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Perilous journey for Syrians fleeing to Turkey

With official border crossings between Syria and Turkey closed, smugglers have begun assisting Syrians wanting to cross into Turkey to safety and to work.

SYRIA-TURKEY BORDER — On Aug. 2 around 5:30 a.m., as the sun rose and darkness slowly vanished from the Hawar Killis region, dozens of Syrians gathered to wait among the trees near the barbed-wire fence constituting the border between Syria and Turkey. They were waiting for their chance to enter Turkey in search of safety and job opportunities.

Young people and families with children and elderly members, having brought with them large bags of amenities, anxiously awaited a sign from a smuggler to run in the direction of Turkish territory, hoping to get lucky and manage to evade Turkish border guards.

On the opposite side of the barbed wire, some seven armed border guards patrolled to prevent illegal entry. Every now and then, a speeding Turkish army armored vehicle would arrive to inspect the guard positions.

Al-Monitor spoke with one of the families. Abu Rami, not his real name, 35, sat next to his wife, each of them holding a child. They wore their fatigue and exhaustion on their faces.

“This is the third day I've come with my family here to try to enter Turkish territory,” said Abu Rami. “Many attempts have failed to get past the trench and the barbed wire. … Had it not been for the smuggler’s assurances that he would guarantee our entry into Turkey, I would have returned to our house in Aleppo.”

Entering illegally has been the only way for Syrians to get into Turkey overland since March 9, when Turkish authorities closed the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salameh border crossings. Even before that, Syrians had been entering Turkey illegally, as many of them do not have passports, the issuance of which remains the preserve of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Syrians in general, and residents of the north in particular, see in Turkey a refuge from the raging war that has plagued the country for four years. They are heading to Turkey in the hope of finding safety, securing work and finishing educations. For some, Turkey is also the first stop en route to trying to reach Europe.

Abu Rami told Al-Monitor, “The situation in Syria is getting more complicated by the day, and this war will not end soon. Barrels are falling daily on Aleppo, and I could no longer risk the lives of my children.” He added, “My friend found me a job in a factory in the city of Gaziantep, and I think this job will be enough for me and my family to live on.”

As soon as Abu Rami finished talking and having a sip of water, masses of people began running toward Turkey. The border guards appeared to have left the area. A few young people managed to get across. Abu Rami packed his bags and ran. The armored vehicle returned, and border guards were once again deployed.

“Git” (Turkish for “go”) was the only word the guards yelled. As some of the Syrians persisted, the border guards began shooting into the air. Those who could not make the crossing were sorely disappointed.

Al-Monitor talked to one of the smugglers, a Syrian national living in a town close to the border. He was standing a ways from the barbed wire, making phone calls.

“Entering Turkey used to be a piece of cake, but it has become almost impossible now,” he told Al-Monitor, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It has been two months that border guards have been unprecedentedly tightening security and deepening the trench between the two countries to more than four meters.”

On July 19, the second day of Eid al-Fitr, a young man named Alaa Mohammed Jolo was shot and killed by Turkish guards in Hawar Killis as he tried to cross the border. His death triggered anger among Syrians after a photo of him lying dead on the ground went viral. Three more Syrians — Hasan MistoMustafa Sabah and his wife — were subsequently shot and killed by Turkish border guards in other regions in less than a week in July. One unidentified person was killed in the Hawar Killis region.

“Although they know that there are risks involved, dozens of people come every day to try to enter Turkey, but only a few of them get lucky and manage to enter after many attempts,” the smuggler said. “I cannot guarantee the safety of anyone who comes near the border, and my job is limited to ensuring a car at the other end so that people who pass the barbed wire at the border manage to quickly flee the border guards who could catch them and send them back to Syria.”

According to World Food Programme statistics released in June, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey has reached 1,700,000. The decision to close the border crossings and tighten security is an indication of Turkey's unwillingness to bear the burden of additional refugees.

“We have not received any assurances from the Turkish side to open the border crossings with Syria,” Nazim Hafiz, the Bab al-Salameh border crossing director, told Al-monitor. “The crossing is currently running trade operations only and allowing the entry of [people] in case of critical [medical] emergencies.”

As civil war continues to claim civilian lives in Syria, for many Syrians the risking of losing one's life crossing into Turkey pales in comparison.

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