Migrants lament as Europe's doors close

Migrants lament as Europe's doors close

Smoking cigarettes and huddling against the midnight chill, a group of Syrian men sat outside a mosque waiting for a smuggler’s call. It was their last chance, they said, to reach Europe.

It was late Friday, hours after they watched news reports from cafes and hotel lobbies that the Europe Union and Turkey had struck a deal that would send refugees from war-torn countries back to Turkey, from the shores of Greece. Time was running short: Officials said the deal would take effect Sunday.

“One hour ago,” said Milad Ameen, 19, when asked when he decided to set off for Europe. He had a life jacket, an inner tube and small bag containing his passport and school certificates he hoped would help him land a job in Europe. As the men waited, they lamented a deal that they believe shuts the door on the last way out of their misery. “It’s for Turkey’s good, but not for the good of the Syrian people,” Ameen said.

A man standing next to him, who gave only his first name, Raafat, said he was from Aleppo, Syria. Raafat said he was demoralized that Europe no longer seemed to welcome Syrians. When he heard news of the pending deal, he rushed from Istanbul, where he had worked in a textile factory, to this coastal city.

“We aren’t going to Europe to destroy Europe,” he said, explaining that he wished to
assimilate and learn the language in whichever country would take him. “We are going in peace.” Just then, a Turkish man, presumably a smuggler’s agent, approached and said, “It’s time to go,” and they were off.

By the next afternoon, they had returned to Izmir, their European dreams dashed, after being interdicted by the Turkish authorities. As of Saturday afternoon, worries of a mass exodus of refugees crossing the choppy Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece had not materialised. Many have tried, though, and some said they would make one last effort Saturday night.

Turkish authorities said a large-scale operation, involving the coast guard, the police and the military, including the use of helicopters, had resulted in the detention of 1,734 migrants and 16 smugglers Friday along the Aegean coast.

While many migrants were seized on beaches or at sea, others were rounded up from hotels and streets and taken in for questioning to determine their backgrounds, nationalities and plans to travel to Europe, according to a statement from the Turkish military.  For Europe, the deal with Turkey offers its best chance to contain a crisis that has roiled the Continent and upended its politics amid a surge in popularity of anti-immigration parties. For Turkey, the deal offered the prospect of resuming talks to join the European Union, billions of dollars in aid and visa-free travel for Turks.

Disheartening pact

For Syrians, though, as well as Iraqis, Afghans and other refugees from countries in chaos, who saw Europe as their last, best hope, the pact was disheartening. For them, there is a sense that Europe, so welcoming last summer, is betraying them and that Turkey is benefiting on the backs of their misery.

“It’s a good deal for Turkey, but it harms the Syrian people,” said Issi Adam, 30, from Aleppo, who had tried to reach Europe a few nights earlier but was sent back before he even reached the beach.

As Adam stood outside a mosque close to midnight Friday, he pointed to the men sleeping on the ground, just behind him. “People are sleeping outside,” he said. “During the day, you see hundreds of people waiting for food.”  He continued, “We had one door only, the European door. And now it’s shut down.”

The Basmane neighbourhood of this city, a warren of narrow streets, tourist hotels and cafes, was a vibrant hub last summer for migrant smuggling. But in recent weeks and months, as the Turks began cracking down on smuggling rings and migrants, either on land or at sea, business dropped noticeably.  On a rainy Saturday afternoon, it was mostly quiet, with little evidence of the bustling migrant economy of last summer. Many Syrians, instead of becoming migrants, have stayed here to find work.

Hamoud Ali, a Syrian who works at a clothing shop, also sells orange life jackets to migrants. He said at the height of the migrant rush, last summer, he would sell 150 jackets on a good day. Now, he said, he sells 10 to 15, at most. “Yesterday, no one made it to Greece,” he said.

Many said they believed the pact between Europe and Turkey would not solve the problem, and that eventually migrants and the smugglers — many of whom are connected with Turkish organized crime rings — would find alternative routes.

Even so, many Syrians who had once hoped to leave are now being forced to contemplate a long-term future in Turkey. Turkey, which has seen war resume in the southeast with Kurdish rebels, has also faced attacks by the Islamic State. On Saturday morning, a suicide bomber struck in the heart of Istanbul’s most famous pedestrian shopping street, killing four people and wounding dozens of others.

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