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Struggling in Turkey

Anna Lekas Miller, Istanbul
February 17, 2016

As thousands of Syrians fleeing the war amass on the border to Turkey, those already there are struggling with homegrown bureaucracy and European ineptitude. Anna Lekas Miller reports from Istanbul.

vendor on street
Image: DW/A. Lekas Miller

For the past week, tens of thousands of refugees have been waiting at the Syria/Turkey border, waiting to see if - after closing the border in November of last year - the Turkish government will allow them to cross.

"We have been, in the past few days, not just appalled but horrified by what has been caused in the way of human suffering for tens of thousands of people," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a recent meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

While 15,000 of the most recent wave of refugees have been allowed to enter Turkey, Merkel's meeting and this week's European Union summit are both focussed on keeping these and the three million other refugees living in Turkey inside of Turkey, and dissuading them from taking the now notorious sea route to Greece and seeking asylum in Europe.

Are deals and negotiations enough?

Most policies designed to stem the flow of refugees into Europe are oriented around creating incentives for refugees to stay inside of Turkey - the typical first stop after Syria, and point of crossing for refugees to Greece, and therefore, the European Union. However, for many Syrians, these initiatives - including the 3-billion euro ($3.3-billion) EU-Turkey deal, which, among other provisions provides work permits for Syrians working inside of Turkey as a means to facilitate a sustainable future and dissuade migration to Europe, are not enough to build a future.

"I want to have an education, and a proper passport," said Khaled, echoing the desires of many Syrians in his generation, and a strong motivation for many to take the now notorious Aegean route to travel illegally to Europe.

Although Khaled's language skills have secured him a job working for a Turkish company selling cleaning supplies, he is working long days and only earning 1,000 TL (300 euros) per month - barely enough to pay the rent on a single room in Istanbul, much less support additional family members. Though Khaled is working inside of Turkey, his job does not qualify him for the work permit, which, at this point, only 3,856 of almost 3 million Syrians living in the country have been able to receive.

shop window copyright: Anna Lekas Miller
Life isn't easy as it is for many Syrians, but Turkish bureaucracy and EU ineptitude are making it even more difficultImage: DW/A. Lekas Miller

"I see myself in Turkey for another few months - maximum," he told DW.

In addition to the bureaucratic hurdles of the new policies, the Turkish government has also placed restrictions on Syrians living in Turkey, including requiring travel permits for domestic travel for Syrians that do not have a Turkish residency card - a document that is difficult to obtain, particularly if someone entered the country illegally, as is the case with many refugees given the border closures. Although the policy is an effort to discourage Syrians from traveling to the coastal cities and make the Aegean crossing and by default to crackdown on the human smuggling networks operating inside of Turkey, in reality it constricts domestic travel for Syrians, and often makes daily life more challenging.

"They say its the best place to be a refugee, but they're treating us like cattle," said Hamoud, a resident of Gaziantep who was recently denied boarding an airplane while traveling to Istanbul to renew his passport.

"How can we picture our future here when obtaining proper documentation is almost impossible?"

Syrians still motivated to leave

As policies designed to encourage Syrians to stay fail to quickly materialize and efforts intensify to crack down on the Aegean route, such as deploying NATO warship to patrol the waters and turn around boats of asylum-seekers, many see now as the time to leave in case things get worse.

tents set up in a camp Copyright: picture alliance/ZUMA Press
The camps on the border are filling up rapidlyImage: picture alliance/ZUMA Press/

"I don't have any friends left here - all of them have gone to Germany," Lina, a nurse from Damascus currently living in Istanbul, told DW.

"If you can't get work, you don't have documents, and you can't go home, what are you supposed to do?"

Although Lina has considered taking the trip multiple times, she prefers to stay in Turkey, closer to Syria - where, like many, she is hoping to go back as soon as she can. Now she works at a non-governmental organization, carefully monitoring the situation inside of Syria.

"There's thousands of refugees waiting at the border," she says of the nearly 70,000 refugees fleeing the regime's offensive on Aleppo.

"We have run out of time for temporary solutions," she continues. "The only way to stop this is to stop the killing inside of Syria."