Since January 2016, Turkey has been implementing new visa requirements for Syrians entering Turkey by air or sea in a bid to stem the flow of migrants to Europe. The new visa restrictions are a reversal of a six-year arrangement that permitted Syrians a visa-free entry into Turkey. Obtaining this document is so difficult that some refugees are taking the dangerous option of attempting to enter Turkish territory illegally.
There is also a reverse trend of Syrian refugees currently in Europe wanting to head back to Turkey. One of the main reasons for this return journey to Turkey is that the situation for refugees stuck on the Greek islands has deteriorated following the 2016 EU-Turkey deal and the closure of the Balkan route.
Samar [whose name changed to protect his identity] is a Syrian refugee who has decided to return permanently to Turkey. He told FRANCE 24:
It's been a year and a half since I landed in Germany and I still can't get a residency card. My family is in Turkey and I can't wait any longer! Without documents, I can't find work or start the process of reuniting my family.
Another refugee, Guevara, encountered difficulties assimilating into English society. He said:
I decided to return to Turkey after more than a year in England. The social life in London didn’t suit me and I had difficulties adjusting to the place. That's why I returned to Turkey with my wife and my son.
To organise these return journeys, smugglers use the mobile application Whatsapp where refugees join chat groups set up by human traffickers. This is where they provide the details of the upcoming journey back to Turkey, as InfoMigrants found out.
In a bid to convince refugees to return to Turkey, smugglers use the same sales pitch that they employ for prospective candidates trying to flee to Europe. For instance, one of the smugglers sent a promotional video (below) where we see several people apparently effortlessly crossing the Evros River aboard a dinghy on a calm day.
Returning refugees typically arrive from different European cities to Greece’s second-largest city of Thessaloniki either flying there with false papers, or by taking land routes. They then take buses from Thessaloniki to Greek border towns such as Lavara or Didymotic. Finally, they have to walk through forests for long hours until they arrive at a meeting point where the smugglers pick them up and take them into Turkey. According to one of the smugglers, refugees will be welcomed on arrival in Turkey by another group of smugglers.
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"The smuggler stopped in the middle of the river and demanded that we pay double what we'd agreed"
I was forced to make this trip clandestinely since it’s almost impossible for me -- or for most Syrian refugees -- to get a Turkish visa. Before the new visa regulations came into force, things were a lot simpler. Now you need to have a Turkish tutor, a bank account and a hotel booking to even hope to lay your hands on a Turkish visa.
As soon as we arrived at Thessaloniki airport, we headed for Soufli, not far from the Turkish border. We then crossed the forest that runs along the Evros River to reach the meeting point with the smugglers.
We boarded a crowded rubber dinghy
This trip was long and very tiring. I was with another young man and a family with a nine-year-old child. We walked for 13 hours. Once we got to the meeting place, we boarded a dinghy, which was not supposed to hold more than ten people.
Video from our Observer.
We had agreed with one of the smugglers to pay 150 euros per person. But after a few minutes of sailing, he stopped at a little island in the middle of the river, claiming that we had arrived in Turkey. He then demanded an extra 150 euros to take us to the Turkish coast. He threatened to rob us if we didn’t comply. We quarrelled and eventually we agreed that I would pay the rest of the money once I arrived in Turkey.
The promotional video showing a safe crossing of an inflatable boat across the Evros river. Video from our Observer.
A few minutes later, we actually arrived in Turkey. One of the smugglers accompanied me to Istanbul while the other passengers took the bus to the nearest town.
Under the Geneva agreements, anyone who has been granted refugee status has the right to apply for family reunification. But in European countries, it’s a long process that can take up to two years, causing some refugees to return permanently to Turkey.
In addition, many newcomers are entitled to "temporary protection". But under the EU’s refugee laws which were tightened in 2016, refugees who have sought temporary protection cannot apply for family reunification until March 2018.
In Austria, a refugee must apply for family reunification within three months of obtaining refugee status. If the time limit is exceeded, he or she must then prove that he or she is working and earning enough to cover family members in addition to providing decent housing and health coverage for the entire family.
Article published by The Observers in collaboration with InfoMigrants.