Two Residents of Syria’s Idlib Province Recount Their Attempts to Cross into Turkey

The following piece was written by a Navanti researcher who lives in Idlib province and translated into English.

Syrians try to enter Turkey illegally from Idlib province every day. Although the crossing is dangerous, it is nothing when compared to what remains behind: some migrants have seen their families killed by aerial bombardment, others have had their houses destroyed, and others still simply want to escape the violence and unending battles swirling around them. While the Turkish government’s recent crackdown on Syrian migrants is likely to reduce the rate of illegal crossing attempts, it will not reduce the desire of many people to escape their dire conditions.

A minaret is visible behind rubble in Idlib City. Source: Navanti

A minaret is visible behind rubble in Idlib City. Source: Navanti

Migrants are desperate for any way out of Idlib province, which is primarily controlled by a faction called Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that is al-Qaida’s former branch in Syria. HTS and Syrian government forces have engaged in a series of tit-for-tat attacks despite a ceasefire that went into effect in fall 2018, and Damascus began a new offensive against rebel-held Idlib in April of this year. Because of the fighting and terrible humanitarian conditions, migrants are willing to pay exorbitant fees and believe far-fetched promises in order to escape. Some are led to think that if they pay enough – up to $2,000 per person – they can be led along a route where Turkish authorities turn a blind eye and allow anyone through.

Smugglers use a number of means to get people into Turkey. One common way is to cross the Assi river using empty water jugs tied together as makeshift rafts. One person at a time climbs onto the jugs to be ferried across by rope. Another common method is to walk with a guide to remote and less-guarded spots along the border wall separating Turkey and Syria, then wait while he places a ladder, climbs to the top, cuts the barbed wire and helps people cross. 

The smugglers are usually locals from the border areas. They plan the operation and employ guides to lead the migrants, and coordinate with associates on the Turkish side of the border who receive the migrants when they cross. Smugglers often lie to convince their clients how easy and safe the operation will be, and seldom seem to care about the difficulty of the journey or the lives being placed in their hands. 

A sign in Idlib reads, “Democracy is the Tyrant of the Age.” Source: Navanti

A sign in Idlib reads, “Democracy is the Tyrant of the Age.” Source: Navanti

Migrating women are vulnerable to harassment from guides during the journey. They are forced to keep quiet, told that their voices risk tipping off Turkish guards to the group’s whereabouts; guides can threaten to kill them or abandon them if they speak up. 

I spoke to two fellow Syrians, Um Bilal and Adnan, who told me of their attempts to cross into Turkey.

Um Bilal, a mother of three, has tried to cross the border with her children dozens of times over the course of three months, so far without any success. She described one such attempt to me:

“I agreed with the smuggler over the phone…they took us to bayt al-tasfir (a “crossing house” where migrants are prepared for the trip) in one of the villages close to the border. The women were in one room, and the men in another. After sunset we went to purchase a receipt from the border crossing that’s under the control of Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham [HTS]. The receipt costs $50 USD, and the group imposed this measure to prevent smugglers from cheating people.

“Afterwards, the guide watched the road, then placed a ladder on the border wall, which was about three meters tall. I climbed the wall and jumped down on the other side, then the guide lifted my children and I took them from him. We crossed some asphalt, and then came to side paths – we followed all the guide’s instructions, crawling in some places, running in others. But we came across a Turkish gendarmerie patrol, who opened fire on us, forcing us to surrender ourselves. They arrested and detained us all, imprisoning even the women and children, and beat and insulted the young men. Then they sent us back to Syria. 

“I remember on one crossing attempt, a woman and her son were with us, and when the gendarmerie opened fire, a bullet entered his back and left through his stomach. No one came to help him. When his mother started screaming, the gendarmerie came and took her to prison, then put a cloth bandage on her son and sent him to prison as well. He was getting worse, so his mother screamed at the guards, ‘take me back to Syria! I want to treat my son,’ then collapsed.

I watched a Turkish officer scream in her face: ‘Turkey is not for Syrians, you risked your child’s life, so bear the consequences.’ As she cried and screamed that her child was dying, eventually they took the child to a clinic inside Turkey. The rest of us spent the entire day in prison, and the next morning they deported us all back to Syria, including the mother, while her son was treated in Turkey.”

Adnan, who successfully crossed with his mother and younger sisters after four failed attempts, recalled his story:

“Around midnight, when the air was very cold and foggy, we crossed the wall. The gendarmerie shined a spotlight, but the fog helped us and they couldn’t see. We crossed the wall, and afterwards a wadi, and then came to a river. We spent about four hours trying to cross the river. Snow and rain were coming down, the weather was very harsh…

“After this the road became a dirt path, slick because of the rain. The gendarmerie spotted us and began to pursue us. We hid between the olive trees. Our clothing became soaked with water and mud as patrols passed by. We stayed put for two days, hiding among the trees, with no food or extra clothing. On the third day, a Turkish car came and took us to a house in al-Rihaniyya. We had agreed with the smuggler that we would pay $850 per person to reach Istanbul province, with children traveling for free. We really did start moving, with one car in front and one in back, which were working with the smuggler and served as lookouts. They took us to Konya, and from there we rode a bus with several families to Istanbul.”

Despite the treacherous route and low chance of success, Syrians have continued to risk the trip into Turkey. As Ankara moves to institute a crackdown against Syrian migrants, it remains to be seen how smuggling networks, and the desperate families that generate demand, will adapt to the new circumstances.

A sign in Idlib reads, “The Holy Warrior is the Best Sort of Person.” Source: Navanti

A sign in Idlib reads, “The Holy Warrior is the Best Sort of Person.” Source: Navanti