In Turkey, lake turns into graveyard for migrants

In Turkey, lake turns into graveyard for migrants
Migrants who cannot find a boat are forced to walk for days under the blazing sun, cutting across fields to get around checkpoints.
4 min read
30 August, 2020
In Van Province, which borders Iran, two cemeteries were set up to bury migrants. [Getty]

Gravestones scribbled with identity numbers are all that remain of dozens of migrants aboard a boat that sank in a Turkish lake as they struggled to make it to Europe.

Lake Van, a vast body of water nearly seven times the size of Lake Geneva, has become a death trap for Afghan, Pakistani and other migrants seeking security and work.

The sinking of two boats in June and December, claiming 68 lives in all, underscores the perils of a route used to circumnavigate checkpoints set up across the rugged eastern terrain of Turkey, not far from Iran.

Hiding on the boat with 60 others that sank on June 27 was Mehdi Mosin, then just 17.

He had left his hometown of Kharian in northeast Pakistan "for a better future", his sobbing father said.

"My wife barely gets out of bed anymore," Shafqat Mosin said by phone from Pakistan.

"At night, she cries out, asking me to open the door, thinking that our son will come home."

He tried to stop his son from going, but eventually relented.

"If I had known it was that dangerous, I would never have let him go," Mosin said.

Turkey, which offered fast-track access to Europe during the 2015 migrant crisis, has become an increasingly difficult country to cross.

The first move to cut the flow of migrants came after Ankara and Brussels signed a migration deal in 2016, but the measures were stepped up from 2018 against the backdrop of an economic crisis in Turkey.

The country is already home to around four million migrants, 3.6 million of them from war-torn Syria.

'I started to pray'

Before reaching the lake, the migrants must often cross perilous border mountains. Every year, villagers discover frozen bodies after the snow melts.

In Van Province, which borders Iran, two cemeteries were set up to bury migrants who could not be identified.

In one, there were freshly dug graves, awaiting the next victims.

When the weather is pleasant, the lake appears harmless.

Families have picnics on wooden tables while watching others wobble on their paddleboards, as a local municipality official cleans the promenade.

But its unpredictable waters leave little chance for small, flimsy boats.

Muhammad, a 25-year-old Pakistani man who made it to Istanbul, crossed the lake in early March at night in an overloaded and dilapidated boat.

"There were around 50 people on board and only five life jackets," he told AFP. "There were women and children. I kept wondering what we would do if the boat sank."

When the waves started to rock his boat, "I started to pray," he said. "I saw from the looks around me that everyone was afraid."

Three months earlier another boat carrying migrants had capsized, leaving seven dead.

After the fatal June accident, security services detained several smugglers. Since then, migrants and residents say that crossings by lake, which had been staged almost daily before then, have fallen sharply.

'I have no choice'

At a bus station in Tatvan, a town 140 kilometres (85 miles) west of Van, around 20 exhausted men sit on the ground, their damaged shoes lined up in front of them.

Despite the dangers, none of them are ready to give up.

"My father is sick. I must find work in Europe," said Mahmoud, a Kurd from Iraq. "It's dangerous, I'm hungry, I'm cold, but I have no choice."

Mahmut Kacan, a lawyer specialising in migration issues at the Van Bar Association, said the number of migrants dying in Van jumped after the closure of the local branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2018.

Asylum applications are now instead being handled by the Turkish authorities.

The lengthy, arduous procedures "create a climate of uncertainty" for migrants, who "take more risks" as a result, he told AFP.

Faced with the many dangers, some have opted not to take the risk.

Read also: Bodies of young Afghans who died seeking asylum brought home

"We had agreed with the smuggler that he would take us to Greece," said Abbas Khasimi, an Afghan who came to Van last year.

"But I decided to stay [in Van] for the life of my wife and my child, because the journey was too dangerous," he told AFP.

They have applied for refugee status in order to travel to Europe, and now cling on to this slim chance.

"Our daughter must have a future," Khasimi said. "For my wife and me, it's too late. But it must not be too late for her."

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