Syrians in the Shrubbery

Firstly let me apologise for the apparently flippant title; it is not intended to diminish the real hardship that many refugees are currently experiencing. No it was done with the intention of pulling in a few more of the ever ‘shrinking attention span social-media’ (SASS) generation into a serious subject. If you ‘Dear Reader’ are one of these people then I guess it did its job, unless of course you have now taken offence at being labelled Generation SASS!

The title is actually not very far from the truth. About ten days ago I was woken in the early hours of the morning by voices coming from the direction of my garden. There was a Turkish voice but also a different Turkic sounding language being spoken, which I later learned was Syrian Arabic. This being the Turkish seaside in summer, people stay out late. It is also the middle of Ramadan, when the handful of my neighbours who still observe it properly rise well before the sun does to eat their breakfasts, so I just rolled over and went back to sleep. However, I had just nodded off when I heard shouting and noticed the coloured flashing lights of a Jandarma (Countryside Police Force) truck. The next day a neighbour informed me that a group of about seven Syrian refugees had been hiding in gardens waiting for a boat, they were told would leave from our beach at midnight. The boat they said they had paid for had seemingly never arrived.

I wish I could say there was something unusual about this story but sadly it is being repeated up and down the entire length of the Turkish Aegean coastline every single night. Desperate people trying to make it to Greece, which despite its own economic collapse is still seen as the gateway to the European Union. The Syrians I heard were heading for the Greek Island of Kos, which I can clearly see from my house most days. However, because so many other Greek islands also lie in close proximity to the Turkish coastline, they have received more than their fair share of people looking for political asylum. Only yesterday the large island of Lesbos declared that it has received more refugees than at any time since the calamitous end to the Greek – Turkish War of Independence in 1922, when in the space of a few weeks almost a million people fled from Turkey to Greece ahead of the victorious Turkish forces.

Syrian Refugees in Bodrum
Photo care of Hurriyet Newspaper

This week the United Nations confirmed that more than four million Syrians – a sixth of the population – have fled abroad to escape the conflict in their country. A surge in the number of people crossing into Turkey has increased this total by one million in just 10 months. Turkey is now home to the largest number of Syrians refugees – almost 2 million – and is reportedly preparing for a new influx as the conflict escalates near the Syrian border.

Syrians also made up about a third of the 137,000 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean from north Africa in the first half of 2015. In all, about 270,000 Syrians have gone that more dangerous route to seek asylum in Europe. However, Europe now seems so totally distracted by the economic woes of Greece and its almost inevitable exit from the Eurozone, that it appears devoid of any real will or ideas to come up with a sustainable solution to deal with the massive influx, beyond building higher fences and sending out more boats to collect survivors from those flimsy boats that sink long before they can make landfall.

Of course where ever you have a crisis, there will be those who can see a quick profit in it. Enter the people traffickers, who are now operating in a business worth hundreds of millions of Euros, anywhere in a long sweep of coastline between the African Atlantic coast all the way around the Mediterranean to the land border between Turkey and Greece. Be they mafia, smaller local players or just petty criminals with a single boat to sell, all are now trying to cash in on the unfolding human tragedy. For them the more miserable the better because that is what motivates the refugees to pay such high amounts for life threatening journeys often in conditions that most people wouldn’t even subject animals to.

Returning to my opening scene. People smuggling is now so widespread here that the crooks who run these operations along the Aegean coast now barely even try to hide their activities anymore and in some areas they have terrorised the local residents to such an extent that some of them have now banded together and taken up arms against the smugglers.

People Smugglers in Bademli Village
Photo care of Sabah Newspaper

Fed up with smugglers using their fields and empty houses for their operations to the Greek island of Lesbos, locals in Bademli village in the province of Canakkale recently argued with a group of smugglers they confronted on the coast. However the smugglers soon returned in a convoy of cars and opened fire into the air in the village square in an attempt to intimidate the villagers, who they did not realise were also armed with pistols and rifles. The villagers quickly overpowered the group and captured five Turkish smugglers who they photographed after tying to poles in the square. Some of the photos were then made into posters and put up in the area to make an example of them and warn off other smugglers. The men were then handed to Jandarma when they arrived in the village the next morning. However, only one of these men was arrested while some of the others, who were quickly released, returned the very next night. They were now scared to enter the village, but still fired into the air nearby.

One of the villagers who preferred to remain anonymous recently told Sabah newspaper that hundreds of migrants still descend into Bademli, every single night in taxi’s on foot or in smugglers trucks, which also carry boats. Nobody seems interested in stopping them so we now patrol our fields, to prevent them demolishing fences and walls and also any out buildings and summer houses, which is where the smugglers often hide the refugees until night falls. The two sides still occasionally exchange fire at night.

Until the World decides to deal with the catastrophic war in Syria once and for all, such scenes are undoubtedly going to be repeated and will probably get worse long before they get better.


Why Turkey will never follow Russia

In a land known for its earthquakes Turkey experienced quite a shock a couple of weeks ago after the electorate worked together to yank the reins of power away from the AK party for the first time in 13 years. Such was the surprise and relief, particularly in the more modern west of the country, many towns and villages near me actually celebrated the news with fireworks – which is something I have never seen before in the fifteen years I have lived here.

