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Refugees risk it all

Even daily tragedies at sea don’t stop Syrian refugees from risking their lives and those of their families trying to get to Europe from Turkey.

The flow of refugees and immigrants seeking to reach Europe via the Mediterranean has become a flood, and the death toll continues to rise as more vessels try and fail to reach their destinations.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has 157 member countries, said more than 2,700 migrants and refugees died or went missing in Mediterranean waters in the first eight months of this year. 

Those who succeeded in making the trip number more than 430,000 so far this year — more than double the figure for all of 2014.

According to IOM estimates as of Sept. 10, more than 309,000 of the 2015 travelers (70%) sought refuge via Greece — including about 50,000 in just the first days of September. Italy was the No. 2 destination, receiving more than 121,000 people.

More than 175,000 (70%) of refuge seekers who arrived via Greece between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 this year were from Syria. The other main countries of origin were Afghanistan (50,177), Pakistan (11,289) and Iraq (9,059), IOM said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in an interview with CNN International, said the Turkish coast guard has saved more than 50,000 people so far this year.

Erdogan said the Western world is to blame for the death of the 3-year-old Syrian toddler whose lifeless body was found Sept. 2 washed ashore on the Turkish coast. When the interviewer asked, “Are you accusing the West of turning the Mediterranean into a graveyard?” Erdogan replied, “This is the reality.”

According to official figures, Turkey is “temporarily hosting” more than 1.9 million Syrian refugees. Ilyas Erdem, chairman of Istanbul’s Solidarity and Culture Association for Immigrants, known as Goc-Der, told Al-Monitor the number is actually above 2 million.

Helen Clark, head of the UN Development Program, had predicted during her April visit to Turkey that there will be 2.5 million Syrians in Turkey by the end of this year. Clark visited a refugee camp near the Syrian border at Gaziantep where she heaped accolades on Turkey. Calling the camp "the best in the world,’’ she expressed appreciation for the “incredible contributions of Turkey.”

According to Turkey’s official Department of Disasters and Emergencies, there are about 260,000 Syrian refugees in 25 camps near the border.

Thus, according to official figures, more than 1.6 million Syrian refugees live outside the camps. That is not only because of an inadequate number of camps but also because hundreds of thousands of Syrians refuse to live in them.

Turkey says it so far has spent $6 billion for refugees, but has only received $300 million from the international community.

Then the question that comes to mind is: What happened, that the refugees who have been living in Turkey for more than four years at such great costs suddenly decided to risk the lives of their children and families by crossing the sea?

Ahmet Icduygu, a professor and the director of the Immigration Research Center of Koc University of Istanbul, told Al-Monitor the lives of Syrian refugees in Turkey have become much more difficult. Icduygu said although Syrian refugees are trying to set up their own lives in Turkey, their increasing numbers contribute to the deterioration of their conditions.

According to a report issued in January 2014 by Diyarbakir-based Women Research Foundation, studies in southeast Turkey show that 42% of those not living in camps survive with help of their neighbors and 11% by begging. About 21% say they are usually starving.

According to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the root of the problem is Turkey’s refusal to grant legal refugee status to Syrians. Under the 1951 UN Geneva Convention on Refugees, Turkey only grants refugee status to those coming from Europe. Icduygu also notes that the 1951 convention does not clearly regulate the status of those coming in mass migrations. That is why Turkey issued a decree in 2012 putting Syrian refugees in “temporary protection” status, which means that unless they demand it, they will not be sent back to Syria.

But that status denies them the right to apply to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for refugee status. Icduygu says nevertheless many Syrians still apply, claiming they came before the mass migration or outside the mass migration on their own.

Goc-Der's Erdem explained the situation to Al-Monitor: “You apply to UNHCR. You tell them you escaped from war and ask for refugee status. And you wait. It may take years. Some people here have been waiting for 5 years.”

Information from NGOs shows the lack of legal status and being considered “guests” cause complex, hard-to-overcome problems in obtaining basic rights such as housing, employment and education, and worsens their worries about their future.

Icduygu said 99% of working Syrians are unregistered, and therefore illegal because their residence and work permits are not properly regulated. He added, “When they are so desperate, the social and psychological atmosphere [exists] where crime can flourish."

As time passes and they run out of whatever money they had, refugees become poorer and the numbers sleeping in the streets and parks increase. Then come the problems of child labor, begging, thefts, muggings, forcing girls to marry when they are very young to become illegal second wives, and prostitution.

Cheap Syrian labor pushes down legal wages and increases unemployment among Turks. Landlords charge high rents in poor districts.

Those problems lead to verbal and physical racial assaults, and even attempts at lynching. When those deeds are not punished, Syrian refugees fear for their safety.

Icduygu, however, said despite all those adverse conditions and with tens of thousands risking their lives in the seas, research indicates that hundreds of thousands will stay in Turkey. And that number is bound to grow as more migrants succeed at making new lives for themselves, marry and have children. He concluded, “Urgent measures are essential for integration of these people. They must at least be provided with housing, health and employment opportunities so that they can take bread home. We have to make them productive.”

Erdem summed it up as follows: “This is the situation of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Nobody would like to stay here under these conditions because legally, you are a nobody.”

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