Poverty and persecution send thousands into forced exile

ANKARA – Habib and his family fled to Turkey from Iraq a year ago, but their journey is far from over. His savings spent paying smugglers to take them across the border, Habib, who asked that his last name not be used, is stranded between his homeland and a «fortress Europe» increasingly loath to provide migrants refuge. Each year hundreds of thousands of people from poverty-stricken countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia trek through Turkey’s rugged eastern mountains, reach its Mediterranean shore in rickety boats or arrive at airports to overstay visas. The final destination is seldom Turkey, their eyes cast on the nearby, more affluent European Union states. But Turkey’s porous frontiers and ill-equipped border guards make it a convenient stop. Growing European anxiety over the influx has given nationalist parties with hardline anti-immigration planks an edge in elections in Italy, Austria and Denmark. Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen stunned France with his second-place showing in the first round of presidential elections this month. «Le Pen’s victory was a milestone in this ‘fortress Europe’ phenomenon,» says Adem Arkadas of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) in Ankara. «But the apparent rise of nationalism has not affected immigration.» ASAM estimates Turkish police detained around 150,000 illegal migrants in 2001. Too close to turn back An Iraqi Christian, 45-year-old Habib worked as a cook for UN inspectors in the oil-for-food program. He was detained repeatedly by Iraq’s secret police. Habib says he was sodomized and his wife assaulted. Thugs broke his 7-year-old son’s arm. When agents showed Habib his death warrant signed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, he gathered his wife and four children and $8,000 and fled Baghdad. «I cry sometimes because I had a good life, a car, a house. I owned a market,» he says. «Now I have nothing, only my hunger.» The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) rejected Habib’s bid for asylum. As he waits out his appeal, he relies on handouts from a church and collects scraps from a butcher to feed his family. His children do not attend school. «We are waiting only,» Habib says. «We live here in despair. This is not living, this is no life.» Of the 5,000 people who seek asylum at the UNHCR in Ankara each year, just 10 percent are resettled, says Ahmet Icduygu, a professor who has researched human trafficking for 15 years. «These people are at the doors of Europe. They are not going to give up now,» says Regina Boucault of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Ankara. Anywhere from 250,000 to a million foreigners are in Turkey at any given time, Boucault says. She describes Turkey as the «passage obligee» for people – mainly war-weary Afghans and Iraqis – exiled by either poverty or persecution. Few mechanisms Laboring under recession, Turkey has scant resources to feed and shelter migrants, Boucault says. Police in remote areas often let them go since they have nowhere for them to sleep. «The Turkish government feels overwhelmed. It feels the EU must do more, since it is the target for migrants,» she says. Long an immigrant-generating nation, Turkey is also one of the world’s top three producers of refugees, along with Iraq and Iran: Every year 25,000 people, mainly from the troubled Kurdish southeast, seek asylum abroad. Brussels has urged Turkey, an EU candidate, to dismantle its policy of granting asylum only to European refugees. It is the only country to place such geographical limits on asylum. The Council of Europe said in a report last week that Turkey’s forcible removal of migrants was «inexcusable» and called for a halt in expelling those who risked ill treatment back home. «Turkey treats illegal migration as a security issue along its borders,» Icduygu says. «But it fears international reaction, the political damage of a large ship of migrants.» Ankara lacks a comprehensive immigration policy or law and has no single immigration authority. Ismail Caliskan, head of the anti-smuggling department with Turkey’s Interior Ministry, said police do not have the means to separate refugees from economic migrants. «We can’t do much for those who are caught. We try to give them some food and clothing and a little bit of money, then return them to the border gates,» says Caliskan. «The number of people arriving has continued to grow since Europe relaxed its immigration laws (in the 1990s),» he says. «There is a double standard. (The EU) wants us to do more, but they allow anyone claiming political oppression to stay there.» Economic mainstay Despite the backlash, the EU provides a million illegal aliens with jobs each year, says Icduygu, a far more powerful lure than fears of hatred or discrimination. Illegal migration is also a vital part of Turkey’s crisis-racked economy, reaping millions of dollars in foreign currency. About 75 percent of migrants in Turkey turn to smugglers, mainly those using informal networks of relatives or friends who manage their small businesses with mobile phones. «In southeastern Turkey, border crossings are a tradition, it’s not thought of as smuggling or a crime,» Icduygu says. Migrants pay smugglers up to $3,000, but the price hardly guarantees safe passage. Police this week discovered the bodies of three Bangladeshis who had suffocated in a container truck and were then discarded in a roadside ditch in Istanbul. Dozens have died in recent years when their boats capsized in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. Others have been killed in minefields peppering Turkey’s land border with Greece. Habib fears undertaking that trip with his wife and small children and he distrusts Turkish smugglers. Those who brought him across the border then to Istanbul sold him fake UNHCR papers and bilked him of his money and his wife’s gold. But he won’t rule out the perilous journey either. «We will never go back to Iraq,» Habib says, «and we can’t stay here forever. Sooner or later the waiting must end.»