After the ruling AK Party lost about 80 seats and with it its working majority the only way they can hold onto any form of power now is in a coalition with one of the 3 other parties, who managed to breach the 10% threshold needed before you can take up even a single seat in Parliament.

This election may have been about a new government but only a fool would say it wasn’t also about the power and ambition of just one man. Recep Tayyip Erdogan – the President, who had actually entertained the belief that his party could achieve a supermajority of more than 50% which would have allowed him to re-write the constitution and effectively transfer most of the governments executive powers to… you’ve guessed it: the President. However, the Turkish people had a very different idea and gave the AKP just over 40% of the vote. So Erdogan’s ambitious power grab, which many people believe would have resulted in a dystopian future because of the effective Putinization of Turkish politics they say would have quickly followed, has seemingly now lost its wheels and been consigned to history.

Erdogan and Putin discussion
Photo by Ust Manset

However, if people think Erdogan is just going to fade away then clearly they don’t know the man or understand his massive ego and ambition. “Democracy,” he once declared, “is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.” Since saying this he has never indicated the “destination” toward which he thought Turkey’s democracy should be headed. But many Turks have drawn the conclusion that Erdogan had always intended to step off the tram as soon he had accumulated enough unrivalled power.

Now the three other parties are jockeying for power and laying out terms for forming a coalition. However, as all three have made it a condition that a number of huge corruption cases against AKP members and their families be re-opened, don’t expect a partnership agreement any time soon. Especially as it has become obvious that Erdogan still seems to have a veto over any AKP decision, despite currently holding the constitutionally ‘Non-Partizan’ role of President.

The massive graft scandal that simply refuses to go away erupted on December 17, 2013, when 24 leading business and public figures, including the sons of three ministers, were detained over allegations of corruption in relation to construction projects and the transfer of funds to Iran. The ministers were all forced to resign, with the Minister of Environment and Urban Planning Erdoğan Bayraktar furiously turning on Erdogan and demanding his resignation, since it was he who had approved the contracts.

Erdogan sacked a further seven ministers in a cabinet reshuffle, then packed it with his cronies. Although he lambasted the corruption probe as a “dirty plot” orchestrated “internationally” to discredit his government he only managed to bury it after sacking or demoting at least 2,000 police chief officers involved in the investigation from the financial crimes, anti-smuggling, cybercrime and organised crime units throughout the country. Then he appointed a little-known governor with no experience of police work, as Istanbul’s new police chief. He even sacked many of the prosecutors leading the investigations with the leading prosecutor quickly barred from expanding his investigation, which by now had implicated Erdogan’s own son Bilal, in order that the case could be handled by forces loyal to him.

Erdogan was not always the aggressive dictator-like leader we see today. At the beginning of his reign, he was quite the modern reformist, albeit with Islamic undertones. Western media praised his forward-thinking approach as he steered the country away from bankruptcy. However, in the 13 years since Erdogan’s AKP party swept into power a divisive society has gradually emerged, which finally united, for the first time against him on the 7th of June. Secular Kemalists, Nationalists, Kurds, Alevi’s, and other minorities such as the LGBT community, Greek and Armenian-heritage Christians and Women’s Rights groups all united against the Ottoman-idolising, conservative and religious leaning state, whose ever more autocratic leader openly views women as unequal and urges them to cover up, make more babies and not even laugh or smile too much in public. Such demands may have pleased AKP-supporters, but it was a step back in time for most Turks, who had been forced to watch on silently as Erdogan went about segregating his AKP-supporters from the rest of the population with his social policies.

The change in media was one of the most startling. Women in hijabs suddenly began presenting the news and most of the media owners were persuaded to either stifle any government criticism or face seeing their journalists jailed or have their TV, Newspapers and on-line content overseen by party placemen. Even poor old Twitter was banned.

Occupy Gezi
Photo by Ilker Goksen

All of this only further distanced many Turks from the new identity Erdogan hoped to sculpt. One of a religious, mosque-attending Turk who shuns the evils of alcohol and hedonism, and longs for the days of Ottoman rule across the Middle East… this despite the Ottoman Empire being recalled by most non-Turkish historical commentators before its demise as The Sick Man of Europe because of the rampant corruption, nepotism and miss-rule.

What happens now? A coalition of any makeup will always carry a flaw that could fracture at any moment. So don’t rule out early elections – indeed there are many here who believe Erdogan would relish yet another throw of the dice to try and get what he ultimately wants with fresh elections. Also, immediate change should not be expected. Not least because his New Order has now ingrained itself right into the heart of Turkish society, with AKP-supporting individuals now filling most positions of influence right across the country. They are embedded in the courts and police force, while high-ranking army generals who opposed the AKP were removed under a major government operation.

Public criticism and dissent are still being met with worsening repression, including ever tighter internet controls. Press censorship, intimidation and self-censorship is now so rife that Turkey became the world’s biggest jailer of journalists in 2013 and 2014. So the voice of Turkey’s modern majority has been neglected for quite a long time and was all but muted or dismissed by Erdogan with a “If you don’t vote for us, you’re nothing to me” attitude. However, now the Turkish people have finally spoken loud and clear, it will be very interesting to see how someone, now rather unaccustomed to working by the rules, will cope within a country that has finally decided to favour democracy over a dictatorship.