Ankara imposes visas on Syrian migrants
Istanbul - Under pressure by Europe to stem the westward flow of migrants, Turkey is introducing visa requirements for some Syrians arriving at its borders.
The regulation, which went into effect on January 8th and applies to Syrians arriving by air and by sea, marks the end of six years of visa-free travel between Turkey and Syria. In response, Syria said it would introduce visa requirements for Turkish citizens.
Ankara insists the visa step is a tool to combat rising illegal immigration and that its current rules for Syrians at land borders remains in place. “Turkey remains committed to the open-door policy, which has been in place since 2011,” a Turkish government official told The Arab Weekly, requesting anonymity in line with government protocol.
The new visa regime is the latest sign of the pressures the international refugee crisis has imposed on Turkey. Since the start of the Syrian war in 2011, the country has taken in more than 2 million refugees fleeing the conflict tearing apart its southern neighbour.
Although hundreds of thousands of Syrians travelled on to the European Union in 2015, refugee numbers in Turkey remain high as new people arrive, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in December. “Despite the wave [of refugees towards Europe], numbers in Turkey are not sinking,” he said.
Europe received more than 1 million refugees in 2015, the highest numbers since World War II. Davutoglu’s government and the European Union have agreed on a deal under which Turkey is to curb illegal migration to Europe in exchange for progress in Ankara’s EU membership bid and an easing of travel restrictions on Turks visiting EU countries.
Davutoglu in December renewed Ankara’s call for the creation of safe zones in Syria. Turkey wants a strip of land in northern Syria along the Turkish border cleared of Islamic State (ISIS) militants and says it is ready to build entire cities made of container houses for hundreds of thousands of people. The idea was to provide Syrians with a safe environment in their own country “so that new people don’t come” to Turkey or Europe, Davutoglu said. Ankara has yet to win international support for the plan.
With the safe zone project on hold, Turkey is turning to other measures to stem the flow of refugees.
The Turkish government official said the new visa regime for Syrians was designed to tackle illegal migration. “Turkey introduced the new visa regime to address the notable growth in the number of Syrians arriving in the country with fake passports,” the official said. “Most cases are related to vessels coming from Egypt and Lebanon but there is a broader problem. Considering the security environment in the Middle East right now, fake Syrian passports represent a national security threat.”
Migration experts confirm there has been a marked increase of Syrians arriving in Turkey by air. One reason is a change of policies in Baghdad, they say. The Syrian government in 2015 made it easier for Syrians abroad to obtain or renew passports but increased fees. The Syrian newspaper Al Watan reported in October that authorities had issued 829,000 passports since the start of 2015, filling government coffers with $520 million in fees from applicants abroad.
Regular flights from Beirut or Amman to Turkey have taken many Syrians to Istanbul or other cities without the need of a visa. Although using this route costs several hundred dollars per head in visa fees and plane tickets, it is much easier than the trek via the land border.
Taner Kilic, head of Multeci-Der, a Turkish non-governmental organisation helping refugees, said many Syrians arriving by air went straight on to Greece. “Syrians from Lebanon and Iraq have been arriving in Turkey perfectly legally by air,” Kilic said. “They fly to Istanbul or Bodrum and head for the coast.”
Ankara sees its new visa regulation as a tool to weed out Syrians entering Turkey with fake identification. The Turkish government official said Syria’s change of passport rules could be one reason behind the increase of people travelling with false passports. It was possible the new approach by Damascus to issue more passports was not “meeting certain standards due to capacity issues”, the official said. “This new policy could be a contributing factor in the rising number of fake Syrian passports.”
Pressure by the European Union has led to stricter controls by Turkish law enforcement agencies along the Aegean, where thousands of Syrians board flimsy rubber dinghies every week to cross to one of the Greek islands just kilometres off the Turkish coast.
According to news reports, more than 1,000 refugees were picked up by police and army units along the Aegean in the second half of December. Authorities in the coastal province of Izmir said operations there had netted almost 26,000 refugees in 2015. A total of 341 suspected people smugglers had been arrested, they said. Almost 3,800 people are thought to have drowned trying to reach the European Union by boat from Turkey or from northern Africa.
As a result of the Turkish action and winter weather that makes the crossings more difficult, the numbers of refugees arriving in Greece dropped towards the end of 2015. The EU border agency Frontex said in December that refugee numbers decreased in November for the first time. That month saw the arrival of 108,000 people in Greece, down from 150,000 in October.