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Migration Crisis

The movement of refugees and migrants fleeing war in Syria, the wider Middle East and Africa represents the biggest international humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. The articles and photos below, filed from various regions of Turkey, are my contribution to the coverage of this unfolding crisis.

Syrian children’s families torn apart by war

Teenager among thousands who don’t feel they can build a better life in Turkey.

Khalid Abdulaziz, a former real estate agent in Syria, manages the Syrian Elite School in Istanbul, Turkey. The school aims to help Syrian families settle in the city.

By: Stephen Starr Special to the Star, Published on Sat Sep 12 2015

ISTANBUL—Fifteen-year-old Osama Subu’ has made up his mind. The coming weeks and months are likely to see the slight, bespectacled boy join the thousands of others trekking across Turkey, Greece and the Western Balkans to try to forge a new, safer life in Germany, Austria or France. He says there is no other way.

Osama was 11 years old when a group of soldiers marched into the house where his father and three uncles were staying in the Syrian city of Homs, and shot them all dead. “They weren’t at protests, they were just sitting in the house,” he said.

He is still visibly traumatized. Even as he looks at the ground in front of him, his gaze isn’t focused on anything. He speaks slowly and quietly. He helps out at a school for Syrian children in Istanbul, where management has been trying to convince him to stay, to no avail.

“If I stay here in Turkey I must work. There’s a future of security in Europe,” he said. “If I go to Germany I can study; I want to become a doctor.”

Osama’s 4- and 6-year-old sisters are in Lebanon with their mother, living in refugee limbo. He says the drowning of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi 10 days ago hasn’t discouraged him. “My plan is to reach Germany and then have my family come too,” he said.

Syria’s youngest have known nothing but a life of war.

However, with more than 1,800 children killed by regime barrel bombs and rebel shelling since 2011, and youths living under Islamic State extremists faced with radical indoctrination and recruitment into murder squads, few families see any alternative but to take their families away. That can mean paying traffickers thousands of dollars to take their families to Turkey and then on to Greece by boat, despite the obvious dangers.

This month, the image of little one such victim, Alan Kurdi, who washed up on a Turkish beach, catapulted the plight of Syrian children into homes around the world for the first time. Governments in Europe and across the Americas have pledged to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in the aftermath of the boy’s drowning.

But none of that means that children have stopped getting into boats unworthy of sea crossings. The forced migration from Turkey to Europe continues apace.

In the quiet, residential neighbourhood of Fener in central Istanbul, Arabic-speaking women and men are busy renovating a series of rooms. The Syrian Elite School opened three years ago with the exact goal of discouraging Syrian parents and their children from attempting the perilous journey to Greece.

“By getting them into a routine, making friends and opening a network, we’re trying to get Syrians to put down some roots here,” said school manager Khalid Abdulaziz, a former real estate agent from the Damascus suburbs.

“Some of the kids were unable to speak because of what they experienced in Syria. But after a few months I’ve seen them totally change,” said Abdulaziz.

The building that hosts the school also serves as a dentist’s clinic and temporary accommodation for 25 Syrians unable to find a place to stay elsewhere in the city. Half of the two million Syrians in Turkey are children, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and less than half regularly attend school.

But for Osama, the Kurdi family and thousands of others, Turkey is not a country in which they feel they can build a new life. Despite the Turkish government’s conspicuous support for Syrians, which has included building 22 camps and hosting more refugees than any other country in the world at a cost of $7.3 billion, the majority fleeing the war appear intent on leaving for Europe.

In part, that’s because Turkish law does not consider Syrians refugees or allow them to seek asylum. Instead, they are categorized as “guests,” a form of temporary protection. Syrians can enter Turkey without a visa and are granted short-term residency permits for up to a year. A negligible number have been granted outright citizenship.

Furthermore, the recent upsurge in violence between the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, and the Turkish military has led to the deaths of dozens of police officers, fuelling virulent nationalism that has led to attacks on Syrian vehicles and homes.

Abdulaziz, the school manager, says that now, more than ever, the Syrians who do come to Turkey do so with the plan to stay a short time and leave as soon as possible on boats for Greece.

“The last two, three months there has been a huge upsurge in the number of Syrians coming to Istanbul for this reason,” he said.

With no change to Syrians’ legal status likely and Turkey’s political crisis deepening, the route to Europe is set to become even more popular for families.

But some who have already done the journey warn against any attempt.

For 28-year-old Dima, who comes from an area south of Damascus that has been almost completely levelled by government shelling, the journey to Austria was horrific. She arrived there recently after a month-long trip through six countries with her husband and year-old daughter.

