Fleeing the War in Syria to Seek Sanctuary in Europe

by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi

The suffering of refugees from Syria continues in Europe, where too many countries fail to protect their human rights

First published: 02 September, 2014 | Category: Migration

One bright November day in 2012 under the stony gaze of her boss, Sumaya Najjar confided her fears. She had worked at the small café in Edirne, a city in northwest Turkey since fleeing Syria. She worked long, irregular hours for little pay and her children were restless at being kept from school.

She wore a smart silk blouse that matched her neat, black and white striped print hijab. Her large kohl-rimmed eyes unflinching, her voice low and steady, Sumaya described a vanished idyllic life in Aleppo. 

The 45-year-old Arabic teacher and mother of three left Syria in October 2012 with her two youngest children, then aged 10 and 14. Her husband, a fine arts teacher, stayed behind in Aleppo because his passport had expired and he did not want to travel without the correct papers.

Sumaya and her two children are safe in Turkey, but miserable. “Here I am nothing,” she says. “In Syria, I have a house, a job, friends. Maybe the war is long, two or three years. What can I do here? I cannot stay here for a long time, it is difficult. No money, no work. My children cannot go to school. Everyday I think I want to go back to Syria. We have a problem [in Syria], but I must go...”

Then she talks of her 19-year-old son, a conscript in Assad’s army, and Sumaya’s voice wavers, her eyes fill, and her hands tremble. “All his friends die. I speak to him today and he said two of my friends are dead.”

In Syria, Sumaya left a war and a beloved son and husband. In Edirne, she worked for long hours and her small children denied education because of their lack of Turkish. She was desperate and already thinking of Europe. After all, she has come to Edirne, a city just a stone’s throw from the European Union’s Greek and Bulgarian borders.

Europe: a safe haven for refugees?

Human Rights Watch recently published a report detailing Bulgaria’s appalling treatment of refugees and migrants seeking protection at its border. Containment Plan provides individual accounts, which allege that Bulgarian border guards beat men and women with truncheons, kicked them repeatedly, set dogs on them, and laughed at them while ordering them back across the border to Turkey.

The report found that this behaviour was not limited to a few out of control officers. Instead, some accounts suggest the systematic expulsion of large groups of people. Human Rights Watch quotes one Syrian man saying:

After I signed the paper at the police station, they put 15 of us in a large military vehicle, using force to push some into the vehicle, and drove us 20 minutes to the border. It was about 11:00 p.m. They took us to an empty space on the border where there were no Turkish guards, and this time they had to push some out of the vehicle. They told us to walk forward and not to turn around. We did not encounter any Turkish troops. (Human Rights Watch, Containment Plan, page 25)

Though denying people the opportunity to apply for asylum breaches principles of nonrefoulement as set under the 1951 Refugee Convention, within European Union human rights laws, and through EU directives on asylum, Bulgaria’s government appears pleased with its efforts. In a report on managing refugees in Bulgaria the Ministry of Interior says its “specialized operations” along the Bulgarian-Turkish border had prevented 15,000 “illegal immigrants and protection seekers” entering the country.

Bulgaria’s efforts - the building of a 33km fence and deployment of an additional 1,500 border police - echo the Greek government’s actions when it tried to stop people entering its border with Edirne. The end result of “Operation Shield”, which included a barbed-wire fence and extra border police, was that migrants and refugees sought new routes through Bulgaria and the Aegean Sea.

Greece’s plan worked, but so too has Bulgaria’s. In January 2014 just 99 asylum seekers entered Bulgaria, according the UNHCR, compared to more than 11,000 in 2013.

Meanwhile, in a small Turkish city, Sumaya looks to Europe.

Where Europe meets Asia

Edirne is an elegant medley of European and Middle Eastern influences visible in the grandeur of its buildings and local culture. The city’s sprawling decorous university is a hub for modern artists and thinkers. Edirne is both Europe and Asia, locals say.

For this reason the city is also an exit point for impoverished migrants and refugees, predominantly from parts of Africa and the Middle East. In Edirne, these men, women and children look behind and see war, poverty, and few opportunities, and ahead, Europe. On a clear day in Edirne you can see fields of Greece.

