in and outside of the camps, which regulates a TP identification document, the right to lawful stay in Turkey, and access to health, education and the labour market. Access to social assistance and the labour market will be made clearer in the future by the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Family and Social Policies. At the moment, Syrian refugees in Turkey do not have right to work. As a result of the lack of legal status and limited access to rights, many Syrian refugees live under extremely tough conditions. In a recent change, Syrian refugees have to stay in the city where they are registered, as it is illegal to move inside the country. Upon their arrival in Turkey, their living conditions get worse and many of them state that they do not see any future.

Unique stories of Syrian refugees in Turkey

Refugees are dealt with in numbers and statistics in debates and negotiations among countries, forgetting the fact that refugees are human. There is a need to humanise the situation, spreading the unique stories of refugees, their ambitions, their fears, their hopes, experiences and raising their voices. Engaging with individual stories helps us to understand why people flee; choose to live in Europe; what factors lead them to Europe and, might influence public opinion and reduce xenophobia towards refugees and migrants.

As a part of my research project on the experiences of Syrian refugees outside of the camps in Turkey, I spoke to Syrian refugees in İstanbul, Ankara, İzmir, Gaziantep, Kilis, Antakya, Şanlıurfa and Mardin on their living conditions and experiences in Turkey between January and September 2015. The stories of Syrian refugees in Turkey show their struggle in Syria, in the receiving country and not having a chance to choosee what is good for them. A woman who walked three days with four children to cross the Turkish- Syrian border struggled to establish a new life: “I came to Turkey with my four children, walked three days to cross the border, two years ago. I don’t know whether my husband is alive or not…haven’t heard anything about him for the last two years. My sister was already settled in Istanbul, we are living with her. We pay $600 for one bedroom flat. There are 8 people living in this flat. I have to look after my small children, my older children 14 and 15 years old work to pay rent and buy food. They are looking for a new job at the moment; they used to work in car repair shop where the employees attacked them; they could not get their wages. We came to Turkey because we didn’t have any other choice but people do not want us here. It is very difficult to live under these conditions.”

Another woman who lives in Ankara with her children also highlighted tough living conditions: “We had a good life in Syria; we were happy in Syria. Then, the war started; my husband got killed in Syria; my house got burned. We had to leave Syria; we didn’t have any choice. Turkey opened the border for us. We thank the Turkish government for this. I came to Ankara with my children but life is very expensive here. There is no job for us; we have to pay rent. It is very difficult to survive here. I want my children to go to school”.

Many of the interviewees state that having a lack of legal status, being forced to work in the informal economy, experiencing exploitation and discrimination in the work place, high rental housing prices, being marginalized and a state of being excluded in the receiving society, limited access to education and limited access to medicine are the major problems of living in Turkey. In short, they do not see any future for themselves in Turkey and do not see Turkey as their final destination because nothing has improved within four years of residing there. A desire to live in Europe seems attractive for practical reasons, such as access to employment, housing, education and welfare. On the other hand, as majority of interviewees stated, they miss Syria a lot and want to go back to Syria when the conflict is over. Europe is the best option amongst other options for them at the moment.

Many want the chance to make a life for themselves without risking their lives in the Aegean Sea, and this is why they have decided to cross the Turkish-Greek border by walking to reach to Greece. On the other hand, some Syrian refugees I spoke to in Izmir are still willing to risk their lives and try to reach to Greece by sea. One person commented, “we don’t have any plan for the future…Future is dark for us…I rather die in Syria or on the way to Europe; there is no other way for us; we choose the option of taking a dangerous and long journey to reach Europe.” There is floating rumor among Syrian refugees in Izmir that makes them believing that a big ship will come to Izmir and take them to Greece. “We have been waiting for the ship for last two weeks” said few Syrian refugees in Izmir.

One of my interviewees wrote from Germany, stating that he arrived in Germany a month ago after a long and dangerous journey. “My life was hard in Turkey”, he wrote, “I didn’t have a job, struggling to survive. Now, I have hopes; I know that I will have a happy life in Germany. They will give me a small flat and I will start learning German. I am so excited to start my new life”. This is an example of a successful journey to Europe and the beginning of a new life. The first thing he would like to do in Germany is learn the language, as he wants feel included in the society.

The Syrian refugee crisis is not just a crisis of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt; it is a global crisis and need to be responded to globally. Not only Europe, but the Gulf States also need to share the burden. Currently they are not signatories to the UN refugee convention and displaced people are not officially considered as refugees there. Taking more forced migrants is not the only way to show solidarity; the causes of forced migration need to be prevented and the responsibility for the causes of forced migration need to be taken and global protection needs to be supported. The solution is not closing borders or building walls on borders. My research suggests that this simply drives forced migrants to seek alternative and dangerous routes, and forces them to risk their lives.  

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