Syria war: Risking all to escape

By Janay Boulos
BBC Arabic, on the Turkish-Syrian border

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Turkish-Syrian border crossing (file photo)Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Turkey is seen as a safe haven by civilians fleeing the fighting in Syria

"They wait until the fog sets in, limiting the visibility of the Turkish border guards, and then they run for their lives."

Abdo, 31, is a people smuggler from a Syrian village near the northern city of Idlib.

Before the war he was a farmer, but now he makes his living helping Syrian refugees cross, illegally, into Turkey.

As the Syrian conflict enters its seventh year it is a journey that is becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous.

"The border guards are playing with people's souls as they run through the fields trying to hide between the rocks," Abdo says. "Many lives have been lost on these roads."

Since Turkey tightened border security in 2016 it is much harder to find places where it is possible to slip across.

Like Abdo, many of the Syrians involved in people smuggling are residents of villages close to the border area.

"[They] know the roads and the fields by heart," he says. "They can take people along the roads that are difficult for the border guards to reach."

Dodging gunfire

Abdo works the area in the north-western part of the border, sending people into Turkey's Hatay province via the Syrian villages of Salqin and Haram.

Haram is the cheapest route because it is the most direct, but it is also the most exposed, with people crossing open fields, he tells the BBC.

Salqin costs more money because it offers more cover. But it is an arduous journey that can take up to three hours and involves climbing hills, wading through rivers and trudging across mud-logged fields.

But both routes often end in a barrage of gunfire as refugees dodge border patrols and make the final dash into Turkey.

Those who manage to get across still need to walk for miles to safety in remote villages.

Despite the risk there are still many desperate people willing to take their chances.

Abdo says that he sees dozens of people every night trying to cross the border.

Registration ruse

Further east is another escape route into Turkey's Gaziantep province via the Syrian border town of Jarablus.

Ziad, 28, is a former engineer from Aleppo, who fled to Turkey in 2012.

He was smuggled out across the fields beyond Jarablus and then became a smuggler himself helping many relatives and friends to make the same journey.

Since early 2016, things have changed here too and now the only way out is via official border crossings.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Turkey has tightened its border with Syria over the past year

There are two ways to smuggle people through official crossings, Ziad explains.

One is for the smugglers to register refugees as their employees.

Officially the refugees are there to help load and unload goods before the return journey to Syria. Unofficially, as soon as they reach Turkey they slip away and are picked up by cars that take them on to safety away from the border area.

Getting temporary permission to work in this way usually costs around $1,800.

The other option - for the same amount of money - is to be smuggled across the border in the back of an ambulance ferrying Syrians for medical treatment in Turkey.

"It's impossible to get people out any other way," Ziad says.

Lucrative trade

Things have become so difficult that Ziad and many others like him have given up people smuggling altogether and now smuggle cigarettes and mobile phones instead.

Image source, Janay Boulos
Image caption,
Cigarettes can fetch twice as much in Turkey than in Syria

As a registered cross-border trader, Ziad now travels between the two countries taking advantage of the higher prices on the Turkish side.

"You can go into Syria with a truck of vegetables and food, and come out with 25 blocks of cigarettes," he says.

Cigarettes cost twice as much in Turkey as in Syria, so he can sell a block for double what he pays for it, sharing $1.5 per block with the local truck drivers who carry the goods across.

Back in Idlib province, Abdo is waiting for his next customers.

Sometimes it takes people as many as six attempts to finally reach Turkey, he says. And not everyone makes it.

But as the war drags on, it is clear that however hard it might be to get to safety, many Syrians are not going to give up whatever the cost of trying.