Turkey is supposed to guard our borders against more refugees and receive financial aid for its services. But refugees fleeing to Europe across the Mediterranean keep coming.
AYVACIK — Less than six miles separate this town on Turkey's western coast from the Island of Lesbos, Greece. Nearly two-thirds of the 850,000 refugees who arrived in Europe via the Greek isles in 2015 crossed over to Lesbos.
But entering European Union territory via Turkey is supposed to have become impossible now, at least according to the Joint Plan of Action that the EU signed with Turkey at the end of November. This agreement stipulates that Turkey must patrol its coastlines more effectively and take back illegal refugees who crossed over from its territory. To be able to fulfill these terms, Turkey will receive 3 billion euros from Brussels and Turkish citizens will no longer have to apply for a visa to enter the EU.
In the first two weeks of 2016, Turkish authorities intercepted some 2,000 refugees, and arrested 27 traffickers. But is this really a lasting solution?
A few miles south of Ayvacik is Kemal Nazli's office, located in a former Greek stately home. As the chief Turkish national government officer in Ayvacik, Nazil is wondering how he his supposed to seal off the entire coast of his district, as the EU has demanded. "We would be able to do more with more aid," he notes. "But no country is able to keep people outside or inside its borders if these people really want to enter or leave."
Nazil says patrolling the entire shoreline 24/7 is unfeasible for his police force of 250, even in the winter when there are around 70,000 residents in the area — and certainly not during the summer, when the population rises to 500,000.
Cash is short
None of the localities along the coast know exactly how the EU-Ankara Joint Plan of Action will affect them. But one thing is clear: The 4.6 million euros that Turkey spends daily on humanitarian aid for refugees is not enough. "We provide first aid items such as blankets, clothing, baby food," says 41-year-old aid worker Özgür Öztürk. "The police were skeptical at first but now they call us in to help when they have picked up refugees or rescued them from sea."
Traffickers are not the only ones making money from the refugee crisis: Local hoteliers, shop owners, taxi drivers, jewelers, farmers who rent their fields to the traffickers, and scavengers who search the beaches for valuables have all capitalized on the new migrant routes.
A crossing to EU territory, which cost $3,000 last year, now costs $650, but you will have to share a rubber dinghy designed for 30 with twice that many. The higher the risk, the lower the price, although traffickers now promise that should you get caught, you won't have to pay twice for the same journey.
Professor of Medicine Cem Terzi of the Bridge Between People Association in Izmir, which provides medical aid says the EU's three billion euros over three years may sound like a lot, but should be put in proper perspective. "Last year's turnover of human trafficking industry was a lot higher than that. Do you really think that all this business will cease to exist? This is the largest migration since the end of World War II."
On a recent day, we visited the small district of Dikili, near the village of Badelmi, the morning after a group of refugees tried to cross over to Greece. Panic swept over the boat because of the high waves, says Zaid, a 35-year-old electrical engineer from Baghdad, and the young Syrian refugee steering the boat, Mohammed from Aleppo, slammed into the cliffs.
Local Turkish authorities picked the group up on the beach at dawn, and a few hours later, Zaid's jeans are still wet in the chilly morning. He has no change of clothes. "I want to get to Europe because it is peaceful there," he says.
By dusk, not too far from Badelmi, we find more people preparing to cross. It has also begun to snow. Esra Simsir, head of the Asam Association that represents the UN Refugee Agency in Turkey, says that they try to convince people to either stay in Turkey or to leave Turkey legally. She says Turkish authorities have not done enough to give these people more resources, though recently granted work permits for refugees are a start.
"We are expecting an explosion in numbers," says Simsir. "As soon as the weather turns mild again, we'll be expecting as many people as arrived at the end of summer last year." Available statistics support her assumption: Only 1,694 refugees were registered on the Greek isles in January 2015, but according to estimates last month, this number has since gone up to 50,668. Still, mass migration is not as overt as it used to be, not even from the hub that is Izmir.
A few days after we met Zaid and Mohammed near Dikili, we hear that the Greek Coast Guard found 25 corpses, ten of them children. And Monday, at least 27 refugees, including 11 children, drowned after their boat capsized near the Turkish coast while attempting to reach the Greek island of Lesbos. Numbers like these should never be faceless.