Abu Hassan, a 26-year-old Turkish smuggler, took home a lot of money in 2015. He hopes it won’t be long before the cash starts flowing again.
Until a deal was struck between the European Union and Turkey in March effectively shutting down the main smuggling route to Germany, Hassan was sending up to 150 people across the Aegean Sea to Greece each day, mostly Syrians.
Now, he says, that figure is around 100 to 120 people per month (some still prefer to take their chances in spite of the deal rather than carry on living in Turkey).
Not all routes to Germany are closed though. Asked if he could still smuggle people there, he smiles from beneath his black baseball cap and takes a drag from one of a series of Rothmans cigarettes. “Do you want to go tomorrow?”
He conveys around 10 customers a month to Germany, he explains. But the process involves using European passports, either with a switched photograph or with a photo similar to its buyer. A passport costs around $10,000. “It’s only for the rich people,” he says. Hassan, like many smugglers and most of the 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, is waiting for the EU deal to fall apart.
After taking in nearly a million refugees in 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel came under fierce domestic political pressure to curb the flow, and negotiated a deal between Turkey and the EU to clamp down on smuggling. The deal stipulates that migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey are to be sent back to Turkey. For each return, a refugee residing in Turkey is to be resettled in Europe.
Brussels sweetened the deal with financial aid for Turkey to cope with the refugees, a nod to the stalled EU membership talks and long-sought after visa-free access to the Schengen zone for Turkish citizens. And so far, the deal has been effective, if controversial. But it is showing signs of strain.
For one thing, the European Parliament in November passed a non-binding motion that advocated for a halt to accession talks between the European Union and Turkey. This is partly due to Turkey’s failure to reach the final five outstanding conditions of a 72-point roadmap it previously agreed upon. The diplomatic environment following July’s coup attempt in Turkey has not helped. Meanwhile, Turkish officials felt that their European counterparts did not offer a sufficient show of solidarity, while EU heads have watched the enormous post-coup purges and crackdown on civil liberties and erosion of free expression with increasing alarm. There are also signs that Greece may not be returning refugees as it is supposed to.
These are alarming developments for a heavily criticized Angela Merkel, who is running for a fourth term as German chancellor.
But for Ahmed, a young Syrian man living in Istanbul, the collapse of the deal can’t come soon enough. Ahmed, 23 years old, feels left behind. He fled Syria in mid-2015 hoping to reach Germany, where more than a dozen of his family and friends had found sanctuary. He’d spent all his money getting to Turkey, so he had to take on a low-wage job in a restaurant to pay for the next leg of the journey. Then the deal came into effect and he found himself stuck stranded. “All of my dreams disappeared after that,” he said as rain drizzled down a window next to him.
A slight young man with patchy stubble and hair slick with gel, Ahmed left his home in the capital of Damascus to escape President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. They came to arrest him some months before, shooting him in the stomach, thigh and shin when he tried to run, he says.
They then detained him and tortured him. Some of his family members had already been killed in jail, so when he eventually managed to bribe his way out, he travelled south to Lebanon almost immediately.
Today he lives in Istanbul, the only lasting physical effects of the regime’s abuses are his legs that ache in winter and a scar several inches long on his right forearm. Doctors had to pin the bones back together after he was severely beaten by his jailers, he says.
He speaks to friends and family in Germany every day on WhatsApp. He smiles as he pulls up group chats full of voice messages, jokes and snatches of songs on a battered smartphone.
Life in Germany hasn’t been easy for the people he cares about, he says, but at least it offers a semblance of normalcy. “It’s not heaven for them, but it’s safe, they have money for food and most are studying. All I want is to do the same.”
For now, his strategy is to keep saving money, and wait for his next chance. “Now I’m working when I can,” he says. “But maybe the opportunity will come again and I’ll be there.”
Susan Fratzke, an analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a U.S.-based nonpartisan think tank, believes the EU deal is in trouble. “It’s possible that you might see the basis of the deal erode somewhat under the next few months,” warns Fratzke. But that won’t necessarily mean that people like Ahmed can make it to Germany. Fratzke points out that even if the Aegean route is policed less strictly, tighter borders within Europe will make travel beyond Greece difficult.
Abdullah, a Syrian refugee living in Bavaria, says he’s heard many stories of asylum-seekers being denied access to Germany even from Austria. “It’s really getting much harder,” he says. “I’ve heard about a lot of people who were turned away.”
However, the desire to try and find a way to reach Germany remains incredibly strong, in part because the EU deal has split families. Many of those who traveled to Europe initially were young men who planned to establish a viable route then bring relatives to join them. A large proportion of the people arriving in the Greek islands before the deal were attempting to join family already in Europe, according to UNHCR, the United Nations refugee organization.
In Istanbul’s working class Bağcılar district, Abu Mohammed and Umm Mohammed, a Syrian couple, explain that they came to Turkey intending to travel to Germany, where Abu Mohammed’s uncle now lives with his children. They were about to set off on the journey and had even bought life jackets in anticipation of a sea crossing when the deal was enacted and the border closed. The uncle’s family now lives in a small Bavarian village, his children are around the same age as Abu Mohammed and Umm Mohammed’s and they speak almost every day. Given the opportunity, the Istanbul-based branch of the family say they will try again to make the journey.
“We hope that we can go,” Abu Mohammed says. “If there’s any chance at all, we will.”
Anna Tuson, a spokeswoman Small Projects Istanbul, a non-profit NGO facilitating and providing education for Syrian refugees in Turkey, says at least half of the families they work with travelled to Turkey in expectation of moving on to Western Europe. In many cases, she says adds, a husband or child is already there, leaving a mother and remaining children in Turkey hoping for reunification.
“It’s pretty common, we have quite a few families in that position. Obviously the reason for going to Europe are a better job or education opportunities and for a safer environment,” she says. But, “when it comes down to it, the most important thing is that they all want to be together.”
This story was produced with support from Robert Bosch Stiftung