After facing Syrian government barrel bombs, the repression of Islamic State extremists and their effective expulsion from Lebanon, Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe by sea now confront a new nemesis – the Greek Coast guard, which, they say, is disabling their small craft and setting them adrift in the Aegean Sea.
Refugees speak of repeated instances in Greek waters where Greek forces fire guns in the air, shine bright spotlights on their beleaguered boats, and order them to jettison their fuel supplies. Then they move their fast patrol boats alongside and take off at top speed, creating a stern wave that forces the dinghy back to Turkish waters.
“They pointed their weapons at us and told us to dump our gas in the sea,” said Abdul Hamid, 46, a driver from the Syrian town of Salqin in northern Idlib province, who was piloting the small inflatable boat, overcrowded with 60 people, including 12 children a week ago. It was six hours before the Turkish Coast Guard rescued them, he told McClatchy. It was his second such experience, he said. Encountering the Greek Coast Guard is the “biggest risk” in the escape.
Ahmed Abu Abid, 40, an electrician from Damascus, described a similar incident on a different voyage.
“They took away our engine and left us in the middle of the sea,” he said. “The waves were two meters (more than six feet) high.”
His 5-year-old son, paralyzed from the waist down by shrapnel from a mortar round three years ago, recalled his own panic. “I was so afraid they wanted to drown us,” said Zain al Abadin. “I don’t want to go by boat. I want to go by car.”
We will keep on trying, even if we die. We have a saying: ‘He who sails should not fear drowning.’
Ahmed Abu Abid, electrician
The U.N. High Commission for Refugees sent a formal complaint to Greece and the European Frontier Agency earlier this summer, said UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards. The complaint said that “pushbacks are unacceptable and illegal” and added, “we hope these incidents will be fully investigated.”
Greece rejects the claims. “As far as I am aware . . . the allegations you mention have no basis in reality,” said Konstantinos Koutras, a spokesman for the Greek foreign ministry. The Greek coast guard did not respond to two requests for comment.
But, based on interviews with refugees, the practice continues and may even have been stepped up. In chance encounters with a tiny sampling of the thousands who mill the streets in this Aegean port city waiting for passage, Syrian refugees, unprompted, spoke of at least four instances of “pushback” in the past 10 days.
It is impossible to confirm the frequency of such confrontations on the high seas. Unlike the chaos readily evident last week at the train station in Budapest, Hungary, or the massive marches by thousands of refugees to Austria and Germany, there is no simple way to monitor the confrontations that take place between desperate people in small boats and the organized forces determined to turn them back.
But the dangers seem not to have daunted the refugees who gather at Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city and a port whose 4,000 years of history make it one of the oldest settlements in the Mediterranean basin. The bigger the obstacles, it seems, the greater their determination. Even the image seen round the world of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old whose body was washed up on the beach at Bodrum, 90 air miles to the south, is no deterrent.
“We will keep on trying, even if we die,” Abu Abid told McClatchy Thursday afternoon. “We have a saying: ‘He who sails should not fear drowning.’ ” That evening, he picked up his paralyzed son to make another try. Their fate was not known Saturday.
Smugglers don’t pilot the boats themselves. Instead, they pick the most capable appearing refugee and put him in charge.
Izmir and Bodrum are the principal marshaling points in Turkey for the short but dangerous trip to the Greek islands that are the entry way to the European Union.
Hundreds of Syrians, Iraqis and others fleeing conflict crowd the streets off the main square, all toting backpacks and lugging life vests in black trash bags. Shops sell the vests for $25 for a Chinese version up to $75 for one made in Norway, and street venders sell colored balloons for about 15 cents a piece; the balloons serve as waterproof containers for cell phones and personal documents.
Many stay in down-market hotels that offer beds for as little as $4 a night, but hundreds, including Abdulhamid, his wife, 13-year-old son, and four year-old daughter, sleep on the streets to save money.
Passage to Greece, costing $1,300 to $1,500 per person, is booked through Syrian smugglers, whom they find by word of mouth. It can take days before they launch, and repeated tries before they reach Greece.
Small rubber rafts have become the main conveyance for those trying to reach Europe since the end of 2012, when Greece stopped accepting Syrian refugees by land, UNHCR officials said. This year, some 220,000 war refugees and economic migrants have arrived in Greece from Turkey and other Mediterranean jumping off points, according to U.N. figures.
“I’ve been in business for six months and haven’t lost a boat yet,” said one smuggler, who asked to be called only Abu Feda or “Feda’s father.” “That’s because I have a safe point where I send them from.”
Business has exploded in the past three months, but Abu Feda said he had no idea why. “I don’t do politics,” he said.
Would-be passengers often drive three hours or more to a previously undisclosed transfer point, then they are trucked over rough paths and often required to walk a mile or more before reaching the launch location.
The key to safety, other than wearing life-vests, is in the selection of the pilot – chosen by the smugglers from among the passengers. Abu Feda said he looks for someone from Syria’s Latakia province, which lies on the Mediterranean, in hopes of finding someone with experience at sea. If someone with experience is not available, Abu Feda said, he’ll select the person he thinks would be most capable, then puts him through an extensive training course of several hours, an assertion that could not be checked.
