Instead of making the dangerous boat trip to Europe, these Syrians staged a sit-in

GlobalPost
Syrian refugees and migrants protest on the side of a highway near Edirne, Turkey on Sept. 16, 2015. Use of the so-called "Balkans route" has exploded this year, with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then traveling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary.  
Gokhan Tan

EDIRNE, Turkey — It was her best friend’s wedding that made 13-year-old Sedana realize that there was no future in the refugee camp. “She is my age, and she has a child now,” the teenager from Damascus said. “She stopped coming to school. That’s when I begged my parents to leave.”

But after dozens of drownings in the Aegean this month, Sedana’s parents did not dare to attempt the hazardous sea crossing to Greece’s islands. Instead, they joined hundreds of Syrians who tried to walk to the Turkish-Greek border on Tuesday to demand safe passage to Europe by land.

Several thousand Syrians planned to attend a sit-in at the border gate near the Turkish city of Edirne, hoping to convince Greece to open its land borders to spare them the most dangerous part of their journey to Europe.

“We came here to stop the deaths at sea, to show another way is possible,” said Sedana, adjusting her broken glasses. “I want Europe to say yes to us. We’re people like everyone else, we just want to live. In Syria, we are dead and here, we are dying slowly.”

Along with at least 300 others, Sedana was stuck at Edirne’s inter-city bus station on Tuesday afternoon as Turkish authorities prevented Syrians from traveling to the Greek border. Hundreds more who tried to walk along the 150-mile motorway from Istanbul to Edirne were stopped en route.

Exhausted and dehydrated, Kawlher Sulaiman watched her 2-year-old daughter Sara trying to challenge a gendarme to a game of hide-and-seek. She had walked for two days from Istanbul to the edge of Edirne, where she now sat surrounded by police officers after they intercepted the refugees’ march to the border. “My husband is insisting to go to the sea if they don’t let us pass,” she said. “But I’m too afraid.”

Beside her, Muhammad Omaira was anxious to get to Europe as quickly as possible. “My wife is nine months pregnant. Her due date is in seven days and we know she needs a Cesarian.” The Turkish state hospital would not admit them, he said, as they had no identification papers, which usually grant Syrians free medical care.

A large number of those who tried to make it to the Greek land border told similar stories. Crutches and strollers leaned on suitcases and empty pill cases littered the small stretch of green at Edirne station.

“The healthy people go on boats. It’s too dangerous for us.”

“I have an eye problem, pressure builds up in my eye. If sea water touches it, I might go blind,” said Shamel Enaloka, a former accountant at Syria’s ministry of culture. “The healthy people go on boats. It’s too dangerous for us.”

He gestured at the people around him: seven deaf refugees, a man who hoped that European doctors could save his infected leg from amputation, and a teenage boy whose right leg was some 4 inches shorter than his left one. Several refugees at Edirne station were disabled or seriously injured.

Omer Ismail's chest and abdomen were covered in bandages stained with dried blood. Shrapnel tore into the 16-year-old's skin earlier this year when barrel bombs rained on his neighborhood in Aleppo, killing his entire family.

The Turkish hospital told Ismail that without papers, he would have to pay 200 euros just to have his bandages changed — money he did not have. His bare feet are dotted with scars where regime soldiers put out their cigarettes when they briefly jailed him two years ago.

“We just want governments to show humanity and let us pass,” he said, before coughing and struggling to breathe for several minutes.

Syrian refugees stand in line for food at a rest stop beside the highway on their way to the border between Turkey and Greece on Sept. 17, 2015. Around 1,000 refugees remained stranded Sept. 16 in the northwestern Turkish city of Edirne after being barred by authorities from continuing their journey to Europe

Organizers said they expected 5,000 refugees to take part in the sit-in but scaled it back to 2,000 after Turkish transit companies were ordered to prevent Syrians from boarding buses to Edirne.

“We will keep protesting, even if we stay for months,” said Fadi al-Shibli, one of the sit-in organizers. He decided to take action when several boats capsized in the Aegean sea earlier this month. By successfully crossing the land border without help, he hopes to encourage his fellow refugees to turn away from smugglers.

Few refugees attempt to follow the land route to Greece. Land crossings made up just 10 per cent of arrivals in Greece since the beginning of this year, according to the UN refugee agency. The land option may seem safer, but it’s not without risks: several human rights organizations have accused the Greek and Bulgarian border guards of pushing back refugees — an illegal practice — as well as mistreatment and beatings.

Mohammad Abbas Ahmadi, a refugee from Damascus who joined the sit-in at Edirne bus station, said he tried to cross the Turkish-Greek land border 10 days earlier but was pushed back by border guards. “They took my bag and threw it in the river,” he said. “My passport, my phone, my money, it’s all gone.”

With European leaders unable to agree on how to deal with the refugee crisis, governments are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. On Tuesday, Hungary shut its border with Serbia, leading to chaos and confusion among refugees.

Earlier this week, Germany abruptly reinstated border controls after thousands of refugees arrived at Munich's central train station. Several other countries, including Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, followed suit.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that September has been the deadliest month for sea crossings in the past two years, with 72 drownings since Saturday alone.

“As dangers increase we fear that the indecisions in Europe will lead to more deaths in the Aegean,” IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle warned on Tuesday.

Refugees in Edirne said that closed borders would leave them no choice but to pay smugglers and attempt more dangerous routes to reach central Europe.

Al-Shibli’s co-organizer Leen said he would wait one month for the Greeks to open their land border: “If they don’t let us in by then, we will have to go back and try the deadly boats again.”