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Despite Danger, Syrian Refugees Leaving Germany Via Same Routes They Came On

Illegal border crossings into Turkey are increasing in a phenomenon known as ‘reverse flight’.

In 2015 Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, declared “Yes, we can!” in reaction to the massive number of refugees, mainly from Syria, flowing into the country. Three years later, some Syrians are leaving Germany illegally and entering Turkey with the help of human traffickers.

Evros Greek Border

The course of the Greece–Turkey land border, mostly following the Maritsa (Turkish: Meriç, Greek: Evros) river (depicted in blue), roughly indicating the 12.5 km border fence (in red) on the Greek side near Edirne, and major highways (in grey). CC Wikimedia Commons

Their track back often takes them through the exact same route they came in on a couple of years ago  – just in reverse: via the Greek-Turkish border, across the river Evros in the far north-eastern corner of Greece.

“I have been here before. This is where we stood in line to buy tickets to Macedonia,” recalls one of the reverse refugees recently featured on German TV as he attempts to cross into Turkey “We were sleeping on this street behind the cars to avoid being caught by the Greek police.” Walking on, he points to a public phone: “I know this, too, this is the phone I used to call my family in Syria. I never thought I’d come back here.”

But back he is, pulling a small suitcase. No passports, no ID card, no visa. He shipped these documents to Turkey ahead of his trip. “I am leaving the way I came” he states “with nothing.”

The Syrian Refugee Crisis

Almost six million people fled Syria since the civil war began in 2011. The largest number of refugees live in Turkey, roughly 3.5 million in a country with just under 80 million people. Syria’s neighbors, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan plus Egypt received about 80% of all refugees and a large percentage of the rest made its way to Europe.

In 2015 alone almost 900,000 refugees entered Germany in search of asylum. A major contingent were Syrians who were fleeing the brutal civil war. Their often circuitous, dangerous and exhausting trips took many of them through Turkey, Greece, the Balkans and eventually through Austria into Germany.

Whole families embarked on the voyage, but so did individuals who left their families behind in search of safety and the hopes of being able to bring their families to Germany once they were settled.

Status Of The Syrian Refugees

Many of the Syrian refugees were allowed to stay in Germany. The question the courts had to decide was what status the refugees would be granted: asylum seekers, official refugees according to the Geneva Convention or something else.

The decision in 2016 by one of the administrative high courts gave Syrians provisional protected status. This status falls short of the protections asylum or refugee status affords but allowed Syrians to stay in the country legally for a year with the option to renew.

Provisional Protected Status is granted people who do not face personal persecution in their home country for political, religious or other reasons but seek refuge from war or civil war in their countries, i.e. face a more general threat to their safety and lives.

Why Syrians Are Leaving

The reason for this “reverse flight” is something Americans have come to know as “chain migration” or, to use a less loaded term, family-based immigration. The German courts decided in 2016 to suspend family-based immigration for a period of two years.

A growing number of Syrians are now making the trip back to be reunited with their families, marry the fiancées they left behind, or look after aging parents who fled to Turkey.

Steps of the Reverse Flight

For those who decide to leave Germany for Turkey the trip often starts by collecting information and discussing the plans on dedicated Facebook groups. These groups provide information about where to attempt to cross into Turkey and how to get in touch with the human traffickers that help with the last step: the border crossing.

Many reverse refugees end up making their way to northeast Greece to cross the river Evros, the international border between Greece and Turkey. The first part is easy, flights and eventually busses take the refugees to the small towns along the river where they contact the traffickers and then wait in hotels to get the details for the most dangerous part of their trip:  the river crossing. About 200 Euros per person secure a space in a small, often rickety boat.

On the way to Evros

Syrian man on the way to Evros, CC https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNqSsgHtNHw

That last portion of the trip into Turkey looks and feels a lot like the flight the refugees took three years earlier. In the dead of the night they meet the traffickers by the river and attempt the crossing. Evros looks deceptively calm but the currents can be strong, especially during floods, the water can be freezing cold and not all the small boats make it.

The risk is high, for both the refuges and the traffickers, who face up to eight years in prison when caught.

Those who make it, live in Turkey illegally without work permits and the fear of being caught by the police is ever-present.

Still, a growing number of people make the decision to embark on the reverse flight in order to be reunited with their families and to start building the life they always hoped they would have, first back home in Syria, then in Germany and now in Turkey.


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