Blocked: Safe land route from Turkey

Syrian refugees collecting food yesterday at Sarayici Park in Edirne, Turkey, where they were waiting for permission to cross the border into Greece. Thousands were blocked by Turkish police from making the crossing.
Syrian refugees collecting food yesterday at Sarayici Park in Edirne, Turkey, where they were waiting for permission to cross the border into Greece. Thousands were blocked by Turkish police from making the crossing.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Migrants' efforts to avoid risky sea crossing to Europe scuttled by police in border city

EDIRNE (Turkey) • Ms Doaa, a 25-year-old Syrian, was lying in the shade one day last week, trying to shelter herself from the scorching sun in a makeshift camp near this border city. A pile of blankets next to her quivered, and a tiny hand emerged. Her son, Nassim, who was just a week old.

Ms Doaa had walked out of a hospital in Istanbul a few days earlier to keep a date: Tuesday, Sept 15. That was when a group of strangers who had organised on Facebook had decided that they would meet in Edirne and press a new migrant cause - a safe land route from Turkey to Greece and the rest of Europe.

Too many people were drowning at sea, and human smuggling was dangerous and expensive, the Facebook group agreed. Members decided to gather and persuade the authorities to let them go to Europe by land, the first step in establishing a safer path for others to follow.

A rallying point for the group was Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on shore on Sept 2 as his family tried to cross the sea from Turkey to Greece. The poignant photograph of him face down in the sand, as if he were asleep, ricocheted around the world and motivated the Facebook group to follow through on its idea.

But the effort did not go as planned. For the last week, thousands of people who were part of the group, like Ms Doaa, were stranded in and around Edirne, blocked by the Turkish police from making the crossing.

Their efforts at getting the authorities' blessing to forge a safe land path foundered even as migrants by the thousands continued to reach Europe by sea - only to face their own battles with governments there.

In a week of bloodshed, skirmishes, disappointment and utter confusion for the throngs of people trudging through the Balkans and Eastern Europe, trying to flee war and turmoil in the Middle East, the stalemate in Edirne has been one more hot spot in a continent full of them. But the effort showed the determination of asylum-seekers to gain a coherent policy that will help them make their journeys safely - and another way in which social media has reinforced the migrants' cause.

With the death toll from attempted sea crossings ticking towards 3,000 this year, some migrants turned to Facebook about a month ago, first in a closed group, then on several pages in a number of languages. The group's plan was to stage a sit-in at the Greek border, demanding that European leaders provide a safe and legal passage to Western Europe for refugees.

The group made no secret about its plans. And it was not long before the local authorities realised that something was afoot. More than 8,000 migrants were rounded up in the Edirne area, and most were sent back to Istanbul or other places in Turkey in the days around Sept 15.

"We're not going back," said Ms Doaa, who withheld her last name, fearing repercussions for relatives remaining in Damascus. "We're going to Europe, even if we have to walk all the way to Germany."

Meanwhile, Hungary yesterday reopened its main border crossing with Serbia, whose closure led thousands of migrants to surge into Croatia and forced the desperate flood of humanity to be bounced around countries.

In Austria, more than 11,000 entered the country on Saturday, and another 4,700 arrived yesterday through the Nickelsdorf border post from Hungary after being shunted through Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia, said local police.

Yesterday, 13 migrants died in Turkish waters when a boat carrying 46 people en route to Greece collided with a dry cargo vessel and capsized, a Turkish coast guard source said. Six of those killed were children and 20 others were rescued, the source said. The search continues to find 13 missing people.

Rescues and sinkings have become almost daily occurrences in the often choppy seas off Greece's eastern islands.

Hundreds of thousands of mainly Syrian refugees have braved the short crossing from Turkey this year, mainly in flimsy and overcrowded inflatable boats.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2015, with the headline 'Blocked: Safe land route from Turkey'. Print Edition | Subscribe