Bodrum is a city on the West Coast of Turkey with beautiful beaches, five star hotels and a colorful and lively nightlife. During the summer the population of Bodrum nearly triples with the influx of tourist, both from Turkey and around the world. Every night, as the sun sets down and the sky gets darker, the music grows louder and people head to the many beach clubs dressed in their best summertime outfits to dance until the sunrise. Meanwhile, on the abandoned beaches neighboring the beach clubs where people dance in an alcohol-fueled frenzy, men, women and children – mainly from conflict-torn Syria but also Iraq, Pakistan, Bangladesh and some African countries – get on inflatable plastic boats and set off into the sea, not knowing whether they will reach Kos, a Greek island 10 miles from Bodrum. And every morning, as the sun rises and tired people from the nightclubs go back to their beds to recharge for the next day, shoes and clothes from the travelers of capsized boats drift ashore as a reminder of the tragedy that takes place each night at sea.
The world was recently shaken when photos of the drowned body of Aylan, a three-year old Kurdish-Syrian boy, was printed in newspapers and shared online. What was probably most striking was that Aylan lay down on the beach in a peaceful way as if sleeping, creating a striking contrast between the battle he had suffered through at sea just a few hours earlier. Aylan is not the only one who has died during the journey from Turkey to Kos, Greece; 2500 Syrian refugees have died this summer trying to escape the civil war in hopes of a better future in one of the EU’s member states.
When violent attacks started taking place across Syria in 2011, many countries opened their doors to fleeing Syrian citizens. Since then, millions of refugees have left the country, creating the largest recorded human migration in recent history. Even though many neighboring countries declared that they would accept refugees, Turkey was the only country to open its doors unconditionally. Two million Syrians have found refuge in Turkey, which is more than the total number of refugees EU countries have accepted in the last three years combined. Although this sounds like an incredible humanitarian act, Turkey has accepted these refugees without the jobs, schools or healthcare infrastructure to provide for them. When a Turkish news channel interviewed a Syrian refugee who had landed on Kos after a dangerous 10-mile journey at sea, the only thing he could say was that he would rather die than stay in Turkey. His statement pretty much sums up the situation in Turkey, which I will try to further illustrate based on my experience living there.
When you walk along the streets of Istanbul you see the old mixing with the new. You see mosques, churches, shopping malls and, most shockingly, you see a massive crowd of people. In recent years there have been additions to this classic Istanbul scene. It is now common to see Syrian refugees sleeping on streets, refugee children begging and babies crying. Tents have been set up in parks, in school gardens and roadside. In Bodrum and many other coastal towns in Western Turkey you see plastic boats and cheap life vests being sold in stores alongside tourist necessities such as sunscreen and swimsuits. Tragically those plastic boats and life vests are not used for fun. Instead, they play a crucial role in keeping refugees alive during their nighttime journey. Across the water in Kos you see those cheap life vests being used as beds and the boats as tents.
What you will not see is the black market: children and women being forced to beg or enter marriages for financial reasons or sell their bodies for money by gangs. You will not see how people work in terrible conditions to scrounge up the outrageous fee of $1500 that gangs charge to facilitate the trip to Kos. You will not see how some parents send their children alone because they cannot afford to pay for themselves. In short, you will not see what these people running from their home have to go through every day just to survive.
While many locals accept that this is a tragic situation, they are also quick to point out how unhappy they are because of the recent influx of refugees. Many claim that Syrians present a cheaper, alternative workforce and therefore take up many jobs.
Catriona Grew is a recent St Andrews graduate who visited Turkey over the summer. Contrary to what the locals say, she points out that she was struck by how polite, gentle and incredibly intelligent the Syrian people she came across were. She mentions an interior designer who was working his way across Turkey doing odd jobs in hostels in hopes of going to Berlin. Another refugee she met was an engineer who had been forced to work for Assad’s regime, but whose conscience told him that he could not do it anymore. So, he chose to leave everything he knew and start over in Turkey rather than continue in guilt. “Their amazingly courageous characters and their moving stories put to shame every careless stereotype or alleged political concern about an influx of immigrants that I’ve yet heard,” she says.
Life is relatively easier for educated refugees since European countries have declared that they will only accept qualified refugees, meaning those who are trained for specific jobs or have the necessary educational background. The fact that some European countries have recently opened their doors to Syrian refugees has created an optimistic vibe, though, as Catriona points out. She says: “Ultimately my experience [with] refugees this summer makes me massively support the generosity of countries like Germany. I think the rest of Europe urgently needs to follow suit and show the basic humanity that’s needed right now to these tragically displaced people. No human should be illegal, and it’s only by luck of the draw that we’re the ones living in safety.”
The photographer who took little Aylan’s photo later told journalists that there was nothing else she could do. Taking that photo was the best thing she could offer him. Maybe she was right. Her photo came at a crucial moment, and it did spark important conversation amongst its viewers. But at this point I have to ask, is this actually all we can do? Is there really not anything else?
Editor’s note: The photo of Aylan was taken by Nilufer Demir on the Turkish coast, near Bodrum on 2 September.