“I am nothing but my children are the future”: Ramadan’s tale, another Syrian voice.

Ramadan never wanted to take his family into exile, but when it became clear that he would be made to fight for Islamic State, he knew it was time to go.   A year ago he and his young family were desperately trying to maintain a sense of normalcy at home near the militants’ stronghold of Raqqa as the war raged about them.  Now they eke out an existence in neighbouring Turkey, a country which offers relative safety, but where the language is alien, work is scarce, and where the authorities are already struggling to accommodate nearly 3 million Syrian refugees.  Ramadan, his wife and children may have a modicum of security, but their sense of loss is palpable.

DSCF9287
Suraya, 4, holds her father’s hand in Sanliurfa, SE Turkey

“When I compare my life here, of course it was so much easier in Syria.  When we lived there I used to dream about the future, but in Turkey you can’t dream, all we focus on is where our next meal will come from,” Ramadan says.  The 36-year met a Turkish man who helped them find shelter in a rented two-roomed house on a bare, rocky hillside on the outskirts of the city of Sanliurfa.  Spread out below their squat dwelling, the gleaming tower-blocks of downtown are clearly visible, whilst to the south, undulating, arid terrain rolls 30 km towards the Syrian border.  On the other side rages a conflict which, now in its sixth year, has created a vortex of violence, leaving Ramadan’s hopes for his children’s future in tatters, but which they can do nothing to stop or influence. “This is not our war, if the world’s leaders decided amongst themselves they could stop this happening, but they don’t,” he says. “We are lost here in Turkey, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. ”

DSCF9348
Ramadan and Suraya, with Sanliurfa in the background

 

That tomorrow would bring peace remains little more than a faint hope.  A political solution seems as distant as ever and meanwhile the bloodshed continues.  It was Ramadan’s realisation that a militarily struggling Islamic State would call him up to fight, and crack down harder on the populations it rules over that finally pushed them to leave their friends and extended family and head to the border.  Ramadan went first and once he had established himself with a low-paying job and a roof over his head, his wife Guzun followed with their children, Suraya, 4, and Ahmed, 2.  They waited more than 40 days at the frontier before they were able to cross to safety.

DSCF9312
Ramadan, Guzun and the children in their neighbours’ home

“I miss all my relatives, who are still in Syria, each week I speak to them on the telephone and they tell me things are getting worse,” Ramadan says.  “In Turkey we don’t need to fear for our safety, but I worry so much about my family, living under Islamic State.  They are always telling people what to wear and how to pray, women can’t go outside.  I heard they even confiscated all the TVs from the houses during Ramadan, because they say it’s haram.”

As a woman, Guzun, 35, says she found life under Islamic State ever more repressive. “At the beginning it was OK because they weren’t attacking our private lives, but as the war started going badly for them, so they started telling us how to live.  They would make us wear the burqa, and even then, if they saw a woman in the street they would force her to pay a fine. I’m not used to living with the burqa.  When they pushed me to cover my whole body it was so difficult. I am a good Muslim, but I know it doesn’t have to be like that,” she says.

DSCF9322
Guzun and Suraya

In Turkey Guzun can dress how she likes, but they face new challenges.  Not understanding Turkish, they have struggled to navigate the process of registering as refugees in Turkey, meaning they cannot send Suraya to school, and access to healthcare is a challenge.“Life is good but difficult, if we want anything from the hospitals or schools, we don’t know what to do, we don’t speak the language.” Instead, Suraya sits on the hard stone floor of their darkened little house, colouring pens clutched in one hand, gazing avidly at the pictures in one of the few books they possess.

DSCF9327
Ramadan and Suraya outside their house

Ramadan and Guzun hope that things will get better in Turkey, but with so many other refugees, competition for work and services is fierce. Ramadan’s labourer’s job in one of Sanliurfa’s markets is supposed to bring him 15 Turkish Lira ($5) a day, but even that is not guaranteed.  Already he says his boss has held back parts of his salary, but with no legal status and doing what is in effect illegal work, there’s little he can do.  “There was nothing I could say, no way that I could assert my rights.”

DSCF9365
Ramadan and Ahmet

Like many Syrians, Ramadan thinks that Europe could offer a brighter future, if only he could get there. “One dream I still have is to travel to Europe, if I had the chance. I wouldn’t go illegally, I will register myself with the Turkish authorities and wait until they call me, but I believe my children would have a better life there.”

