The Aegean transit to Europe: Refugees in Turkey seeking refuge elsewhere [local insight + map]

Whilst the Aegean Sea is basking in the summer sun, a shadow looms over its waters as migrants brave the journey from Turkey to Greece. Travelling during the cover of night, refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran risk life and limb to reach what they believe is the safe haven of Europe.

This article explores the current trend in refugees leaving Turkey via the Aegean Sea, seeking refuge in Greece and other EU countries. Data used within this piece is based on previous research conducted by the author, a content analysis of articles published by Hürriyet Daily News and Today’s Zamman during the month of August 2015 and informal interviews with refugees and an important member of civil society and refugee rights advocacy organisation.

Push and Pull Factors

In migration studies, the most central tool used to frame reasons for migration is based upon push and pull factors – push factors being the various reasons (social, economic, political and environmental) why individuals seek to leave their home area/country and pull factors being the various reasons (same as above) why individuals chose a specific area/country destination. At the time of writing this article, there are over 2 million individuals in Turkey ‘registered’ (we’ll get back to that later) as refugees, asylum-seekers or stateless persons. Mostly Syrians, the focus of this article is not to determine the push and pull factors justifying Turkey as an alternative to their war-torn motherland of Syria, as it is deemed that any individual reading world news in the past four years will have ascertained enough information on the subject. Rather, this article seeks to outline possible reasons why refugees living in Turkey (primarily Syrians, Afghanis, Iraqis and Iranians) are leaving for what they believe are greener pastures with better opportunities for sustainable livelihoods.

Speaking to a group of Iranian refugees, life as a refugee in Turkey was described by uncertainty and a long (and seemingly endless) paper trail that has no guarantees. “The United Nations have certain rules and processes that they have developed over time, but things aren’t working here and the possibility of moving to another host country seems impossible at this point”, said one respondent. Another interviewee discussed the economic challenges of having refugee status: “You know, the United Nations provides money to host countries. That money is supposed to be distributed to refugees when they go to the police station every week to confirm that they are still living in their assigned city. We never see that money, but we don’t have any way to report this. So the money doesn’t come, and as Iranians we also don’t have the possibility for official employment in Turkey”. As the conversation progressed, the group claimed that refugees and asylum seekers from other countries, namely Syria, have more rights than Iranians and that this is largely due to active negotiation projects set out by the Iranian governments to pressure host countries to limit refugee rights: “They [the Iranian government] want to block our ability to function in another society, which they believe will force us to come home and face the consequences for our betrayal”.

But Syrians don’t have it easy either, and their status is also wrought with controversy. Syrians are considered to have refugee status within the UN framework, but this is not what they are considered within the borders of Turkey. When Turkey signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, they added a geographical limitation where migrants from Eastern countries would not be granted refugee status. The result: Syrians have been labelled as “guests” of Turkey. Although some may see this as a pure issue of semantics, this has had large implications for the way that Syrians can access services and rights ensured under the Convention. For instance, “rights to education, access to justice, employment and other fundamental freedoms” [1] are included as refugee rights, and although Turkish authorities have admittedly provided access to education for some age levels, legal access to employment has yet to have been granted to refugees. Furthermore, where Minister of Work and Social Security Faruk Çelik has indicated that Turkey has no plans to grant work permits for Syrian refugees [2], no light is in sight on the employment issue. The “guest” status has been an issue of controversy for years now, taking on an important and recurring theme within analytical reports on the refugee crisis in Turkey (see [3], [4] and [5])

The facts are clear: refugees in Turkey are in legal limbo. And this has led to a slew of unintended consequences. Seeking financial freedom and stability, refugees have sought work within the informal job market. Some are street vendors, but many have flocked to local industries where they receive small pay, but pay nonetheless. Employers have chosen the cheaper alternative, laying off Turks across the country in favour of greater economic gains. Although a soft form of slavery may be a sensationalist way of looking at it, it is undeniably a form of exploitation. Turks, as a result, have grown distaste for this practice and tensions have sparked quarrels between locals and refugees in the Eastern provinces where this is most prevalent. In an interview with a leading refugee advocacy group that preferred to stay anonymous, a spokesperson indicated that “the two largest issues facing Turkey’s refugee crisis are (a) employment security and (b) xenophobic sentiment”.

