Economic pain, Turkish strikes drive Syrian Kurds to Europe | Popgen Tech


QAMISHLI, Syria (AP) — Baran Ramadan Mesko hid for weeks with other migrants in the Algerian coastal city of Oran, waiting for a chance to take a boat across the Mediterranean to Europe.

Days before the 38-year-old Syrian Kurd was to begin the journey, he received news that a smuggling boat carrying some of his friends had sunk shortly after leaving the Algerian coast. Most of his passengers drowned.

It came as a shock, after he spent weeks trying to get from Syria to Algeria and then waited a month for a smuggler to put him on the boat.

But after pouring thousands of dollars into the trip, and with his wife and 4- and 3-year-old daughters counting on him to ensure a life safe from conflict, the engineer-citizen journalist aboard a small fishing boat climbed by a dozen. other men and took a group selfie to send to their families before going offline.

After a 12-hour overnight journey, Mesko made his way to Almería, Spain, on October 15, then flew four days later to Germany, where he is now an asylum seeker in a migrant settlement near Bielefeld. He is still getting used to the cold weather and uses a translation app on his phone to help him get around while learning German. He said he hoped his papers would be completed soon so that his family could join him.

At least 246 migrants have gone missing while trying to cross the western Mediterranean to Europe in 2022, the International Organization for Migration says. In recent years, thousands more have perished making the dangerous sea journey.

Mesko is one of a growing number of Syrian Kurds making the journey to Europe on a tortuous course that includes travel by car and plane across Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and then finally by boat to Spain. They say they are opting for this circuitous route because they fear Turkish forces or Turkish-backed militants being detained in Syria if they try to sneak into Turkey, the most direct route to Europe.

According to data from the European Union border agency Frontex, at least 591 Syrians crossed the Mediterranean from Algeria and Morocco to Spain in 2022, six times more than last year’s total.

A Kurdish Syrian smuggler in Algeria said dozens of Kurds from Syria arrive in the Algerian coastal city of Oran every week for the sea journey.

“I’ve never had such high numbers before,” the smuggler told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of arrest by Algerian authorities.

Years of conflict and economic turmoil have left their mark on Syria’s northern territories, home to some 3 million people under de facto Kurdish control. The region has been targeted by Islamic State militants, Turkish forces and Syrian opposition groups from the country’s northwestern rebel-held enclave. Climate change and worsening poverty have fueled a cholera outbreak the past months.

Like Mesko, many of the migrants come from the Syrian city of Kobaniwhich made headlines seven years ago when Kurdish fighters withstood a brutal siege by the Islamic State militant group.

The town was left in ruinsand since then “not much has happened” to try to rebuild, said Joseph Daher, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, adding that most development funding goes to cities further east.

Recent events in northeastern Syria have given its residents an additional incentive to leave.

Turkey has stepped up attacks on Kurdish areas in Syria after a bomb attack in Istanbul in November killed six people and wounded more than 80 others. Ankara blames the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party and the US-backed Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Unit in Syria. Both have denied responsibility.

Since then, Turkish airstrikes shelled areas across northeastern Syria, including Kobani, further assaulting its already pulverized infrastructure, and Ankara vowed a ground invasion.

Bozan Shahin, an engineer from Kobani, recalled a Turkish airstrike last month.

“I saw my mother shaking with fear and holding my 4-year-old sister to keep her calm,” Shahin said.

He now wants to join the stream of Kurds who are on their way from Syria to Europe.

“I have some friends who found a way to get to Lebanon through a smuggler and go through Libya somewhere,” he said. “I’m not familiar with all the details, but I’m trying to see how I can make that trip safely.”

The operation, which takes weeks and costs thousands of dollars, is run by a smuggling network that bribes Syrian soldiers to get people through checkpoints where they can be detained for draft evasion or anti-government activism, then across the porous border into Lebanon. the migrants and smugglers said.

There, the migrants usually stay for about a week in overcrowded apartments in Beirut while they wait for expedited passports from the Syrian embassy by way of a smuggler’s middleman.

Passports in hand, they fly to Egypt, where Syrians can enter visa-free, then take another flight to Benghazi in war-torn Libya before making the journey to Algeria through another network of smugglers.

“We drove in vans and jeeps and they took us across Libya through Tripoli and the coastal road and we changed cars every 500 kilometers or so,” said Mesko.

During the journey through the desert, they had to cross checkpoints run by Libya’s mosaic of armed groups.

“Some of the guards at checkpoints treated us horribly when they knew we were Syrians, took our money and phones, or left us standing outside in the heat for hours,” he said.

An armed group kidnapped the group of migrants who left before his and demanded $36,000 for their release, Mesko said.

By the time they reached the Algerian city of Oran, Mesko was relieved to be hiding in an apartment run by the smugglers. As they waited for weeks, he and the other migrants spent most of their time indoors.

“We couldn’t move around freely in Oran because security forces were over everywhere and we didn’t enter the country legally,” said Mesko. “There were also gangs in the city or even on the coast who tried to rob migrants and take their money.”

Human rights groups have accused the Algerian authorities of arresting migrants, and in some cases expelling them across country borders. According to the UN refugee agency, Algeria expelled more than 13,000 migrants to neighboring Niger in its south in the first half of 2021.

Despite his relief at arriving safely in Germany with a chance to bring his wife and girls there, Mesko feels remorse for leaving Kobani.

“I was always opposed to the idea of ​​migrating or even being displaced,” he said. “When we had to move to another area because of the war, we returned to Kobani as soon as we could.”

Mesko spends much of his time on asylum interviews and court hearings, but says he is in good spirits knowing he has begun a process he only dreamed of months ago. He hopes to get asylum status soon, so that his wife and daughters can reunite with him in Europe.

“Syria has become an epicenter of war, corruption and terrorism,” he said. “We lived like this for 10 years, and I don’t want my children to live through these experiences and see all the atrocities.”


Chehayeb reports from Beirut. Associated Press writer Renata Brito reported from Barcelona, ​​Spain.


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