More than anything, Ramadan wants to take his family back to where they belong, in Syria. “If the war ended, we’d go home tomorrow,” he insists. Ramadan and Guzun’s story is not unique. It is one of millions of tales of everyday suffering, drowned out by  war and high politics. The deep love they have for their children is palpable, as is the sadness and frustration they feel at how their small lives have been swept up in events they cannot control or understand. “I am nothing,” Ramadan says with a shrug. Then,  stroking Ahmet hair gently and breaking into English for the first and only time he adds: “But they are the future.” DSCF9380

DSCF9394

 

DSCF9373

DSCF9366

DSCF9300

DSCF9342

DSCF9288

 

 

On Brexit, Hope and Fear

You talk about “Project Fear”, as if it is a wholly bad thing to feel afraid that the country you love – in a complicated way admittedly – may be heading towards a cliff. Steaming, belching, and jolting towards the precipice, fuelled by a combustible mix of nostalgia, misdirected anger, apathy, naked political ambition, and, of course, fear. You talk about Project Fear, but let’s be clear – both sides of this unedifying debate are driven by a terror of what the future might hold.

You say that I lack courage, “pluck”, because I read the forecasts of a swathe of respected economists, listen to the warnings of our closest allies, speak to diplomats and businesspeople and citizens of the world, not one of whom can fathom why the UK would choose to hurt itself and its neighbours so badly, for so little apparent reward. You say that I am afraid this bafflement will turn quickly to disappointment, anger and derision in the event of Brexit, something that would besmirch our already somewhat scuffed and careworn global standing , in a world where perception means so much, even if its only half true, or not true at all (just ask those efficient Germans, feckless Italians or helpless Africans if you wonder whether stereotypes and labels matter). I am indeed terrified that amidst a cloud of self-congratulation and ethereal sovereignty, we will be branded the island that turned its back on its neighbours, that still longs for its imperial past – or at least the benefits it bestowed, that is suffering the mother of all collective midlife crises, that rages against its diminished status, that pulled down the shutters, or up the drawbridge, threw babies out with the bathwater, that destabilized its own neighbourhood, that said NO. Whatever bounce the Brexiteers predict in our newly unshackled state, it will have to be truly colossal to escape the negative gravity of an almost universally held view that we not only made an entirely selfish decision, but far worse, the wrong selfish decision. And those we leave to pick up the pieces will do nothing to dissuade themselves or others of this narrative, why would they? We may say a Brexit vote would not mean abandoning Europe, but make no mistake, it will be perceived as abandoning our responsibilities to Europe. If we’re lucky, we’ll be ridiculed. If not, this parting of ways could turn ugly, confirming everyone’s worst opinions of each other, throwing up a morass of barriers and bitterness at exactly the moment when we’ll need all the goodwill we can get. Afraid? Yes indeed.

But it’s not all fear that makes me hope with utter fervor that we will stay coupled to the ramshackle, listing EU project, the preferred whipping boy of cornered domestic politicians the continent over, and often its own, infuriating, obfuscating, sanctimonious worst enemy. Has the EU lost sight of its original aims? Quite possibly. But those aims, European peace – brought about by prosperity, cooperation and rights – are as essential now as they’ve ever been, the diplomatic channels offered by the bloc painfully relevant in a continent struggling for consensus on everything from migration to economics to Russian expansionism. Europe, soaked in the blood of millions, has no inoculation against war, but in recent decades has enjoyed extraordinary growth and stability, in no small part due to the efforts of the faceless unelected bureaucrats so decried in Britain (and so similar to our own civil service). We have been part of it, have influenced it, have, for all our harrumphing and heel dragging, played a central role and been recognized by our partners for it. These are difficult times for the European project, but this means we need it more, not less, shaped and adapted to 21st century realities. Never has there been a better moment for us to realize we do indeed have considerable power – some may even call it sovereignty – that we can wield to reform the EU, that shaken ideologues are more open now than they’ve possibly ever been to reshaping the bloc into something looser, more adaptable, more flexible, more respectful of the hopes and fears of its citizens. We just need to engage, and to accept that creating consensus within a group of 28 member states takes time, diplomacy and effort – but remains an infinitely easier proposition than attempting the same from the outside, our faces pressed up against the window. We can remain integral members of the club, please our American allies, and perhaps take a moment of self-reflection to look at how Germany or even little Belgium trade more effectively with the likes of India than we do.

