Economic pain, Turkish strikes push Syrian Kurds to Europe


Baran Ramadan Mesko had been hiding with other migrants for weeks in the Algerian coastal city of Oran, waiting for a chance to sail across the Mediterranean to Europe.

A few days before the 38-year-old Syrian Kurd began his journey, he received word that a smuggling boat carrying some of his friends had sunk shortly after leaving the Algerian coast. Most of its passengers drowned.

It came as a shock, after spending weeks getting to Algeria from Syria and then waiting a month for a smuggler to get him on a boat.

But after pouring thousands of dollars into the journey, with his wife and two 4- and 3-year-old daughters counting on him to ensure a life safe from conflict, the citizen engineer journalist turned on a small fishing boat with more than a dozen people. other men and take group selfies to send to their families before they go offline.

After a 12-hour overnight journey, Mesko arrived in Almeria, Spain, on October 15, then flew to Germany four days later, where he is now an asylum seeker in a migrant settlement near Bielefeld. He is still getting used to the cold weather and is using a translation app on his phone to help him get around while learning German. He said he hopes his papers will be resolved soon so his family can reunite with him.

The International Organization for Migration says at least 246 migrants have gone missing trying to cross the western Mediterranean into Europe by 2022. Over the past few years, thousands more have died en route. dangerous process at sea.

Mesko is one of a growing number of Syrian Kurds making the journey to Europe following a winding route that includes traveling by car and plane through Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and finally by boat. to Spain. They say they choose this winding route out of fear of being detained by Turkish forces or Turkish-backed fighters 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 the total last year.

A Syrian Kurdish smuggler in Algeria says dozens of Syrian Kurds come to the Algerian coastal city of Oran every week to make the sea journey.

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

Years of conflict and economic instability have left their mark in areas of northern Syria, home to some 3 million people under de facto Kurdish control. The area has been targeted by Islamic State militants, Turkish forces and Syrian opposition groups from rebel-controlled enclave in the northwest of the country. Climate change and worsening poverty have fueled cholera outbreaks in recent months.

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

Joseph Daher, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, said since then, “not much has happened” to try to rebuild the town.

Recent events in northeastern Syria have given their residents more incentive to leave.

Turkey stepped up its attacks on Kurdish areas in Syria after a bombing in Istanbul in November that killed six people and wounded more than 80 others. Ankara blames the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party and the US-backed Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units in Syria. Both deny responsibility.

Since then, Turkish air strikes have hit areas across northeastern Syria, including Kobani, further wreaking havoc on the country’s already destroyed infrastructure and Ankara claims will launch a land invasion.

Bozan Shahin, an engineer from Kobani, recalls a Turkish air strike last month.

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

Now he wants to join the flow of Kurds traveling from Syria to Europe.

“I have some friends who managed to get to Lebanon through a smuggler and go somewhere through Libya,” he said. “I don’t know all the details, but I’m trying to see how I can make that journey safely.”

This weeks-long and thousands-of-dollar operation is run by a smuggling network that bribes Syrian soldiers to get them through checkpoints where they can be detained for draft evasion or active duty. anti-government movement, then crossed the lax border into Lebanon. migrants and smugglers said.

There, the migrants usually stay in crowded apartments in Beirut for about a week while waiting for fast passports from the Syrian Embassy through the smugglers’ middlemen.

Passports in hand, they flew to Egypt, where Syrians can enter visa-free, then boarded another flight to Benghazi in war-torn Libya before embarking on a journey to Algeria via a other smuggling networks.

“We went in trucks and jeeps, they took us through Libya through Tripoli and the coastal road, we changed cars every 500 kilometers,” Mesko said.

During their journey across the desert, they must pass checkpoints run by Libyan mosaic armed groups.

“Some of the guards at the checkpoints treated us badly when they knew we were Syrians, took our money and phones, or made us stand outside in the hot sun for hours,” he said. .

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

When they arrived in the Algerian city of Oran, Mesko was relieved to take refuge in an apartment run by smugglers. While he waited for weeks, he and other migrants spent most of their time indoors.

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

Human rights groups have accused Algerian authorities of detaining migrants, and in some cases deporting them across land borders. According to the UN refugee agency, Algeria deported more than 13,000 migrants to neighboring Niger to the south in the first half of 2021.

Although relieved to have arrived safely in Germany and had the opportunity to take his wife and daughters there, Mesko still feels regret for leaving Kobani.

“I have always been against the idea of ​​emigrating or even losing a place to live,” he said. “Whenever we have to move to another area because of the war, we will return to Kobani as soon as we can.”

Mesko spends a lot of time on asylum interviews and the trial, but says he’s in good spirits knowing he’s begun a process he only dreamed of a few months ago. He hopes to be granted refugee status soon so that his wife and daughter can reunite with him in Europe.

“Syria has become the epicenter of war, corruption and terrorism,” he said. “We’ve lived like this for 10 years and I don’t want my children to go through this experience and see all the brutality.”

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