By Sile and Helen, International Protection Policy Team
Van has changed a lot over the past few years, or so we learned as we enjoyed one of Van´s famous breakfasts with a young refugee woman who has been waiting here for 11 years. When she arrived it was more like a village, it´s boulevards crowded with overhanging trees and ramshackle houses. The trees and houses are gone, replaced by concrete highways and hundreds of towering apartment blocks and villas. The people may be poor but there is a lot of money in Van; smuggling is a lucrative business. Border controls may make it harder to cross into Turkey but while conflict continues people will find a way. And as the alternative routes vanish, supposedly safe passage is sold at a premium, following the basic rules of supply and demand. Smugglers can make anything from $600 to $1,000 per person, offering a route from Iran to Turkey. The safer the route, the higher the price. We met with someone who has been carrying out research at the border between Iran and Turkey, speaking to border guards, smugglers and local villagers. His findings revealed a well-established industry spanning countries, languages and political affiliations. Some smugglers offer refugees protection, assistance and their only route to safety. Others abuse, threaten and exploit their ´customers´ in the knowledge that they have no other choice.
Some of these ‘customers´ are children, entrusted into the hands of smugglers by desperate parents. They arrive ın Van alone and, if they are lucky they make it to one of Van´s most impressive initiatives. An independent school, run entirely from donations, provides a range of services for Turkish and refugee children and adults. For the children, it might be there first experience of education; an opportunity to learn Turkish, English, maths, music, sports, science… the list goes on. Most importantly, it gives them hope for opportunities in the future and a chance to be ‘normal´ as one student put it.
Our research in Turkey finished with a visit to an organisation that provides a similar service for adults focussing on language and handicraft classes. None of the refugees we met knew how long he or she will be in Van – maybe months, maybe years. Uncertainty and idleness cause despair so they keep themselves busy learning skills that will enable them to restart their lives when the opportunity comes. If that opportunity is denied them many give up hope in the asylum system and forge their own route to safety in Europe. These are the ones in the tankers or the overcrowded boats bound for Greece. Not one of the refugees we met talked about benefits or free housing. They talked about safety, survival and the pain of separation from family members.
I would like to end my research blog by thanking all those who helped us during our time ın Turkey, and particularly those who talked to us so openly and honestly about their experiences. Good luck.