Africans get waylaid in Turkey

Migrants stuck in Istanbul on their way to Europe have started their own 'African Cup' soccer tournament.

When Nigerians and Guineans faced off in a championship soccer match Sunday, neither side could claim home-field advantage. In fact, neither team even had home continent advantage.

Despite stands filled with cheering African fans and the sound of pulsating drums, the game was not taking place anywhere in Africa but rather in a small, rundown stadium in the heart of Istanbul.

There are so many Africans living (mostly illegally) in Turkey's largest city that for the past two years they have been able to organize an "African Cup," an amateur tournament of teams representing their home countries.

The tournament is a vivid example that Turkey is quickly becoming a major transit route for African migrants trying to reach Europe to escape warfare and economic misery.

But as Europe clamps down its borders, many are getting stuck in Turkey, especially in Istanbul, where there are few services or jobs.

"We are going to be facing a growing number of people who are totally uprooted, displaced, without a home, waiting at the gates of the European Union [EU] to enter, and they will not be able to enter," says Behzad Yaghmaian, an economist at Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J., who is the author of a forthcoming book about migration through Turkey.

As EU-candidate Turkey gets closer to the start of its negotiations for joining the bloc, the pressure on it to stem the illegal migration flow to Europe will increase, potentially leaving even more immigrants unable to move on, Mr. Yaghmaian says.

"Putting a stop sign at the border is not going to stop the flow of people. People are going to continue to come and they are going to continue to need help," he adds.

The International Organization for Migration estimates that some 250,000 migrants - mostly from the Middle East and Africa - flow through Turkey every year, although some experts say that number could be much higher.

"We are overwhelmed," says Ekin Ogutogullari, social-services program director for the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), a Swiss aid group working in Turkey. "There is nothing available in terms of accommodations. There isn't enough in terms of financial assistance. They live in overcrowded and very substandard housing," he adds.

In a country where many Turks themselves are struggling to find work and to make ends meet, the arrival of African migrants has been greeted with a sense of bewilderment and some resentment.

One of the Cup's organizers, a young Nigerian who wished to be named only as Donald, says a main goal of the tournament was to show Turks a different side of the Africans living among them.

"We found that people here focused on the negative things [about us]," says Donald, a slender man who fled Nigeria three years ago after religious riots between Christians and Muslims in his hometown killed his parents. "We thought that as footballers we could let them know about us in a positive aspect."

Donald says he hopes the tournament will serve as an anchor for other projects to serve the African migrant community. "We believe we have the potential and the ability to contribute to this society, but we are not encouraged, there is no room for that. So we are working very hard to change this attitude," he says.

Watching the cup's final game near a large group of singing and dancing Nigerians (whose team would go on to beat Guinea 2-0), Mahad Mahmoud, a 20-year-old Somali, says life in Turkey has been a constant struggle. He shares a two-bedroom apartment with 15 other Somalis and has only been able to do temporary work that usually pays less than 10 Turkish Lira ($7.56) per day.

"I'm now in a place where I can't go back and I can't go forward. It's very hard," says Mahmoud, who left the instability of Somalia last year to escape clan-related violence that targeted his family. He was smuggled to Turkey in the cargo hold of a ship, told he was being taken to Europe.

Somalia was a new entry in this year's tournament, even though the players could barely afford cleats. Although his team failed to advance, Mahmoud says seeing them play was a sweet, if brief, respite from his troubles.

"When Somalia was playing, I felt like I was in my country, encouraging my team," he says with a smile. "I was very happy when they were playing, even if they lost."

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