Syrian refugees in Turkey face treacherous crossing to Greece

The Aegean Sea along Turkey's western coast is its watery frontier with Europe, and Syrian refugees vow that no measures by Europe or the Turkish government will stop them from crossing it as they flee a civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people.

Just around the corner from the police station, the men sit on low stools, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea, their voices loud and confident.

One man explains how in the space of an hour, entire families can hop on a boat in Turkey and land in Greece, adding to the numbers of Syrian refugees arriving on Europe's shores.

"It's about 800 or 900 dollars," said Abu Muneer, a smuggler. "That will get you all the way to Germany or wherever in Europe you want to go."

Children under five travel for free, he said, while discounts are also given to the poor and to those injured in Syria's civil war, which began five years ago.

"The war will go on for 10 more years," Abu Muneer said, dejectedly. He hails from Deir al Zor in eastern Syria, which is now under the control of Islamic State militants, and has given up hope of ever returning home.

The main deterrent to travel is the weather, not the police, Muneer said. Choppy waves during winter scare both the refugees and the smugglers and they prefer the calmer summer conditions.

On the streets of Izmir, a coastal town in western Turkey just across from Greek islands, there are life vests for sale on major intersections, a sign both of the perils of the journey and of the refugees' persistence.

Those who do not survive the high waves and faulty dinghy vessels might end up in the cemetery overlooking the sea, high up in the city's surrounding green mountains.

Dozens of graves marked only by five-digit numbers dot the upper layers of the cemetery. Their names are unknown. Some of the plots are tiny, holding the remains of babies and toddlers.

"I will wait for the weather to change, and then I am going to Europe," said Mohammed, a 20-year-old Syrian wearing a leather jacket and sporting coiffed hair.

He recently arrived in Turkey from Damascus. He feared being drafted into the Syrian army of President Bashar al-Assad, whose rule he opposes.

"It has become brother against brother in Syria," he explained, and he wanted no part in the violence. Mohammed also feared the government, which has detained his friends. Some disappeared years ago and there has been no word from them since.

"We know about the torture in al-Assad's prisons. My friends have been killed in shelling," said Mohammed, who gave only his first name, speaking to dpa while waiting on a street corner with other Syrians who are also planning their journey.

Above them, Syrian families sit in the windows of cheap hotels, the shrieks of little girls and the sounds of young boys playing ball echoing through the narrow alleys.

"There is no future in Syria," Mohammed said, adding that he hopes to finish his university studies when he reaches a new country.

Others who have lived in Turkey for a few years say they cannot get work permits in the country and so they too will push on to Europe.

Sometimes, the coast guard will turn back boats, said Abu Muneer, but most get through.

"During the last few months the police are actually not as tough on us as they were last year," he said.

In November, Turkey and the European Union reached a deal meant to help control the flow of illegal migration to the bloc. The EU pledged 3 billion euros to help the refugees in Turkey, though this money has yet to materialize.

European officials have been doing rapid shuttle diplomacy, rushing to Ankara repeatedly in attempts to finalize the agreement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in the Turkish capital in February, while European Council President Donald Tusk visited this week. A summit is scheduled to open Monday.

"When Merkel came, they stopped the boats for about two days. And then the police let us go again," said the smuggler, who described the EU-Turkey deal as "rubbish."

While in Europe the refugee flows are the major worry, for Syrians the civil war is the true crisis. More than 250,000 people have died in the conflict and 11 million have been displaced, including 5 million refugees.

Syrian refugees say their country’s meltdown cannot be solved by Brussels striking a deal with Ankara on aid and the stringency of coast guards.

People will never give up trying to reach European countries, Abu Muneer said, and he is keen to advise policy makers.

"The Europeans should open the borders and help us migrate legally. What they need to do is to disperse us evenly across the countries and even in America. This will make it easier," he said.

"When they closed the land borders, we went by sea. If they close the sea we will find another way. This cannot be stopped."

Last update: Thu, 03/03/2016 - 12:04

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