The kaçakçı (smuggler) network in Istanbul has tentacles in Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Senegal, Palestine, Morocco, and anywhere in the world where people are desperate. The favoured route is from Istanbul to Edirne, because of the city’s proximity to what was once the European Union’s most porous border: a 12.5km stretch of land in northern Greece.

If you hang around Edirne long enough, you will see groups of men, women and children traipsing across corn fields and through the dense forests that encircle the city, toward the river with two names: Maritsa in Turkey and Evros in Greece. The river flows from Bulgaria to the Aegean Sea forming a natural border between Greece and Turkey.

The river is sprinkled with small islands formed when the waters recede after floods. During the summertime the larger islands are visible from Kastanies, a tiny village in northern Greece and from Karaagac, a suburb of Edirne. During summer the water separating these towns is just one or two metres deep. At night clandestine travellers use the river as a passage into Europe. They then walk through a patchwork of farmlands and forest along Greece’s northern border until most find themselves in the small but bustling town of Orestiada.

The part of the river that flows through Edirne runs only through Turkey, unlike the rest of 200km waters which adhere to the manmade borders. This stretch of the river is sandwiched between the suburb of Karaagac on the Turkish side and Kastanies on the Greek side. Beyond Kastanies is Orestiada. In 1923, after the Greco-Turk war, the countries divided the territory so that the once Turkish land of Kastanies was given to Greece. People were exchanged along with land in the treaty agreements after that war. Large populations of Turkish and Greek refugees were uprooted from their homes and deposited elsewhere. The architects of the upheaval created the town of Orestiada in 1923, in what used to be Turkey but is now Greece. The town was populated with Greek refugees kicked out of Edirne. 

In recent years wanderers from the Middle East and Africa have arrived in this new town, heavy with its own history of displacement. Orestiada’s locals offer food and clothes to the tired migrants and refugees that haunt the highways looking for the quickest route to London, Switzerland or Germany. They mourn when dead bodies are found frozen in the river, just a few kilometres from their homes. But the dark cloud of Greece’s financial crisis and the influence of Golden Dawn, a far right anti-immigrant party, have made some less inclined to empathy. The presence of 6-mile barbed wire fence across the land border with Turkey, where more 20,000 migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2012 alone, is widely supported in the town.

“All these people here are refugees. Many of the families that created the town are refugees,” says Panos, a local businessman living in Orestiada. “My grandmother came here when she was 10. My grandfather came here when he was 20 from Edirne. My father was the child of two refugees, he became an immigrant when he was 19, he stayed in Germany 17 years. And now, he is retired, relaxed and saying he is in favour of the fence. He is 70-years-old. He says, it is very difficult, but yes I am. We cannot afford too many people here in Greece.”

Greece: a prison for refugees

Today, Sumaya’s whereabouts are unknown. So let’s imagine she and her two young children crossed the river to Orestiada. On arrival they would have been taken to the Fylakio detention centre, a short drive from Orestiada on the outskirts of a tiny village.

Among the inmates that winter in 2012 was Faraj Krayem, a 26-year-old Syrian journalist from Aleppo. The centre is patrolled by police officers and dogs. Guards refuse entry to journalists and anyone caught taking pictures or trying to communicate with those held inside is apprehended.

Shouting from the centre’s barred windows, Faraj said: “The police. They are animals. Every day I ask about my deportation, I have papers from the UNHCR. I come from Syria. They have taken everything from me - my mobile phone. I feel like I am in Syria. They are corrupt people like in Syria. The police request money from the prisoners to get free. The police just threaten me and said stop talking to them. The police said you are going to be here one year. No one knows where I am.”

Kelly Grivakou, an immigration lawyer based in Athens, says the government recently changed the rules so that migrants and refugees can legally be kept in detention centres like Fylakio for up to 18 months while their cases are processed. “We are allowed to [visit] people that belong to vulnerable categories in order to apply for asylum,” she says. “That means families, unaccompanied minors, very sick people with papers from the hospital and victims of torture.”

Conditions within the centre in Greece’s expanding detention estate are still dire. Medicins Sans Frontieres blames “sub-standard and overcrowded conditions” for the poor health of people detained. In a 2013 report Amnesty International describes conditions as “inhuman and degrading”. And a Human Rights Watch report published in October last year revealed that, although the Greek government say Syrians will not be detained, many are being held in such conditions for weeks.

