Women and children seeking family reunion risk everything to reach Turkey
Irregular migration from northern Syria to Turkey and on to Europe continues apace – despite the deadly hazards.
For women and children, the dangers are heightened, from being robbed by smugglers to being fired upon by Turkish border guards.
In spite of the terrifying risks, that will destroy the lives of some, the attempts to leave Syria continue.
Deaths of women and children have been documented at the borders, alongside betrayal by smugglers. Then there is the arduous terrain of the smuggling routes; violence meted out by Turkish border guards; the physical hardship of the journey, and the extortionate sums the smugglers demand.
The last UNHCR statistics on Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries from January 2020 showed that 5,556,417 refugees were in these states – including 3,576,344 in Turkey, 915,000 in Lebanon, and 655,000 in Jordan – and that numbers were rising.
An estimated 13 million Syrians altogether are refugees, with nearly three million currently in Europe, the rest mostly in neighbouring states and the US.
"An estimated 13 million Syrians altogether are refugees, with nearly three million currently in Europe, the rest mostly in neighbouring states and the US"
Risking everything for a brighter future
The reasons women decide to flee Syria are many. The risks to themselves and their children are a price they pay in the hope of escaping the myriad crises afflicting the war-torn country; fighting and repeated displacement; oppression and impoverishment. They set out in the footsteps of their husbands in search of safety and security, notwithstanding the dangers.
The main risk women face is financial exploitation by smugglers, and at times, sexual exploitation. Other challenges are the severe restrictions on their freedom of movement imposed by society and the de facto rulers, for example the obligation they are always accompanied by a mahram (generally a male relative).
Hala Al Salem still hasn't given up after repeated failed attempts to cross into Turkey, and is determined to join her husband – now in Germany – especially since he now has the right to apply for family reunification, four years after entering the country.
She'll keep trying until she gets out of Syria no matter the obstacles, she says, even with two small children in tow, and no relative to accompany her as she entrusts her family's lives to the smuggling cartels.
The first leg of their journey was from Qah IDP camp in Idlib to the Turkey-Syria border with the help of a local smuggling network.
The average sum they demand is $800 per person, but there is no guarantee of safe passage nor that you will even reach Turkey, she says.
For so-called "guaranteed" entry, they demand between $2,000 and $3,000 per person. Hala wasn't able to raise that amount even after having borrowed all she could from relatives.
HTS 'Border Security'
She says aside from the smugglers' fees, groups affiliated to the de facto powers have set up numerous security checkpoints along the border to demand money from those crossing. This followed the decision in late 2015 by the de facto authorities (later, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)) to establish what became known as the "Border Security Office", to regulate people-smuggling operations into Turkey.
They also demanded that women be accompanied by a mahram to cross. Women unable to fulfil this condition often make agreements with a smuggler, who will obtain forged ID papers claiming a family link to the woman. In this way HTS scrutiny at the checkpoints can be evaded.
"Rawah Al Balani (31) paid for her attempt to reunite her family in Turkey with the life of her five-year old daughter Salaam, after Turkish border guards fired on them"
Roua Alloush (28) managed to enter Turkey after a harrowing journey that lasted months, and included failed several attempts. She set off with her three children from Afrin, northwest Syria, heading for Turkey. Days and nights of anxious travelling would be punctuated by repeated attempts to hide and evade detection as the family struggled to reach their destination safely.
Roua's husband had left after the family was displaced from Khan Shaykhun during the regime's 2019 military offensive. He left his family in an IDP camp and headed for Turkey looking for work and a brighter future for his family – who pinned all their hopes on him. When he managed to find a job with a monthly salary, Roua decided to join him, reunite the family and be free of the misery of "camp life". She planned to illegally enter Turkey with the help of people smugglers.
Travelling with children
Women with children face additional difficulties during the journey as they are responsible for their children's safety throughout the trip, and smugglers often see children as a liability as they can't control their behaviour and sudden crying. This can lead to detection of smuggling operations and in some cases has led smugglers to abandon women and children mid-journey, fearing exposure.