“I am telling people in Syria not to embark on the trip; all the people here (in the refugee camp in Austria) have been deeply affected by the boy’s (Alan Kurdi’s) drowning,” she said in a phone interview. “The sea is for fish; it is not for Syrians.”

Despite his own unbroken desire to leave Turkey, when Osama is asked whether he would put his 4- and 6-year-old sisters in a boat bound for Greece following what happened to Alan, he looks at the ground and thinks deeply for several long moments. Finally he has decided.

“No. I wouldn’t let them go,” he said.

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The beach where Alan Kurdi washed ashore remains a refugee magnet

Despite the recent tragedy, migrants continue to arrive in resort village of Akyarlar, desperate to reach the nearby Greek island of Kos.

Akyarlar and the stunning Bodrum peninsula are better known for their spectatular sea views and resorts.

Akyarlar and the stunning Bodrum peninsula are better known for their spectacular sea views and resorts.

By: Stephen Starr Special to the Star, Published on Sat Sep 05 2015

AKYARLAR, TURKEY—The hills and valleys of the Bodrum Peninsula in southwest Turkey have drawn European sun seekers for decades. Quaint whitewashed cottages, year-round sunshine and the stunning vistas of the Mediterranean coast make for an idyllic setting.

But the lapping of turquoise water against the sand now stokes a different image, one of shock and horror.

This week, the resort village of Akyarlar on the peninsula’s southern edge was thrust into the international spotlight through heart-wrenching photos of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy dressed in blue shorts, a red T-shirt and tiny black shoes, who drowned Wednesday morning, along with his mother and 5-year-old brother.

The photo of Alan face down in the sand as waves lapped against his motionless head has become one of the most harrowing images of what the Syrian war has done to the innocent. It has also brought into focus the world’s moral responsibility to help those who need it most.

The Ali Hoca Point beach in Akyarlar is the closest to Greece, making it a popular gateway for Syrians fleeing a civil war that has killed more than 240,000 people and made refugees of four million more. The night lights of the Greek island of Kos, four kilometres to the south, appear so close as to be a short, simple trip by boat.

But even as the world mourned Alan’s death, police sirens stirred the night air on the beach just days after the tragedy. There was action underway.

At 2:40 a.m. Saturday, on the same stretch of shore where the boy washed up, a coast guard vessel was shining its spotlight and raising an alarm. It had spotted a boat.

Within minutes, two police cars arrived. The refugees, seven or eight Pakistanis, jumped from their tiny dinghy and walked quickly along the sand but were immediately detained. “Come, go,” a police officer ordered. The men climbed into a minibus and were gone.

The scene unfolded within metres of Ilker Demiral, a master’s student who was up late drinking cans of beer with two friends on the beachfront.

“That’s the first time I’ve seen this,” he said. “It’s shocking. It seems unreal, but also more real than ever.”

Demiral’s family owns a holiday home close by and he was at the beach on a short break.

“I hear a lot of prejudiced comments from people here, but the last few days seem to have changed that. Maybe they have discovered their humanity.”

When asked about the numbers of refugees here, Demiral’s friend pointed across the coast road. “There are people living in the trees over there,” he said.

Later Saturday morning, there were clothes, shoes, cardboard and rubber floating devices strewn across the sun-baked ground and hanging from the trees in the area Demiral’s friend had pointed out. A child’s stroller, much too cumbersome to fit on any raft, lay abandoned. Three men, barely visible through the scrub, began walking in the opposite direction and attempted to hide.

“We’re from Pakistan; there are other Pakistanis here,” said one man, Adel, with distinct unease. “There are more up there.”

Twenty metres away, through an eerie thicket of bushes, a larger group of men appeared. “We’ve been here for 20 days; you can take our picture but we’re not giving you our names,” said one who was sucking on a cigarette.

Steps away, 50-year-old Asalam from Lahore, Pakistan, and a friend had taken up temporary residence on the porch of an unoccupied cottage. A garment-cutting master back home, Asalam said that while he was asleep one night, a friend took all his money and vanished.

He pointed to his sleeping quarters, a piece of cardboard on a concrete ledge shaded by a chestnut tree, and the meal of beans and tomato sauce Mohammad, another Pakistani migrant, was cooking over an open fire.

Asalam was now penniless. “All I want is to get to Istanbul; have you got just a hundred lira?”

Local residents mostly turn a blind eye to the growing crisis around them. Cruisers and Beneteau yachts line the coast; hotel resorts report steady business and paragliders light up the summer sky.