But Sumaya might have avoided all of this. When border controls tightened between Greece and Turkey under Operation Shield, migrants and asylum seekers switched and began entering the EU through Bulgaria instead. Frontex, the EU’s border patrol, reported a 600% increase in the number of illegal entries into Bulgaria in 2013, with Syrians were the largest group represented.

Turkey: underground to Europe

Several dirt roads snake off the main motorway between Edirne and Turkey’s border with Bulgaria, each linking to a handful of sparse, isolated hamlets. In each there is a faded café, its walls covered in maps of Turkey and pictures of Ataturk. The clientele are old men, dressed in a uniform of a flat cap, checked shirt and corduroys, peering suspiciously over glasses of Nescafe. In one village, the calm is shattered when a police car turns up, to say photos aren’t allowed and no refugees pass this way.

But one of the village’s younger inhabitants tells a different story. Looking nervous, he says that Turkish journalists have problems reporting in this area. The issue of immigration is a “deep problem, you can’t talk about it”. Many refugees and migrants are smuggled through villages like this, he says, and taken up to the Bulgarian border. He claimed to have seen more than 20 people once. The migrants stay with locals, but the kaçakçı, those that facilitate the journey, are from other Turkish cities.

In a neighbouring hamlet, two young soldiers clad in mustard green uniforms carrying guns also disturb the lazy rhythms of the old men. Eager to practise their English, they are friendly. A 20-year-old soldier says his regiment regularly arrests refugees trying to cross the border. Further along, a 10-minute drive through virescent fields and around muddy ravines, the warmest of this trail of settlements is Hanzabeyli.

Hanzabeyli looks as stark and abandoned as the others, but, says the mayor, a rotund, cheerful man, “The village is rich from farming”. He adds, a cigarette in one hand and asthma inhaler in another, and that is why they are able to feed the refugees that pass. The wizened old men smile and offer to share their olives and Nescafe.

Another young soldier is eager to talk about refugees. His regiment arrests 10 to 20 every day. “They come from Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan. There are families with small children and old men,” he says. “I feel sorry for them. They hide in the forest to try and cross the border.”

If apprehended by Turkish soldiers at the border, refugees are taken to one of the detention centres in and around Edirne. One such centre on the outskirts of the city is guarded by armed officers and holds up to 650 migrants and asylum seekers. From behind barred windows three teenagers mime and gesture at people sipping coffee in the garden of a tourist cafe, situated just outside the high stone wall surrounding the centre.

Those permitted to enter the centre describe chaos. Access is limited; legal representation and medical support is virtually non-existent. Eight to 10 people share a room, there is no doctor, just one nurse who leaves at night. Only lawyers with a “personal relationship” with the police have access.

Levent Dinceli, a radical Turkish lawyer based in Edirne, represents asylum seekers held in detention centres around the country. “The situation is not brilliant. If there is no decision at the end of three months then the person can be referred to another detention centre and the procedure continues. The person can then be sent to other detention centres. There is no end.” 

Everyone inside the detention centre has been arrested trying to cross the border into Europe. People from Burma, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Palestine are released within seven days because Turkey does not deport refugees from there countries. In theory everyone can be held for up to three months, however, the average stay is one year. There are three options for people detained: deportation, apply for asylum, or none of the above, in which case you are released until you are caught again. The process will then begin again.

There is little infrastructure in Edirne to process asylum applications, so most people are sent to Istanbul or Kirklareli. Syrians, however, are automatically sent to southeast Turkey, where most of the country’s refugee camps are. The UNHCR estimates that around 300,000 people live in Turkish camps and a further 700,000 Syrian refugees living in cities. Turkey has set up a new government department to manage migration, which is expected to become operational in April.

Dinceli says throughout this process Turkey’s main interest is to stop people crossing the border into Europe. “Turkey is not an island, nor is it an isolated country. It is cooperating with other countries politically and economically all around the world. These countries bordering Turkey are in crisis, so Turkey wants to keep good relations with the EU countries. So it has to keep the migrants if it wants to keep good terms.”

How then do people make it across the border? The consensus, from charities, lawyers and locals, is there is a lot of money to be made smuggling people into Europe. One person told me: “The number of people they find trying to cross the border is half the real number. If you go to all the detention centres and ask for numbers, then you will see that it doesn’t add up. It is a different number from the stats of the police. The military finds people and gives them to the police. But there is even a difference between the military numbers and the police numbers. 

