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Through Izmir to Europe: The Journey of Refugees

April 23, 2016

Sitting in the first floor of Sinbad, the “canteen” of the Syrian refugees in Izmir, they apprehensively count each passing minute before their great departure for the sea. Piled up against a wall, their backpacks are crammed with clothes. “Only souvenirs we have,” tells Ahmed, one of the twelve friends who will be departing for Europe tonight. This young Damascene of twenty-four is the only one in the small group who knows how to swim. He has a dangerous plan, “I have planned that we will attach all in the same rope. If the boat capsizes, we either die or survive together.”

In these days of heavy rain, the journey is particularly perilous. Since the beginning of the year, four hundred refugees have perished while traveling to Greece from Turkey. The police are also in lookout for preventing the passage of refugees. Four days ago, Ahmed and his friends have paid the price of missing their first chance of departure. “The gendarmeries have intercepted our truck when we were ten minutes from the beach where we were supposed to embark on a boat,” recalls Ahmed. “At seven o’clock in the morning, they put us into a large captivity centre. Before releasing us, they seized our life-jackets, took our pictures, and took our fingerprints,” tells Rami, one of those in the captivity centre.

Nothing, however, weakens their determination to depart for Europe. “In 2012, a barrel of explosives destroyed my house and killed my mother, my wife, and my baby of three days. When you have already lost everything, nothing scares you anymore,” confides Rami. Abdullah, the most reticent of the group, takes his turn to talk, “Fleeing Syria is not a choice, it is an obligation. Over there, in Europe, they take us for terrorists or opportunists. I would like the world to understand what we suffer: myself, I come from Deir ez-Zor (a city in the East, divided between the Syrian army and ISIS). I have been arrested by ISIS. Once liberated, I went to take refuge in the zone controlled by the regime, they wanted to recruit me in the army. This part or the other, they use the same techniques, starving until we give in. In Syria, life is to die day by day, in a small fire. And I fled.” Abdullah pursues the dream of reaching Finland for living there with his sister.

Abdullah likes staying in Turkey. Since the beginning of the civil war, the country has welcomed more than two and a half million refugees. “But here, I don’t have a future: I don’t speak the language, and it is very difficult for me to find a job.” This could change soon, as Turkish authorities announced that, according the agreement with the European Union, they will ameliorate the living conditions of refugees in the country. First measure is to provide refugees with work permits. However, the accord between the European Union and Turkey has not satisfied everybody. Eda Beşikçi, president of the Association for Solidarity with Refugees, claims, “The problem is that they are considered only as guests, not as refugees. Suddenly, they could be sent back to their countries.” Cem Terzi, who is also very active in Izmir, is also skeptical about the plan. For him, the new plan is “a violation of international laws. This deal does not take into account individuals. It consists of renting Turkey for making an open prison for the refugees.”

Faced with this mountain of incertitudes, the departures for Greece did not decrease. Each day, 2500 refugees try to get to Greece, a thirty percent increase from the last year same time. The boom in departures also boosted the sale of life-jackets. Kadir is one of the numerous sellers in Fevzi Paşa street, situated in the heart of Basmane, a popular quarter for refugees because of its cheap hotels. On the display of his store, there are all sizes of life-jackets. “I sell five to six each day.” With the arrival of spring, when the sea is less wavy, the departures and sales have increased. Kadir affirmed, “I only offer my clients the original models.” Other stores do not, however, have any scruple in supplying themselves from nearby workshops which illegally produce life-jackets by stuffing them with sponge that is not suitable for use.

Mafia also became rooted in Izmir. A Syrian of 24, who spoke to the French newspaper Le Figaro under the assumed name Wassim, explained his collaboration with a Turkish friend in illegally sending refugees to Greece. “I was responsible for providing shelter and logistics. He was charged with embarking the migrants on the boat.” In spite of the reinforced surveillance on the Turkish coasts, the price of the illegal journey to Greece went down to 600 dollars per person, three time less than the year before. This indicates that there are more people offering transportation of refugees. The competition between them drives the prices down. How does that happen when Turkey has strengthened its control over borders? Wassim answers frankly, “To tell the truth, mafias are in cahoots with the coastguard. Against their duty, these coastguards close their eyes.”

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