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European jihadists

Senada Sokollu / reMay 14, 2014

For years now, European fighters traveling to Syria have been a concern for the EU. Turkey has become the preferred transit route for jihadists heading to the Middle East, a circumstance the EU hopes to change.

Krieg in Syrien ARCHIVBILD 04.04.2013
Image: Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images

Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, neighboring Turkey has been a shelter for approximately one million refugees but also an important transit country for young Islamists on their way to fight “Holy War”. It is estimated that between 2,000 and 5,500 European jihadists are fighting in Syria and Turkey has been criticized for not doing enough to prevent them from traveling to Syria.

In a report from October 2013 the human rights organization Human Rights Watch accused Turkish authorities of allowing fighters to enter northern Syria to join the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In addition, the report stated that fighters had received medical care in Turkey and that Turkey had delivered money and weapons to the fighters.

'The EU has to prevent them from departing'

The Turkish government has rejected these accusations. The Turkish Minister for Customs and Trade, Hayati Yazici, said in an interview with the “Hürriyet” newspaper that “European countries let jihadists depart to Turkey and then they demand from Turkey that it should hinder them on entering Syria.” That was not acceptable, he said, adding that EU countries should prevent them from departing in the first place.

Syrien Islamisten Parade in Tel Abyad
Jihadists held a parade in the Syrian the town of Tel AbyadImage: Reuters

According to Turkish media reports, more than 4,000 people have been refused entry into Turkey because they were considered to be radical Islamists. And according to a Turkish government report, 1,100 Europeans have been arrested in Turkey and then deported as alleged Islamists to the home countries. The Turkish newspaper “Habertürk” wrote that they are mainly from Germany, Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

Foreign jihadists use human traffickers

“European jihadists with a British passport don't need a visa and when they are at the Turkish border they can easily enter Turkey. A regular Turkish border official can't find out if someone is a terrorist or not,” said Osman Bahadir Dincer, a political scientist with the International Strategic Research Organization, USAK, in Ankara. “The EU has to take action to hold suspects before their departure. That is not Turkey's job,” said Dincer.

Within the research project “Limits of Hospitality” he frequently travels to the Syrian-Turkish border to observe the stream of Syrian refugees. “The border is 900 kilometers long [558 miles] and it is difficult for Turkey to examine every single centimeter,” Dincer said, pointing out that foreign jihadists frequently use human traffickers to illegally cross the border. “There are many human traffickers at the Turkish-Syrian border. They bring people in and out of Syria,” he said.

Syrien Flüchtlinge Grenze Türkei 01.09.2013
Syrian refugees line up at a Turkish border crossingImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Furthermore, a few hundred to few thousands Syrian refugees cross the border to Turkey every day. “Some of them have no passport or other official papers and illegally enter Turkey with the help of human traffickers. There, we also don't know if they are members of a radical group, or if they are just normal refugees. They are always entitled to return to Syria,” said the political scientist. It is not known if they get radical battle training in Syria and then return to Turkey as refugees. “Security at the border is a huge problem for Turkey,” he noted.

Deportation not the solution

Secil Pacaci Elitok, migration expert at Sabanci University in Istanbul, says that no country can be blamed for the entering and leaving of jihadists. “Turkey has a no-visa policy with Syria. Therefore, the border is open. Turkey has the same policy with many other countries in the Middle-East,” she said in interview with DW.

Krieg in Syrien ARCHIVBILD 19.07.2012
The war in Syria has attracted thousands of religiously motivated warriors from other countriesImage: Bulent Kilic/AFP/GettyImages

Turkey can't close its borders with Syria because of the many refugees who cross the border from Syria. “But the EU has left Turkey alone with the Syrian refugee problem and therefore it is inappropriate to complain that Turkey is not careful enough. We need a division of labor,” said the expert.

The deportation of jihadists will also not solve the problem, according to Elitok, because it is not a classic migration problem which can be resolved by deportation and immigration regulations.

“You have to tackle the main cause of the jihadist movement,” she said and that is not in Turkey. “The foreign jihadists are a problem for Turkey and for the whole world,” said political researcher Osman Bahadir Dincer.

Jihadists from the West who travel to Syria to fight there become ideologically radicalized and receive fight training, he emphasized. They will return to their home countries when the war in Syria is over, he said, and then they will become a huge problem for the rest of us.