Syrian refugees try crossing from Turkish coast
Istanbul - A record number of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries are massing on Turkey’s Aegean coast hoping to gain access to the European Union via nearby EU member Greece.
Thousands of people have been living in parks and squares in Turkish coastal cities such as Izmir and Bodrum in the south-west, authorities and aid groups say. Parts of Bodrum had “turned into a refugee camp”, the Milliyet newspaper reported.
The refugees are apparently hoping to reach one of the Greek islands just a few kilometres off the Turkish mainland. “The trip is safer in summer than it is in winter,” Piril Erçoban of the refugee aid group Mülteci-Der in Izmir told The Arab Weekly. “They are staying for one and two days, then they are gone,” she said of the refugees.
Turkey has long been a transit hub for refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Asia trying to get to Europe. But the war in Syria and the perils of illicit transit routes via North African countries, such as Libya, have pushed refugee figures on the Aegean coast to a new dimension.
The Turkish Coast Guard says it apprehended nearly 7,000 refugees trying to reach Greece in Aegean waters in 2013. That figure rose to about 13,000 in 2014 but this year has seen an even steeper rise: Some 26,000 people were picked up by Turkish Coast Guard ships in the Aegean from January 1st to August 3rd.
Big groups of refugees are being stopped by Turkish authorities almost every day. Boats carrying a total of 257 refugees, mainly Syrians but some from as far away as Eritrea and Myanmar, heading towards the island of Lesbos were stopped by Coast Guard ships on August 8th, Turkish media reported. Another 200 refugees were nabbed by police on land while preparing for their trip. Refugees told Turkish newspapers the price for a crossing was $1,100 per person. “We were caught by the Greek Navy on our first try,” one refugee in Izmir told the Hurriyet daily. “But we will try until we get through.”
In some cases, the refugees’ plight is being played out in sight of holiday-makers on the coast. A Turkish tourist told the CNNTurk news channel she saw rubber boats with refugees in the Aegean when she was on a ferry crossing on a day trip to Greece. Milliyet reported Turkish tourism managers were concerned that the sight of the refugees would scare off visitors.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says about 124,000 migrants had arrived in Greece by sea to date in 2015, a 750% increase from the same period of 2014. Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR director for Europe, called on Greece to take control of the “total chaos” on Mediterranean islands.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras asked Europe to help with the refugees, saying his cash-strapped country could not deal with them alone. The influx has piled pressure on Greece’s infrastructure at a time when its own citizens are struggling with harsh cuts and its government is negotiating with international lenders for fresh loans to stave off economic collapse. But the wave of new refugees willing to make the crossing from Turkey to Greece is unlikely to abate soon. Erçoban said a growing number of people in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan were convinced that things in their countries would not get any better in their lifetimes. “People are losing hope,” she said.
Earlier in 2015, the southern Turkish port city of Mersin made international headlines as a starting point of freighters filled with hundreds of refugees. The vessels are called ghost ships because in some cases their crews put the vessels on autopilot and abandon ship during the voyage from Turkey to parts of Europe.
The growing number of refugees gathering at Turkey’s Aegean coast indicates that people smugglers may have changed tactics in favour of smaller boats and shorter trips.
Only about 15% of Syrians say they want to travel on to the West while the rest prefer to stay in Turkey to be able to return to Syria when the situation allows it.
But the growing number of refugees in Turkey means that conditions for Syrians and others are deteriorating, Erçoban said.
Turkey says it has spent about $6 billion to care for Syrian refugees since the start of the unrest in the neighbouring country in 2011. AFAD, the Turkish disaster relief agency, said last month it was building an additional refugee camp for 55,000 people near the Syrian border. A total of 25 camps house 280,000 people, but most Syrians in Turkey live outside the camps.
As Turkey does not grant official refugee status to people from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, refugees are forced to spend whatever money they have or work illegally. Chances for refugees to be accepted by European countries or the United States are slim. Many see the illegal route towards Europe as their only hope, Erçoban said.
Desperate to reach Europe, some refugees take great risks with crossing in overcrowded dinghies. Two Syrians drowned August 5th when their inflatable boat capsized while en route from Turkey to Greece, Turkish media reported. The Turkish Coast Guard rescued 13 other people on the boat.
The clandestine journey to the shore from the Syrian border or gathering points in Turkish cities can be deadly as well. Eleven Syrians died when the overcrowded minibus taking them from Istanbul to Ayvalik on the northern Aegean coast crashed on August 8th. Forty Syrians were crammed into the minibus that had an official capacity of 18, media reports said.