Although a small ceremony marking Alan’s death was held Friday at the beach, by Saturday the tourists had returned.

A café waiter at the beachfront refused to admit anything had happened here at all.

“No, that was in Bodrum,” he said when asked about the exact point Alan was found, perhaps fearful the tragedy would damage business. An onlooker seemed perplexed at the waiter’s comments.

This region is a valuable hub for tourism. Just north of Bodrum, the entrance to the elite Jumeirah Palace resort looks more suited to the film set of Spartacus than south Turkey. Room rates can run up to $9,000 per night.

The hotel is owned by the emir of Dubai, who has not granted refugee status to a single Syrian. For migrants taking this road south to Akyarlar, the hotel must surely add to the horror of their reality.

Entire families have died trying to make the journey to Europe — 2,700 people have drowned on the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas so far this year. Turkish newspapers reported that four Syrian men have been arrested for their alleged involvement in Alan’s death, and the deaths of 11 others.

The refugees tend to stay in Bodrum and then drive down to Akyarlar through the narrow, windy roads in the dead of night. By 2 or 3 a.m., the dinghies, only meant to serve as emergency backup vessels, are unfurled, pumped up and cast into the sea.

The past several weeks have seen more refugees take to flimsy rubber boats from this peninsula than ever before. A police officer in Turgutreis, a nearby town where detained migrants are held, said there has been an increase in the number of people trying to cross since Alan Kurdi’s death.

“Yesterday, 57, today 74.” The late-summer weather is most conducive to safe passage and few know that better than the group of Syrian men detained in a shaded corner of the Turgutreis police station.

“We went out to sea two nights ago but they (the coast guard) saw us straight away,” said a Syrian man from Qamishli, who refused to be identified. “They take good care of us here, but we don’t know what’s happening next; no one speaks Arabic.”

Today, time is of the essence. The rougher weather and seas that signal the shifting of seasons will arrive in weeks, even days, making the route ever deadlier. Many Syrians have tried multiple times to make the crossing to Kos and, with winter edging closer, their desperation and willingness to take risks rises.

What is to become of the eight Pakistanis caught Saturday and the locked-up Syrians?

“We’ll release them,” a police officer said with a shrug borne more out of frustration than indifference. “What else are we supposed to do?”

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Migrants face uncertain future in Europe after ‘terrifying’ journey

Two men who left turmoil in Syria are now trying to make new lives in Europe.

Hosam and his fellow migrants feared highway thieves while biking through Europe.

Hosam and his fellow migrants feared highway thieves while biking through Europe.

By: Stephen Starr Special to the Star, Published on Sat Aug 29 2015

ISTANBUL, TURKEY—The desperate scenes unfolding this week along the border between Greece and Macedonia sent a wave of sadness through Abed.

The 28-year-old — once a banker in Damascus and now living in Austria — had walked the same steps only weeks before. He knew the landscape and the palpable fear of crossing the train tracks and running into the woods, where he hid for two days.

Further north, in the fields that range between Macedonia and Serbia, border guards fired volleys into the air to dissuade his travelling group. By the time Abed and his companions reached Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, they had given police more than €200 ($300) in bribes to keep from being locked up. Even then, Abed was still 1,700 kilometres from his destination.

“In Damascus I worked in a private bank for two-and-a-half years. It was so good for me — I was using my degree, I was comfortable,” says Abed, who didn’t want his last name used.

Former banker Abed, far right, from Damascus meets Austria's minister for social affairs Rudolf Hundsdorfer.

Former banker Abed, far right, from Damascus meets Austria’s minister for social affairs Rudolf Hundsdorfer.

But he and his family fled their ancestral home in the historic old city in 2012, when protesters began shouting anti-Shia chants at demonstrations on the street outside his home. They headed for Lebanon, where they remained for most of the next three years and where some of his family still resides.

The largest migration of people since the end of the Second World War is seeing thousands, rich and poor alike, take to the seas, highways and fields of the Middle East and southeast Europe in search of a safer life. The overwhelming majority are Syrians fleeing a war that has killed 240,000 people and made refugees of four million more.

Abed, left, chats with his asylum co-ordinator in Austria, where he is staying at a facility for disabled=

Abed, left, chats with his asylum co-ordinator in Austria, where he is staying at a facility for disabled people.

After Lebanon, Abed went to Turkey. He waited for four days in Bodrum, a resort town popular with British holidaymakers, before smugglers put him, along with a huge group of refugees, into an eight-metre rubber boat bound for Greece.

