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Imogen Lambert

Palestinians from Syria return to war to escape hell

Palestinians from Syria are unable to get visas to enter Turkey [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 25 November, 2015

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Feature: Unable to get visas to Turkey, Palestinians from Syria residing in Lebanon are being forced to return to the war-torn country in order to reach the gate-way to Europe.
Nosayba is originally from Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp just outside Damascus which has been besieged by President Bashar al-Assad's regime, as well as coming under attack by the Islamic State group.   

The 20-year-old's journey to reach Europe took her to Damascus, travelling from there to the besieged city of Aleppo. After laying low for two days in an apartment, she attempted to reach the Turkish border, but was prevented from passing checkpoints staffed by the Syrian army.

After attempting to reach the border via Latakia, she went to Idlib, embroiled in clashes between rebels and the regime. There, she was detained by "gangsters" who took all her money in return for not killing her.

     They almost died a thousand times in Syria trying reach Turkey
Refugee in Sweden
When Nosayba finally reached Turkey, she was arrested by Turkish police after just one day. She said she experienced mistreatment while in police custody.

Yet she managed to contact a smuggler who bribed the police to let her go and continue her journey onwards, to Greece.

Nosayba's journey is becoming a painfully familiar one, as thousands of Syrians attempt to flee the war-torn country.

Tougher than it seems

But there remains a twist in this story. Nosayba had not been travelling from her home town of Yarmouk, but from neighbouring Lebanon - where she had been residing since the Syrian war moved into the refugee camp.

Palestinians from Syria in refugee camps in Lebanon [Getty]
In order to reach Turkey, the gateway to Europe, in the first place, she was forced to return to the war-torn country from which she had originally fled.

Turkey permits Syrian citizens to enter without a visa - but does not allow visa-free entry to Palestinians, even those who have lived their lives in refugee camps in Syria that are now plagued with the violence from which millions have fled.

Not alone

Eman and her daughter Sara, also from Yarmouk, made the same journey last week, returning to Syria from Lebanon.  They are attempting to reach their family in Sweden.

They made the difficult decision to leave, saying they were "dying a slow death" in Lebanon, where they found they were doubly discriminated against; first for being refugees from Syria, second, for being Palestinian.

Whereas Eman holds Syrian papers, and therefore could fly directly into Turkey, she did not want to leave her daughter to make the perilous journey alone.

One of the many obstacles in their journey came as they first encountered the Islamic State group at a checkpoint in Idlib.

"IS stopped us, but when the man saw there was just a women and the driver, he allowed us go. The driver said 'this ISIS soldier hates the women, so he didn't want to talk'," Eman said.

"All the checkpoints stopped us but the driver paid money to let us pass," she added.

Refugees from Yarmouk said the most dangerous forces to deal with when travelling through Syria were the regime troops, as many of the armed opposition and mafia groups can be fairly easily paid off.

The women then reached Hama, where they found Syrian police officers moonlighting as smugglers. Finding such traffickers is extremely difficult and expensive - the cheapest smuggler is now charging around $1,400 to reach Turkey from Damascus, a journey of around 500km from capital to border.

The best bet for refugees travelling through Syria is to find smugglers who have connections with Syrian regime security forces and the army. However, when travelling through rebel-held or Kurdish areas, they must also find smugglers who also have sway with the local powers-that-be.

"They [Syrian police] took us during night time to move but the planes were bombing the area so we were hidden in a small stable for sheep," Eman said.

"We stayed there all night - there were so many mice - we were afraid, but couldn't say anything because the smugglers with weapons threatened us.

"After two days of hunger the smugglers brought us old rice balls," she said. "It was so disgusting."

Finally, the women reached the Syrian-Turkish border.

"When we were on the border the smuggler told us that there was a sniper shooting... so you have to get down and move," Eman said.

"I couldn't do that, so I just went… We saw Turkish police coming, it was so dark, but the police had a light so they could see us."

     I couldn't go on any more so I stopped and cried and told my daughter to keep going and leave me
Eman, Palestinian refugee
It has been alleged that Turkish police have beaten and harassed refugees attempting to enter the country from Syria. 

Earlier this year, a 19-year-old Palestinian woman from Yarmouk was shot dead by Turkish troops when attempting to cross the border.

"My daughter said her heart stopped, and she couldn't hear anything," Eman continued.  

The Turkish army caught the women and wanted to send them to the police station before sending them back to Syria.

"My daughter fainted and fell on a rock. Me and all the other women with me cried - we talked to a policeman who spoke Arabic," Eman said.

"I couldn't go on any more so I stopped and cried and told my daughter to keep going and leave me - but my daughter took my hand and pulled me up."

Last week, Eman and Sara managed to safely reach Chios, the fifth-largest of the Greek islands, and at the time of writing are safely in Athens.

Bureaucracy

Salim Salamah, head of the Palestinian League for Human Rights in Syria, says many other Palestinians from Syria who fled to Lebanon are also being forced to return to the warzone in order to flee again to Europe.

"The Turkish government requires a visa from Palestinians before arrival…and I haven't heard of any Palestinian who managed to obtain a visa, aside from those already in Europe," Salamah said.

In contrast, Syrians are permitted to fly straight from Lebanon to Turkey.

"There are many others [Palestinians] who have been sent back to Aleppo from Turkey," Salamah added.

Palestinian women from Yarmouk in Damascus [Getty]
"One big issue is how the mobility of Palestinians is limited within Syria," he said.

Other Palestinians from Yarmouk have told al-Araby that the Syrian regime has recently been preventing Palestinians from moving between cities in the war-torn country, a move they described as an "unofficial law".

"There is no official stance from the government on the limitations of Palestinians' mobility," said Salamah, but added that there certainly seemed to be a particular effort to stop Palestinians moving.

Although there appears no clear reason for this, Salamah said that such restrictions may be to "prevent the circulation of Palestinians outside Damascus to keep manpower in the capital".

Palestinians have also been conscripted into the army, another danger that young men face while travelling around the country.

Recent leaks from Syria's security apparatus appeared to reveal that the Assad regime had issued 28,000 arrest warrants for Palestinians, more than any other nationality.

The problems faced by Palestinians in Syria, says Salamah, are "a direct outcome of their statelessness".

Many of those who first left Syria after the outbreak of the war were male members of the family, expecting to be able to bring their families to join them in Europe after they gained asylum.

Yet many refugees in Europe have not managed to reunite their families through legal means, due to complex processes and regulations, and women are increasingly making the journey alone.

"My sister told me 'we can't continue the journey to Europe'," said Eman's son, who is still waiting for them in Sweden, anxiously following their journey.

"They almost died a thousand times in Syria trying reach Turkey."

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