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Why do Syrian refugees leave Turkey?

January 18, 2016 at 11:45 am

“If a man once fails,” say the Anatolians to illustrate a man who was living in wealth and suddenly loses everything. Surely, he faced a catastrophe; everything happened at once so he was caught unprepared. That’s when the real journey begins, where he is going to witness the ugly side of life. This is in every sense “an exact falling of man”.

Syrians have been experiencing this unfortunate “falling” process for over four years. They lived in a relatively safe country where everything was cheap compared to their neighbours, then their life was turned upside down. Violence became an everyday issue and hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and wounded; millions more have been displaced internally or are refugees in neighbouring countries. Children are now starving to death in besieged Madaya and other Syrian towns.

According to the UNHCR there are 2,503,549 Syrian refugees in Turkey; 1,070,189 in Lebanon; 633,466 in Jordan; 244,642 in Iraq; 123,585 in Egypt; and 26,772 in Libya.[2] Around 850,000 refugees have gone to Europe by sea from Turkey; around half are Syrians. At least 3,735 of these refugees are listed as dead or missing on the journey. The body of baby Aylan lying on the beach has become symbolic of their plight.[3]

Why do so many Syrians decide to press on to get into Europe even though they have sanctuary in Turkey? Avoiding the theoretical aspects, perhaps some details of a Syrian refugee whom I met during my field research will be useful.

Ammar is 45 years old, a business man from Aleppo. Before the civil war began he had a textile factory of 1000 m2 with many machines worth millions of dollars, as well as a big shop in the centre of the city. He employed 300 workers. He has now lost everything. The factory and shop have been destroyed and the machines have been stolen. He fled with his family to Mersin.

After living off his savings for a while, he and his sons started to look for jobs. Their official status did not let them get formal jobs, so they have to work off-the-record for cash. Ammar started to drive people who needed transportation between cities. He found his clients on social networks. His sons aged 23 and 25 worked at a car wash and estate agents earning around 300 Turkish Lira (€100) per month.

In spite of the high cost of living he was confident about living in Mersin. However, the cost of his car insurance rocketed from 230 TL to 1,200 TL, on top of the 1,000 TL that he paid for his Turkish driving licence. Suddenly, the vehicle that was his means to earn a living became a burden. Not only that, but local taxi drivers prevented him from collecting Syrian customers.

He insists that he wants to make an honourable living and not depend on aid until such time that he can return to his country. He sent an aid package given to him to a family in Syria. Nevertheless, he feels that without a job there are no solutions open for him and his family. “I put up my car for sale, and the rent of the house will expire in December,” he told me. “I will either spend that money for living till it wastes away, or use it for escaping to Europe.”

Eventually, I heard that Ammar and his family chose the second option and after a lengthy journey finally reached Sweden in the first week of January. The journey cost around 1,000 dollars per person; they now receive 4,000 Swedish krona (€427) per person, which gives them a fair living.

Ammar’s story explains in part why Syrians dare to take a risky journey for which they might pay with their lives instead of stay in Turkey. They have difficulties in making a living in Turkey as there are many obstacles in the employment market related to their official status of “temporary protection”. In addition, there is the high cost of living and problems in enrolling their children in local schools, finding a home to rent and other matters. This causes them to lose hope of being to live in Turkey. If they are not given the full right to seek employment in Turkey, how will they survive when their savings are all used up? This and other questions need to be answered if we are to find out why they head for Europe instead.

The evidence of the welcome and provision for Ammar and his family perhaps explains why people risk the journey to Europe, despite the harsh weather. According to UNHCR data, 22,000 refugees sailed to Greece from Turkey in the first two weeks of January; around half of them are Syrians.

Interactive: Make a Syrian Refugee’s Journey

While those who make the trip can obviously afford to do so, many more want to go but can’t afford it. The flow of refugees is thus likely to continue throughout 2016. Bringing peace and security to Syria is one way to stop the flow, but until that happens the capabilities of the UNHCR must be enhanced to allow the UN body to improve living conditions for the refugees in Turkey and Syria’s other neighbours. If Europe can do this instead of spending money on tightening border controls, the situation may well be eased for everyone, refugees and host countries alike.

The writer is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Namik Kemal University, Tekidag, Turkey.


  1. Some of the data discussed in this article depends on a field research sponsored by TUBITAK (Turkish Scientific and Technical Research Institution) applied on Syrians who live in urban areas in Mersin and Adana cities in Turkey
  2. (Last visited: 16.01.2016).
  3. (Last visited: 25.12.2015).

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