Fleeing Syrians flock to Turkey and on to EU
Published 20/08/2015 | 02:30
They dress in shorts to blend in with the tourists, buy cheap lifejackets and play cat-and-mouse with police over places to sleep.
They are among tens of thousands of Syrians who have descended on the Turkish port city of Izmir before catching a boat to Greece, their gateway to the EU.
Iraqis, Iranians, Afghans and others also pass through, part of the biggest global movement of refugees ever recorded.
Paying traffickers to smuggle him by sea in the dead of night is a "deal with the devil" says Alaaeddin, a Syrian who fled Aleppo after four years of war.
"I am afraid of the smugglers," the 29-year old says. "But it is impossible for me to go back. I have to keep moving if I am to have a life."
The crisis has dragged the wars of the Middle East to Europe's doorstep, crippling Greece and sapping Turkish resources as it cares for 1.9 million Syrians and 200,000 Iraqis.
Turkey's EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir warned last month it was at capacity and that any new wave would end up pressing on Europe's borders.
On any given day, 5,000 migrants throng Izmir's streets waiting for passage to Greece. By night, buses and trucks run them to remote coves, and at first light they crowd into inflatable motor boats or rickety dinghies that ferry them to Greek islands less than 16km away.
Strife and persecution around the world displaced 59.5 million people - half of them children - last year.
A record 49,550 migrants reached the EU via Greece last month - more than in all of 2014, it says.
Kos and Lesbos have been overwhelmed in recent weeks by migrants and refugees, who have at times clashed with police.
The atmosphere is less bleak in Izmir's rundown Basmane neighbourhood.
Once-grand 19th Century villas have been converted into cheap hotels. Dozens of men dressed in shorts and T-shirts line up at a restaurant serving Syrian cuisine for a last meal before leaving.
In recent days, authorities have cleared city parks, forcing migrants into Izmir's back streets and mosque courtyards. Babies sleep in cardboard boxes to shelter from the blistering heat.
Turkey is obliged by treaties to stop the flow and has boosted security at borders. But it struggles to integrate refugees.
Every night an estimated 500 people set off, and coast guard officers say they are overwhelmed. They have rescued 36,000 people this year, including 330 one morning this month.
The group, which included newborns, sat for hours at a marina with little water and no shade as coastguard officials recorded names and surprised holidaymakers watched from their yachts.
"Either I die in Syria or I die in the sea. I would rather die at sea," says Syrian teenager Jassim.