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Dr Ali Ali writes for openDemocracy

This article was originally published on Open Democracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Read the original article>> 

It typically costs around $1200 per person to be smuggled on a boat from Turkey’s shore to a neighbouring Greek island. That’s what I learned from Syrians I met in Istanbul in October. I had a long conversation with two women from the Yarmouk suburb of Damascus, originally a Palestinian refugee camp. It has been decimated by Syrian government forces and the remaining population live under conditions of siege with many close to starvation.

The women agonised over whether to attempt the perilous journey again. They had already tried but the flimsy boat smashed to pieces against jagged rocks upon encountering its first wave. Luckily they were close to the shore. As the winter approaches, the rougher seas mean that the window to set off for Europe is closing, and if they do not leave soon they must wait until the spring. Their relative had found a smuggler willing to take them for ‘only’ $900 per person, a distance of around ten miles from one shore near Izmir, presumably to Lesbos. They are fully aware of the risks, even of armed masked men, believed to be Greek forces, attacking boats before they reach the shore. They will not be guaranteed safety once they reach Greece. A long and arduous path awaits those who make it to the Greek islands before they can find safety in northern Europe. 

Another Syrian I met had better fortunes. He left Syria for Lebanon and flew to Algeria using his Syrian passport. From there he entered Libya via the smuggler route and boarded a boat to Italy. He travelled by land to Belgium where he paid £2,500 to be smuggled into the UK inside a refrigerated truck carrying fruit between 0-2C. "When you’ve been dodging sniper fire every day, 15 hours in a cold truck is worth it"; he was granted asylum in the UK some months after his arrival. He is one of the lucky few.

When you’ve been dodging sniper fire every day, 15 hours in a cold truck is worth it.

I was in Istanbul to attend a workshop organised by Syrian civil society and relief groups to assess and coordinate a response to mass displacement. It was organised by Basmeh & Zeitooneh for Relief and Development, a Syrian organisation which runs community centres for refugees in Lebanon, and by Tamas, a coalition of Syrian civil society groups. The workshop brought together activists, members of NGOs and international organisations, scholars, and relief workers from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and across Europe to discuss the current situation in different localities and the possibilities for coordinating a response.

Independent activists were present, as were legal experts, individuals working for larger organisations like Oxfam and the International Organisation for Migration. A representative from the Syria Campaign attended, as did someone from a community organisation in Sweden’s Malmo which assists newly arrived refugees.

More and more people are leaving Syria. We heard news from inside Syria that the situation is deteriorating even further. In opposition-held areas, there is a network of Local Administrative Councils (LACs) which have attempted to repair and restore the public services and infrastructure damaged, often deliberately, by Syrian government forces collectively punishing areas challenging Assad rule. The councils have been poorly resourced and have struggled under shelling and the disconnection and destruction of public services by the Syrian government. Despite this they have, in many areas, achieved some success in bringing services back, and managing large numbers of internally displaced. But the small successes they have had are far outweighed by the enormous needs.

Funding has been a pressing issue. We heard that only 20 percent of LAC infrastructure project applications were funded and only 5 percent implemented. INGO funding is set up in a way which forces LACs to compete with Syrian Civil Society organisations for funding; fragmenting further the efforts to restore public services. Since the expansion of ISIS in Syria, the number of LACs has fallen from 900 known councils to 460. A nefarious political economy of war has emerged in Syria and does not meet the needs of the population. We heard that many men of fighting age continue fleeing the forced conscription of the Syrian government and of the Kurdish YPG militia. The war is intensifying with Russian involvement by air, reportedly targeting opposition forces, civilians, and medical centres, and increased Iranian and Iraqi involvement by land. The number of people leaving Syria because of violence and its cumulative effects will continue to rise.

But we also heard about the deteriorating situation for Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries, which is another reason why people are leaving for Europe.

The numbers are huge, over 4 million refugees, with 6.5 million estimated to be displaced internally. In Turkey there are 2.1 million Syrians, of which over 200,000 are in camps, but Turkey is a large country with a population of 75 million. Jordan hosts 629,000 Syrians, a country of 6.5 million people. Lebanon’s population is under 4.5 million, yet over a million Syrians now live there.

The constraints upon Syrians in neighbouring countries are increasing, related in part to funding shortfalls from the international community and the erosion of savings and assets of Syrians who had hoped that the conflict would not last as long as it has. Many remain in neighbouring countries with the hope of returning soon. But so many of them, and of the others who remain in Syria, have given up hope and wish to leave.

In Lebanon

Lebanon admirably kept its borders open to most Syrians, despite its economic and political problems. However Lebanon today has become an extremely difficult place for Syrian refugees to enter and to live. The country already had serious problems emanating from a corrupt government, one unable to deal fully with the destruction of the country’s civilian infrastructure by Israeli military action in 2006.

