Imagine that you live in Britain. Your brother lives in another country. Your sister and her children live in a third country. Your parents never moved – they are in the city you grew up in. You haven’t seen each other for a few years.
Now imagine that you are Syrian. Your passport has become a barrier between you and the Arrivals gate at almost every airport in the world. You planned to see your family again in Turkey. It is close to your parents’ town and Syrians do not require a visa.
On January 8 that changed – Syrians entering Turkey by air or sea must now apply for a visa. The same day, hundreds of Syrians were reported stuck in transit to Turkey in Beirut airport. Exact details including the cost of applying and the chances of acceptance are still uncertain. But with this decision in Ankara, the Syrian diaspora may have lost one of their last safe meeting places.
There are an estimated 11 million Syrians not living in Syria. The vast majority are living in nearby countries – Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey – but over a million are in Europe and North America. Not all are refugees – some left before the war to find work or join other family. There are also around 16m people still living in Syria, unable or unwilling to leave. Many families are broken up, scattered around the array of countries that once accepted Syrians only to later close their borders. Managing to see each other as the war drags on is a significant challenge.
At the beginning of the conflict, Syrians could cross into Arab and Levantine nations relatively easily. Many went to Egypt or Lebanon, and family members were able to visit. Turkey operated an open-door policy, allowing millions of Syrians to cross unimpeded. But under pressure from the EU about refugees and the easy flow of ISIL members between Syria and border towns, Turkey has reversed its position.
Now, just eight countries remain visa-free for Syrians: Dominica, Haiti, Ecuador, Micronesia, Mauritania, Malaysia, Sudan, and Iran.
Surviving a war does not mean that people stop wanting or doing normal things. But Syrians who try to visit Syria to attend weddings, celebrate children’s birthdays, or say goodbye at a funeral face serious risk of arrest by authorities on suspicion of espionage, or of being questioned in their adopted country for possible ties to ISIS, or both. Some parts of the country are also too dangerous to visit. Until two weeks ago, the alternative was Turkey.
The land crossing from Turkey-Syria remains open and Turkey will still accept refugees. But not all Syrians are refugees and not all want to leave their country. Some feel they are too old. Others tried and prefer a precarious but familiar life in their own country to one of poverty and discrimination in another.
Crossing the land border into Turkey compromises Syrians who plan to return. A complex mixture of rebel, ISIL and Kurdish forces control the northern border, and to cross into Turkey by foot involves passing through non-regime territory. It is believed that this can store up trouble for people who return to regime-controlled areas – a mark on a passport may cause officials to ask why they recognized the legitimacy of opposition.
For those who wish to try, the barriers to obtaining a Turkish visa are likely to be significant. Documents may have been destroyed during the war. Few Syrians are likely to have sufficient finances to prove they will return.
The world open to Syrians has shrunk each new year of the war. How much smaller will it get?