By Gorvett, Jon
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs , Vol. XIX, No. 6
TALKING TURKEY: As Waves of Clandestine Europe-Bound Refugees Crash Over Turkey, Human Tragedies Rise
Jon Gorvett is a free-lance writer based in Istanbul.
Their fragile wooden craft buffeted by high winds and a crashing sea, the clandestine odyssey of some 150 Iraqi Kurds came to a catastrophic end in early May with the sound of a splintering hull, smashed on the rocks of a tiny Greek islet just off the coast of Crete.
That same evening, a few hundred miles away in Istanbul, many of their compatriots, along with Afghans and Turkish Kurds, were among the 400 people rounded up by police in a harbor warehouse while waiting their turn to go aboard similar craft.
Elsewhere, a few days later, Turkish police swooped again on the Greek border to arrest 211 others trying to cross the frontier at Uzunkopru, where Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria all meet in a narrow band of forests and rivers.
In recent months, these events, and the numbers involved, have become by no means unusual. Turkey has long been a transit route for people trying to get into the European Union illegally, with organized crime creaming off large profits from human smuggling operations. It has also hosted large numbers of refugees fleeing conflicts beyond its borders--in Iraq, Chechnya and Kosovo. However, the recent boom in traffic is now causing some concern, and leading increasingly to tragedy. In early May, Turkish troops on the Iraqi frontier opened fire on a group of people they thought were members of Turkey's Kurdish separatist guerrilla group, the PKK. When the smoke cleared, though, they found they had shot dead nine would-be asylum seekers.
In the eastern city of Van, the number of people arriving from over the border to claim refugee status has lead to locals renaming part of the city center "Little Tehran." On average, a busload of asylum seekers turns up in the town every 20 minutes, according to a private NGO, the Asylum Seekers and Migrants Solidarity Association. They are working in the Turkish city under the auspices of a program developed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and have over 3,000 people on their books who are looking to gain asylum in EU countries.
Most are from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Many are escaping political, ethnic or religious persecution, and often poverty too, and see Europe, more than Turkey, as a place where they will be freed of these oppressions, a view that Solidarity Association chair Ferda Cemiloglu Cilalioglu finds disturbing.
"They have too many expectations," she says, "and that worries us."
Frequently the refugees never make it into Europe.
They are also vulnerable to exploitation by organized criminals. The going rate for being smuggled into Europe by one of Turkey's gangs of human traffickers is around $5,000, though frequently the refugees never make it, ending shipwrecked on a Greek island, or in a Turkish police cell. Even if they get through to a European country, they may still be faced with criminal exploitation as they face a life of illegality and the growing prejudices of Europeans, with the "asylum seekers issue" activating many European governments into passing tougher and tougher laws against them.
Cilalioglu's group is trying to prevent the refugees from being exploited.
"Asylum seekers don't know foreign languages, they don't know laws and regulations, they don't know what they can do to help themselves," she says. "Some of them are in such a bad way, that simply by having someone to offload their troubles onto gives them a great morale boost. …