So, in light of an increasingly prevalent refugee crisis in Turkey, along with the many hurdles that refugees must endure, some are seeking refuge in alternate countries. Land borders between Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria have been strengthened and militarized, leading to one last option: travel by sea. One informant explained: “I’m considering buying a dingy, getting a ride to a place where the distance between Turkey and a Greek island is relatively short, and setting out to sea under the cover of night”. Another continues: “We know Greece is in bad shape right now, and our intention is not to stay there, but at least if we go somewhere in the EU then it will be easier to eventually make our way to somewhere with more opportunities, like Germany or Belgium”. In discussing alternate and more legal mechanisms to gain access to Europe, an interviewee said “the way the UN picks who can or can’t go to a third party country in Europe is not transparent or just, this is the only way when you are tired of waiting”.

The Balkan Corridor

The issue of refugees gaining access to Europe through Greece has been so prominent that it has taken on its own title of “The Balkan Corridor” [6]. Refugees leaving Turkey typically make their way to nearby Greek islands. Once they arrive, Athens is typically the next destination in mind, with the eventual hope of reaching Western Europe by land travel through countries such as Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. UNHCR has stated that between January 1st and August 14th of this year, 158,456 refugees have crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek islands [7]. Below is a map based on information gained through a 20-day content analysis of two Turkish newspapers: Hürriyet Daily News and Today’s Zamman. It indicates islands that were mentioned as destinations chosen by refugees leaving Turkey by illegal means of sea travel.

Greek island refugee destinations from Turkey, data from August 2015 content analysis. Basemap provided by OpenStreetMap (OSM). Nicolas Parent, 2015.
Greek island refugee destinations from Turkey, data from August 2015 content analysis. Basemap provided by OpenStreetMap (OSM). Nicolas Parent, 2015.


Determined by geospatial analysis, below is a list of distances between mainland Turkey and specified Greek islands:

-Lesbos: 14 Km
-Chios: 7.3 Km
-Samos: 2 Km
-Agathonissi: 19 Km
-Farmakonissi: 11.3 Km
-Kos: 6.3 Km

The above-mentioned distances make it seem easy for those who chose to take the sea route to Greece, but it is not without risks. In a news article, it was claimed that “migrants trying to sail from Turkey to Greece are increasingly reporting being attacked by gunmen trying to prevent them from reaching Europe, according to multiple sources” [8]. Whilst taking to local sources in Turkey, they had heard of similar stories from friends attempting the crossing. One noted in an unnervingly cheerful tone “I don’t care if they flip my boat, I’ll have a life jacket on anyways. I just don’t want to get shot”.


Refugee means: “(…) someone who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” [9]

Asylum-seeker means: “(…) someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.” [10]

Stateless person means: “(…) a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”. This means that a stateless person is someone who does not have a nationality of any country. Some people are born stateless, while others become stateless over the course of their lives.” [11]



[1] International Justice Resource Center (undated). “Asylum & the rights of refugees”. Available online at:; accessed 20 August, 2015.

[2] Afanasieva, D. (2015). “Turkey will not give Syrian refugees right to work: Minister”. Hürriyet Daily News, August 8. Available online at:; accessed 23 August, 2015.

[3] Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (2011). “Syrian Refugees in Turkey: A Status in Limbo”. Available online at:; accessed 18 August, 2015.

[4] Ozden, S. (2013). “Syrian Refugees in Turkey”. Migration Policy Centre: Research Report. Available online at:; accessed 14 August, 2015.

[5] Icduygu, Ahmet (2015). “Syrian refugees in Turkey: The Long Road Ahead”. Migration Policy Institute: Reports – April 2015. Available online at:; accessed 20 August, 2015.

[6] Hürriyet Daily News (2015). “Thousands of migrants trapped on Macedonia border”. Hürriyet Daily News, August 22. Available online at:; accessed 23 August, 2015.

[7] Agence France-Press (2015). “Nearly 21,000 migrants arrived in Greece last week: UN”. Hürriyet Daily News, August 18. Available online at:; accessed 22 August, 2015.

[8] Agence France-Press (2015). “Migrants ‘attacked’ at sea between Greece and Turkey”. Hürriyet Daily News, August 1. Available online at:; accessed 22 August, 2015.

[9] UNHCR (undated). “Refugees”. United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Available online at:; accessed 23 August, 2015.

[10] UNHCR (undated). “Asylum-seekers”. United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Available online at:; accessed 23 August, 2015.

[11] UNHCR (undated). “What is statelessness?”. United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Available online at:; accessed 23 August, 2015.