Thousands of Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians are fleeing their war-torn countries and embarking on a perilous journey to Europe seeking refuge and a better life. In Izmir, a western port city of more than 2 million people in Turkey, many throng the streets, desperate to get to Greece — the entrance to the European Union.
It’s an anxious and fearful time for many. The most dangerous point of the journey to Europe is the illegal boat crossing from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands.
According to the International Organization for Migration’s last update, 418 people — including children — have died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2016. Migrants pay smugglers anything between €460 and €1,100 and take their chances aboard unseaworthy rubber boats in a desperate bid to reach Europe.
Around Izmir’s Basmane Station, shops sell everything migrants may need, as well as things they don’t. Merchants do a brisk trade in life jackets, which cost about €23 each and are sometimes useless. This is just one of many examples of people making a quick profit on migrants’ desperation.
A few days later, in Athens, Greece, we see many more migrants, but this time, the mood is of elation and relief. They’ve made it to Europe. In Victoria Square, a central meeting space in the city, I met a group of young Afghans taking their first steps on European soil.
Hamid, who says he is 20 years old but looks younger and may in fact still be a minor, describes his harrowing ordeal on the boat from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos.
“I’d been trying for three weeks to reach Greece,” he says in English. “I was losing hope, and then one night at 4 a.m., the smuggler came and said it was now or never. I grabbed my bag and followed him to the beach. Forty-seven of us piled up on a small rubber boat. The smuggler stayed on the beach and told one of us to steer the boat straight towards the lights on the island in the far distance. What was supposed to be a one-hour journey took five hours.
“A Syrian guy steered the boat into the darkness of the night,” Hamid continues. “None of us had ever driven a boat before, but he was brave. The high waves were crashing against the boat, and I was cold and wet through. Everyone was afraid, screaming and crying because we thought we were going to turn over. Some people were praying together. I can’t swim, and I thought I was going to die. When we arrived on shore, I was exhausted and lay down for a while, too tired to realize I made it.”
Mehdi, another young Afghan man whom Hamid met earlier in the journey, jumps in: “We tried a few times to cross by boat. When the weather is bad and the sea is rough, smugglers drop the price. But we didn’t want to risk our life. We know some boats never make it. This time we were lucky. I’ve met some people on this journey who have lost friends and family at sea.”
Just that morning, as the city of Athens woke up, came news of yet another boat that didn’t make it to Greece. The boat capsized, killing several people, including children.
For most people seeking asylum in Europe, Germany is the destination of choice. Usually people have friends or relatives already living there, and the government has been welcoming of migrants fleeing political turmoil.
Ali, a man in his early 30s from Bamyan Province in central Afghanistan, says he hoped to complete his studies so he could rebuild his life away from the pervasive violence of his homeland. He was anxious to recharge his phone so he could tell his family that he was safe and learn the latest news on the migrant crisis.
“There are a lot of rumors and hearsay,” he says. “I heard that countries are closing their borders. I want to check online for myself.” Ali has kept in touch with friends further along the route to Germany, who relay practical information and advice.
Reaching Germany takes a great deal of planning and money, as well as procedures to protect migrants from losing their savings to dishonest smugglers.
Instead of paying smugglers directly along the route, Ali keeps his money in trust with a middleman back in Afghanistan. After hearing from Ali, this man released a payment to the smuggler who got Ali to Greece and made arrangements with the next smuggler along the route to Germany. If Ali had not reached Greece, the smuggler would have had to keep trying, or he wouldn’t have been paid.
The expense and trouble are worth it to Ali. “The insecurity in Afghanistan drove me out of my home,” he explains. “It’s a war zone. There is no education, no jobs, no safety, nothing. I am sad to leave my parents behind, but I have to save my life. This is not my first attempt to leave Afghanistan for a better life. The first time, I was caught without papers by police in Iran. I was beaten and sent back. This time I made it through.”
A few weeks after I met Ali, Hamid and Mehdi, the situation suddenly changed for Afghan migrants, who are no longer allowed to travel through Macedonia. Many are now stranded in Greece.
With thanks to Julien Anseau, ChildFund Global Communications Manager