President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he would “open the gate” to Europe starting in March. As a result of his pronouncement, thousands of refugees gathered around the area near Pazarkule border gate in Turkey.
Many boarded buses to the border – some organised by Turkish authorities from Istanbul – others walked. People gave up homes they’d been renting and sold whatever belongings they had left.
But President Erdoğan’s pronouncement was just a reaction to the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in Idlib province on February 28 and was designed to exert pressure on the EU and Nato to support Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria.
Rima, a 45-year-old Syrian former nurse, packed up what she owned, left her rented accommodation and paid 500 Turkish lira (£56) to get to Pazarkule. She hoped to find a way into Europe and on to Switzerland where her sister is a political refugee.
When she arrived, however, she quickly realised the closed borders meant she was simply part of a bigger game by the Turkish government. “I understood we were being used,” she says.
Greek forces used tear gas and stun grenades to repel people trying to cross. Turkey claims 150,000 people crossed the land and sea borders during this period while Greece puts the official numbers at fewer than 3,500.
In the following weeks, Rima and the thousands who remained in Pazarkule went from one nightmare to another as the coronavirus outbreak gripped Europe. On the night of March 26, Turkish forces burned the tents of those living in the makeshift migrant camp and forced them on to buses, driving them thousands of miles across the country to quarantine camps.
Lighthouse Reports followed Rima and 29 others on their journeys from Pazarkule: tracking and verifying testimonies through apps, live streams and social media updates.
The investigation has shown how, after leaving the quarantine camps, some people ended up on the streets of Izmir. Others, including children, were put into a detention facility in Ankara. Some of the Syrians have been threatened with deportation to “safe zones” in northern Syria.
After Rima watched her tent burn she was taken to a quarantine camp in Malatya, more than 1,000km (620 miles) away from the border on the eastern side of Turkey. They had no choice but to go, she says: “[Turkish forces] threatened us with weapons.”
Rima says that there was minimal food provision and medical care in Malatya. They were finally released from quarantine on April 16 and dropped off in the north-eastern Trabzon province. A group of 50, including Rima, who had no money for onward travel were then picked up by local authorities and taken to a detention facility in Ankara 800km away.
Videos she shared show women screaming and children crying as they arrive at the facility. Rima says everyone initially refused to get off the bus when they realised they were about to be detained again.
“They treated us like detainees and criminals,” she says. She managed to keep her phone although others had theirs taken away. “I could communicate and document what people suffered in this prison.”
Photos she shared show babies and children sitting on bunk beds. They went on hunger strike in protest at the conditions and Rima says there was no milk formula for the babies.
After five days they were released. Rima had lost the house she had been renting in Konya after missing a payment.
Rima cannot return to Syria because of her previous media activities. She is also worried about being deported to “safe zones” that Turkey has established in northern Syria. She fears these zones will be in the hands of the regime in the near future. “Why should I trust Erdoğan’s promises to create safe zones in Syria after all we have seen from the Turkish state?” she asks.
Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, an MP from the People’s Democratic Party and a member of the Human Rights Commission in Turkey, told the Guardian that refugees at Pazarkule had been used as political pawns.
“Thousands of people were flooded to the border as a political leverage or blackmailing material,” he says. Gergerlioğlu witnessed some of the events at Pazarkule in his capacity as a member of the Human Rights Commission. He said the threat to open the borders to refugees is the “Achilles heel of the west”.
“Erdoğan is a pragmatist politician,” he said. “Those people who died, [were]wounded, became miserable, lost their belongings, are just casualties for Erdoğan. He can construct such a game again.”
For those who tried and failed to get to Europe at the Pazarkule border gate, the future is unknown. Rima is now homeless and staying with friends in Ankara. She cannot envisage earning enough money to build a life there and fears deportation to northern Syria. “There is no future, no protection, or hope,” she says. (Source: The Guardian)