Syria Displaced

Dispatch #7: Traces

By Laura Dean
Tuesday, February 16, 2016, 1:53 PM

CESME, Turkey—The Instagram handle “mr.masih.razavi” is scrawled on the wall of a half-built beach hut in which, until about a month ago, smugglers held refugees before loading them onto boats bound for the Greek island of Chios. I now follow Mr. Masih Razavi. Six days ago he posted a photograph of himself in a wine shop—presumably not in Afghanistan or Iran where Mr. Masih, a Farsi speaker, is likely from. It would appear that he made it.

Mr. Masih Razavi’s Instagram handle on the wall of a hut on the beach in Cesme, Turkey.

In a different hut, rust-colored letters read: “FB: Mostafa Mahdi”—someone’s Facebook coordinates. I haven’t been able to locate this person, so I don’t know if he made it or not. Beneath his name, he wrote “2015.” Perhaps, he spent the new year somewhere in Europe. Perhaps not.

The Facebook page of a refugee on the wall of a half-built beach cabin in Cesme, Turkey.

This mass movement of human beings—the largest since World War II—is the first to be documented in real time on Facebook and Instagram. For some, these sites are their only form of identification.

Cesme is a beach town that until recently was a hub from which smugglers would launch boats to the Greek island of Chios. According to a local shepherd, the site of these writings was abandoned by its developers 13 years ago. Then, last month, the Turkish police raided it. These days, its only inhabitants are three dogs—two males vying for the attention of a female who bestows it on neither.

Half-built beach huts in which smugglers until recently housed refugees before loading them onto boats bound for the Greek island of Chios.

The huts and the surrounding area are strewn with belongings left behind—most striking, the many pairs of abandoned shoes. Many refugees in Greece only have a single pair, and it seems odd that they would leave extras behind which they might have used to replace those that will then get soaked on the boat. But in many cases, smugglers initially tell refugees that they can take more luggage, and then force them to consolidate even further when they arrive on the beach. So the shoes lost out to something more precious.

In the past—certainly 50 years ago but probably even 10 or 20—such debris would probably have included paper souvenirs: photographs and the like. But when I ask refugees, particularly young ones, if they’ve brought pictures of their families with them, they say no: their photos are on their phones or on USBs or on computers they’ve left in their home countries and will have sent to them when they arrive in Europe. Or they’re on social media.

Yet despite all of the documentation--the selfies posted at various stages of the journey, the GPS coordinates that help locate boats in distress, the chains of Whatsapp messages crisscrossing continents in and out of war zones—many people still die unidentified and unclaimed. Thousands have likely perished, particularly on the Mediterranean route to Europe, where boats go down leaving no trace.

In the cemetery in Izmir, there are dozens of graves of unidentified refugees who drowned at sea.

Unmarked graves in Izmir

It is more difficult to chart people’s movements when they are not carrying documentation with them. Among the many items left behind in the camps on the Greek island of Lesbos were passports. Because Syrians pass most easily through Europe, followed by Afghans and Iraqis, many refugees of other nationalities less likely to be granted refugee status, threw their identity documents away as they fled, hoping to pass perhaps for Syrian until they arrived at their destination country. I met Iraqis who planned to have their passports sent to them once they arrived in Germany.

Despite biometric data and our lives lived online, it is amazing how anonymous it’s still possible to be.

In theory, interpreters at European borders screen against fraudulent claims by asking entrants to name the capital of Syria or appraising whether an accent is convincingly Syrians. But, as the Paris bomber with a fake Syrian passport demonstrated, these measures are not entirely effective. I am still surprised when I encounter people with unmistakably Algerian or Egyptian accents, who claim with a straight face to be from Damascus or Homs.

Not only do Syrians move more freely through Europe than others, they are often processed faster than refugees from other countries. This apparently preferential treatment can create tension and resentment among other refugees. It also creates an incentive for people to pretend to be Syrian and conceal their real identities; from a security perspective, this only makes keeping track of people more difficult.

I met a woman on Lesbos in a camp for “vulnerable cases”—many of whom had lost loved ones at sea during the crossing from Turkey. She had seen the bodies of her husband and young son among police photographs of corpses that had washed up on the shore. But there was no picture of her oldest son’s body and, for weeks after the shipwreck, she held out hope that he was still alive. The lack of documentation condemned her to a limbo between hope and despair—since she hadn’t seen a photograph of his body, she reasoned, there was a chance that he was alive. That limbo is not so different from those of Syrian refugees who must wait to learn of their loved ones’ deaths inside Syrian prisons from pictures of their bodies on the news. Some may not have heard from a brother, husband, or father for years, but without evidence one way or another, they may wait many more years to come.