Approaching Winter: Refugees in Turkey getting desperate

“I am dreaming of small things, an education and maybe a house to live in”, says Ahmed a Syrian refugee (not his real name) as he waits in Izmir, Turkey to cross into Europe. He’s already tried two times to make it to Europe, on the first attempt the group were abandoned by smugglers and spent hours trying desperately to find their way at night in the area surrounding the city and the second time they were arrested by police, who took their details but then released them. He hopes to join the 318,498 people who have already made it to Greece so far this year (UNHCR figures), the vast majority of whom are Syrian.

Sitting in a coffee shop with his friend Omar, they discuss their hopes in reaching Europe and why they cannot remain in neighbouring countries. Ahmed worked for a while in Turkey but only made 20 Turkish Lira a day (approximately 6 USD) and was subject to exploitation in the informal economy. His passport has expired, as is the case for many Syrians, and as he is in his early 20s he will be conscripted into the army if he was to return to Syria to renew it. But for him, his destiny lies in Europe where he wants to continue his studies and find permanent protection.

According to UNHCR, 66% of arrivals to Greece are men, with the rest women (21%) and children (13%). Currently the price for a boat journey from the Izmir area to Greece is 1200 USD for adults and 600 USD for children, with money mostly paid through a third party on arrival in Europe. A whole economy has sprung up in the local area with life jackets being sold, rubber rings, plastic zip lock bags for documents and torches to use at night in the sea. The ferry ride from Bodrum, further north of Izmir, to Greece only costs 15 euro but for people unable to get visas to Europe they are forced into these irregular routes.

As winter approaches and the window for sea journeys shrinks, people are becoming even more desperate to take boats which has resulted in an upsurge of deaths at sea. In the past week some 35 people have died including four children in two incidents off the coast of Turkey. As more and more people gravitate to potential departure sites in Turkey, there will be pressure on smugglers to either crowd them onto boats. The risk of sea accidents is another concern, as was evidenced by a recent incident where a rubber dinghy collided with a ferry.

Further up this so-called Western Balkans route, European countries close their borders forcing refugees to take lengthy routes through Croatia or attempt to cross from Turkey into Bulgaria. Many others are becoming stranded in countries like Serbia. But there is a potential of another bottle-neck emerging on the coast of Turkey, with people missing their chance at taking a boat. This could put huge pressure on local communities, already hosting millions of refugees. Refugees could become further impoverished as money runs out and forced into further precarious situations. Already on the streets of Izmir there are many people, including families, sleeping rough on the streets at night.

As Europeans debate relocation policies and quota systems inside the European Union, regional approaches that consider conditions in countries neighbouring Syria must not be forgotten. These are the locations where people begin their journeys and where sadly for many their journeys will end. Taking a wider perspective of the situation for Syrian refugees also includes addressing root causes of displacement which is the subject of the next High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges.

As the High Commissioner stated at the outset of the 2014 Dialogue on Protection at Sea, “the primary motivation for getting on these boats is not hope, but despair”. Amidst debates over whether people are migrants or refugees and inertia over re-allocation plans inside the EU, a protection-centred response that minimises the need for people to take risky boat journeys must be formulated. Other countries could follow the lead of the US in further increasing resettlement quotas. Addressing budgetary gaps in the UN response to Syria is another area for action, only $1.67 billion – 37 per cent – of total funding needs had been pledged against $4.53 billion required for programmes, according to the Regional Refugee & Resilience Plan (3RP) Syria Crisis  progress report (2015).

For now Ahmed, like many other Syrians in Izmir, nervously watches his phone and waits for the news that his turn has come to take a boat. He is grateful for the response of the German government and says he likes Angela Merkel for what she has done. For now he will try the boat, but he says, “I would prefer to return to Syria if there is peace”.

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.