Refugee deal turns hope to despair in Turkey’s Izmir

A square in Izmir was once a pit stop for migrants on the march to Europe: A place to meet smugglers, change money to euros and buy life jackets before chancing the Aegean crossing to enter Greece illegally. But since the EU and Turkey reached a deal this month it has transformed into a place of nervous waiting and indecision.

An Afghan man waits to try to cross to the Greek island of Chios, which is becoming an almost impossible dream. Ozan Kose / AFP
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IZMIR, TURKEY // Like the Smyrna of old — as the city was once known when it was home to a cosmopolitan mix of Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Europeans and Turks — modern-day Izmir again hints at a melting pot of cultures, nationalities and identities. That past diversity was based on prosperity and trade at a crossroads between east and west. Today’s is based on escaping misery.

A small square in the Basmane neighbourhood, near one of the city’s main train stations, offers a wide sampling of the exodus from the conflicts and depressed economies of Africa, the Middle East and South Asia: Syrians whose homes have been destroyed, Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram, young men escaping caged-in Gaza, Moroccans looking for a better life, Iraqis and Afghans losing hope that their nations’ long wars will ever finish.

This square was once a pit stop on the march to Europe: A place to meet smugglers, change money to euros and buy life jackets before chancing the Aegean crossing to enter Greece illegally. But since the European Union and Turkey reached a deal this month that allows Greece to return refugees and migrants arriving after March 19, it has transformed into a place of nervous waiting, indecision and hopelessness.

“I’ll keep trying to go until I’m dead,” says Adnan, a wiry 20-year-old Palestinian who fled from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus.

Despite the initial defiance in his voice, doubt begins to set in as he asks questions about the provisions of the EU-Turkey deal. He says he has only enough money for one trip across the sea. He tried to cross before the deal took effect, but his group was stopped on the beach by Turkish authorities. His smuggler returned a chunk of the US$600 (Dh2,200) he paid for the crossing. But he will not get a refund if he makes it to Greece and is deported. “What do you think I should do?” he asks.

Many refugees here say they will still try to get to Europe, but for now they wait anxiously in the hope that the deal will be retracted and Greece’s border with Macedonia — where more than 11,000 are currently camped — will be opened. On Sunday, rumours swirled through the square and Basmane’s alleys that the border and the route to central Europe were going to reopen soon. The same rumours brought hundreds more refugees swarming to the Greece-Macedonia border.

“I pray to God the deal will not succeed,” says Adnan.

The effects of the deal are already being felt. Last year, more than 850,000 refugees crossed the Aegean from Turkey to Greece, a rate of more than 2,000 per day. But as the implications of the EU-Turkey deal sink in, those numbers have dropped dramatically. On Friday, Greek authorities said just 161 people landed on its shores. That number fell to 78 on Saturday, and to 73 on Sunday.

It is not just the EU-Turkey deal keeping people away from Greek shores; Turkey says it has stepped up efforts at Europe’s request to prevent migrants from crossing. On March 2, foreign ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic said Turkey had stopped more than 24,000 migrants in the first 45 days of 2016 — more than 500 a day. On Sunday, Turkish authorities said they had stopped 350 migrants at sea, including people fleeing Myanmar.

Many refugees in Basmane say they tried to reach Greece before the deal came into effect, only to be stopped by the Turkish government.

Yasin, a 20-year-old Moroccan, has been in Izmir for 20 days and has already made four attempts. Each time, Turkish authorities stopped his group before they could even board their boats.

“Yes, I heard about the deal, but what can I do?” he says. “I just want to go. I can’t go back to Morocco. I’d rather die in Turkey than go back to Morocco.”

Before Yasin is able to go deeper into his story, the smuggler he had paid wanders over and shouts at him not to speak to journalists. He is escorted away to a group of fellow Moroccans.

In the streets around the square, shops are stocked with bright orange life vests, flimsy-looking inflatable tubes and clear plastic sleeves to protect documents and valuables from the water. Signs in Arabic offer money-changing services. Syrian restaurants serve up familiar street food. Smugglers’ hands reach out to grab the attention of unfamiliar passers-by. “Do you want to travel?” asks one.

But for some there has long been a resignation that this could be the end of their journey.

Abu Hamad, 48, a Syrian Kurd from the town of Afrin north-west of Aleppo, came to Izmir seven months ago hoping to reach Greece. He thought it would cost about $2,000 to get his family of seven across, but with spots on boats going for between $600 and $1,000, his estimates were way off.

“I can’t get to Greece because the smugglers are like vampires,” he says. “I really want to go, but I don’t have the money because we are seven people … If we go we can’t eat.”

Now his 12-year-old and 17-year-old daughters work as cleaners in a factory, the younger one earning just $17 a week and the older one twice that. Abu Hamad says he cannot work due to illness. Even if he could, he says, there are few jobs for Syrian men his age here.

At first glance, Izmir resembles the kind of European destination refugees are trying to reach. Its boulevards are wide and orderly, lined with luxury outlets. Its seafront promenade is attractive, with park benches fitted with power sockets and automated bike-rental kiosks. It is a sharp contrast with the places refugees are fleeing — and even from Turkey’s own dangerous frontiers in the south and east. But as stories like Abu Hamad’s show, there is limited opportunity for refugees.

For two recent arrivals from Lagos, the difficulties that lie ahead are just becoming clear. Michael, 26, and Lucky, 30, left Nigeria four months ago with a few hundred dollars between them and no passports. After a long overland journey and many illegal border crossings, they secured passage on a small cargo boat that was bringing immigrants to Turkey from Egypt. When they landed in Izmir, they thought Turkey might be a place to settle down, but quickly realised that the language barrier was too difficult to overcome. They have now set their sights on Europe, despite having exhausted their funds and relying on handouts.

“We just like Abraham, we go from place to place,” says Lucky. “We just keep running,” adds Michael. “Running, running, running,”

Unable to speak Turkish or Arabic, they are isolated here. They cannot understand the smugglers who approach them. They are unaware of the war in Syria that has driven many of the people in the square to look to Europe. And they are not fully aware of the deal between the EU and Turkey or what it means for them.

All they know is that they do not want to go back to Nigeria, where they fear the rise of Boko Haram, the Niger Delta conflict, and a land ruled by corruption.

“You don’t sleep in Nigeria. You sleep with one eye open,” says Michael. “We want to reach somewhere where we can rest.”

* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse​