Future conditional: temporary refuge in Turkey
The 900-kilometre border Turkey shares with Syria is considered a ‘live conflict zone’ and may be one of the most dangerous fighting locations in the entire conflict.
Very few regular checkpoints remain open, forcing Syrians to pass through incredibly treacherous terrain. When they reach an irregular checkpoint, only those with valid passports are allowed entry, and sometimes not even then.
After Turkey pledged support for the Free Syrian Army in 2011, President Assad began targeting refugee populations close to the border.
In addition, Amnesty International has documented dozens of cases of illegal detention, torture, abuse and even the death of refugees crossing at irregular checkpoints at the hands of Turkish border guards.
Crossings at irregular checkpoints between December 2013 and August 2014 resulted in the deaths of 17 refugees and more than 75 Turkish nationals. Causes of death range from stray shells and bullets to car bombs and cross-border territory clashes, said Amnesty International in its report.
Despite the perilous border crossing, Turkey now hosts 1,805,255 Syrian refugees, the most of any nation in the world.
UNHCR estimates 1.7 million registered Syrian refugees reside in Turkey. Hatay, Gaziantep and Şanliurfa border provinces host the highest number of Syrian refugees, while 330,000 live in the capital, Istanbul.
In April 2014, an estimated 220,102 were living in camps – a mere 15% of the population. The remaining 85% live among Turkish nationals in cities and villages, further exacerbating the strain on local economies.
‘They don’t care. Your life here doesn’t cost anything’ - Hussam
Registration of refugees in Turkey did not begin until 2013, two years after the first Syrian refugees set up camp. According to Amnesty International, misinterpretation and mistrust of the government led to the registration of only 45% of Syrian refugees.
Prior to 2014, only people of ‘Turkish descent and culture’ and Europeans could apply for resettlement in Turkey. When Turkey ratified the 1951 Geneva Convention and the 1967 Additional Protocol, it did so with a geographical limitation: only Europeans would be granted asylum rights.
In April 2014, the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP) was passed.
Articles 61 and 62 respectively define ‘Refugees’ as European citizens fleeing persecution and ‘Conditional Refugees’ as non-European citizens fleeing persecution. Under the LFIP, refugees are granted ‘refugee status’, while conditional refugees ‘shall be allowed to reside in Turkey temporarily until they are resettled to a third country’.
Syrian refugees fall in the latter category, but although they do not have equal rights, they cannot easily be returned to Syria, as that would be a breach of international law.
In its report, Amnesty International said: ‘[Turkey’s] response to the Syrian refugee crisis, despite its significant resource commitments and many positive policy initiatives, is increasingly showing its limitations.’
The voyage out
Hussam and his brother did not consider Turkey a long-term option. From there they were faced with the choice of travelling by the ‘Ant Road’, an arduous overland trip from Turkey to the Calais-Dover crossing, or the faster, more perilous maritime voyage north across the Mediterranean Sea, from Libya to Italy.
Shadi pressured Hussam to take the maritime route, fearing his darker skin colour would make them more likely targets for miscategorization and apprehension. They boarded a plane to Algeria, because entering Libya was illegal for Syrians at the time, then embarked on a 12-hour bus ride from Algiers to the south.
Here, they bought their passage from a man who would take them to the border and then to the Libyan coast. The next morning Shadi, Hussam and 13 other Syrians boarded a bus to cross the Sahara Desert.
‘It was a road, but you couldn’t see anything. It was desert on the left, desert on the right. There were no human beings, only road,’ said Hussam.
When they reached the border, everyone – men, women and children – was ordered to walk 20 kilometres to the next village. Throughout the journey, the brothers aided those in need. Hussam remembers it as a bonding moment.
Rather than sit with their knees pulled tight to their chest, they were allowed enough room to slightly straighten their legs
‘We carried the children; everyone helped. We were all Syrian, some Kurdish and some Arabs, but all Syrian,’ he said.
Hussam had heard that the next leg of the trip, north to the coast, was the most volatile. Theft and rape ran rampant. After witnessing their generosity, the smugglers trusted the brothers, and Hussam and Shadi travelled north without incident.
Towards the end of their journey, more than 300 people were packed into the accommodation where they were to wait for their boat, a room no larger than a school gymnasium.
As the only doctors some had seen in months, Hussam and Shadi waited out 4 bad weather days treating 14 cases of food poisoning, diagnosing what they could and attempting to treat a girl with typhoid fever.
Once the weather was favourable, Hussam and Shadi walked to the docks in the middle of the night, waded out neck-deep into the water, then quickly jumped aboard a small raft. Others with them were not fast enough and were left behind.
‘They don’t care. Your life here doesn’t cost anything,’ said Hussam.
Their good standing with the smugglers earned the brothers a small creature comfort. Rather than sit with their knees pulled tight to their chest, they were allowed enough room to slightly straighten their legs.
‘We were lucky it was a small boat (17 by 4 metres) with only 140 people. Usually, this boat would hold more than 250 people,’ explained Hussam.
The ship was spotted and photographed, and the passengers were transferred to a military-grade Italian coastguard vessel. Inside were more than 2,000 people, said Hussam, mostly from Africa, Bangladesh and Syria.