Economic pain, Turkish strikes drive Syrian Kurds to Europe

QAMISHLI, Syria (AP) – Baran Ramadan Mesko had been hiding with other migrants for weeks in the Algerian coastal city of Oran, waiting for a chance to take a boat across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

Days before the 38-year-old Syrian Kurd set out on the journey, he received news that the boat smuggling some of his friends had sunk shortly after leaving the coast of Algeria. Many of its passengers drowned.

It was a surprise, after spending weeks going to Algeria from Syria and then waiting for a month for the merchant to put him on board.

But after pouring thousands of dollars into the trip, with his wife and 4 and 3-year-old daughters relying on him to secure a safe life in the conflict, the journalist-turned-citizen boarded a small fishing boat with a dozen. some men also took a group selfie to send to their families before going offline.

After a 12-hour overnight trip, Mesko arrived in Almería, Spain, on Oct. He’s still getting used to the cold weather, and uses a translation app on his phone to help him navigate while learning German. He said he hopes that his papers will be processed soon so that his family can join him.

At least 246 migrants could go missing while trying to cross the western Mediterranean to Europe by 2022, the International Organization for Migration said.

Mesko is among a growing number of Syrian Kurds making the journey to Europe in a circuitous route that includes traveling by car and plane through Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and then by boat to Spain. Migrants say they choose the circuitous route because they fear being detained by Turkish forces or Turkish-backed fighters in Syria if they try to cross into Turkey, the most direct route to Europe.

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According to data from the border agency of the European Union, Frontex, at least 591 Syrians will cross the Mediterranean from Algeria and Morocco to Spain in 2022, six times more than last year.

A Syrian Kurdish envoy in Algeria said that many Kurds from Syria arrive in the coastal city of Oran every week on sea trips.

“I’ve never had numbers this high before,” the seller told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of arrest by Algerian authorities.

Years of conflict and economic chaos have left their mark on northern Syria, home to 3 million people under Kurdish rule. The area is controlled by Islamic State militants, Turkish forces and Syrian opposition groups from the rebel-held northwest. Climate change and increasing poverty have fueled cholera outbreaks in recent months.

Like Mesko, most of the migrants are from the Syrian city of Kobani, which made headlines seven years ago when Kurdish forces withstood a brutal siege by Islamic State militants.

The town was left in ruins, and since then, “not much has happened” to try to rebuild, said Joseph Daher, a professor at the European University Center in Florence, Italy, adding that most development funding went to cities further east.

Recent events in northeastern Syria have given its residents additional incentive to leave.

Turkey has stepped up attacks on Kurdish areas in Syria after a bomb blast in Istanbul in November killed six people and injured more than 80. Ankara accuses the Kurdish Workers’ Party and the US-backed Kurdish militia, the Syrian Civil Defense Unit. Both have denied responsibility.

Since then, Turkish airstrikes have swept through northeastern Syria, including Kobani, continuing to hit its already battered bases, and Ankara vowed a ground attack.

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Bozan Shahin, an engineer from Kobani, recalled the Turkish airstrikes last month.

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

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

“I have friends who found their way to Lebanon through a smuggler to another place in Libya,” he said. “I don’t know all the details, but I’m trying to figure out how to take that trip safely.”

The operation, which takes weeks and costs thousands of dollars, is carried out by a network of smugglers who bribe Syrian soldiers to send migrants to checkpoints where they can be detained for plotting or fighting the government, then cross the border into Lebanon. , the migrants and smugglers said.

There, migrants live in overcrowded apartments in Beirut for up to a week while they wait for expedited passports from the Syrian Embassy in the form of a middleman.

With passports in hand, the migrants travel to Egypt, where Syrians can enter visa-free, then take another flight to Benghazi in war-torn Libya before beginning the journey to Algeria via another smuggling network.

“We traveled in vans and jeeps and they took us to Libya through Tripoli and the coastal road and we changed cars every 500 kilometers or so,” Mesko said.

While crossing the desert, they had to cross Libyan-run checkpoints with pictures of armed groups.

“Some guards at checkpoints mistreated us when they knew we were Syrians, took our money and phones, or kept us outside in the heat for hours,” he said.

The armed group abducted a group of migrants walking in front of him and demanded $36,000 for their release, Mesko said.

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When they arrived in the Algerian city of Oran, Mesko was relieved by escaping to a room controlled by these transporters. While they waited for weeks, he and other migrants spent most of their time at home.

“We could not move freely in Oran, because the security forces were gone and we did not legally cross the country,” said Mesko. “There were gangs in the city or on the beach who tried to catch migrants and take their money.”

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

Despite his relief at arriving safely in Germany with the opportunity to bring his wife and girls there, Mesko feels regret about leaving Kobani.

He said: “I have always been against the idea of ​​immigration or deportation. Whenever we had to move to another area because of the war, we returned to Kobani when we had the chance.”

Mesko spends most of his time on interviews and court cases, but he says he’s in good spirits knowing he’s started the program he dreamed of months ago. He hopes to be granted asylum soon, so that his wife and daughters can be reunited with him in Europe.

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

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Chehayeb reported from Beirut. Correspondent Renata Brito reported from Barcelona, ​​Spain.

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