A member of a Syrian solidarity group commented that the government is scapegoating Syrians and using xenophobic discourse to distract from its own failings. During David Cameron’s visit, one minister even said publicly that there are two or three ISIS or Al Qaeda members present among every 100 Syrians in the country. Such talk flames existing hostility towards Syrians in Lebanon. The foundations for hostility were laid during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, at which time Lebanese’ most common encounters with Syrians were with Syrian conscripts, corrupt military officials, and uneducated labourers. There are many exceptions of course to the hostility, and not just amongst those with kinship ties in Syria. For example, Lebanese citizens have organised to collect relief aid for Syrian refugees.

There are over 4 million refugees, with 6.5 million estimated to be displaced internally.

Lebanon is a small country, and around 20 percent of the population is now composed of displaced Syrians. While some were able to use the support of cross border kinship ties, many others had to live in hazardous makeshift camps and many more are struggling to earn a living in the informal labour market. Lebanon already had problems with poverty and inequality.

Refugees from Syria’s impoverished areas have made their way into the spaces of Lebanon’s impoverished. The cost of living is higher in Lebanon than in Syria and we heard that middle class Syrians, such as Christians who fled Aleppo, the families whose resources are drained, are relocating to coastal areas of Syria, or attempting to travel to Europe. It is the middle class Syrians who are most able to bridge the gap between Syrian and Lebanese society but they are leaving, many via Turkey.

Lebanese laws compel them to do so. Syrians are only legally allowed to work in a handful of low-skilled jobs including in agriculture, construction, and refuse collection. A number of companies have fired Syrian workers rather than deal with Labour Law headaches. Others tell their Syrian staff to hide when inspectors arrive.

A new policy in January 2015 forbade the UNHCR from making new registrations of Syrians. The UNHCR ignored this for two months but the Lebanese government forced them to delete all January registrations. Syrian children do not have full access to education. The public school system can host 200,000 Syrians, about half of what is needed, but the availability of places does not match the distribution of Syrians. There are empty places in the wealthy districts of Beirut, but areas where Syrians live in large numbers do not have the spare capacity and many Syrians cannot afford the long commute to schools which do.

Palestinian refugees displaced from Syria are in the worst position because they have no legal status in Lebanon. Therefore many are confined to their homes or to their neighbourhoods, fearing they will be caught at checkpoints or by police patrols and deported to Syria.

In Jordan

The situation is similarly difficult for Syrians in Jordan, we heard from one of Basma and Zeitooneh’s co-founders now living there. Only 15 percent of Syrians in Jordan are estimated to be in camps, and only 20 percent of those who are formally registered live in Zatari refugee camp. Although life in the Zatari refugee camp is challenging, it is nothing compared to Azraq camp. Zatari has clinics and its own economy. Azraq, built for 120,000 refugees, hosts just 20,000 in the desert with no running water nor supply of electricity, and far away from any city.

An estimated 200,000 work in the informal labour market, earning a salary of around $200 per month, if they are paid at all. The monthly allowance which some receive has been cut to $14 which is enough to buy one bag of sugar and a bottle of cooking oil. Health care is only provided in the Zatari camp. At the time of the workshop, more Syrians were leaving Jordan than were entering, some preferring to die in their own homes in Syria rather than in abject poverty in Jordan. Those who wish to leave legally must do so via the Zatari refugee camp and once they leave Jordan, they are not permitted to return.

In Turkey

The situation is somewhat better for Syrians in Turkey, although they are presented with significant challenges. Two million Syrians are registered, 200,000 of them encamped, and an estimated 600,000 are unregistered. Turkey has a ‘geographic exception’ to its commitment to the Geneva Refugee Convention which means it is only obliged to provide Refugee status to those claiming asylum from Europe. There are currently just 37 individuals with Refugee status. Syrians come under the Temporary Protection Directive.

Other refugees like Iraqis and Afghans, are given temporary protection while they wait for resettlement to a third country via the UNHCR. The Syrians are classified as a ‘mass influx’, therefore individual assessment of status was deemed impractical. In October 2014, the General Directorate of Migration Management was created; it is part of the Interior Ministry, taking over migration management from the Police.

Syrians can acquire one year residency permits in Turkey upon proving they have an annual income of US$6,000 and health insurance. Most are unable to provide this and most do not have valid passports which are also necessary to acquire formal work permits.

In Gaziantep, the governor, or Wali, has prioritised permits for Syrian teachers and doctors. Many Syrians work informally in agriculture and construction where often their salaries are half of what Turkish labourers receive, and in many cases they are not paid and have no recourse to justice. Although healthcare in government hospitals and clinics is free, language can be an obstacle where the hospital has no translator and the patients speak no Turkish; medication is not free.

‘Fortress Europe' is a false ideal. It is impossible to close the frontier.

