Turkey ramps up efforts to stop illegal migrants heading to Europe

DAILY SABAH
ISTANBUL
Published 30.08.2019 00:15
Illegal migrants stopped en route to Greece being taken to a Coast Guard boat off the coast of Bodrum in southwestern Turkey, Aug. 28, 2019.
Illegal migrants stopped en route to Greece being taken to a Coast Guard boat off the coast of Bodrum in southwestern Turkey, Aug. 28, 2019.

As the number of illegal migrants seeking to reach Europe via Turkey increases, so does Ankara's measures. A total of 235,000 migrants were stopped so far this year and the number of interceptions increased by 42% compared to the same period last year

In the face of disastrous journeys to Europe by illegal migrants who often end up dead in the cold waters of the Aegean, Turkey has stepped up efforts to stop them. The efforts have apparently paid off as 235,000 illegal migrants were intercepted in the first eight months of 2019. The General Directorate of Migration Management, an Interior Ministry department set up amid an overwhelming influx of migrants from Asia and Africa, announced yesterday that there was a new increase in the number of illegal migrants trying to reach Europe. Turkey bridges Europe and Asia and shares a border with EU members Bulgaria and Greece, making it the best place to get into Europe for migrants from Asia and Africa who flee civil wars, conflicts and poverty. Thousands seek a better life in Europe, which takes in, often reluctantly, fewer and fewer migrants every year.

Though some countries like Germany are more generous toward migrants seeking shelter, EU countries remain at odds on which countries should take more migrants.

Official figures show that the number of intercepted migrants increased by 42% between January and August compared to the same period in 2018: 158,235. Officials say it is the joint and separate efforts of police, gendarme units and the Turkish Coast Guard on land and at sea that curbed the number of "successful" crossings and deaths. Figures show the number of illegal migrants who reached EU countries via land crossings was 10,000 in the first eight months of 2018, but it dropped to 4,000 in the same period this year. The situation is different on the sea route, though. The number of people who reached Europe by sea was 18,000 in the first eight months of 2018, rising to 24,000 this year.

The migration authority says Edirne, a northwestern province bordering Greece, had the highest portion of illegal migrants. One in every three illegal migrants in Turkey was intercepted in Edirne. Some 68,000 migrants out of 235,000 were stopped in Edirne and compared to the same period last year, the interception rate increased 70%.

As conflicts, poverty and violence continues in the Middle East, Asian countries and Africa, Turkey has become a popular hub for illegal migrants seeking to cross into Europe. Greek islands in close proximity with Turkey's Aegean shores are favorite destinations of migrants heading to Europe. However, journeys aboard unsafe, overcrowded boats often steered by inexperienced migrants turn out deadly. To reduce the number of illegal migrants on the dangerous Aegean Sea route, Turkey and the European Union signed an agreement in 2016. The deal stipulates that Greece is to send migrants held on its Aegean islands back to Turkey. In return, Turkey is to send Syrian migrants it hosts to various European Union countries. The deal also saw an escalated crackdown on human smugglers and increased sea patrols to prevent immigrants attempting to cross; for a while, it helped reduce the number. Yet, some desperate migrants still take the route even in winter, when a safe journey through the Aegean is nearly impossible aboard overcrowded, unsafe dinghies.

The country boosted patrols at sea and land but still struggles to stop the influx of migrants. Prior to their travel to western Turkey where Aegean shores are located, migrants enter Turkey from borders in the east and south. Afghan migrants amass at the eastern border with Iran, especially in the winter months. Although many make it into Turkey by crossing treacherous terrain, others succumb to freezing temperatures as evidenced in nearly a dozen migrant bodies found in the past few months after heavy snow lingering in the area thawed with spring. If they can make it into Turkey alive and dodge authorities, migrants secretly travel to big cities in the west to work and live though many prefer taking the Aegean route into Greece.

Human smugglers play a key role in aggravating the number of gullible migrants. It is believed that smugglers were behind a string of rumors that triggered a new flow of migrants in eastern and western Turkey earlier this year and in late 2018. Hundreds of Afghan migrants arrived en masse, for instance, to the eastern border upon rumors that the border would be forever closed soon when a new, well-protected wall would be completed. Human smugglers are also believed to be behind an online campaign to fuel the migrant influx into Edirne in northwestern Turkey in April. Hundreds of illegal migrants were stopped by security forces in the city over online rumors and fake news of the "opening of border crossings between Turkey and Greece."

Migrant smuggling has been a profitable business as conflict in Turkey's southern neighbor Syria worsened, and smugglers still continue operating, although in a much limited capability thanks to security operations. They charge fees as high as $2,000 to take migrants to Europe from Turkey.

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