“It was terrifying because there were so many people in the boat, but the sea was calm. Thirty minutes into the boat journey the Turkish coast guard arrived and tried to stop us,” he says.

Hosam Hamada's journey to Germany took six months and took him across seven countries.

Hosam Hamada’s journey to Germany took six months and took him across seven countries.

“We continued but they circled around us four times making big waves to scare us. They tried to flip the boat.”

Abed is now staying at a facility for disabled people in Alkoven, Austria.

Nineteen-year-old Hosam Hamada also survived a harrowing journey. His six-month voyage from the besieged Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus to Annaburg, Germany took him across seven countries.

Sleeping rough on the streets of Macedonia.

Sleeping rough on the streets of Macedonia.

To earn money Hamada picked lemons in southern Turkey while waiting to be smuggled to Italy. When that plan fell apart, he found himself braving the Aegean Sea route to Greece.

Hamada says that, at the time, Greek and Macedonian authorities allowed migrants passage into their countries once they realized no one planned to stay. Border authorities even handed out maps and information to assist the refugees get into — and out of — Greece as quickly as possible, he says.

“I bought a bicycle for €125 ($190), which is a lot for me. I cycled for about two days until my body got swollen. When I was done with it I gave it to someone who lost his bag, which had his money and his passport,” Hamada says.

“The whole journey was terrifying . . . In Macedonia we faced highway robbers. Also we had to sleep in the woods for six days.”

Almost 350,000 Syrians have declared asylum in Europe since the outbreak of the 2011 revolt in Syria. Forty-three per cent arrived in 2014 though this year is set to break records; the number for last month, 32,472, is three times greater than February’s.

While Germany has pledged to grant asylum to 800,000 this year, Europe has been far from welcoming for many refugees. This week Hungary announced it would send its military and police dog patrols to its southern border as 3,241 migrants — a record — were detained on Wednesday alone.

Though the Netherlands was his desired destination, so far Austria suits Abed. “Here, there is a good environment. They put me in a school to learn German, they promised to give us work, they are helping us a lot in my town,” he says.

However, he says other Syrians have been less welcomed in Austria, and violent clashes at asylum centres in neighbouring Germany suggest hostility toward the new arrivals is smouldering.

Even so, he and Hamada are hopeful — if cautious — about what their futures hold.

“Now, I’m learning German a little via the Internet. After I get the residency, they (the German authorities) will put me in a school,” says Hamada.

He is staying at a private house with two other Syrians he met on the journey. His family remains in Damascus.

A scene reminiscent of 1930s America – Hosam with fellow travellers in Macedonia.

A scene reminiscent of 1930s America – Hosam with fellow travellers in Macedonia.

“I am so positive about the future, which I think is going to be better for me,” he says.

Abed is more guarded.

“Honestly, I can’t tell you if it’s been worth the danger,” he says.

“Maybe I can answer that after a year.”

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Human smugglers use Facebook to recruit migrants

The smugglers provide phone numbers, fees, route and vessel details and even a “book now” tab on their page.

Migrants take shelter from the rain at a train station on the Macedonian-Greek border last week on their way north to European countries.  Peter Sutherland, the UN Secretary General's special representative on international migration, bemoaned on June 26 the EU leaders' failure to approve a plan to share a total of 60,000 would-be refugees, mainly from Syria and Eritrea, across the 28-nation bloc.

By Stephen Starr in Mersin, Turkey

Smugglers in Turkey are openly using Facebook to recruit migrants on the promise of transporting them to Greece and Italy.

The smugglers, writing in Arabic, provide phone numbers, charges, route and vessel details, and even a “book now” tab on their Facebook page walls.

Facebook says it bans such use of its website. Its community standards “prohibit the use of Facebook to facilitate or organize criminal activity that causes physical harm to people,” in addition to organized criminal activity such as the smuggling of migrants. (Read on here).

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Turkey: a new ground zero for human trafficking

Europe via Turkey route is extremely dangerous – and shockingly lucrative

19-year-old Hosam from Damascus has joined the thousands of migrants attempting to reach Europe. In order to get there, Hosam says,  he will have to pay smugglers €6,000. Photograph: Stephen Starr

Hosam Hamada is somewhere on the open Mediterranean Sea, the hope of a new life and the black water below for company. He and his fellow migrants – fleeing war zones and oppression in SyriaIraq and even as far away as Burma – expect to arrive at the Sicilian coast sometime this weekend, if all goes well. (Read on here).

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