Syrians do not receive education in Turkish state schools in Arabic. There is as yet no systematic policy to deal with the language issue. It may be because allowing Arabic to be formally taught in schools where Syrians are will open the door to demands for Kurdish to be formally included in curriculums. The Wali of Gaziantep has said that 46,000 Syrians are enrolled in schools but 56,000 are not in any school at all. Syrian children tend to be in classes for Syrians, taught in Arabic, and set up on double shifts in Turkish schools. Classes start around 4pm, after Turkish pupils have left. At the university level, things are better in Gaziantep where over 1,000 Syrians are enrolled in the university which now has an Arabic Sociology department.

Some refugee advocacy groups campaign for the government to provide a long-term residency status for Syrians but it is not clear whether this is on the Turkish government’s agenda. Participants at the workshop were concerned about the outcome of talks between Turkey and the EU which has offered visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens, a €3bn payment, and re-activating EU membership talks, to Turkey in exchange for restricting refugees’ movement to the EU.

It now appears that the ‘dirty deal’ will go ahead. Some Turkish human rights activists reject comprehensively the idea that Turks’ free movement to and from the EU will come at the expense of refugees’ rights to seek asylum in Europe. There are concerns that some form of restriction upon refugees’ movements will eventually be imposed in exchange for a better offer from European countries.

However, the refugee issue has become politicised and communalised in Turkey in that the political polarisation which had gripped the country since 2011 manifests itself in communally tinged solidarity with refugees. Kurdish groups support Kurdish refugees, Alevis support Alawite refugees, and Sunni Muslims support the Sunni Arab refugees. Some have decoupled their support for refugees from their position towards Assad, such as Turkish leftists who support Assad, but also support the refugees which his forces have created.

We also heard that transparency and consistency were absent regarding Turkish government policy towards Syrians. There are many laws and regulations which benefit Syrians but there is no single place where information about existing rules, modifications to them, and about new rules, is available. The implementation of the rules varied from one location to another in Turkey, and also with the mood of the government bureaucrat implementing them on the day. Syrians often learned about changes to the rules only through experience.

One example is the border with Syria which we learned is now closed, although the Turkish government speaks as though it is still open. This created obstacles for Syrians trying to escape the war, and for those in Turkey who need to go back and forth to support populations in makeshift camps for internally displaced Syrians near the border.

The situation is better in Turkey for Syrians than it is in Lebanon and Jordan. Turkey has spent $5.6bn on the displaced Syrian population, constructing camps with water and electricity supplies. One of the conference organisers was eager to point to positives as well as negatives. For example, the Turkish government has coordinated with Syrian doctors to create a rapid medical response system in northern Syria to field hospitals in Turkey near the border. Patients have been taken to Turkey in ambulances, and occasionally by helicopter, to receive emergency treatment.


Legal experts present at the conference noted that because refugees were not granted full labour freedoms, and access to a functioning asylum process and refugee status, countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan could therefore not be categorised as safe third countries of asylum. Europe should provide a swiftly accessible humanitarian visa for refugees. This would allow them to fly safely to countries of safety and mean that their capital could be put to productive and legitimate use in European countries of asylum rather than to enrich smugglers. One problem is that European leaders are not willing to provide this. A member of ECRE, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, once put the idea of a humanitarian visa to a meeting attended by 15 European Interior Ministers. They greeted it with silence.

The Syrian ‘refugee crisis’ was not simply a humanitarian one, but a political one.

‘Fortress Europe’, which is how the initiative to seal Europe’s enormous borders is informally known, is a false ideal. It is impossible to close the frontier. It simply makes the journey more dangerous for people compelled to make it, and ensures their funds line the pockets of smugglers, and that EU funds line the pockets of the ‘illegality industry’. The numbers involved in Europe’s so-called refugee ‘crisis’ speak for themselves: 740,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean to reach Europe so far this year. This is a mere 0.15 percent of Europe’s 500 million population, more a trickle than a ‘wave’. The crisis is that Europe’s policies endanger human life in numerous ways; not only the lives of people fleeing the Syrian war and the deteriorating conditions in neighbouring countries, but wars and repression in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Eritrea and beyond.

The real crisis is the Syrian war and the suffering it causes. By far the biggest problem is that the ‘refugee crisis’—or rather, its most visible demographic manifestation in the form of Syrian refugees—was not simply a humanitarian one, but a political one, caused by the war in Syria and the brutal actions of the Syrian government towards Syrian society.

Improving the situation of refugees in neighbouring countries, increasing funds for their needs, and providing safe passage to countries of refuge are necessary steps. But until the war ends and concerted international efforts to rebuild Syria and Iraq, akin to a ‘Marshall Plan’, are implemented, the root causes of mass displacement will remain. Refugees will continue arriving in Europe, no matter how dangerous the journey, and whether its ministers like it or not. 

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