The route from Turkey to Greece was once crowded with Syrian asylum seekers fleeing to Europe. But some are now moving in the opposite direction because of a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment
ISTANBUL — Um Farouk almost drowned on her first trip from Turkey to Greece. The 47-year-old Syrian refugee said it was a "miracle" Turkish soldiers rescued her and 40 others from a boat that capsized in the Aegean Sea last year. Within a week, she tried the dangerous trip to Europe a second time with her son.
"I decided to try another time because I have no home or country to go back to," she told Syria Deeply.
Her second attempt was successful. They made it to Greece and were eventually granted asylum in Denmark. But, after only a year in the Scandinavian country, and despite the risks she took to get there, Um Farouk decided to leave Europe and return to Turkey alone.
"I felt lonely in Denmark," she said. "It was really difficult for me to learn their language and their customs. Their culture is completely different from ours."
What bothered her the most, she said, was not being able to hear the sound of prayer coming from mosques. She also felt out of place wearing a veil in a non-Muslim country. "The way society looked at me as a veiled woman was very bad," she said. "When coming to Europe, it had never crossed my mind that one day these obstacles would make me think of going back."
Cases like Um Farouk's, although few in comparison to the number of people who fled Syria for Europe, are no longer as unusual as they once were. The number of Syrians leaving Europe is on the rise after an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment. The 2016 European Islamophobia Report, a study of Islamophobia in 27 European countries published earlier this year, found that the "level of Islamophobia in fields such as education, employment, media, politics, the justice system and the internet is on the rise."
"Islamophobia has become more real, especially in the everyday lives of Muslims in Europe. It has surpassed the stage of being a rhetorical animosity and has become a physical animosity that Muslims feel in everyday life, be it at school, the workplace, the mosque, transportation or simply on the street," the report said.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled to Europe since the conflict started. Syrian refugees made 884,461 asylum claims between April 2011 and October 2016, almost two-thirds of which were in Germany and Sweden.
The majority of those leaving are illegally smuggled out through Greece and most are not returning to Syria
Although there is significant data concerning the influx of refugees, little is known about how many refugees are leaving Europe. This is largely because the majority of those leaving are illegally smuggled out through Greece and most are not returning to Syria, but to neighboring countries such as Turkey.
Um Farouk now lives with her married daughter in Istanbul. She got there by hiring a smuggler to transport her by land from Thessaloniki in Greece to Turkey. She says that trip cost her about $1,200.
But some European refugees have left legally, after European countries including Germany, Austria and Norway adopted policies offering financial incentives for asylum seekers who voluntarily gave up their claims to asylum. For example, Germany is offering 1,200 euros, (about $1,400) for asylum seekers who withdraw their asylum application.
A Syrian smuggler based in Greece who chose to be identified as Abo Abdo told Syria Deeply that in recent months he has observed an increase in the number of Syrians fleeing European countries for Turkey. He said he smuggles at least a dozen Syrian refugees from Greece to Turkey every day.
"Some are coming from Germany and from Sweden but most of them are leaving from Greece due to the harsh situation in the camps and because the Greek authorities are imposing harsher restrictions on refugees," he said.
"I moved from the Turkish city of Izmir to Greece, because there is more work here," he said.
But "with the start of winter, the cold in the camps became harsher and most people who were in Greece wanted to go back," Abo Abdo said.
He says the smuggling route he now uses is via land from Thessaloniki to Adana and the price is 1,500-2,000 euros ($1,800-$2,400). "The route is hard, but no one is stopping you, because the Greeks really want to get rid of the refugees," he said.
The demand for smugglers is so high that Facebook groups have been created to advertise for such services. One such group, Reverse Migration: Smuggling from Europe to Turkey, claims it assists Syrians in Germany who want to go to Turkey without visas or passports. Another claims it offers daily trips from Thessaloniki to Turkey for only 150 euros ($180).
A year and half passed... It was then that I noticed that the so-called ‘promise land" was an illusion.
Abu Mohammad, 53, was among the Syrians who were smuggled back from Germany to Turkey this year, after living in the city of Dresden for 18 months.
"A year and half passed since we were granted asylum in Germany. It was then that I noticed that the so-called ‘promise land" was an illusion," he said.
"One of the reasons that made me think of abandoning my German residency was the harassment I faced there with my veiled wife … especially after the increased wave of hatred against Arabs and Muslims."
Police statistics released by the German Interior Ministry in February found that nearly 10 attacks targeted migrants and refugees every day in 2016. Earlier this month, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party called for the repatriation of half a million Syrian refugees currently living in Germany, in a sign of growing hostility toward immigrants.
Abu Mohammad said since going back to Syria was "not an option," he and his wife returned to Turkey.
"I was hoping to start a new life. I think that Syrians can live in Turkey without discrimination because of their religion," he said.
While most refugees leaving Europe are heading to Turkey, Firas, a 30-year-old Syrian refugee who was granted asylum in Sweden, left for Sudan earlier this year. Syrians do not need an entry visa to Sudan, which he hoped would make it easier for him to reunite with his family.
"The family reunification procedures in Sweden were always delayed and could take many years, which made me want to give up my rights for asylum in Sweden," he said.
But, like Um Farouk and Abu Mohammad, he said discrimination against Syrians in Europe was a factor. "I choose Sudan, because … I thought maybe things would be better here," he said.
"But it looks like, wherever Syrians go, they will have bad luck."