Would we have needed such interdependency a hundred years ago? Perhaps not, but then we are no longer the superpower we were, and on balance that’s a good thing – just ask our former colonies. We are not America, and our decisions cannot be the same as theirs. Our historic dominance of global politics will likely not be repeated, but instead we can settle into an upper-middle ranked middle-age free of the taint of unfair advantage, or at least subjugation. We can cement ourselves as a force for inclusion, for unequivocal good, for lessons learnt and rights respected, for diversity and inclusivity.
Our grandest days may be behind us, but not necessarily our best. We can remain a bigger hitter than our size suggests, trading undoubtedly on past glories, but also current strengths, to lead in Europe and NATO, to maintain our spot – and voice – on the United Nations Security Council. At the heart of Europe, with trans-Atlantic and global reach, our seat is easy to justify. Outside the EU, derided and bogged down in a multitude of thorny negotiations for possibly decades to come, it is hard to think who would truly champion our cause when a review of permanent members arises. The USA? Possibly. Our former European allies? Hardly. China? India? Our ambivalent Commonwealth partners?

We are not the power we once were, but we are doing OK. Better in fact, we’re doing well. We have problems but our economy grows, our communities assimilate, our culture broadens and appropriates deliciously, and for millions we remain something of a beacon when it comes to diversity and integration. It’s not always easy, but neither would be the alternative – an ageing population, possible economic stagnation, political drift to the margins, and a nagging sense that we don’t really welcome outsiders anymore, whatever benefits they may bring. Can things be better? Absolutely. But looking to Brexit for that is the wrong answer to the wrong question, and means our own politicians, overseers of the vast majority of our legislation, are exculpated from their responsibilities. Such thinking undermines our democratic principles far more than Brussels laws, formulated by British officials (amongst others), voted on by British MEPs (amongst others), and largely done to improve our collective lives.

You talk about Project Fear, and yes, there IS much to fear, but what about Project Realistic Hope, that we can maintain our outsized influence in the clubs where we are members, that we can drive change from within, that we can stand side-by-side with our neighbours in lean times as well as fat, that we can help make THE WHOLE of Europe more open to the world, rather than turning our backs on one, to woo the other. We don’t have to stop being British to be members of Europe, we can be flag-bearers –not bottle throwers – on the continent for the very best of our richly muddled culture, with its mix of pragmatism, exoticism, dynamism and soggy, damp-infused humour. We’ve got much still to learn about our neighbours – the French remain a mystery and they’ve been next door for millennia – but we have much to offer too. Let’s lead the continent by example where we can, and where we can’t, cooperate for the common good. Let’s make the world admire us for our independence and our collective spirit, for being global citizens who didn’t feel the need to cut ourselves loose, simply to face outwards – or inwards, as many will say. Let’s be a big part of something bigger. Let’s vote Remain.

Observers criticise “unfair” Turkish election campaign

Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu arrives for a Council of Europe meeting in Vienna

For the background on AK Party’s surprise and triumphant return to single party government, please follow this link

http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/11/02/us-turkey-election-idUSKCN0SP17Y20151102

The campaign for Turkey’s parliamentary elections, which saw the ruling AK Party win back a majority on Sunday, was unfair and marred by fear and violence, international election observers said on Monday.

The AK Party, founded by President Tayyip Erdogan, won close to 50 percent of the snap vote according to unofficial results, following widespread violence in the mainly Kurdish southeast and a crackdown on media critical of the government.

The heads of the joint mission from the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said at a news conference the violence had a significant impact.

They pointed to attacks and intimidation against members of the pro-Kurdish HDP, which saw its support drop 2 percent compared with June polls.

“Unfortunately we come to the conclusion that this campaign was unfair, and was characterised by too much violence and fear,” said Andreas Gross, a Swiss parliamentarian and head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe delegation.

Observers praised the high voter turnout but criticised what they said was biased coverage by the national broadcaster, TRT, and a deteriorating environment for journalists.

“It is … vital that the President works towards a more inclusive process … he has to unite again what has been divided in the last five months,” Gross added.

So far no parties have lodged formal complaints over the results, although the HDP said it was planning to contest several seats. Official results are not expected for another 11 days, in order to allow time for complaints to be assessed.

