AMMAN: Under the cover of darkness, a smuggler led Alaa and her family through the mountains of Syria’s northern Idlib province Saturday night.
The group—15 family members in total—trekked across the rugged terrain, from Khirbet al-Joz, a small countryside town, in the direction of the Turkish border.
Despite the smuggler’s assurances, the group was noticeably on edge. In recent months, the Turkish authorities violently cracked down on illegal border crossings, resulting in a number of shootings, arrests and beatings.
When Alaa’s family finally arrived at the border, it was past midnight.
Almost immediately, the Turkish border guards began shooting in the group’s direction while shouting warnings at the smuggler.
“The smuggler told us not to worry. He said it’s normal. It’s routine, and that we should stay in the [guards’] searchlight,” Alaa told Syria Direct.
Several injured at the Khirbet al-Joz border crossing. Photo courtesy of Ali Adra.
But while Alaa’s family stood in plain sight of the Turkish border guards, the smuggler made a break from the group, running towards cover.
“The border guards started firing on us. They killed my husband. They killed my three children,” said Alaa.
“We trusted the smuggler, and he deceived us. He told us that it would be safe.”
In total, Turkish border guards shot dead at least nine people, including four children, marking the deadliest Syria-Turkey border crossing incident since the start of the five-year-old Syrian civil war.
‘There’s simply no alternative’
In recent months, Turkey’s “open door policy” for Syrian refugees has taken a markedly different tone.
In October, Turkey—which hosts 2.7 million Syrian refugees, more than any other nation—began erecting a 900km-long border wall. In March, the government closed the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, rebel-held Idlib’s only official means of crossing into Syria. Turkish authorities have also summarily rounded up and expelled groups of around 100 Syrians “on a near-daily basis since mid-January,” Amnesty International reported in April.
As formal channels for asylum seeking are cut off, Syrians are increasingly turning toward illegal, and oftentimes dangerous, methods of emigration.
In total, nearly 60 civilians have been shot while attempting to cross from Syria into Turkey since the beginning of 2016, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Khirbet al-Joz—just 50km south of the Turkish city of Antakya—has recently become Idlib’s main pipeline into Turkey.
During March and April 2016, Turkish border guards fired on Syrian asylum seekers and smugglers attempting to cross into Turkey from Khirbet al-Joz, killing five people over six separate incidents, Human Rights Watch reported last month.
Given the risk, why do Syrians like Alaa continue to attempt the crossing at Khirbet al-Joz?
“There’s simply no alternative,” Ali Adra, a citizen journalist from the small Syrian border town, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
“People know that the crossing is dangerous,” Adra added. “They know that many have been killed…but they’ve got no other choice. These people are risking death in order to flee the prospect of certain death.”
The road to Khirbet al-Joz
Turkey’s border wall has not yet reached Khirbet al-Joz. In turn, and with a closing window of opportunity, hundreds of Syrians have attempted to cross into Turkey in recent months via the small border town.
For most, the journey begins in Idlib or Aleppo where the smuggling networks often have their main offices.
From the main office, the smuggling leader sends the asylum seekers to Khirbet al-Joz in a private car, multiple sources familiar with the town’s smuggling network told Syria Direct.
“The leader of the network takes around $400 per person,” Abu Mohammad, a Khirbet al-Joz resident, told Syria Direct.
The fees only begin at the main office.
“I know all of the traffickers in the area,” he added. “They’ll cheat these poor people. They’ll take as much as they possibly can.”
Smugglers charge a range of added fees along the journey for food, transportation and security.
“At this point, there is no turning back, and there is certainly no seeing that money ever again,” said Abu Mohammad.
Once in Khirbet al-Joz, employees of the smuggling network arrange the details of the border crossing.
“On the day of the crossing, the smugglers tell the refugees that it’s all been coordinated with the Turkish border guards. That everything is going according to plan and that the journey is completely safe,” noted Abu Mohammad.
“These smugglers lie,” Adra, the Khirbet al-Joz citizen journalist, added. “They don’t care if the people live or die. They are concerned about getting paid and that alone.”
The smugglers often travel well armed, exploiting the people traveling with them and silencing all opposition along the journey.
When a fighter in a local rebel group confronted a smuggler a few weeks ago, “the smuggler put a gun in the rebel’s face,” said Abu Mohammad.
“The truth of the matter is that these smugglers are gang members.”
Syria Direct spoke with one Khirbet al-Joz smuggler, Rami, who adamantly defended his underground profession.
“It’s no secret that people die from Turkish bullets, and we don’t blame refugees for wanting to take this risk,” Rami said. “But we don’t force anyone to do anything. They come to us of their own volition.”
With an increasingly dangerous border crossing and the specter of near-constant smuggler exploitation, Syrian asylum seekers find few options along the road to Khirbet al-Joz.
“We fled IS because we were looking for safety,” Alaa told Syria Direct. “We had no food, no water, nothing at all.”
“All I wanted was to be able to feed my children, but to those smugglers, my blood is nothing but currency.”