‘Lost souls wandering in bosphorus’
Alexa Taylor – Reporting ‘Live’ from Istanbul/Turkey
Commentary on Social Development & Peoples’ Rights
Mothers with dusty faces sit street side; they clutch their sleeping infants with one arm and outstretch the other, desperate for a lira or two from the crowds of people hurrying by. Children hop on subway trains filled with hoards of passengers and roam the wobbly aisles, anxious to sell a small packet of tissues before the next stop. Other young boys and girls blow on plastic recorders and bang on hand-me-down xylophones, eagerly waiting to hear the clink of a coin in their donation cups. Their hollow eyes shyly express stories of loss and despair.
This is the neglected reality of Istanbul. According to numbers from the International Rescue Committee, it’s a metropolis with over 366,000 refugees and asylum seekers crammed into its perimeters. Here, the displaced are invisibly visible. Women and children dot the streets in vast numbers, making them just another display of urban poverty, a concept that has become normalized in developing nations.
Such human suffering is by large a product of the war ravaging Syria. Many of those seeking refuge within Istanbul, and Turkey as a whole, are Syrian. Reports from the United Nations Refugee Agency also show high numbers fleeing instability in Kurdistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran.
The refugee crisis is exhausted in mainstream media—almost everyone across the globe is familiar with the dire conditions that millions face as they risk their lives to escape war, crossing land and sea to reach relative safety.
Yet for the many who survive, that’s only half of the story. And so it begs the question: what happens after the treacherous boat rides, after the exhausting journeys on foot with little food and water? Once reaching asylum, many forego camps and head to big cities like Istanbul in search of livelihoods, but sadly end up living in hardship like the women and children described above.
It’s undeniable that Turkey has been strained by Syria’s civil war. The country now has over 2.5 million refugees dispersed within the region, more than any other place in the world. However, there needs to be serious conversation within the international community as to how Turkey will cope with this growing number of vulnerable peoples. Without further developments, the millions who have crossed into Turkey will be left poverty-stricken and deprived of a foreseeable future.
Turkey restricts most refugees from obtaining work permits, forcing many to find alternative options. The Turkish Confederation of Employer Associations (TISK) claims that approximately 400,000 refugees and asylum seekers work illegally, with an overwhelming portion of this number being children.
Refugees are also stigmatized within the community. In Istanbul, many of them live in run down, abandoned buildings, with no doors or central heating; rags and old blankets hang over glassless windows to lightly conceal their privacy.
Today’s Zaman, an English newspaper in Turkey, reported that there was growing discontent amongst Turks towards the influx of refugees in their communities. In 2014 residents of the city’s Fatih district held public demonstrations, asserting that they did not want to live in the same neighbourhoods as Syrian refugees. In the past year, the Fatih area has been largely ‘cleaned up’ of visible refugee living. (http://www.todayszaman.com/anasayfa_i-stanbul-fears-arabization-with-syrian-refugee-influx_359862.html)
In November 2015 the European Union (EU)—via the EU-Turkey Migration deal (Action Plan)—made a 3 billion Euro promise to better the humanitarian situation in Turkey. However, many international activists worry that the Turkish government will use this money to further invest in arbitrary security measures.
In December of 2015 Amnesty International released an extensive report providing evidence that Turkish authorities have been “unlawfully apprehending, detaining and pressuring refugees and asylum seekers to return to war zones”. This violates the “non-refoulement” principle of international law, which bans countries from returning refugees to conflict zones. (https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/12/turkey-eu-refugees-detention-deportation/)
The violence in Syria has become highly politicized. Let us not forget those who lay helpless at the centre of this catastrophe. This bulk of people who are now simply known as refugees, who have become part of a complicated statistic surrounding combat, remain what they always have been, they are people. They are mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues. They had careers and hobbies; they had hopes and dreams. They are people who have lost their identities to a cruel and irrational war.
The international community must start to more thoroughly invest in the displaced. Institutions such as the EU must also hold governments, such as Turkey’s, accountable, making sure they are distributing humanitarian aid in ethical and meaningful ways. If not, human capital will be stunted in large numbers, and the effects will surely flow down to future generations. Too many reside in unfamiliar countries, deprived of access to adequate food, shelter, education and the ability to create healthy and safe lives for themselves and their families.
Through focus on tighter border controls, fear of terrorism and concern of migrants flooding European and Western nations, the world is slowly voiding innocent people of their right to liberty and life. If their meager existence on street corners in cities like Istanbul continues to be ignored, society will have condoned that this dire situation is inevitable and unchangeable, apathetically accepting it.
In the words of Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”