The AKP lost its majority in June polls. Voters this time appeared to choose stability after months of political uncertainty, a surge in violence between the army and Kurdish militants and two bombings linked to Islamic State which killed more than 130 people.

Erdogan had urged voters to restore the country to single-party rule to maintain security. His critics accused him of deliberately creating chaos to frighten disaffected supporters.

Turkey’s relations with the EU have soured in recent years amid accusations that human rights have been eroded under Erdogan. (Reporting by Jonny Hogg; editing by Dasha Afanasieva and Andrew Roche)

It’s National Poetry Day after all….. So here’s a poem….

Given it’s National Poetry Day in Britain, I thought I’d post a poem I wrote the other day. It might ring a little familiar to new parents. Or indeed old parents! In any case, I hope you like it.

 

SICK BABY RULES

And he doesn’t sleep, and doesn’t sleep

And Does Not Sleep.

Boob, bounce, bed, bawl, repeat

A tiny bundle of unhappy sighs,

An accelerometric sensitivity to the horizontal,

And a hair-trigger howl.

Shift-work,

Boob, bounce, bed, bawl, repeat

Boob, bounce, bed, bawl, repeat

And then, miracle! He sleeps,

And you retreat,

A silent, bowed, backwards shuffle,

Leaving the presence of a tiny tyrant.

 

Breathe. Whisper, even.

Startle, deer-like at a phantom cry.

Eat. Drink. Relax.

 

And then…

 

“He is still alive, isn’t he?”

Beat.

“Um, I guess so.”

Beat. Beat.

A creep back into the Royal bedchamber,

Suddenly too silent.

Dimness. Stillness.

Inching closer.

Still, so still.

Tentative hand, the gentlest of prods,

A feather-faint touch on too-cool skin…

Elicits a snuffle as sudden and surprising

As a ship’s whistle.

Startled, pick up your bawling again boy,

A sheepish smile in the dark,

The world’s happiest idiot.

Furious but powerless, Turkey left smarting by Russian action in Syria

DSCF9134

Turkey may be furious about Russian incursions into its air space but beyond words of protest there is little it can do, with its dependence on Russian energy and trade keeping its hands tied, and its own Syria policy in disarray.

President Tayyip Erdogan has said he is losing patience with Russian jets crossing the border after Moscow launched an air campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last week. “An attack on Turkey means an attack on NATO,” he warned.

The military alliance has, rhetorically at least, leapt to Turkey’s defense, describing the Russian violations as “extremely dangerous”, raising the prospect of direct confrontation between the former Cold War adversaries.

Russia’s actions are galling for Erdogan, who has lobbied in vain for Assad’s removal. The Syrian army carried out what appeared to be its first major assault backed by Russian air strikes on Wednesday, highlighting how Turkey has been left impotent as the conflict over its southern border takes on an increasingly international dimension.

“Russia coming in highlights that Turkey’s policies in Syria are not working,” said Jonathan Friedman, Turkey analyst at Stroz Friedberg, a risk consultancy.

“You’ve seen over time Russia and the U.S. taking stronger roles in the region. That constrains regional actors’ abilities to influence developments.”

Turkey shares a 900 km (560 mile) border with Syria and has shouldered much of the humanitarian fall-out from the civil war, now spilling into a fifth year. It has kept an open border policy throughout the conflict, taking in more than 2.2 million refugees at a cost of $7.6 billion and rising.

A member of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, it has, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, backed anti-Assad insurgents, some of who have been targeted by the Russian air strikes. It has also lobbied for the creation of a “no-fly zone” or a “safe zone” near its border with northern Syria, a proposal that has failed to resonate in Washington.

“For Turkey there isn’t a whole lot of room for maneuver … All they’ve got left is this tough guy rhetoric,” said one Western diplomat based in Ankara.

Long reluctant to take a frontline military role against Islamic State, Turkey in July made a dramatic shift in policy, opening its air bases for use in coalition air strikes and sending its own planes into action in northern Syria.

Its then-foreign minister said in August “comprehensive” joint air strikes with the United States would begin soon, a plan Ankara hoped would lead to the creation of a safe zone along its border. But there has been little progress.

“Turkey ought to be involved deeply in any Syria resolution, given its strategic and geographical position, but it remains a minor player in the coalition, and is pushing unattainable policy goals,” the diplomat said.

“For the time being Turkey is simply acting as a huge aircraft carrier, with its nicely positioned bases.”

