Kilis, Izmir – Turkey — “I am suffocating.” It’s the sentence I hear the most when interviewing Syrians.
Traveling throughout several Turkish cities in the past few weeks, it is now visibly clear that the noose is indeed tightening on Syrians in bordering countries. However, these new limitations may be driving more Syrians to head to Europe as Turkey becomes a more constricting environment.
Syrians carrying only the Temporary Protection ID (Kimlik) can no longer travel between Turkish provinces without a travel permit. Syrians trying to apply or renew their residency, which offers more freedom of mobility, are increasingly being turned back and told to apply for Kimlik instead. Even Syrians carrying valid residency cards are made to wait at airports for extra screening. Cars sold or rented to Syrians are marked with an “S” on their license plates, and are pulled aside at checkpoints and often forced to turn back.
“This is the worst it’s ever been,” said Mostafa Mahmood, a Syrian doctor with the Turkish registered Independent Doctors’ Association (IDA).
Standing at the Oncupinar crossing in Kilis, the doctor had walked over from the Syrian side of the border to update journalists on the situation on the other side. The intensifying Russian and Syrian regime offensive on Aleppo in recent weeks has forced tens of thousands of peoples from their homes, leaving more than thirty thousand stranded at the Turkish border in dire conditions.
With not enough shelter, food, or medicine, and no bathrooms at all, fear is mounting that the border will stay closed. A line of TV cameras and journalists stand at the crossing, hoping to catch a glimpse of the humanitarian crisis mounting on the other side. Two lone ambulances rush back and forth, transporting only the most serious (and recent) injuries to Turkish hospitals, trailed by a green van carrying dead bodies. Injuries that are more than a day old are considered “cold,” and these patients are forced to wait on the other side, often to their detriment.
As refugees fleeing Aleppo and its suburbs continued to flee towards the border, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country would maintain its “open border policy” towards Syrian refugees. Standing with anxious families in Kilis trying to reach their stuck relatives, it was hard to see how and who the border was open for.
Aid workers with the Turkish humanitarian relief organization IHH in Kilis told us they were working around the clock to set up tents and deliver food aid, even sending 50,000 hot meals a day to the other side. However, Syrian volunteers with the organization said the assistance was not nearly enough, adding that at least two people have frozen to death already.
Syrians here are increasingly feeling like pawns on an international chess game, and not without reason. Last week President Erdogan said Turkey is ready to “open the gates” to hundreds of thousands of refugees, implying many of them would head to Europe if he did. The threat came as a reaction to the EU not yet delivering the 3 billion euros it had promised to Turkey for playing its part in stopping the refugee flow to Europe.
“We only slowed down because of the bad weather. These are just rumors, we’re not stopping,” said 20-year-old Moussa, a Syrian broker for smuggling trips in the Turkish coastal city of Izmir.
Wearing a faded brown leather jacket, Moussa took a sip of his Turkish coffee as he dismissed the NATO’s decision to deploy a flotilla to crack down on smuggling routes in the Aegean sea. Smuggler networks employ brokers like Moussa to find people wanting to reach Europe, using brokers of the same nationality as their targets to be more appealing.
Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, and Moroccan brokers pace the streets near Izmir’s Basmane square, looking for potential clients, offering discounted deals to Europe because of the higher risks in the winter weather. A large metal statue of a globe hangs in the middle of the square, an ironic reminder of the international community that has left desperate Syrians scrambling for safety in the arms of human traffickers.
On the Izmir streets crowded with hopeful asylum seekers, Moussa’s boastful comments don’t seem far from the truth. Holding a glass of tea in one hand and a cigarette in another, 26-year-old Furqan from Izmir models a life jacket in the middle of the street. He claims his are the same quality as those being sold in private stores—and they go for half the price. Passersby eye him skeptically, unsurprisingly as the news of fake lifejackets being sold to refugees surfaced last month.
At least 400 people have drowned trying to cross the Aegean since the start of 2016 alone, driving many refugees to buy rubber wheels as well and not rely on possibly fraudulent lifejackets. A few days of bright sun and summer-like sea conditions have seen sales rise, said Furqan. He usually only sells 25 lifejackets a day in the winter, he said, but he sold 500 this past Tuesday.