It isn’t only Syrians who are traveling. Many Iraqis, most of them men under 30, are among the travelers.
It’s a question of luck. “The smuggler asks: ‘Who knows how to pilot this boat,’ ” recalled Abid of his experience with another smuggler. “Anyone who says he does is chosen.”
But in the often-choppy seas, shifting winds and lack of familiarity with their destination island in the middle of the night, the pilot sometimes panics, as apparently was the case in the Bodrum tragedy. Abdullah Kurdi, who lost sons Aylan, 3, Galip, 5 and his wife, Rehan, 35, said the chosen pilot had abandoned the tiller and he had to take over. Nine others died when the boat capsized.
Nearly every one of more than 20 Syrians interviewed over two days said that in order to pay for the trip they had to sell all their possessions – the family dwelling, car and all their other goods – and often borrow money from relatives to raise the $3,000 to $4,000 per person needed to pay off smugglers here and in other countries en route to Germany.
Possibly the most confident of those surveyed was a group of Syrians from Hasaka province, now the scene of continued fighting between the U.S.-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia, known as the YPG, and Islamic State extremists. Of the group of 15, four have engineering degrees and all wanted to leave to avoid conscription by the YPG, including the group’s four Kurds.
“Why should I fight for them?” said Ahmed Horan, 29, an Arab. “They ignored our existence as Arabs. They talk of Hasaka as ‘West Kurdistan.’ ”
To make the trip, Horan said he raised $2,000 by selling all his possessions and borrowed as much again from relatives. With other Hasaka residents, he flew from Qamishli, a town nearby under shared control by the Syrian government and the YPG, to Damascus, then took a taxi to Beirut.
After buying fake hotel vouchers to prove to Lebanese authorities that he was a visitor and not a seeking residence, he and the others traveled to Tripoli, in Lebanon’s north, where they boarded a regular ferry to Mersin, Turkey, a 12-hour crossing. Then, they traveled to Izmir, a 12-hour bus ride, and stayed in an $8-a-night hotel.
Thanks to postings on Facebook by previous travelers, he was able to anticipate the obstacles. Hungary – which held back Syrian refugees last week until they broke through police lines – is one of the most difficult places to transit. Once in Hungary, the cost of being smuggled through to Austria can be 1800 euros ($1190), but the even bigger challenge can be reaching Hungary, through Serbia, which requires crossing through a forested area, where police are waiting to seize the illegal arrivals. But there’s a simple solution, a smartphone app called “Maps.Me,” which allows friends to share their route.
It isn’t only Syrians who are traveling. Many Iraqis, most of them men under 30, are among the travelers.
Mustafa Mazin, 24, a Sunni Muslim, and three friends, all Shiites, decided one month ago to flee to Europe, citing the lack of security in Baghdad and the coutry’s growing sectarianism. “Everything in Iraq is negative,” he said. None of us thinks anything will be getting better in the next 20 years,” he said.
One of his friends, Yasser Sudani, 26, showed a reporter the two tattoos he had put on his left arm just before departing Baghdad – one of the rock group Metallica and the other a twisted star. “I couldn’t have these if I lived in Baghdad,” he said. Mazin said each had budgeted around $5,000 for the trip, which began with a flight from Baghdad to Istanbul.
They seemed far more confident of reaching their destination than many Syrians, especially those with children – and indeed they landed safely on the Greek island of Lesbos Saturday morning.
For many of the Syrians, the trip is only the latest in a long personal history of displacement.
One couple, who identified themselves only by their first names, Ahmed, 37, and Sana, 28, said they left their homes in Aleppo when the current civil war began, moving to Junieh, north of Beirut.
I’ve been in business for six months and haven’t lost a boat yet.
Abu Feda, smuggler
But their Lebanon refuge became untenable when their rent more than doubled to $550 a month and potential Lebanese employers were threatened with fines of more than $1,000 for hiring Syrians.
“They want all Syrians to leave,” he said.
They had traveled Thursday night to a launch point but on seeing that 45 people were to be loaded on a boat that could only comfortably hold 35 people, they balked. They got back into the bus that had taken them there, but part way back to Izmir were dumped near a forest. Sana is seven months pregnant, and both have reached the conclusion that another such journey could be very harmful to her health.
They’re contemplating spending nearly all their resources for a more deluxe form of passage – traveling by private yacht to near the island of Chios, and then being cast ashore in a small rubber raft. The cost is 2,000 euros – $2,200 – per person.
“We Syrians don’t know where to go. We can’t stay here. We have to find a safer way.”
McClatchy special correspondent Zakaria Zakaria contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the personal histories of Ahmed and Sana, a couple that declined to give their surnames. They are from Aleppo, not Damascus. That version of the story also gave an incorrect height in feet for waves described as two meters tall. They were more than six feet high, not eight feet.
Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc