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.

Voting for the last time: Article 222 of the Canada Elections Act and the consequence of working abroad

For some, the 2015 federal election that will be held on October 19th is a long time coming. Partisan statements aside, this article discusses the intricacies of voter’s rights for non resident Canadian citizens.

If you’re living abroad and want to participate in Canada’s federal election this year, you will need to vote by mail. However, voter beware, you will only be able to do so if you’ve been living outside of Canada for under five years or if you conform to one of the few government-sanctioned criterion:


If you have little intention on returning to Canada anytime soon, and are not working as a Canadian employee (or affiliate) abroad, this may well be the last time you vote.

This is problematic for many Canadians abroad who wish to participate in their country’s democracy. But what is most problematic is the void of explanatory information justifying the eligibility criterion to the International Register of Electors, particularly when considering Section 3 of Canada’s constitution which explicitly indicates that: “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.”

To find information on the matter, a recent court case (Frank v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 ONCA 536 (CanLII)) was consulted. During this court trial, Gillian Frank and Jamie Duong, both Canadian citizens working in the U.S., declared unconstitutional the provisions set forth in Article 222 of the Canada Elections Act, S. C. 2000, c. 9.


The appellant representing the Canadian government, in this case the Attorney General of Canada, justified the criterion according to five positions. The following is a comment on four of these five positions, from the perspective of a Canadian living abroad that is likely to see his last chance at voting in Canadian elections.

Appellant position #1 [Frank v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 court case]:


Let’s first understand the social contract. Originating during the time of Enlightenment, most notably through Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s work Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique (1762), the social contract generally promotes the idea that citizens of a country must forfeit some of their individual freedoms in order for the greater good to prevail. It also endorses, amongst many other ideas, the notion that individuals have a responsibility toward the fulfillment of a functional and thriving society.

So, Canadians have the responsibility to contribute to their society, but how do we calculate these contributions to growth, progress and success? Or what is even meant by growth, progress and success? In the neoliberal rhetoric of “money talks”, this is calculated by monetary values. For a long time, gross domestic product (GDP) was the leading indicator for national strength, but many international bodies have since recognized such an indicator as flawed and an inequitable barometer of success, opting for others such as the human development index (HDI), of which considers other variables such as life expectancy and education in addition to per capita income. How Canadians contribute to these indicators is not cut-and-dry, and many other factors need to be considered when deciding whether or not a Canadian abroad fulfills its duties and responsibilities toward the Canadian social contract. For instance, what about the thousands of aid workers implementing the Canadian values of peace and harmony within war torn landscapes? What about teachers who represent their educational background and honor it through meaningful dialogues between pupils of various ethnicities and cultures? What about Canadian journalists putting their life on the line to bring news stories to the world? Perhaps they are not working for Canadian agencies, and are thus not paying into the Canadian system. But they are representing Canada, and are unarguably part of its growth, progress and success on the international landscape. That should mean something to the so-called social contract.

A second point needs to be made about the social contract and the Attorney General’s fixation on the objective and subjective connection between Canada and Canadian citizens. We can no longer say that the global village is at our doorstep; it’s now in our house and sitting comfortably on the couch with a glass of whisky and a cigar. The idea of “connection” has changed since the Internet’s broad use and access, which leads to a belief that Mr. Peter MacKay has either not yet updated his operating system from Windows 95 or is still using Mosaic Netscape 0.9 with a dial-up connection. The ease in access of information is not some sort of obscure postmodern conversation, but one that is right in our face and integrated within our daily lives. Massey (1999) discussed the Internet as an instigator of ‘time-space compression’, where our conception of time and space has now been reduced to microscopic levels, interconnected by the vast web of digital connections. It is undeniable that Canadians abroad can be connected and informed about the debates, controversies and House of Commons decorum hullabaloos. Yet, they are assumed to be disconnected and uninterested in the far away land of icy-cold Canadian politics. After all, it’s no wonder that the Attoney General’s archaic rhetoric about connectedness is justified through notions dating from the Enlightenment.

On the last point concerning “(…) having a voice in making the laws and being obliged to obey them (…)”, if this was sincerely a priority then Canada would have adopted a Switzerland-like semi-direct democracy a long time ago. If you look at the polls, the outcome of bill C-31 could have been very different.

Appellant position #2 [Frank v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 court case]:


Frankly, and although the social contract has a lot going for itself in history and in our present time, it might be something we need to update to our current way-of-life. Remember that Canada, along with many other countries from the Western Hemisphere, made an enormous push for globalization. Colonization’s Scramble for Africa and post-WW2 free trade treaties are clear examples of this. This so-called “(…) diminished connection (…)” claimed by the Attorney General is arguably the result of a centuries-old program of globalization, and it seems quite cowardly and hypocritical to punish those who have sought employment on the global job market.

A second issue with this position is in relation to the idea that “(…) few Canadian laws apply extra-territorially”. There is truth in this and that cannot be denied, but as Maclean’s National Leaders debate devoted ¼ of its time discussing issues of foreign policy and national security, none can argue that Canadian policy has no impact abroad. It may not be clear for those living in Canada, but it is for those who aren’t. Canada’s reputation is at stake here, and often it is those working and living in other countries that feel the repercussions of foreign policy in Canada. Voting for federal elections is not solely about domestic laws, and the Attorney General of Canada should step out of his cave and start noticing that out-of-country citizens are often flipping the bill (metaphorically) for Canada’s foreign policy.

Appellant position #3 [Frank v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 court case]:


Anyone who knows a little bit about public policy and governance knows about spin-doctoring, or as Hood (2011) calls presentational strategies for blame avoidance. The emphasis here is on the Attorney General’s claim that “(…) non-residents choose to live outside Canada” [emphasis in original text], discharging the government of blame on domestic employment issues and the seemingly trivial issue of out-of-country voters rights. The issue of choice absolutely needs to be addressed here, as it is not as black or white as we would be led to believe. Teachers in Ontario, for instance, risk staying on waiting lists for years before landing a permanent (or even semi-permanent) contract. It is effectively a choice of whether or not you are willing to partake, but it is a known fact that this is a broken system, and for those who cannot afford to wait, leaving Canada to seek other opportunities is not a matter of choice.

It’s not quite clear if this was the Attorney General’s intention, but the statement where “Residence, like age, is a way of regulating the modality of voting and does not speak of ‘worthiness’” is quite undermining. People abroad can think, learn and know about what’s going on in the political playing field, and it seems quite unsuitable to compare out-of-country citizens that do not fit within the International Register of Electors criterion as minors. Here’s a good one: “DUI convictions, like age, is a way of regulating the modality of driving license acquisition and does not speak to ‘worthiness’”.

Appellant position #4 [Frank v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 court case]:


The claim that “(…) non-residents can participate in the foreign polity” is clearly an ethnocentric assumption that all governments are as open as Canada in regards to public participation on political issues. It is true that The Universal Declaration of Human Rights opens the door for freedom of expression (Article 19) and assembly (Article 20), but that does not mean anything in repressive states.

The opinion piece laid out above is a considerable issue for those of us that live abroad, love their country and want to have their voice heard. It is not a question of “modality”, but a question of constitutional right and demanding that this right be upheld.