REALPOLITIK

Russia’s air strikes, which mean Russian planes as well as those of the United States and its allies are flying combat missions over the same country for the first time since World War Two, have made the prospects of the “no-fly zone” Turkey has long campaigned for look more remote than ever.

That could be a blessing in disguise for Ankara, according to Aykan Erdemir, non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Russia’s presence seriously limits Turkey’s options, forcing Ankara to be more cautious and prudent in the Middle East,” he told Reuters.

“I think the safe zone is off the table and that’s probably a disaster averted for Turkey. Ultimately it would have gotten out of control … Turkey could have been drawn into a forever war,” he said.

Turkey is highly sensitive to threats to its border security, and Erdogan, commander-in-chief of its armed forces, is ill-disposed to being threatened.

“There is no hesitation over border protection. Relations between Turkey and Russia are good but it is impossible to ignore what happened in the last few days and we will not do so,” one senior official told Reuters.

But with winter approaching, when energy demand peaks, and a parliamentary election on Nov. 1 where the ruling AK Party is desperate to claw back its majority, there are compelling domestic reasons for Erdogan to avoid confrontation with Moscow.

Turkey imports almost all of its energy, including 60 percent of its gas and 35 percent of its oil, from Russia. Russians also make up a large and growing proportion of Turkey’s tourist traffic, key for financing its current account deficit.

Trade ties are deepening. Russia’s state Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom) is due to build Turkey’s first nuclear power station, a $20 billion project, while plans are on the table for a gas pipeline from Russia known as TurkStream.

“Both sides will act carefully in order to prevent a crisis. In the present situation, neither have the luxury of ruining the relations,” said Hasan Selim Özertem, Russia and Caucasus analyst at the Ankara based think-tank, USAK.

Ali Sahin, deputy head of foreign relations in the AK Party, said Russia’s actions constituted a risk for the future of bilateral relations but made clear neither had an interest in the situation deteriorating.

“Turkey has clearly expressed its annoyance and has brought NATO on board. Turkey’s rules of engagement are clear,” he told Reuters. “But I don’t think Russia will continue these actions and let relations sour.”

written with Orhan Coskun

(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; David Dolan, Humeyra Pamuk and Akin Aytekin in Istanbul; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Reaching the limit – “Humanitarian” Turkey faces grim choices as refugee strain grows

image* Turkey shelters world’s largest refugee population

* Ankara faces spiraling costs as economy slows

* West must do more to keep Turkey onside, analysts say

ANKARA, Sept 15 (Reuters) – The strain of sheltering the world’s largest refugee population is showing in Turkey, whose open door to those fleeing Syria and Iraq is shielding European nations from a migration crisis far worse than the one they are struggling with now.

As some European governments turn to baton-wielding police and barricades to stem the flow of migrants, Ankara has vowed to continue accommodating more than 2 million people from its war-torn southern neighbours and welcome any more who come.

But refugees are becoming a political liability in the run-up to a close-fought election due in November, especially near border towns where Syrians can outnumber Turkish nationals. Barred from work by a government that fears a voter backlash, many of the newcomers are restless.

When war first broke out in Syria in 2011, Turkey believed tens of thousands would cross its 900-km (560-mile) frontier. Since then, fighting has engulfed the country and Islamic State militants have exploited the chaos to impose brutal, medieval-style rule across large parts of both Syria and Iraq.

Turkey says it has spent $6.5 billion on its humanitarian response, which includes some of the best equipped refugee camps ever built, including schooling, healthcare and social services.

“It’s one of the most humanitarian responses I’ve seen anywhere,” Rae McGrath, from U.S. aid agency Mercy Corps said. “There is an acceptance that, however inconvenient, Turkey must help its neighbour.”

But its ability to help is reaching capacity, he said, and Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) expressed a similar view.

“Turkey’s response has been very much more humane than Europe, and far more in line with what Europe claims to have as universal values,” Ulgen said.

“Many people are trying to understand the limits of how much Turkey is prepared to do. I think we are reaching those limits.”

“NO LIFE”

A bomb blast in the frontier town of Suruc in July blamed on Islamic State has increased concern that the open-door policy makes it easier for militants to enter Turkey, and the collapse of a ceasefire with Kurdish insurgents in July has deepened security fears.

