For refugees on Turkey's coast, it's still (risky) business as usual

Last week's EU-Turkey deal to halt the flow of migrants sailing for Greece has yet to impact the mindsets of Syrian migrants and those who smuggle them into Europe. 

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The Syrian family of Mehdi Oso, along with his wife and five children, prepare their lifejackets for a third attempt (which succeeded on March 13) to pay smugglers to cross to Greece and the European Union by sea in Izmir, Turkey, on March 10, 2016. An EU-Turkey refugee deal due to be approved by the EU during a summit meeting March 17-18, aims to stop the 'irregular' flow of migrants to Europe from war zones like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but has been criticized by the United Nations and relief groups as illegal.

Just one day after the European Union declared that the flow of migrants from Turkey had “now come to an end,” Mehdi Oso set off with his wife and five children for that perilous boat journey from Turkey to Greece – for a second time.

In the first attempt, 10 days before, the Syrian family had been thwarted more than a mile offshore when meter-high waves nearly swamped their small boat overloaded with 54 refugees.

In their second attempt last Wednesday – a day after the EU and Turkey agreed to block the daily flow of 2,500 new arrivals, and announced they had done it – the family never even made it to the boats. Delayed by two hours spent trying to evade Turkish police, the family found the weather had turned too stormy to risk it.

But they were not deterred, either by the EU-Turkey deal or by the closure of borders on the overland route to Germany, their dream destination. The family’s refusal to give up – they made a third attempt to reach Greece in pre-dawn darkness Sunday – illustrates the challenge of trying to stop the exodus of asylum claimants from war zones in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. More than a million arrived in 2015, provoking a political backlash in Europe. 

The EU-Turkey accord is due to be finalized this week in Brussels. Meanwhile, thousands of migrants have been stranded at the Greek border with Macedonia. 

In Izmir, a port on the west coast of Turkey where life jackets and inner tubes are sold alongside suits and designer clothes, would-be refugees and people-smugglers alike say the refugee deal will have little impact on the migrant flow.

“We hope the third time is the charm.… I have no choice, I will try more and more,” Mr. Oso said Thursday in the family’s tiny, barren apartment on a ramshackle back street in Izmir. Seven new, bright orange life jackets were ready – the “good” ones that cost $25 each, not the cheap ones that sell for $10 – for this life-risking investment in his children’s future. 

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
A lifejackets is written with he words 'Safe Passage' inside a heart, as the Syrian family of Mehdi Oso, along with his wife and five children, prepare their lifejackets for a third attempt (which succeeded on March 13) to pay smugglers to cross to Greece and the European Union by sea in Izmir, Turkey, on March 10, 2016.

Deal has been criticized

Oblivious to the turmoil and fear that gripped the parents, and unaware that his life and those of his playful siblings hung in the balance, 7-month-old Ali clutched at his toes in a baby seat on the floor. Sister Rafif, age 3 1/2, practiced blowing the emergency whistle on the lifejacket she had chosen, which was decorated with pictures of a cartoon rabbit and a soccer ball.

The EU-Turkey refugee deal calls for thousands of refugees to be sent back to Turkey from Greece. In return, Turkey would safely send one vetted Syrian refugee to Europe for each “irregular” one it took back, in return for a doubling of aid funds to $6.6 billion and other incentives.

The deal has been criticized by the United Nations and charity organizations for infringing on the rights of migrants to seek protection from violence they are fleeing at home, and to have their asylum cases heard individually.

News of Europe's arrangement with Turkey never made it to the Oso family, as they waited for their bad luck to improve after their second failed attempt to get to Greece. The family fled to Turkey a year and a half ago from their village near Aleppo, Syria shortly after Islamic State (IS) militants took it over. Even there they had to pay smugglers $100 to get from their village to the next, a distance of just over half a mile.

What they left behind, says Mr. Oso – a short man with a welcoming face and graying hair, who in Syria made his living building window and door frames – was “full destruction … horror, horror, horror.”

The same dangers have not lurked in Turkey. But Oso lost his job as a salesman in Izmir two months ago. Cash dried up, as did the family’s hope of staying. The children have not spent a day in school.

'They could send people back?'

“I can’t live here anymore,” says Oso, as rain poured outside. To pay the smuggler, he borrowed $1,100 from a friend, and promised to give all the items in the apartment like the TV and the refrigerator, which might be worth $400.

When told about the EU-Turkey deal, Oso looked at his children and seemed to be weighing the risk of the sea crossing, which this year alone has already claimed 440 lives. He asked, his voice breaking: “Is it possible they could send people back from Greece?”

The family’s smuggler had only warned of high waves and bad weather, not being sent back.

“The Turkish government just wants to enter the European Union, and if it happens they will sell us back to Syria,” says Oso, his wife, Nadia, nodding agreement. “Nowadays we Syrians are like goods to be bartered. I blame [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, and the Turkish government.”

The family’s final attempt to cross came at 2 a.m. Sunday. One witness who saw them depart said “they were walking secretly and their faces were full of horror and sadness.”

The family eventually made it to a boat and launched, but they were chased by the Turkish coast guard. Family members say the refugee boat tried to evade capture, and assert that authorities even tried to sink it. But finally after loud wailing by the terrified migrants, the relatives say, the coast guard left them alone and a Red Cross boat helped them cross the final two miles to the Greek island of Lesbos.

A 'good' smuggler

For Syrian smuggler Ahmed, it was another successful crossing, the latest that has carried more than 1,000 Syrians to Greece under his watch, in just nine months. The 24-year-old with a fake leather jacket and gelled hair has no fear that his lucrative business will be dented by the EU-Turkey deal, which he says is “all talk.”

He lists the numbers like a practiced accountant, and uses two mobile phones and an external battery pack to keep them powered up. Summer prices were $1,200 for each adult to cross by boat, but lower demand and more dangerous conditions in winter lower that price to $600 or $700, says Ahmed. Children age 10 are half price; kids under 7 are free.

Each boatload might yield $25,000 from passengers, but the boat itself costs $6,500, the vehicles to get the refugees two hours up the coast to a secret launch point – while evading the police – might cost $3,000. The five workers on the shore that organize departure cost a total of another $1,500.

Deducting expenses, a successful journey yields $5,000, split with a big Turkish boss. If the trip fails, Ahmed loses $1,500. On his cell phone are smuggler selfies, of Ahmed and a colleague with inflatable refugee boats behind them on the shore.

Ahmed, who lists profit as his primary motivator, followed by helping people, says the EU-Turkey won’t stop the flow of refugees. “It’s impossible to stop them.”

He has a reputation as a “good” smuggler, and says he warned the Oso family not to make their second attempt, because of bad weather.

“I have never lost anyone,” he says. “I trust my work.”

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