Syrians struggle to find safety

Days in November can be rainy, especially in Istanbul. Temperatures drop easily below ten degrees Celsius; the southeast of Turkey has already seen the first snow. In the mountainous regions of Northern Iraq it can be even freezing during this time of the year.

For millions of Syrian refugees it is the fourth winter away from home. The armed conflict that started in 2011 has triggered one of the biggest refugee movements in decades. Recent numbers about the scope of the refugee crisis are appalling. According to Amin Awad, director for the Middle East and North Africa at the United Nations´ Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 13.6 million people have been displaced so far – 7.2 million within Syria, 3.3 million abroad.  In Iraq, 1.9 million people have been displaced due to the internal conflict and the advance of the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS) militants.

Most of the refugees found shelter in neighbouring countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. As the armed fight drags on, receiving countries increasingly struggle with the influx of new-arrivals in terms of providing shelter, food and medicine. It is estimated that by the end of the year, Lebanon, with a population of around 5.8 million people, will host almost 1.5 million refugees. Turkey will host around 1.6 million people. The UNHCR foresees up to 4.1 million refugees from Syria by the end of the year, making Syrians ‘the largest refugee population in the world’.

 Fabio Sola Penna,  Syrian refugees' camp in Cappadocia, Turkey

Fabio Sola Penna,
Syrian refugees’ camp in Cappadocia, Turkey

Turkey with its ‘open door’ policy has been hospitable to refugees without a doubt. The Turkish government declared a ‘temporary protection status’ for Syrian refugees, acknowledging their need for protection. In April 2014, Turkey implemented also the new ‘Law on Foreigners and International Protection’, which offers for the first time a comprehensive approach to migration policies and asylum seekers.

However, civil society organizations have been criticizing that there is no long-term strategy for the integration of asylum-seekers into the society, especially in terms of employment. Turkey is addressing Syrians as ‘guests’. This is partly owed to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which, in Turkey´s case, is applied with a geological limitation. Only ‘European refugees’ receive the legal status of a refugee, not Syrians or other people from non-European countries.

Moreover, the Turkish government assumed that the refugees would return to Syria after the war ended. However, the fighting and killing goes on, the appearance of ISIS has again forced ten thousands of people, Kurds and Yazidis, to leave their homes in northern Syria and Iraq.

It is quite clear now that many refugees are likely to stay permanent in the country. Just recently, Turkey´s Labour and Social Security Minister Faruk Çelik announced to provide Syrians with a temporary ID card, which allows Syrians to take up employment legally. Working permits for Syrians are a sensitive topic.

Çelik underlined that this reform, ‘will not have an impact on our own country’s people’s response to the current labor force demand.’

There have been incidents of anti-Syrian sentiment and increasing tensions between locals and Syrians – especially in cities close to the Syrian border, like Gaziantep, Hatay, Reyhanli and Kilis. In July this year, about 1000 people marched through the city Kahramanmaras in southern Turkey to protest against refugees.  Other violent clashes between locals and Syrians have been reported from neighbourhoods in Istanbul and Ankara.

Syrian children and women make the majority of all the refugees. Women refugees face sexual harassment and exploitation by employers, they are reports about forced marriage and prostitution.  Lone women refugees are especially at risk. Some of them therefore opt to be the ‘second wife’ for Turkish men. Women´s right activists in Reyhanli report of increasing domestic violence and abuse, against both Turkish and Syrian wives.

While Turkey and other countries are increasingly overwhelmed by the situation, countries outside of the region, especially in Europe, are reluctant to accept refugees. Up to now, these countries agreed on a total amount of 50.000 people only. It correlates to 2 % of the whole refugee population.

‘So wealthy countries in the world should recognize the humanity and the generosity of the countries that are hosting so many refugees’, said Melissa Fleming, UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, in a talk while addressing this issue. ‘And all countries should make sure that no one fleeing war and persecution arrives at a closed border.”

The reality, however, is different. The European Union has increased border controls and surveillance strategies to identify irregular migrants and implements policies to prevent that refugees reach the EU. There is almost no legal way to get to Europe and to claim asylum. Instead, asylum-seekers depend on human smugglers who facilitate their entry to countries like Germany or Sweden. After fleeing from a brutal civil war, these refugees have to risk their life again to find a place in safety.


Foto: Fabio Sola Penna

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