There are an estimated 60,000 Syrian refugees in the Turkish city of Mersin waiting for a call to board a ship to Europe. Turkish migration expert Metin Çorabitir tells Caroline Muscat that without EU action, Malta should expect an increase in asylum seeker arrivals due to regional instability

Most Syrian migrants depart from the Turkish port of Mersin, on board smaller fishing boats that transport them to the ‘mother ship’, the larger cargo vessel, waiting out at sea.

A trip can cost anything from $2,000 to $5,000. The price depends on whether there are police checks, weather conditions and how complex it was to organise the boats to reach the cargo ship, according to migrants’ testimonies.

The vessels soon earned the label of ‘ghost ships’, a term usually used for boats floating aimlessly with no crew on board. Yet, these ghost ships are loaded with human cargo. As the situation in Syria becomes increasingly desperate, smugglers have devised ways of exploiting the vulnerable in a brutal but profitable business.

Turkey has spent $6.7 billion hosting close to two million Syrian refugees since April 2011, Mr Çorabatir says. It is the largest refugee influx the country has faced in decades. He says Turkey must do more to improve their condition and make efforts toward integration, but he also points out Europe’s shortcomings.

The EU is not doing enough to share the burden, he says, echoing Malta’s criticism. And if the EU does not increase its efforts to address the Syrian problem, its consequences will shift to Europe’s frontline countries that are typically the first port of call for irregular migrants to the region.

We may witness much higher movements of unseaworthy cargo ships carrying more desperate Syrian refugees entering the EU

A UN report estimates the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey may spiral to 2.5 million by the end of this year.

“This means the Mediterranean Sea may witness much higher movements of unseaworthy cargo ships carrying more desperate Syrian refugees entering the EU,” he says.

When two rusty old freighters, the Ezadeen and the Blue Sky M, packed with refugees were sent toward European shores to face disaster last month, the incidents caused sensation and speculation. What was obvious was that rickety boats carrying a few dozen migrants were being replaced by far larger vessels, carrying hundreds.

Migration expert Metin Çorabatir.Migration expert Metin Çorabatir.

In late September, the first large vessel transporting human cargo across the Mediterranean was detected. Since then, 12 such ships have been reported; seven of them in December involving 3,157 irregular migrants. In that period, a total of almost 5,000 people were rescued, 80 per cent of them Syrians, according to EU figures.

The EU has criticised the Turkish government for not doing enough to stop the phenomenon. But according to Mr Çorabatir, Turkey is not the only country to be blamed. The international community has failed Syria, he says, and while criticism of Turkey is justified, the fact the country was hosting 1.7 million Syrian refugees cannot be ignored.

“These developments may be the result of several factors  mismanagement by Turkish authorities, deliberate ignorance, corruption and lack of capacity. But the root cause is the failure to stop violence in Syria,” Mr Çorabatir says.

Mr Çorabatir is the president of the Research Centre on Asylum and Migration (IGAM), an Ankara based think-thank that he set up with a group of academics after he spent 18 years as the spokesperson of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Before that, he had a long career in journalism.

The EU has criticised the country for not doing enough to stem the flow of migrants to Europe. Yet, Turkish commentators have pointed to the EU’s hypocrisy when telling the country to leave its eastern border open to Syrians and clamp down on its western border to stop migration towards Europe.

It is a chaotic situation in Turkey and the lack of control on migration out of the country is not necessarily a matter of convenience, Mr Çorabatir explains.

There are several other factors: lack of experience, the traditional unwillingness to take joint political action to address emerging problems, an over-centralised system of administration, the non-involvement of civil society and the passive role of UN agencies.

A Syrian waiting in Mersin for the smugglers’ call for the next ship out told the German Der Spiegel magazine last month that his parents had sold their house for $4,000 to pay for his trip and hope for a better life. His only other choice was to take up arms, but killing people was not something he was prepared to do.

The advantage of leaving from Mersin is that larger ships and old freighters also sail in winter and travel to the port. The smaller dinghies used by migrants arriving in Malta usually leave from Libya or Egypt. Yet, it does not necessarily mean the larger vessels are more seaworthy as some are decommissioned ships intended for scrap.

In case of difficulty, search and rescue operation rules dictate migrants must be taken to the nearest port of call. The new tactic being used by smugglers therefore poses added challenges for Malta.

The Home Affairs Ministry says it is “closely monitoring” the situation and taking the necessary actions to address this scenario. It said the army’s operational procedures at sea are being reassessed, training enhanced and aerial and naval assets are being increased through EU funds.

Syrian refugees: a buried past and no future

There are 1.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Only 13 per cent are in camps – 220,000 people live in 22 camps in 10 cities bordering Syria.

There are Syrians in 72 cities across Turkey. In the south-eastern city of Kilis, the 86,000 Syrians outnumber the local population of 70,000.

The UN estimates the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey will spiral to 2.5 million by the end of this year. At the moment, an estimated 60,000 Syrian refugees are in the Turkish city of Mersin waiting to leave for Europe.

Although living conditions and services are better than the situation in camps in Lebanon and Jordan, spending almost four years in a camp has its consequences. People are only allowed to leave the camps during certain hours.

Many feel they would do better living outside the camps, but in reality life in cities is worse. There are only limited work opportunities as undeclared workers and they are paid much lower wages than Turkish citizens.

With a buried past and no future ahead, increasing numbers of Syrian refugees are considering the perilous Mediterranean crossing for a glimmer of hope in Europe.

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