“When the police pass by, I run,” said Furqan, admitting that there has been a security crackdown on the smuggling business. “Don’t you see how skinny I am?”
Twenty-two of forty-three boats headed to Greece were turned back, said a discouraged Maher, slumping in his chair outside of an Izmir cafe. Maher and his extended family were on one of the boats turned back before they even hit the waters, and they returned to Izmir to try again.
His great grandmother and many cousins rested outside of a mosque nearby, while he debated whether he wanted to try reaching Europe again. From a rebel-held village outside of Idleb in northwest Syria, the family used smugglers to cross the Turkish border, a risk with two elderly women in wheelchairs and Turkish border guards increasingly shooting at those trying to cross.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Maher said. “But then a Russian strike killed my neighbor who was eight-months pregnant. I had to pick up the pieces of her unborn baby.”
Two days later he was in Turkey.
A visibly nervous Muhannad put his arm around his wife, Hiba, in their small hostel room in Izmir on Monday night. The young couple was supposed to head for Greece in a few hours, with their two daughters, Naya, age 4, and Aya, only five-months-old.
“Yes, I am afraid, but we have no other solutions,” Hiba said.
The family had survived the grueling regime siege in Yarmouk Camp, a Palestinian camp outside of Damascus that is home to Palestinians and Syrians. They were only able to leave when Muhannad surrendered himself to government forces, who subsequently detained him for 18 months for being a fighter with rebel forces. As the regime onslaught against rebel-held suburbs intensified, rebels lost control of the camp to ISIS.
Decrying regime brutality and rebel corruption, Muhannad said he moved his family to Turkey twenty days after he was released from prison. However the harsh conditions of the hunger siege and torture he suffered in Syrian regime prisons have left their mark on the young father with a debilitating heart condition. After spending a year in a small Turkish coastal town, Muhannad and Hiba are packing their bags again in search for a more stable future for their daughters, and hopefully, medical attention for Muhannad.
“I’ve explained everything to my older daughter, Naya. She knows we’ll be on a boat, and that we’ll be praying the whole way to make it safely,” Muhannad said.
A Whatsapp voice message from Muhannad on Tuesday morning let me know that they had made it safely to the Greek island of Chios, and were moving on to Athens soon. Others have not been so lucky.
Sitting on the steps of the courtyard in the Basmane Square Mosque, 63-year-old Mohammad Jamil pulls out a carefully folded paper from his coat pocket. Smoothing it out, he carefully points at each face smiling up from the printed photographs, reading their names.
On October 10th, 2015, Jamil lost 13 of his family members at sea, including his wife and ten grandchildren. Two waves hit the rickety wooden boat, the first filling it with water, the second flipping it over. A fisherman passing by several hours later rescued the survivors. The family had left their home in Hassakeh, northeastern Syria, in hopes of starting a more stable life in Germany. For the past four months, Jamil has frantically called on Turkish officials to rescue the remains of his family, but to no avail.
“This is our destiny now,” said Jamil. “Under the water.”
Children play in the Basmane mosque courtyard, their parents watching them. Not all of them are preparing for Europe. Some are just waiting, with no where to go. Rawan, her husband, and two children fled southern Syria last month for Turkey. Despite their hometown, Daraa, being closest to the Jordanian border, the family had to brave 27 days smuggling themselves through a series of checkpoints manned by the regime, rebels and ISIS, paying exorbitant bribes along the way to make it safely, and arriving broke in Turkey.
The Jordanian border, however, has been sealed shut. Despite the Jordanian government’s spokesperson claiming their “borders remain open”, at least 16,000 refugees have been stranded in a no-man’s land within the past few months. Rocky and barren, refugees there face extreme conditions, unable to go back to their homes suffering Russian airstrikes, barely able to survive the desert.
Rawan’s family packed their bags for Turkey after her six-year-old son, Muneer, was killed by sniper fire. Her eldest son, Talal, had previously lost a leg in airstrikes, and had taken the smuggling route to Germany last summer.
“I don’t want to leave Syria, but I want to save what’s left of my children,” Rawan said.
Hiba Dlewati is a Syrian American journalist and writer moving throughout Jordan, Turkey and Sweden to document and narrate the stories of the Syrian diaspora. Twitter: @Hiba_Dlewati