International sympathy for Syrians, Iraqis and other migrants traveling toward Europe at great cost has not stilled a persistent debate: Are these refugees fleeing persecution, as the asylum laws say? Or are they economic migrants seeking a better life in a developed country? And if they make it to Turkey or Jordan or Lebanon, as some 4 million Syrians have to date, why don’t they stay there?
A visit to both ends of the short, treacherous voyage from Turkey across the Aegean Sea to Greece provides some clues.
In Turkey, Waiting To Risk Everything
Izmir, long known as Smyrna, is a melting-pot city of 3 million on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Its reputation is secular, hedonistic, sun- and fun-loving. But these days, Izmir’s working-class district of Basmane is filled with the sights and sounds of Syria and Iraq.
Women in scarves or full-length burqas comfort squirming children as their husbands, sons and brothers speak anxiously into cellphones or negotiate with taxi drivers. Basmane is Grand Central for migrant smugglers and their customers. Make a deal here and your family could soon be risking its life in an overloaded, underpowered, inflatable boat to Greece.
Muhannad Dasur, a 24-year-old Syrian, was studying for his master’s degree in engineering when he decided to bolt for Europe. Like many, he wants to go to Germany — not because of its strong social welfare benefits, but to continue his studies.
“This is my dream from about five years, to study in [Germany],” he says. “But I have no money. This is a chance to go there.”
In other words, he can’t afford to go to Germany legally, so he’s joining the migration north.
Dasur sounds like a classic economic migrant. But dig a little deeper, and you find out he’s from Homs, a city devastated by the Syrian army and various rebel groups. Dasur would probably qualify for asylum in most Western countries.
It’s a murky case, one of thousands of stories that asylum officials will have to sort through.
In Greece, Elation And Uncertainty
At the port in Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, the main transit point to Europe, there’s a rare scene of refugees and water that doesn’t involve tragedy: Adults wash themselves and their clothes, while letting their kids have some fun and forget the trauma they’ve been through to get here.
Mohammed, a stocky, balding Syrian who’s afraid to give his last name, sits with his feet dangling in the warm water. He says he traveled from Deraa, a ravaged area in the south of Syria, to Turkey. Within days, he got on a boat to Lesbos with his aunt.
His plan is to go on to Germany or Sweden, so he’s startled to hear that the Hungarian border is closed.
“They closed? When, yesterday? Today? Closed? What about the people there?” he asks. When he learns people are staying, “We are going to be with them!” he says, laughing.
As a Syrian from Deraa, Mohammed would likely be eligible for asylum. But he says he left there because he couldn’t find work, and his wife is pregnant with their second child.
His dismay at hearing of the border closing bumps up against his stoic, Middle Eastern sense of humor.
“Why did they do this? Oh my God,” he says. Then, with another laugh: “I will find my luck!”
‘No Hope, No Future In Turkey’
Mohammed can’t answer the question ‘Why didn’t you stay in Turkey?’ — he only transited through — but another Syrian, Adil Mohammad, can.
Adil is a 28-year-old mathematics teacher from Syria’s Hasakeh province. He spent several months in Turkey before deciding he had to leave. He wound up swimming to Lesbos when the motor died on the boat he was in.
As to why he didn’t stay and build a life in Turkey, his emphatic reply is that he did try, but quickly found out that he wasn’t allowed to.
“The big problem for anyone in Syria, you live in Turkiya, Turkiya it’s very bad,” he says, using an Arabic pronunciation for the country. “You can’t rent a house, ’cause you are from Syria. And [they] didn’t give you anything to be legal in country in Turkiya.”
For Adil Mohammad and nearly 2 million other Syrians in Turkey, that’s the core of the problem. Turkey doesn’t allow non-Europeans to apply for asylum. Instead, they get “temporary protection” — very generous protection, given to vast numbers of people, but it never leads to legal status. Renting a house or finding a job must be done under the table, putting refugees at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords and business owners.
Adil says his experience in Turkey made him more determined than ever to keep going: “No future, no hope in Turkiya,” he says. “[Because] of that, I will go to Europe. I will work and I will make my future.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many on both ends of this perilous trip.