“It is impossible to generalise for the whole army, but probably there are some people who are cooperating with the smugglers. It is a lot of money in question. If I said there isn’t any cooperation it would be false.”

Meanwhile, Sumaya mentioned a brother in Bulgaria. 

Bulgaria: end of the road

Shtitt is a quiet border village in Bulgaria, a few miles from the Turkish hamlets. Many of the village’s 80 residents relate dawn sightings of migrants. Giorgios, a 59-year-old forest keeper, says people cross the border that backs his home most days. A two-foot high rusty fence separates Giorgios’ small farm from Turkey.

Refugees spotted by the border are taken to a closed immigration holding centre at Lyubimets, an isolated town a few miles north of Shtitt, still close to the Bulgarian-Turkish border. A concrete wall topped with barbed wire surrounds the centre. A sign hangs outside: “Special Home for the Accommodation of Foreigners in the city of Lyubimets”.

Nour Aldeen Alhamideh, a 27-year-old from Aleppo, spent six weeks in Lyubimets. “Lyubimets is bad because it is closed. The food is no good, no smoking, nothing,” he said. Other inmates complained of beatings; one Syrian led a hunger strike in protest at the treatment meted out by guards.

After one or two months at Lyubimets, the refugees are transferred to one of Bulgaria’s open camps, where in theory, their applications for asylum are assessed. It is here where, perhaps, Sumaya would encounter the reality of European life for many refugees and paperless migrants today. A life of uncertainty and impoverishment far from the common dream of peace and opportunity.

***

The Pastrogor camp is tucked away just outside a crumbling, remote village, a few kilometres from Bulgaria’s triborder with Greece and Turkey. There are at least 100 men, women and children staying at the camp in Pastrogar, most are from Syria or Afghanistan. There are some Kurds, Iraqis and Iranians too, and there often fights between groups.

A young Bulgarian woman, toddler in hand smiles and waves as she walks by; three young Palestinian men clad in torn jeans and sandals respond, cooing at the child. Bulgaria surprises them. “Bulgaria is poor, people have no money,” says Nadil, still wondrous after several months in the country.

Nadil paid €500 for his passage from Turkey to Bulgaria. He travelled from Istanbul to Edirne then got a taxi to the border. He walked four or five hours and was arrested by Bulgarian police. After five days in a police cell, he spent two months in Lyubimetz and spent Pastrogar two months.

Bulgaria went from receiving around 1, 000 asylum application every year (since it joined the EU in 2007) to 9,100 in 2013, according a UNHCR published in January. These numbers are estimates, the agency says, because many refugees leave the country before being registered, frustrated by the wait and the “dire reception conditions”.  In the same report, UNHCR says it “considers that asylum-seekers in Bulgaria face a real risk of inhuman or degrading treatment, due to systematic deficiencies in reception conditions and asylum procedures in the country.” The organisation advises against other European countries returning refugees back to the country under the Dublin regulations, which govern the EU’s asylum and immigration process. Human Rights Watch makes similar recommendations in its report on Bulgaria. 

Sumayas dilemma

This is the fate awaiting Sumaya and others fleeing the war in Syria to seek sanctuary in Europe.  While countries like Jordan and Turkey support millions of displaced, collectively Europe has yet to provide any real support. Instead, refugees are turned away or rounded up and housed in former prisons.

Last year the European Commission for Home Affairs revealed the finalised plan for a Common European Asylum System based on justice and protection for the vulnerable. But European bureaucrats have been making grand, liberal speeches on asylum for decades. Now is the time to act. Too many EU member states are failing to offer fair and decent reception conditions for refugees. “One of the world's biggest refugee crises of recent times is unfolding on Europe's doorstep, but most European governments have reacted with complete indifference,” said Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in December. “However, when it comes to actually receiving refugees, Europe has been much less generous and often negligent in abiding by its human right obligations.”

In Syria, Sumaya left a war and, a beloved son and husband. In Edirne, she worked for long hours and her small children suffered. In Europe, her suffering continues.

This article is part of NLP's Immigration series

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi is a freelance journalist reporting on social injustice. You can read a collection of Rebecca’s work here and here and follow her on Twitter here.

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