But the biggest challenge is long-term. Authorities are struggling to integrate a huge refugee population which does not speak Turkish and has little prospect of returning home soon.

The sensitive issue of work permits for refugees has been shelved ahead of the snap parliamentary poll in which the ruling AK Party will try to recover the majority it lost in June.

That decision, criticised by aid workers, has driven refugees to take to perilous boats headed illicitly to Europe.

In contrast with Greece which has let many migrants move on, Turkish coastguard and security forces patrol the routes to Europe, detaining boats and bringing passengers back to Turkey.

Often, as in the case of drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi, this involves picking up the bodies of those who died en route.

Turkey gives refugees “Temporary Protection” status to access schooling, healthcare and social services. But costs are spiralling as economic indicators tick into the red.

The lira this month hit record lows against the dollar whilst the economy grew just 2.9 pct last year, far below a 5 pct target. The gloomy outlook is only fuelling the illicit flow of refugees to Europe.

“There is no life here. We need to live a normal life. I want to find a job,” 32-year old Tariq said as he awaited to cross illegally from the Turkish resort of Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos on his flight from Syria’s devastated Aleppo.

an old man is helped into a truck at the Turkish border which will then drive refugees to camps set up by the government
an old man is helped into a truck at the Turkish border which will then drive refugees to camps set up by the government

OPEN THE GATES?

On Tuesday security forces stopped hundreds of would-be migrants as they tried to reach Turkey’s western land border with Greece.

Unless European countries take more refugees or boost financial aid to Turkey, officials could begin to turn a blind eye to those trying to leave, aid-workers and diplomats fear.

“European countries need to step up to the plate to increase their support to Turkey,” says Jean-Christophe Pegon, Turkey head of the European Commission Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO).

“Turkey could just open the gates, and for the moment they’re not doing that.”

A senior EU source told Reuters the bloc had been slow to engage with Turkey on tackling refugee flows, but that talks were underway to unlock funds to help refugees inside Turkey.

Although it houses roughly half of all Syrian refugees, Turkey receives less money than poorer refugee-hosting countries like Lebanon and Jordan.

The United Nations estimates that it has raised only 30 pct of the funds it says it needs for Turkey this year.

Some diplomats say direct offers of funding have been made but have foundered on Ankara’s tight conditionality on how money is used and what role aid organisations are allowed to play.

Ankara has also made little concrete progress convincing western partners of the urgent need for a “safe zone” in northern Syria, where some refugees could be resettled. Western officials privately say any such plan is probably years away.

“I don’t think it’s even being discussed by the Turkish General Staff, it’s just a political aspiration,” one western diplomat with military knowledge said.

Despite the worsening prospects, a senior Turkish official insisted Ankara’s policy would remain unchanged.

“Turkey remains committed to helping people in need, whether or not the international community will continue to turn a blind eye to the problem,” the official told Reuters.

EDAM’s Ulgen says Ankara would likely wait and see if the recent upsurge of debate in Europe over the migrant crisis would bolster resolve in the West for more decisive action on Syria.

“But if on all fronts expectations remain unfulfilled, then as a last resort, Ankara could raise pressure by being less co-operative in regard of the outflow of refugees towards Europe,” he added.

A young boy sits at the Turkish border crossing after fleeing fighting in Syria
A young boy sits at the Turkish border crossing after fleeing fighting in Syria

(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in BODRUM, Orhan Coskun in ANKARA and Paul Taylor in BRUSSELS; editing by David Dolan and Philippa Fletcher)

“The only people benefiting now are the smugglers” – Syrians seek a legal route to Europe without perilous boats

A refugee sits at the border
A refugee sits at the border

ANKARA (Reuters) – Omar Badran was lucky to make it to Sweden alive after the smugglers’ boat he took from Libya to Europe sank, killing dozens of fellow migrants.

Now, the Syrian father of three hopes his family will be spared such dangers and be allowed to travel directly from Turkey to join him in his new home.

With legal routes to Europe almost impossible for most of those fleeing Syria’s civil war, Sweden’s decision in 2013 to grant permanent residency to Syrian refugees offers one of the few routes to Europe without braving peril at sea.

As automatic permanent residents, Syrian refugees in Sweden are swiftly allowed to invite close family to join them, a right that in other European countries can take years and may require proof that the first refugee can support the others.

