Migrant Lives

At The Syria-Turkey Border, Suddenly Shut Off To Refugees

After the Paris attacks last month, an emergency accord between Turkey and the European Union has sealed a border that was once so porous. It has real-life effects on desperate refugees, and entire towns.

Syrian refugees in Greece last month, before new restrictions in Turkey
Syrian refugees in Greece last month, before new restrictions in Turkey
Benjamin Barthe

ANTAKYA â€" It's midnight, and the bus stop in Antakya, capital of Turkey's southwestern Hatay province is dark, with the exception of a single cafe brightened by neon lights. A few voices break through the nighttime quiet near the Syrian border, as the bus depot's night workers gather around a thermos of hot tea.

"Just a few weeks ago, hundreds of Syrians were sleeping here, even on the asphalt, waiting to board buses to Izmir or Istanbul," one driver says. "But now, the authorities have deployed police officers in the forest, along the pathways favored by travelers. The Turkish government is closing the border."

Another driver speaks up: "The Paris attacks changed everything. Syrians don't get through anymore."

The 900-kilometer-long border between Syria and Turkey, long known for being so porous, is becoming increasingly difficult to cross. Even before Turkey made an agreement with the European Union on Nov. 29 to stem the tide of refugees, the Turkish government had already made pledges with its diplomatic counterparts. The country has implemented more systematic patrolling of illegal routes after the March closure of Bab Al-Salam, north of Aleppo, and Bab Al-Hawa, north of Idlib. Both had previously been key transit points open to Syrians.

The Syrian Khirbet-al-Joz route has emerged recently as a major focal point of travel restrictions, familiar to anyone who has fled bombings and misery in Syria. When the attacks in the Turkish cities of Suruç (33 killed in July) and Ankara (102 killed in October) forced the army to seal off the eastern part of Turkey's border with Syria â€" which faces areas under ISIS control â€" the narrow Khirbet-al-Joz stretch became a last resort for Syrians.

Too hard to pass

People gather here from as far away as Raqqa, the fiefdom occupied by ISIS jihadists, which is 400 kilometers away. The Russian military's airstrikes have drawn even more people to the route.

Antakya, Turkey â€" Photo: Maarten Sepp

According to the United Nations, 20,000 Syrians have arrived in refugee camps on the Syrian side of the border over the past few weeks alone, and many of them intend to sneak into Turkey as soon as possible. But citing an estimate from the Turkish Red Cross, over the course of three days just 120 Syrians managed to slip past border security guards, press agency Anadolu reported last week.

Oum Ismaïl is among those lucky few. The 55-year-old matriarch, her face lined and her hands calloused, walked for seven hours through the forest before a Turkish taxi driver picked her up. This nighttime journey cost her 600 Turkish lira, or about $205, a small fortune for Ismaïl, a rural resident of the Idlib region. "In our group, there was a woman with a one-and-a-half-year-old child, and she fell three times along the way," she says. "We were so exhausted that no one could help her. Thankfully she was able to get up each time."

Three of her nephews, who left at the same time she did, were less fortunate. They were stopped by the Turkish police, and spent 24 hours in a fenced-in camp, without food, before being sent back to Syria. It was only on their second attempt, the following day, that they were able to get through.

"I've made this trip five different times," says Ismaïl, who since her first entry into Turkey in 2013 has gone home regularly to look after her olive trees. "But this will be my last trip. It's gotten too hard, and the Russian bombs scare me too much."

Mahmoud Bitar, another Syrian in Antakya, is equally familiar with all the obstacles. He's dealt with it numerous times delivering medical aid to Aleppo or Idlib, and remembers various travel companions, weak from the journey, opting to abandon their bags in a ravine so they could keep going.

Been through hell

A recent Human Rights Watch report describes women removing their veils to create makeshift ropes, which their husbands use to hoist them along breakneck inclines. The organization also highlighted the frequency of arrests, gunshots and violent beatings by the Turkish border patrol, all in violation of international law. In these tense situations, panic often leads groups of people to split up.

"In Syria, I've been through hell," Bitar says. "But that endless walk, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, is the worst of anything I've experienced."

At the Antakya bus station, two young Syrians emerge from the darkness. They want to get to the hospital in the Turkish city of Adana, about 200 kilometers to the west, to secure a kidney donation for a member of an armed Syrian group wounded in battle.

Khaled, 30, will be the donor, and his 28-year-old cousin Zakarya will accompany him. The two men, who have made this journey before, can tell the border is closing, but hardened by five years of war, they are indifferent to this change.

"Those who are determined will always be able to get across," says a stony-faced Khaled. "And if necessary, we'll fight for it."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!