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Syrian Refugee Routes Halted as Pressure Mounts in Turkey

  • Heather Murdock

FILE - A Syrian refugee family waits in the Aegean port city of Izmir, western Turkey, Aug, 10, 2015.

FILE - A Syrian refugee family waits in the Aegean port city of Izmir, western Turkey, Aug, 10, 2015.

Last year, this part of the city was teeming with smugglers leaning over card tables, brokering deals over small glasses of tea.

Men, women and children who were fleeing hardships arrived in the seaside city in droves with every dollar they could muster, ready to pay for their services.

But after the European Union-Turkey plan to reduce migrant flows to Europe went into effect last month, the rubber-boat business here has nearly ground to a halt.

Refugees and locals say Europe's plan to increase security by cutting migrant routes is deeply flawed, and pressure is building in Turkey. Europe may not want more refugees, they say, but it opened the floodgates and Turkey alone cannot shut the door or contain the crisis.

Haesam, a Syrian refugee in Izmir with no plans to travel farther, says Europe may shut down this exact route, but fleeing Syrians are increasingly desperate as they wait to see what happens next.

Cafes in Basmane, in Izmir, Turkey, that last year were packed with smugglers and travelers trying to get to Europe, now are almost empty as local businesses catering to refugees fail, April 6, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)

Cafes in Basmane, in Izmir, Turkey, that last year were packed with smugglers and travelers trying to get to Europe, now are almost empty as local businesses catering to refugees fail, April 6, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)

"The people who are planning to travel to Europe these days are in hiding," he said. "They are afraid smugglers will convince them of new routes to Europe and then ship them to refugee camps."

And the tens of thousands of people who were blocked from crossing into Turkey from Syria earlier this year have not simply gone home, he adds. For many, returning to the place they fled could mean certain death. And other people in Syria are still gathering resources to pay smugglers or pay price-inflated visa fees to get out of the country.

In an Izmir park, Basil, a 25-year-old tailor who fled Syria three years ago, says some people are still arriving in the city from Syria. But new arrivals are not in a rush to travel to Europe at the moment, while Greece remains in chaos and borders remain closed. If smugglers are already devising new routes, he has not heard any details.

"The smugglers are still here," he said, "but they are mostly out of work."

Locals, refugees skeptical

The EU-Turkey deal is meant to shift much of the responsibility of caring for new refugees and migrants from Europe to Turkey, in exchange for aid to help new arrivals, and other perks such as visa-free entries to European countries for Turkish citizens.

On the streets of Izmir, locals and refugees say they doubt it will work that way.

"The Turkish government will not suddenly help us," Basil said, before returning to his shift at the tailor shop. "There have been so many promises that have never materialized."

Down the street in the market, Yashar, a Turkish man sitting at a shop selling thick sandwiches with chicken meat sliced off a spit, says Turkish citizens are already feeling the strain of sharing limited resources with more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees.

Many Turkish people, like Yashar, a Turkish fruit and vegetable seller in Izmir, are upset by the EU-Turkey plan, saying they don't understand how European countries could open the door for refugees, only later to slam it shut, April 6, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)

Many Turkish people, like Yashar, a Turkish fruit and vegetable seller in Izmir, are upset by the EU-Turkey plan, saying they don't understand how European countries could open the door for refugees, only later to slam it shut, April 6, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)

"We are citizens, but we are just surviving," he said. Yashar works only a few days a week at the market.

"We can't afford to go to the beach or enjoy our country," he added.

Hope for ‘legal ways’ fading

Europe's plan to pluck Syrians out of Turkey and take them to countries like Germany or Sweden is also moving slowly enough that many families are giving up hope, according to Heasam.

Dozens of Syrians have been flown to Europe, while hundreds of people — mostly Pakistani — have been shipped back to Turkey.

The fact that Syrians now have the right to obtain working papers is of little comfort to most refugees struggling in Turkey, Heasam adds.

"Companies are not complying to this rule because it costs them more money," he said. "They tell Syrian employees, ‘Well, you don't have to work here' and the government is not enforcing the rules."

Falafel shop owner Moaz, a father of four who fled Syria a year and a half ago, is stunned by the sudden disappearance of the human wave toward Europe.

His business and many others in the neighborhood, such as sellers of everything from waterproof mobile phone cases to life jackets, have all but fizzled out. Like so many others, he says, he chose his path — opening a shop in Turkey to cater to Syrian travelers — in response to Germany's claim that it would take 800,000 refugees in 2015.

Germany took more than a million people that year, but now the borders are strictly controlled.

"It was Europe that opened the road for refugees," he said, dropping balls of raw falafel into a tub of boiling oil. "Now they want to close it?"

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