Turkish town puts EU-Turkey refugee deal to the test
Dikili residents fear the return of Syrian refugees to town would affect their tourism-based economy.
Dikili, Turkey – In Dikili, on Turkey’s Aegean coast, the harbour cafe is filled with locals drinking coffee and fishermen mending their nets. A fishmonger plies his wares by the pier, as ferries make their way over the sparkling sea. It’s the type of ambiance that has made this town of 40,000 a popular tourist resort.
But, a quick look at the docks and the mood changes abruptly. Men and boys are escorted one by one on to white coaches, driven through a corridor of yellow cordon tape, past police dogs, photographers and curious onlookers, their faces silhouetted behind tinted windows.
With one officer from EU border agency Frontex assigned to each of the 202 deportees on their departure from Greece, blue tarpaulin masking registration procedures and strong police presence on the streets, nothing was left to chance.
As the town has grown into a major hub for migration to the EU, locals fear that its economy of hotels, cafes and other services catering to tourists would be jeopardised by the presence of a new refugee camp.
On Monday, the EU’s first deportation of migrants to Turkey went smoothly, despite protests in Dikili over plans to build a refugee camp in the area the previous day.
The deportations are part of an EU-Turkey deal signed on March 18, in which migrants who have made it across the Aegean Sea to Greece are being sent back to Turkey.
In the case of those fleeing Syria, the EU is resettling one refugee for every deportation. In return, Turkey receives money, visa-free travel and fresh hopes of one day joining the bloc.
Both the UN and human rights groups have criticised the deal. The UN has questioned its legality, and last month withdrew its support for refugee camps in Greece, which it has labelled as “detention facilities“.
Troublingly, Amnesty International claims that the Turkish government has been sending back thousands of Syrians to their war-torn country – a violation of international law.
In his defence, on the same day that the first deportations took place, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told humanitarian organisation Red Crescent in Ankara that, unlike European countries, Turkey had not “turned back Syrians“, rescuing 100,000 migrants from the Aegean Sea.
While Syrian refugees may have received massive media attention since the deal was inked, only two Syrians, who had volunteered to return to Turkey, were on board the ferries. The other 200 included Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, all deemed economic migrants, all facing a stay at a camp in Kirklareli, near the Bulgarian border, before being deported back home.
On the outskirts of Dikili that morning, a line of gleaming white buses awaited migrants. Gathering round for a cigarette before the long day ahead, drivers had told Al Jazeera that they were taking the migrants to Kirklareli, a detail later confirmed by Mustafa Tosun, the Mayor of Dikili, in media reports.
Turkish EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir told HaberTurk television that non-Syrian migrants would be sent to Kirklareli for [security] checks before facing deportation to their home countries.
Although the deportation of Syrian refugees, which would activate the one-for-one swap under the EU-Turkey deal, has not yet begun, in Dikili the locals only speak of Syrian migrants, who have passed through the town in large numbers in recent years, waiting to make the dangerous journey across the Aegean to Greece.
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have wasted their money, going to Greece and then returning.”]
According to Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan, there are now nearly 2.8 million Syrians across the country, a figure which is not going down well with some Turks.
In Dikili, tensions have been running high, with locals protesting against the prospect of refugee camps in the area. “We don’t want the Syrians to come back,” says Ermal Dvacik, chatting with friends at the harbour cafe.
Businessman Umut is also railing against Syrians, though for more pragmatic reasons. “If there are Syrian refugees, tourists will not come to Dikili,” he says. “We cannot build a refugee camp,” he says.
Only a few days previously, the Mayor of Dikili had expressed fears that the region’s facilities would not be ready to accommodate refugees.
But it turns out that there will be no camp. The arrival of Izmir Governor Mustafa Toprak causes a murmur to ripple through the crowd. He insists to journalists that no camps will be built in Dikili.
Indeed, it seems to be the point of his visit.
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Meanwhile, for all the talk of Syrians, there seem to be none in town today. With good reason, according to Ferdi Aydin, a Kurdish construction worker, who says the remaining [Syrian] community was rounded up and taken away by police the day before.
“We used to hang out with them at the Dikili sports club,” he said. “I have worked with some of the men. But now they’ve all gone.”
At the sports centre, in the town’s 8th Street, the cleaner says 300 Syrians were taken.
They came here to stay before getting their boats to Greece, he says. Women and children would come too. “They would sleep and wash here. It was a safe place for them,” he says.
At the police station, an officer, who asks that his name be withheld, refuses to confirm or deny figures. “We can’t comment, but we send the Syrians we find to Izmir and authorities there deal with it. It’s not just something that happened yesterday, it’s been happening all month,” he says.
For all the hostility Syrians have encountered in Dikili, there is humanity too.
“I don’t like this,” says Murat Demir, a swarthy fisherman in his 60s, as he sits in the harbour cafe. “I’m so sorry these people have wasted their money, going to Greece and then returning, going to Greece and then returning.”
Out in the water every morning, Demir has witnessed first hand how refugees are loaded onto flimsy boats with dodgy motors, illegally made in Izmir.
He’s noticed how traffic has slowed in the past weeks. According to Turkey’s Interior Minister Efkan Ala last weekend, 300 per day are still making the journey from the eastern coast.
This is a dramatic fall from the 2,000 who were still crossing in February.
“There’s a lot of trying,” says Demir. “Here we relax and drink coffee,” he says. “But, all these people trying to save their lives, we don’t know how they feel.”