Images of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on the shore of a Turkish resort spread like wildfire across international media and social media networks last week. Along with his five-year-old brother, the boy died with nearly a dozen other Syrians as their Greece-bound boat capsized in the Mediterranean.
Yet Kurdi was just one of many Syrians who have died making the perilous journey to Europe, where they hope to attain asylum as the ongoing civil war in their homeland continues to claim civilian lives in large numbers. According to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, nearly a quarter of a million people have been killed since the conflict broke out back in March 2011.
Fleeing shells and barrel bombs, more than 4 million Syrians have become refugees and another 7.6 million are internally displaced within the country’s borders, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
Despite the dangers of taking often flimsy vessels across the sea, many of the more than 1.8 million Syrians exiled in Turkey decide to make the journey to Europe. Sayeed, a construction worker and father of two small kids aged four and nine, hopes to make it to Greece and then continue on to elsewhere in Europe.
According to refugees who have made the journey already, it takes some 10 hours and costs anywhere between $1,000 and $2,240 per person. Children aged six years and younger, however, usually travel for around half of the price.
Explaining that he cannot afford to stay in a hotel or rent an apartment, Sayeed says he and his family sleep in the bus station in Bodrum as they wait for a smuggler to contact them with instructions. “I am hiring the same smuggler who helped my brother make it to Europe several months ago,” he told Syria Deeply.
“We already agreed on costs and a date. He was supposed to provide us with a room to sleep in here in Bodrum, but the hotels were already full,” he added. “We’ve slept in the bus station for the last four nights.”
Walking the streets of any western coastal city in Turkey, one finds hundreds of Syrians. While some stay in motels, those who lack financial resources are on the sidewalks, with their children and bags, awaiting their departure date.
Back in Syria, Sayeed lived a happy life with his wife and kids in Zabadani, a city near Damascus, until government forces bombed his home. “There is no longer any life left in Syria,” he remarked. “It’s only death and destruction everywhere. I want my kids to live in a safe place.”
Sayeed sold all his family’s possessions and borrowed money from friends and family. “These kids deserve to go to school and live a normal life,” he continued. “It might sound strange that I’m willing to put them in such danger in order to reach safety, but this way we are in danger for a period of hours. In Syria, we face death ten times a day.”
Sayeed and his little ones are not alone in Bodrum. Syrian families line the streets, where many of them sleep each night in a state of limbo while they wait to hear from often dubious human smugglers.
Souad, 48, used to be a teacher back in Syria. When she decided to voyage to Europe for asylum, her husband refused to join her. Along with her 12-year-old son, she waits in Bodrum for their smuggler to confirm their departure date. “Our situation in Syria was very bad,” she told Syria Deeply. “After my husband was fired from a regime-owned media channel for his pro-revolution views, we spent all of our savings to survive. Life was becoming unbearable.”
Although she held out hope for four years that the war would end, she said she eventually realized there was no solution in sight. “My son has the right to a normal life, the right to play and to go to school,” she said. “I don’t care about myself, really, but my son is still young. Was I supposed to just let him die in the war?”
Failing time and again to convince her husband to come, she eventually sold her jewelry and borrowed money from relatives to finance the escape. “This is about my son having a chance to live in peace and dignity,” Souad added.
In Izmir, another Turkish city in the western Anatolia region, the picture is similar: Syrians sleeping in clusters in the streets, waiting each day in the hope that their turns to move on have come.
Khaled, 24, says that restaurant owners often force Syrians to purchase something in exchange for allowing them to use the restroom. Arriving in Izmir after leaving a Syrian refugee camp elsewhere in Turkey, he only recently decided to move on to Europe.
“I had never thought about going to Europe before,” he told Syria Deeply. “Then my mother, who is in Jordan now, was diagnosed with cancer. Her treatment is going to be very expensive, so I want to go to Germany so I can get a family reunion visa for her and hopefully have her treated in hospitals there.”
“I don’t want her to die,” Khalid concluded, sadly. “This is the only way I can help her.”
While many Syrians are weary of smugglers who profit from their displacement, the fact remains that these smugglers provide a service to refugees who see few alternatives as European border laws make it difficult to take a legal route into many countries.
Abu al-Majd, 33, has been working as a smuggler since 2005, six years before the war broke out in Syria. Defending his work, he argues that he has helped hundreds of Syrians safely reach Europe, where they can start new lives. Styling himself a humanitarian, he claims that he charges about half the going rate. “
“The trips I organize aren’t dangerous,” he told Syria Deeply. “The boat is in very good condition and I don’t overload it. There are never more than 45 people allowed on my nine-meter [30-foot] long boat.”
Abu Majd and his associates do not man the boat themselves, however. They train one of the refugees to sail the boat “for a few hours” before departure. “The trip doesn’t take a lot of experience,” he claimed. “It’s a straight shot. If something goes wrong, they are supposed to contact the Turkish coast guard or Greek coast guard. But our duty ends the moment the boat pushes off.”
The smuggler’s claims appear to clash with reality, as the news of more capsized boats and drowned refugees becomes a daily reality. The U.N. refugee agency estimates that more than 2,500 people have died this summer alone while attempting to make the crossing.
On August 18, for example, six Syrians, including an infant, died when a boat carrying 67 people capsized while still in Turkish waters. Samir, a 20-year-old who was on the boat, was saved by the Turkish coast guard.
Speaking to Syria Deeply, he recalled the chaos that ensued as the boat began to sink and an inflatable raft burst. “In moments like those, people can’t think,” he remembered. “Many of them didn’t know how to swim so they just tried to hang on to others, but they both ended up drowning.”
Ahmad, a 21-year-old who just made it to Germany, says he saw his life flash before his eyes when the boat he was on with more than 50 others began to go under. “It was a boat only made for 30 people at most,” he told Syria Deeply. “Water started to leak onto the boat and the engine died the moment we entered Greek waters. We were lucky that the coast guard came and saved us.”
Many European countries are struggling to agree on a policy for Syrian refugees. Hungary has launched a border crackdown as a record number of Syrians enter the country. On Wednesday alone, the Guardian reports, 3,221 people entered the country.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has lashed out at those who advocate taking in the refugees. “I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country,” he told journalists outside the European Union headquarters at Brussels last week.
Germany, on the other hand, has vowed to grant all Syrians asylum as people continue to pour into the country. At least 800,000 are expected to receive asylum this year alone, reports the Independent.
Rafi Abbara, 27, was a pharmacist back in Homs before fleeing via Turkey and Greece to Germany in 2014. Happy that Germany will allow Syrians to stay, he nonetheless says the journey remains life-threatening. Along with more than 150 of his compatriots, he was on a boat designed for 60 people. “After we got in the water, we saw that there was no food, no water and no life vests,” he told Syria Deeply.
Like so many other boats, his vessel began to sink. “Thankfully, a [civilian] ship rescued us and took us to the Greek coast,” he recalled. After making it to Germany, he started a Facebook group that advises Syrians on safety matters while making the journey. “The happiest moment of my life came when a kid called me up and thanked me,” he said. “He explained how he was rescued [because of Rafi’s advice].”
Top photo: More Syrian refugees are arriving every day, including these who landed on Lesbos Monday on a dinghy after crossing from Turkey. (Petros Giannakouris, Associated Press)