Startling voyages: Syrian refugees at the borders of Europe

Startling voyages: Syrian refugees at the borders of Europe

Hazal Pupuççular – Mine Tafolar
Boats sinking one after another with several illegal immigrants dying have become one of the most recurrent themes we have gotten used to in reading the news lately. After the sinking of two migrant boats near Sicily resulted in hundreds of casualties last week, human smuggling was brought to the agenda of the EU once again. These tragedies reveal the dreams and hopes of many people living in vulnerable situations, mainly in the Middle East and North Africa, to improve their living conditions by somehow making it into Europe.  As the authorities emphasized the increasing figures of asylum-seekers trying to enter the EU, one of the most important reasons for these rising figures has undisputedly been the Arab Spring, during which political turmoil in the region led thousands of people to seek refuge in other countries. The war in Syria, as the last wave of this episode, further complicated the already thorny picture.

According to recent information, 120,000 people have died and 2 million people have fled their country since the beginning of the uprising. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed the number of Syrians in Turkey has exceeded 500,000 since September 2013. Those migrants have not just lived in the refugee camps in the Southern regions; they also began to settle down in other cities like Istanbul in accordance with their well-being. However, the subject is much broader than the existing refugees in Turkey. Though not comparable to the numbers living in Turkey, a lot of Syrians are also making attempts to settle in Europe. In the above-mentioned shipwrecks near Sicily, the Syrian nationals were drowned among others. These incidents led to alarmed voices within Europe. The EU followed with concern that similar incidents occur in the Aegean Sea more frequently. 

For nearly two years, human smuggling between Turkey and Greece, as one of the many problems between these two countries, has changed its manner in such a way that this trafficking began to serve mostly the Syrian refugees desiring to live in the EU. Because Greece constructed barriers around the land borders in Thrace and boosted the level of security near the Evros River, one of the most important points in human smuggling, the activity shifted towards the Aegean Sea. In this respect, not only the shipwrecks through which people were drowned increased day by day, but also the figures displaying the Syrians that could enter Greece soared significantly. Greek authorities, as well as the EU, fear a further increase in numbers. Actually, their fear seems to materialize as the war in Syria continues and the number of refugees continues to skyrocket in Turkey. Therefore, it is not shocking Greece asked for help from the EU and authorities of the islands near Turkey, like Chios, Kos, and Lesvos are making meetings to solve the pressing problem.

The illegal migration of the Syrians to Greece from Turkey spotlights two crucial points. On the one hand, the EU is expected to cope with the refugee issue more solemnly. The EU reports began to emphasize the scale of the matter reached far beyond what Ankara and Athens could handle individually. Therefore, the alarmed voices may turn into concrete initiatives in short notice. On the other hand, since human smuggling is expected to rise as the number of Syrians increase in Turkey, the tension, specifically in the border zones, and in bilateral relations may increase. Accordingly, more than 500,000 refugees residing in Turkey may engender much broader implications than the ones discussed.   

*Hazal Papuççular is a Ph. D candidate at the Atatürk Institute for Modern Turkish History at Boğaziçi University.

*Mine Tafolar is a Ph. D candidate at the Government Department at the University of Texas at Austin