Syrian refugees swarm Turkish port city hoping to catch boats to new lives

Updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed September 9, 2015
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Story highlights

The Turkish port city of Izmir is jammed with refugees from Syria

Many hope smugglers will help them get onto boats to get away

(CNN) —  

On a secluded beach on the Turkish coast, men stand knee-deep in shallow water, loading a group of about 30 people into a black, inflated pontoon boat.

The passengers – refugees and migrants bound for the Greek island of Lesbos – cram in, wearing lifejackets or inner tubes around their necks, a sign of the potential dangers ahead.

A group of four Turkish men shoves the overcrowded boat out into the water. As they push, another Turkish man, this one piloting the vessel, can be seen barking orders at the passengers.

“Did you understand?” he says, standing shirtless at the back of the boat. “Did you understand?”

Moments later, as the rubber boat drifts out to sea, the man abandons ship, diving off the back of the boat and swimming towards shore.

At first, the migrants seem not to know how to steer the boat. For several minutes, it motors around in tight circles as the group of smugglers on shore curse and hurl abuse at the people on board.

Finally, the boat straightens out and begins motoring across the see in the direction of Lesbos, tracing the path of another migrant boat already making its way towards the island.

The incident, which took place on the morning of August 31, was captured on film by journalist Ibrahim Karci. He counted seven boats packed with migrants departing during a six-hour period from this stretch of coastline near Turkey’s Assos region.

As the boat sailed off into the distance, dozens of other migrants dressed in life jackets sat patiently on shore under olive trees, waiting for their turn to set sail for Greece.

Moonlight rescues as migrants paddle from Turkey to Greece

A boat to a new life

European countries should get ready. There are many more refugees on the way.

The cafes and street corners of the Turkish port city of Izmir were jammed with refugees from Syria on Tuesday. Most carried backpacks with belongings and garbage bags full of life jackets, waiting for the call from smugglers.

When the call came, they left on different buses and headed down to the coast. There, they planned to catch boats that would try to smuggle them across the Aegean Sea to nearby islands in Greece.

There is so much sea smuggling traffic taking place here that several shops in this part of Izmir prominently display life jackets in their windows.

Racks of fluorescent orange life jackets also hung outside a barber shop next to a sign in Arabic that said “we have life jackets here.”

“We want to go to Germany,” announced a Syrian man who, with his wife and two children, was part of a group of 20 people who had just arrived in Turkey from Damascus the previous day.

They described themselves as internally displaced people, men and women who had been forced by the conflict to abandon properties and businesses in towns such as Douma, Afrin and Kobani and move to the Syrian capital of Damascus. There, they complained of a lack of running water and electricity, as well as the threat of arrest at security checkpoints.

No one wanted to identify themselves for fear of possible reprisal to relatives who stayed behind in Syria.

Asked why he was risking the lives of his children on an illegal and potentially lethal sea-borne passage, another Syrian man standing next to his son and daughter answered, “In Syria, they are dead already.”

The refugees said there was a fixed price, $1,300, for passage to Greece.

In some cases, like the one caught on video by Ibrahim Karci, the crossing is being carried out in broad daylight.

’I just want a peaceful life’

On Tuesday, a U.N. official on Lesbos told CNN the island was receiving more than 1,000 new migrants a day.

“There are about 30,000 refugees on the Greek islands right now,” Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told journalists in a briefing. She said the majority, an estimated 20,000 refugees, were on Lesbos.

“We don’t have any other choice,” explained a young man named Mohammed, who spoke to CNN in Izmir on Tuesday, while waiting to make the sea passage to Greece.

A fluent English-speaking resident of Damascus, Mohammed said he sold his mother’s car to pay for his trip to Europe. He had been in Turkey only one week but had already failed at a previous attempt at making the crossing to Greece.

“What can I do? Stay in Syria?” he asked, adding that he was fleeing government efforts to conscript young men into the military.

“I don’t want to fight anyone. I don’t want to kill. [And] I don’t want to be killed,” he explained.

“I just want a peaceful life,” he added.

Another young man from the northern opposition-controlled town of Binnish told CNN that he had made four previous failed attempts to reach Greece.