The only travel agencies open in İzmir on a Sunday are in Basmane. A neighbourhood of former imperial splendour, it is now known as Little Syria. I was there on 20 March, the day that the deal between the EU and Turkey to deport ‘all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands’ came into effect. There’d been a suicide bombing in Istanbul the day before, and another in Ankara a week earlier. Basmane was the only part of İzmir where the streets were crowded.
Police smoking cigarettes looked on as 15-year-old Fatih, whose family runs a taxi business, circled in his wheelchair among migrant families with their belongings loosely packed in black bin bags. Fatih had a piece of paper with the taxi numbers on it, and was crossing them off as the cars left with their passengers. ‘Syrian tourists, families on vacation,’ one of the drivers assured me. Fatih laughed. The routes from İzmir are well known: north to the coastal towns near Ayvalık, the safest way to Lesvos; a bus ride to the nearby resort of Çeşme, a crossing point to Chios and Samos. An ‘excursion’ to Bodrum is an option for people hoping to get to Kos. Hundreds drowned trying to cross to the Greek islands last year.
At least 74,000 Syrians have registered in İzmir, Turkey’s third largest city, since the start of the civil war in 2011, but local NGOs say that unregistered migrants bring the total over 100,000. Basmane is their first stop. Locals from the nicer parts of town warned me not to go there alone, or with my head uncovered. But I did, and it felt safe enough. Women were buying groceries, mostly imperishables: grain, oil, bottled water. Men gathered outside mobile phone and electronics shops.
Despite the deal between the EU and Turkey, local merchants selling lifejackets said that business is still good. Omer, a 21-year-old from Aleppo, was waiting for a call from the man who’d promised to take him to Greece the next day. He remembered Europe fondly from his days working on a ship. He survived an airstrike that killed the rest of his family. He said he wasn’t worried about not making it, or being sent back. When I asked if he had a passport, he took his shirt off: his name, a heart and SYRIA were tattooed on his bicep. He doesn’t want to stay in İzmir because he can’t find work.
Of the 2.4 million Syrians who have sought refuge in Turkey since 2011, only 7351 have been granted work permits. A new law passed in January is meant to make it easier, but work is still only available to new arrivals six months after they obtain temporary protection status, and subject to restrictive quotas. Most migrants have been forced into low-paid illegal work. According to Human Rights Watch, Syrian children as young as nine work 11-hour shifts for 50 lira (£12) a week.
In a busy square outside a municipal building in Basmane, Abdullah was laying out his family’s belongings to dry in the sun. They’d failed to get to Greece and now planned to stay in İzmir because they had no money left. Abdullah hoped to return to work in a repair shop, along with his 11-year-old son, who was sleeping on a nearby bench, wrapped in an old blanket. Abdullah said he has no choice. Of the 700,000 school-age Syrian children in Turkey, fewer than a third were enrolled in formal education in 2014-15. Since then, the number of migrants in the country – not only from Syria but also from countries including Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea – has increased, forcing more children and adults alike, assuming they aren’t deported, into illegal employment and smuggling channels.
Read more in the London Review of Books