EDIRNE, Turkey — Doaa, a 25-year old Syrian, was lying in the shade one day last week, trying to shelter herself from the scorching sun in a makeshift camp near this northwestern border city. A pile of blankets next to her quivered, and a tiny hand emerged. Her son, Nassim, was just a week old.
Doaa had walked out of a hospital in Istanbul a few days earlier to keep a date: Tuesday, Sept. 15. That was when a group of migrants who had organized on Facebook had decided that they would meet in Edirne and press a new migrant cause, a safe land route from Turkey to Greece, and the rest of Europe.
Too many people were drowning at sea, and human smuggling was dangerous and expensive, members of the Facebook group agreed. They decided to gather and persuade the authorities to let them go to Europe by land, establishing a safer path for themselves and others to follow.
A rallying point for the group was Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on shore on Sept. 2 as his family tried to cross the sea from Turkey to Greece. The poignant photograph of him facedown in the sand, as if he were asleep, ricocheted around the world and motivated the Facebook group to follow through on its idea.
But the effort did not go as planned. For the last week, thousands who joined the group, like Doaa, were stranded in and around Edirne, blocked by the Turkish police from making the crossing. Their efforts at getting the authorities’ blessing to forge a safe land path faltered, even as migrants by the thousands continued to reach Europe by sea — only to face their own battles with governments there.
In a week of bloodshed, skirmishes, disappointment and utter confusion for the throngs of people trudging through the Balkans and Eastern Europe, trying to flee war and turmoil in the Middle East, the standoff in Edirne created one more hot spot in a continent full of them. But the effort showed the determination of asylum seekers to gain a coherent policy that will help them make their journeys safely — and another way in which social media has reinforced the migrants’ cause.
With the death toll from attempted sea crossings ticking toward 3,000 this year, some migrants turned to Facebook about a month ago, first in a closed group, then on several pages in a number of languages. The followers formed a movement that loosely translates to “We want to cross, nothing more” but that is known among migrants as “Crossing No More.”
Depending on the language and translation, the Facebook group defines its mission as saving refugees “from the claws of death, to save them from the jaws of human traffickers,” and asks to “open land crossing between Turkey and Greece.”
The group’s plan was to stage a sit-in at the Greek border, demanding that European leaders provide a safe and legal passage to Western Europe for refugees.
The group made no secret about its plans. And it was not long before the Turkish authorities realized that something was afoot. More than 8,000 migrants were rounded up in the Edirne area, and most were sent back to Istanbul or other places in Turkey in the days around Sept. 15.
“We took measures to guard the border and prevent people from crossing into Bulgaria and Greece,” Dursun Ali Sahin, the governor of Edirne Province, said. “We’re trying to convince people to go back to where they come from.”
Doaa, who withheld her last name, fearing repercussions for relatives remaining in Damascus, said she was nine months pregnant when she set off from Syria with her husband, their two children and other family members. After they reached Istanbul, she gave birth and left the hospital two days later, determined to make it to Edirne at the assigned place and time: Tuesday, 11 a.m.
She said the family had boarded a bus from Istanbul but been forced off outside the city, most likely because the driver feared a police crackdown that meant fines for bus drivers caught carrying migrants. The family continued on foot, carrying the newborn Nassim, and walked almost 10 miles until reaching Edirne and one of three camps established by the group.
“We’re not going back,” Doaa said. “We’re going to Europe, even if we have to walk all the way to Germany.”
Jad Al Mslmane, 22, a Syrian father of three, said he had been reluctant to attempt a trek to Europe until he saw the Facebook campaign. “I didn’t want to risk the lives of my children,” he said. But when he saw the plan to gather in Edirne for a land crossing, he changed his mind.
Mona Ibrahim, a 40-year-old Iraqi, also arrived in Edirne with her husband and three children at the predetermined time.
“We want to cross the border here because it’s the only safe place to go to Europe,” she said. “Look what happened to Aylan.”
Before leaving, members used the Facebook pages to discuss travel and packing tips, possible bus, train or taxi opportunities, and live updates on the police deployments. They shared information about potential obstacles along the way.
They also assigned specific tasks: Members who knew different languages would be responsible for translation, others would be in charge of communication, still others would keep the gathering site clean.
”We were giving each other tips — how to get there, what to bring, how to deal with the Turkish government,” said Hussein Addin, 23, of Syria, who has been looking for a safe way to get to Britain, where his mother lives. He joined the trek to Edirne because, he said, the route was “safe and cheap.”
On Friday, there were about 1,000 refugees holding out at three locations in and around Edirne — in the camp where Doaa’s family was staying, in a square in the city center and in a bus station outside the city. Thousands more aiming for the Turkish-Greek border remained blocked by the police in Istanbul’s main bus station for days, after being refused tickets to Edirne.
“We want the U.N. and the E.U. to put pressure on the Turkish government to let us pass,” Mr. Addin said. “We didn’t expect that the hardest part of our journey would be here in Turkey. We didn’t expect them to stop us.”
Early last week, Mr. Sahin, the governor, threatened to remove the refugees by force if they refused to leave. Since then, he has calmed the situation several times when tensions rose, and he joined some of the Syrians for Friday Prayer.
But Mr. Sahin told the migrants that his hands were tied.
“Nobody is willing to open their doors for refugees,” he said during a visit to the makeshift camp. “If a country invites you, we’ll help organize your trip there. So far, though, there isn’t a single country which has officially invited you.”
The group was expecting Mr. Sahin to arrange a meeting of representatives in Ankara, the Turkish capital, with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. When the meeting was delayed a second time on Friday night, hundreds of the migrants tried again to reach the border.
Turned back by the police again, some agreed to go on buses to a stadium outside Edirne. Some stayed behind on the highway, while others remained in the city, awaiting news from Ankara.
The Crossing No More group members see their plight as an injustice. The Turkish police “don’t stop people in Izmir and Bodrum who go to Europe by sea, but now they prevent us from crossing into Greece,” said Ali Anis, 21, who said he had been living in Istanbul since he and his family fled Aleppo, Syria, a year ago.
Mr. Sahin said the asylum seekers evidently were hoping that Greece or Bulgaria would relent and open their borders. “They have nothing to lose by coming here,” he said.
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(via NY Times)