Syrians Stranded in Turkey Have No Time for EU's Refugee Deal

  • Many migrants unaware of Brussels pact to stop refugee flow
  • Desperation of those stranded for years will test agreement

On the day the Aegean migrant passage to Greece was formally shut, refugees in a neighborhood of a Turkish port city were steadfast in their willingness to defy the wheeling and dealing of politicians in Brussels and Ankara and risk all for a new life.

Izmir’s Basmane district is home to Syrian school teachers, teenagers and battle-scarred veterans of a five-year war as well as the smugglers and businessmen who have carved out a living processing those seeking passage to Europe. Many of the would-be-migrants were unaware of the deal sealed between Turkish and European leaders on Friday, and when informed, said they didn’t care.

Life jackets for sale near Basmane station.

Photographer: Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP Photo

“Life or death, whatever it is, I’m going to go,” said Huseyin, a 24-year-old former teacher waiting for a call from a smuggler in a sunny square. He’d been in Turkey just over a month and had paid a middleman $1,000 to get him to Europe, where he hoped to join family members in Spain. “If I have to swim, I’ll swim,” he said. “What do I have to lose?”

Long Line

Under the terms of Turkey’s deal with the EU, every migrant who makes the trip from Turkey to Greece after March 20 will be returned, and in exchange one refugee from a Turkish camp will be selected and allowed into Europe. People like Huseyin who take it upon themselves to cross illegally, will be sent to the back of the line. Turkey says it’s home to 3 million migrants, in what would be the world’s largest refugee population.

Official statistics indicate some success in stemming the largest migrant tide since World War II, with average daily arrivals in Greece dropping to 1,148 people in March, down from nearly 2,000 in February, according to the UN. Under the accord, the EU said it would welcome an initial 72,000 Syrians, a quota that at the current pace would be exhausted by late May.

The pact depends on removing the incentive for migrants to pack into flimsy craft and brave the Aegean Sea for Greece. But interviews with Syrians in Izmir and nearby Cesme, where Greek islands are tantalizingly close to shore, suggest a key weakness of the arrangement is that few can find any reason to stay. The only refugees who saw Turkey as anything but a stopover were the ones who’d set up a business helping others get out.

Ahmed Muhammed, 26, said he’d been in Izmir for two years. He lost his mother in the Syrian war, and his father and two siblings are in Germany. He wasn’t aware of the agreement that would send him back to Turkey even if he is successful in reaching Greek territory. On Sunday, after sleeping on the streets for three days, he was waiting for news from a fixer he’d paid $450 to arrange a trip.

‘No Meaning’

“If I can’t reach my family, then life has no meaning anyway,” he said. “They can give out whatever punishment they want to give.”

A former fighter with opposition forces battling to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, 22-year-old Muhammed Abuazab has been in Turkey for four years. He showed scars on his legs and arms, one of which was partially incapacitated. He said he didn’t know where his four siblings or parents were, and he was determined to make it to Greece.

“I got caught twice at sea, once while boarding a boat, and twice while waiting on the shore,” he said of five previous attempts at crossing the Aegean. “But I haven’t given up.”

As Syria’s anti-Assad uprising evolved into war, killing a quarter million people and sending millions more in search of safety, Basmane took on the appearance of an Arab village. Refugees cram into pensions and hotels that cost 30 liras ($10) per person per day and wait for their opportunity to leave.

‘Death Vests’

The only migrants with any sense of permanence are the entrepreneurs who decided not to make the trip, but to profit from others preparing to do so. Streets are dotted with Syrian-owned shops, barbers and money changers. In a square, a meeting point for smugglers and migrants, refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya wait with packs on their backs and life jackets in their hands.

Halim Muhammed crossed into Turkey two years ago and moved to Basmane after struggling to make ends meet with his wife and three children in the eastern city of Kahramanmaras. He sells cheap life jackets, barely-buoyant orange vests, from a small rented store on a back street. He said he wasn’t aware of any deal with Europe, and had no interest in going there.

“If the war ends, I’ll go back to Syria,” he said. “For now it’s better here.”

Turks have also joined the refugee business, despite periodic police crackdowns and public condemnation for encouraging the vulnerable to undertake journeys they might not survive.

Can Dokmeci, a 38-year-old Turk who sells his life jackets for 60-70 liras, says such criticism is beside the point. “They’re going to go anyway, so I think I’m doing a good thing,” he said, disparaging competitors’ products as “death vests.”

About 80 kilometers (50 miles) away in Cesme, a group of 16 migrants checked out of their motel and made their way toward the beach. The Greek island of Chios was just 6 kilometers away.

“There’s no Syria anymore,” said 19-year-old Muhammed Cezir. “Either I’ll die, or I’ll get out of here.”

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