In Ankara’s leafy diplomatic district, only the Swedish embassy has lines of mainly Syrian migrants waiting patiently outside its gates each morning. Most have at least one family member who has already made the dangerous and illegal journey across Europe and is sponsoring their application.

“I had no choice, I couldn’t go legally,” said Badran, 37, who came back to Turkey from Sweden to help ensure that his relatives’ application to join him would be approved.

“Europe should do more to help. Of course Syrians will keep coming illegally. Anything is better than death in Syria,” he said, recounting the horror of watching friends and relatives drown on one of several boats that sank in August 2014.

Europe is struggling to deal with the humanitarian and political fallout from hundreds of thousands of migrants, many fleeing conflict in the Middle East, arriving to seek asylum.

The image of the tiny body of a Syrian toddler found washed up on a Turkish beach last week has piled further public pressure on European leaders to open their doors and spare refugees from the hands of people traffickers.

The crisis has divided EU countries, with some, like Germany and Sweden, offering a warmer welcome while others try to discourage migrants from coming.

The Danish government this week published advertisements in Middle Eastern newspapers warning potential migrants that financial assistance for refugees in Denmark was being slashed, and that family reunification would be difficult.

Sweden, which former Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt once called a “humanitarian superpower”, has welcomed refugees for decades and receives more asylum seekers per capita than any other EU nation, with the numbers rising sharply.

Although most Swedes are still proud of that reputation, there has been some backlash at home.

Fredrik Beijer, general counsel at the Swedish Migration Agency, said migrants were attracted to Sweden because it “has a reputation as a country that deals with refugees in a good way. Our system works.”

Nevertheless the sheer numbers mean that there is now a backlog and the process is slowing down, he said.

European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker proposed on Wednesday a new system of quotas to distribute asylum seekers who reach Europe among member states. But some countries say that a warm welcome for those reaching the continent illegally just encourages others to make the dangerous journey.

“Europe needs to take in more people, and to do it in a more dignified and planned way,” said Jean-Christophe Pegon, Turkey head of the European Commission Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO).

One solution would be to let more refugees apply for asylum remotely in countries like Turkey, which is currently sheltering 2 million Syrians.

“A better asylum system would enhance their chances,” Pegon said. “But it’s still based on nations being willing to take them in. If countries are not opening their gates, improving procedure won’t help.”

Tens of thousands of Syrians have descended on Turkey’s Aegean coast this summer to catch a boat to tantalisingly nearby Greek islands, in some cases just 2 miles (4 km) away.

They represent a small proportion of those sheltering in Turkey. But as the government in Ankara warns it is reaching capacity and Turkey grapples with its own domestic concerns, the temptation of the relative wealth of Europe lures many who can afford to pay smugglers thousands of dollars.

“Refugees go where they feel the best possible future for their family is going to be,” said Rae Mcgrath, North Syria & Turkey Director for the charity Mercy Corps.

image

ONLY SMUGGLERS BENEFIT

For now, remote asylum requests are almost unheard of, leaving little option for refugees in Turkey but to try to reach Europe illegally, shelter in camps on the Syrian border or eke out a living in Turkey’s major cities, where families camp in derelict buildings or beg in the streets.

Swedish ambassador to Turkey Lars Wahlund told Reuters directly offering asylum at embassies could create a “tsunami” of applications.

“That’s not possible without international agreements with many countries. For now the only feasible way I see to lessen the burden would be to increase U.N. quotas,” Wahlund said.

Many Western countries already agree to take people directly from refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan on Syria’s borders. Britain has said this week it will take 20,000 over the next five years directly from the region, rather than accept a share of those who reach other parts of the European Union.

But such numbers are marginal against the 4 million refugees in countries directly neighbouring Syria, and around 7.5 million internally displaced within Syria itself.

Selin Unal, spokeswoman for the United Nation’s Refugee agency in Turkey (UNHCR) said that alongside quotas, other mechanisms including humanitarian admission programmes and scholarships for children should be rolled out.

“The only people benefiting now are the smugglers,” she said.

Menal, 42, used to run a restaurant in Damascus before paying $10,000 to travel illegally to Sweden. He is now hoping to bring his wife and disabled son back, although he acknowledges the challenge European nations face.

“Of course if they make it easier, then everyone in Syria would want to come,” he said.

“It’s a big problem for Europe.”DSCF8322

(Additional reporting by Simon Johnson; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Peter Graff)

Politics, Culture, Photography, Journalism. Turkey