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Smuggling breaks Coronavirus preventive measures in northern Syria

Members of Hay' at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) preventing protesters from reaching Bab al-Hawa crossing which links Turkey with northern rural Idlib - 20 December 2019 (Enab Baladi)

Members of Hay' at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) preventing protesters from reaching Bab al-Hawa crossing which links Turkey with northern rural Idlib - 20 December 2019 (Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Rural Idlib

The closure of the border crossings with Turkey, which came as a preventive measure to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, has not stopped the smuggling activity between Turkey and the opposition factions-held areas in northern Syria.

On the contrary, the “illegal” activity on the Syrian-Turkish borders continue through smugglers between the two countries. These smugglers, who charge exorbitant fees for their services, are still operating far from the eyes of the Turkish border guards known as “Janderma” and amid lack of restrictions from the Syrian side.

In this report, Enab Baladi investigates the current ways of smuggling, the reasons prompting people to resort to smuggling despite the border closure, as well as the authorities’ measures to curb this phenomenon for fear of the transmission of the virus from Turkey to northern Syria.

From Turkey to Syria

In an interview with Enab Baladi, Barakat al-Yousuf, a civilian who entered Syria through the Turkish town of Hatya, to Idlib province in northern Syria, recounted his experience along the smuggling route.

Al-Yousuf left Syria heading to Turkey after the latter announced that it had “opened its doors” for Syrian asylum seekers to cross into Europe two months ago. He left his family behind in Idlib, looking for a better life in Europe.

However, when he failed to cross over to the Greek side, he decided to return to his family, for he does not have a job in Turkey nor a temporary protection identification document (Kimlik). He highlighted that returning to Syria from Turkey was not easy.  

“I tried to hand myself over to the Turkish border guards in order to be deported to Syria; however, they did not respond. I think they have instructions not to allow anyone from entering or leaving Turkey, “al-Yousef added.

Al-Yousef explained to Enab Baladi the way he managed to return to Syria. First of all, a smuggler drove him to a border point at Hatya village on the Turkish side.

Then, the smuggler advised al-Yousef to claim that he was trying to enter Turkey from the Syrian side so that the Turkish soldiers would arrest him and get him back to Syria.

The Turkish officer in charge in the region refused at first to send al-Yousef back to Syria, but then he approved that.

He paid 100 US dollars (about 130,000 Syrian Pounds) for the smuggling operation. In his opinion, the amount paid is far less than what is charged in case the person wants a reverse entry, from Syria to Turkey.

Al-Yousef mentioned that this amount of money was paid to the smuggler in exchange for his guidance service to a crossing point where the Turkish guards can send people back to Syria.

The payment also covered the cost of accompanying people who want to cross the border and driving them from their place of residence to the crossing point.

According to al-Yousef, the Hatya region is full of Syrians who have been staying in Turkey for years, and they want to return to Syria by renouncing their temporary protection cards, for fear of contracting the coronavirus infection, and the lack of job opportunities following the Turkish government’s preventive measures to stem the spread of the COVID-19.

Al-Yousef pointed out that the Turkish officials are aware of the smuggling activity and the way it is done. They do not send people to the Syrian side except in certain cases, or by order of the officer in charge.

The number of confirmed coronavirus infections in Turkey reached 122,392. The number of people who died from it was 3,258, while a total of 53,808 recovered, until the preparation date of this report. 

Meanwhile, the north-west and eastern Syria regions in Idlib and Aleppo provinces and their rural areas have not reported any infection to date.

Crossings are “under control”… From where does the smuggling route pass through?!

Enab Baladi has communicated with Said al-Ahmad, the official of Idlib’s general directorate of crossings, which is affiliated to the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), to get to the truth of the smuggling operations and the role of crossings in controlling them.

On his part, al-Ahmad confirmed that the crossings the SSG supervises are under control, and that coronavirus preventive measures are strictly applied there.

Syrian deportees from Turkey are put under an initial quarantine for 14 days to make sure they are safe, and not carrying the coronavirus, according to al-Ahmad.

As for the smuggling issue, al-Ahmad said both sides, the Syrian “liberated areas” and the Turkish one, have introduced stringent measures regarding the smuggling.

He also denied what is being circulated about the entry of some Syrians from Turkey to the Syrian north.

In that regard, he said, “those people were either from the Euphrates Shield Operation areas (northern Aleppo countryside), which is under Turkey’s supervision, and entered through smuggling, or were doctors who went to Turkey and then came back to Syria.”

Al-Ahmad confirmed that these groups of people he mentioned before would enter and come out of the Syrian north through the Bab al-Salama border crossing, which is still open in the countryside of Aleppo. 

According to al-Ahmad, “the smuggling operations that are being talked about a lot here and there cannot take place from the Idlib area,” thanks to the SSG’s strict measures of guarding, inspecting, and monitoring the border areas.

As for the Bab al-Hawa, the main border crossing linking rural Idlib and Turkey, the health procedures taken there at the entry-exit points are “absolutely unquestionable for both sides.”

Al-Ahmad believes that areas of northern Aleppo countryside can be accessed by crossing the border through illegal, deceptive ways, and this is where smuggling can occur.

Enab Baladi could not contact the border control authorities in the northern Aleppo countryside; however, it is worth noting that the monitored smuggling cases were centered in Idlib Countryside.

What does the Epidemiological Surveillance Laboratory think of precautionary measures at the crossings?

Director of the Epidemiological Surveillance Laboratory in Idlib, Mohamad Shahim Makki, confirmed to Enab Baladi that people could enter the opposition factions-held areas illegally through smuggling. Nevertheless, people can often enter them via the Bab al-Hawa crossing legally. 

Makki pointed out that people’s illegal entry to Syria from Turkey has an adverse impact; people being smuggled to Syria might be silent carriers of the deadly coronavirus, and they can transmit it because they would not be quarantined for 14 days, thus spreading the disease in the opposition-held areas of north-western Syria.

As for the returnees from Turkey who entered Syria through Bab al-Hawa crossing in an official way, they are subjected to 14 days of quarantine. However, sometimes there is a failure in the proper application of the quarantine. 

Negative results

Makki said that the number of coronavirus detecting tests that were conducted in the Epidemiological Surveillance Laboratory by the time of the preparation of the present report reached 293, all of which returned with negative results.

The detection tests in the opposition-controlled areas are limited to one device in the Epidemiological Surveillance laboratory, despite the huge number of the area’s population which is estimated at four million.

The Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, said on 29 April during his speech in the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria, that the testing capacity remains very limited in Syria with only one laboratory in Idlib.

Meanwhile, three people have been diagnosed with coronavirus infection in the areas of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), according to its affiliated “health authority.”

The reported confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Syrian regime-controlled areas reached 43, including three deaths, and 21 recovered cases, according to the Syrian regime’s Health Ministry.

Moreover, the authorities in charge in north-western Syria had closed all crossings with regime-controlled areas until recently when Hay’ at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) re-opened the Maaret Elnaasan-Miznaz crossing, despite popular rejection.

 

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