"Death would have been kinder, when I think about the nights in detention camps after the many times we were arrested and returned," says Roua, adding: "They left us without food or drink, before cramming us into cars and dropping us at the closest checkpoint to the borders, where we were beaten and humiliated, and then left in front of border security who would stand there mocking us."
Rawah Al Balani (31) paid for her attempt to reunite her family in Turkey with the life of her five-year old daughter Salaam, after Turkish border guards fired on them, killing women and children. The heartbroken mother says that after the attempt, which cost her the "light of her life", she no longer thinks about trying to join her husband in Turkey.
"She was in my arms as her final breaths left her body and I couldn't get her emergency treatment or do anything to save her. Terror, fear, and screaming were everywhere and death surrounded us." Rawah falls silent, before continuing quietly: "I wanted a good life for her in a Western country with her father, and our family to be reunited, but I lost her, and have returned to where life has no hope."
"I wanted a good life for her in a Western country with her father, and our family to be reunited"
She blames the smugglers who she says view the "desperate as walking goldmines". Smugglers have become indifferent to the risks as their sole motivation is profiting as much as possible from those who entrust their lives to them, she says. This sees those trying to escape Syria placed in direct confrontation with the Turkish border guards who have repeatedly fired upon unarmed civilians, including women and children, indiscriminately.
Killing civilians at the border
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights indicate that up to 452 Syrian civilians – including 80 children and 44 women – were killed by the Turkish gendarmerie between the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011 and 13 August 2020.
An HTS supervisor at the "Border Security Office" said cross-border smuggling of families is rife with killing, looting, scams and the abuse of women in cases where the smuggler isn't a local who has been vouched for. Even if he is, there is still no guarantee that the operation will succeed and pass safely.
#Femicide reaches astronomical levels in war-torn Syria as lawlessness and impunity reign supremehttps://t.co/G4W6lgjPD3 via @the_newarab— Canadian Femicide Observatory (@CAN_Femicide) September 7, 2022
He said HTS had started organising schedules with the names of people planning to attempt the border crossing. The smuggler was responsible for those with him until they crossed, and would be held accountable if there were complaints about his work. If someone's name was not on the lists, the smuggler would also be held accountable.
Exploiting the desperate
Baha al Jahjah (44), a smuggler, believes that while the procedures offer an impression of reassurance and regulation, their function is really just imposing extra fees on citizens without any real protection. He says HTS actions within Syrian territory are confined to holding smugglers accountable if there is a complaint of theft or failing to get would-be migrants into Turkey. However, once they are across the border, violence or theft by the Turkish border guards are not the responsibility of HTS "Border Security" nor the smugglers, who simply protect themselves with a receipt to show they did their job.
He explains that the Turkish border guards will often arrest migrants upon entry and send them straight back to the HTS "Studies Office" (which monitors goods and aid entering northwest Syria) at the Bab Al Hawa crossing, after forcing them to sign a waiver depriving them of the right to enter Turkey. Returnees will lose the money they have paid both to the smuggler and to HTS "Border Security".
"While political solutions are ultimately the key to solving the refugee issue, humanitarian support to devastated regions needs to be intensified and stability in all areas fostered"
Human rights activist Marwan Al Wais (42) says that although most who attempt illegal emigration are pressured by the tough circumstances in Syria, smuggling remains a criminal offence because it exposes people to exploitation, and endangers lives, especially those of women and children.
He says while political solutions are ultimately the key to solving the refugee issue, humanitarian support to devastated regions needs to be intensified and stability in all areas fostered. He stresses that equality between Syrians is vital for a sustainable future with fairly distributed work opportunities, and a focus on empowering the youth who will play a major role in effecting positive and lasting change in the country long term.
Hadia Al Mansour is a freelance journalist from Syria who has written for Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Monitor, SyriaUntold and Rising for Freedom Magazine.
Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko