23. Oktober 2015 · Kommentare deaktiviert für „Turkey – Europe’s backdoor“ · Kategorien: Europa, Mittelmeer, Türkei

Quelle:  Nikkei Asian Review

Sinan Tavsan, Nikkei Staff Writer

IZMIR, Turkey — In the middle of the night, a white minivan packed with refugees pulls up to a beach in Bodrum, a Turkish resort town along the turquoise waters of the Aegean Sea. The passengers spill out and join other refugees already waiting there. They hide in the dark, keeping low to the ground until the coast guard ship, searchlights scanning the waters, passes and gendarmes finish patrolling the area.

It is now 4 a.m. Deciding it is safe to move, the smugglers take out air pumps and inflate one dinghy after another. Once ready, the small boats are loaded with their human cargo, including women and small children, who have by now donned makeshift life jackets. As the first dinghy sets off, it immediately becomes clear it is overloaded, with the self-appointed „captain“ only capable of steering the craft in wobbly circles 20-30 meters from shore. After some desperate paddling, the boat makes it back to the beach to unload some of the refugees, who climb aboard another dinghy.

Nearly two hours later, after the call to morning prayer from a nearby mosque has come and gone, all three vessels finally disappear from sight.

The launching point

Located in the southwestern province of Mugla, Bodrum, with its luxury hotels, is a magnet for moneyed holidaymakers. It is also one of the busiest portals to Europe for Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan and other refugees escaping war and poverty. From Bodrum, the next steppingstone is Greece, whose closest island is only 4km away. From there, the goal is to make it to more prosperous European Union countries, such as Germany, Sweden or the Netherlands.

Turkey’s role as a bridge between East and West is perhaps bigger than ever as growing numbers of refugees use it as an illegal gateway to Europe, taking advantage of its continent-straddling location.

For a country of 78 million people, Turkey hosts a disproportionately large number of refugees, at over 2.5 million, more than any other country. Over 2 million of them have fled from neighboring Syria where a civil war is raging, and Syria shares 911 km border with Turkey. Turkey has spent nearly $8 billion to accommodate them, dwarfing the $417 million in aid money it has received from the international community.

Overwhelmed with its own problems, Turkey is simply not capable of stemming the outflow of refugees from its borders. The government’s „open-door policy“ has created a nonstop influx of people. Moreover, the country lacks the necessary resources to monitor and manage refugees amid an economic slowdown and more pressing domestic security concerns, including the terrorism threats posed by the PKK Kurdish separatist organization and Islamic State militants.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said recently that the Turkish coast guard had prevented more than 60,000 refugees from crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece so far this year. But because Syrian and Iraqi refugees have the government’s permission to stay in Turkey, once they are released, many repeat the process until they make it to Greece or die trying.

Furthermore, there are simply too many Turkish beaches to depart and too many Greek islands to land for the Turkish and Greek coast guards and other security forces to stem the flow with any effectiveness.

According to Frontex, the EU’s border agency, more than 700,000 migrants have entered the economic bloc so far this year without the proper documents or via illegal entry points. U.N. refugee agency UNHCR says more than 500,000 refugees have poured into Greece this year.

Tragically, many refugees do not survive the journey. According to the UNHCR, in the past three years more than 3,000 people have died while attempting to reach the EU from Turkey, Libya and other starting points. Despite the dangers, Turkey has gained a reputation as the closest and safest route to Europe, which is why it is drawing increasing numbers of refugees.

Izmir is Turkey’s largest city in Aegean region. It has become the main hub for people seeking to brave the maritime journey to Greece. The shabby Basmane hotel district has become the city’s refugee-smuggling center. In Basmane, even the shabby pensions charging as low as 10$ per night is packed as refugees are pouring in to Izmir, with the anticipation that weather conditions will worsen soon which will make the journey more difficult. Many hotels do not have enough beds to accommodate all their guests, and large families are often even willing to stay in one room, sleeping on futons spread out on the floor.

The refugee

Mahmoud, 43, a Syrian who made his living fishing the waters of the Euphrates in the eastern Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor, fled to Turkey to escape the Islamic State, whose forces had gained control of his town. He was happy because his wife and four kids managed to cross into Greece that day. He stayed behind in Izmir because he had not been able to receive money from relatives back home in time to pay the smugglers. These fund transfers are carried out through an informal remittance method called hawala, which operates outside the traditional banking system and leaves no records. The practice is illegal in many countries, including Turkey.

Shops where people can make cheap international phone calls often double as under-the-counter hawala boutiques. The brokers typically charge a commission equal to 3-4% of the transferred amount.

Because of its lack of traceability, the system is often used to pay smugglers. Before fleeing Turkey, refugees will deposit money at a hawala shop. Once in Greece, they call the shop and say a prearranged password. The broker then gives the money to the smuggler.

Mahmoud said he paid $1,000 per family member and will pay another 500 euros ($567) for each one that reaches Germany from Greece.

Asked about the risks involved, he said, „I have no choice but to trust the smugglers and the hawala system, because everything had already been arranged for me by relatives who made it to Germany.“

Mahmoud took out his smartphone and punched the Whatsapp icon. On the screen are messages from relatives in Germany, Greece, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey sharing information and congratulating him for his family’s safe passage to Greece.

The middleman

There are also middlemen, introducing refugees to smugglers often as a side job. One of them, though Turkish, speaks fluent Arabic by virtue of being born in Mardin which is a border city with Syria where ethnic Arabs are the dominant population. In a small guest house where he was hunting for potential refugees, he exuded confidence for a fast-track safe transportation to Greek islands. „The weather has worsened, so I can’t risk people’s lives with dinghies. I can send anyone to a Greek island today in a speedboat for 1,800 euros or on a jet ski for 2,500 euros.“ He gets paid 100 euros for every person he introduces to a smuggler.

Although authorities seized thousands of fake life jackets recently, street vendors can still be found hawking fake life jackets selling for $12-15 apiece, about half of what an authentic one costs. Inner tubes and pouches worn around the neck to hold passports, cellphones and money sell for $5. The Basmane district has turned into a bustling market for all the accoutrements of illegal immigration, and all of is it in plain sight of the police.

„Welcome to the Damascus Bazaar,“ said one the many young policemen patrolling the area’s main square. He was referring sarcastically to the hundreds of refugees gathered there, many of them clutching life jackets stuffed into black nylon bags.

It was Oct. 11, and earlier in the day Islamic State suicide bombers claimed more than 100 lives in Ankara, the capital. When asked about the refugee problem, he made it clear his priorities lay elsewhere. „Refugees are the last thing we’re worried right now,“ he said. „Our national security is at stake and people are dying every day. There are millions of refugees here already, and I don’t mind if they want to leave my country.“

But 2.5 million people is too many to ignore, and the government has good reason to be worried about public resentment ahead of the Nov. 1 general election. All the more so now that officials have acknowledged that the suicide bombers were trained in Syria.

It is not only in Turkey where the leadership is nervous. With refugees now entering major EU countries, German Chancellor Angela Merkel flew to Istanbul on Oct. 18 with a proposal: If Turkey steps up efforts to stem the tide of refugees, it will receive incentives like 3 billion Euro aid funding, easier visas to Turkish citizens.

The Turkish leadership, well aware of the trump card Turkey holds, has indicated that the negotiation process could be long and painful.

While the political wrangling over the issue is just getting started, for one man, the destination is almost within reach. On Oct. 21, nine days after finally making the crossing to Greece, Mahmoud sent a message via Whatsapp.

„My family has already arrived in Germany and, God willing, I will also enter Germany tomorrow through the Austrian border and reunite with my family.“

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