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A flood of migrants on a trail across Europe -- with no end in sight

Publisher: CNN Wire
Author: By Ivan Watson, CNN
Story date: 20/09/2015
Language: English

Editor's note: The migrant trail is improvised, illegal and constantly evolving. For two weeks, a CNN team followed the procession of migrants and refugees on the move from Turkey through the Balkans.

IZMIR, Turkey (CNN) – For many of the tens of thousands of people fleeing the Middle East, the migrant trail into Europe begins in the Turkish port city of Izmir.

In the city's bustling Basmane district, Syrians throng the cafes and three-star hotels, clutching backpacks and holding black garbage bags full of recently purchased life jackets.

Some of them have recently arrived in Turkey with their families from Syria, after catching flights or passenger ships from Lebanon.

The smugglers arranging passage from Turkey to Greece all seem to charge nearly the same prices: 1200 euros, or $1,300 US. Always cash, up front.

If it's a large family of eight or 10 people, that adds up to a lot of money.

But for the people who stood on the sidewalk in Izmir in front of travel agency offices, waiting anxiously to board buses to the coast, the gamble was clearly worth the risk.

"We don't have any other choice," said a Syrian man who had just arrived from Damascus with his wife and two children.

"If we go to Syria we die. If we stay here [in Turkey] we die. Homeless, no money. Everything we have is to go to Europe," the man explained in broken English, asking not to be identified for fear of reprisals against relatives remaining in Syria.

Another young man said he was fleeing conscription into the Syrian army.

"I don't want to fight with anyone. I don't want to kill. I don't want to get killed," he said, after also asking not to be identified for his family's safety.

Moments later, he and several other young men in their twenties climbed aboard buses that would take them to the sea.

An armada on the Aegean Sea

The costliest – and most dangerous leg of the journey – is the voyage across the Aegean Sea.

From some Turkish beaches, it is only five to 10 miles to reach several different islands in Greece.

Day and night, a virtual armada of inflatable rafts, dinghies and rubber boats sets out from strategic points along the Turkish coast aiming for Greek islands.

A night patrol with volunteers from the Bodrum Sea Rescue Association revealed the incredible risk many migrants are taking.

In choppy waters between the Turkish resort of Bodrum and the Greek island of Kos, a Turkish coast guard cutter lit up one tiny, overloaded raft after another with its spotlight.

In one dinghy, some of the more than 10 passengers on board the three-meter long craft were paddling with long oars as an electric motor sputtered in the back.

Children wailed from inside another slightly larger raft which was carrying more than 20 people. The boats were so over-loaded, they could have easily been swamped by a large wave.

In this stretch of sea near Bodrum, the Turkish coast guard stopped the rafts and rescued the passengers, bringing them back to Turkey.

But further west along the coast, the smuggling is far more brazen, and the Turkish coastal authorities do not have as much of an active presence.

From the regions of Assos and Ayvalik, traffickers launched larger, inflatable pontoon rafts with 40 to 70 passengers on board in broad daylight.

Secretly filmed footage of the launch of one of these overloaded boats shows a man who appears to be piloting the raft, suddenly abandoning ship. He leaps into the sea and swims back to shore.

The boat then circles several times, as some of the more than 40 passengers on board struggle to steer the overloaded vessel.

"We got lost in the sea," a 27-year-old Syrian named Yusuf Abudan recalled, days after completing his own harrowing Aegean crossing.

"The boat driver was from Afghanistan and he had no idea about the way [to Greece]," said Abudan's cousin, 26-year old Mukhis Msattat. "Some people were watching the GPS and told him the right direction."

"We don't recommend anybody to come by sea," Abudan concluded.

Over the last week, two separate deadly accidents in the Aegean Sea have led to the deaths of at least 56 migrants and refugees.

In one of those incidents, involving a wooden-hulled boat that capsized off the Greek island of Farmakonisi, 15 out of the 34 victims were children. Among them, four of those who drowned were infants.

Surreal beach scene on the Greek island of Lesbos

Over the span of half an hour one morning in September, CNN witnessed at least four inflatable boats landing on a long stretch of beach on the island of Lesbos.

As the boats hit shore, migrants and refugees spilled out onto the beach cheering and hugging each other. One man celebrated by hurling an inner tube he carried in case of an emergency out into the sea.

Children cavorted in the water. In a surreal scene, Greek municipal workers walked among the jubilant new arrivals, collecting the life jackets they discarded on the beach and placing them in a dumpster.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports some 50 migrant boats land on Lesbos each day, carrying from 1,000 to 3,000 immigrants.

Hundreds of orange life jackets and several punctured rubber rafts litter one beach beyond the island's airport.

Greek authorities register immigrants at a dusty stadium overlooking the town of Mitilini. Clutching new documents, the refugees and migrants then trudge down to the port where they can buy passage aboard large ferries bound for Athens.

According to the UNHCR, about 70% of the arrivals are Syrian refugees.

"It is Syria bleeding," said Alessandra Morelli, a veteran UNHCR coordinator.

"It's dangerous now in Syria," explained 19-year-old Kenan Albeni. He traveled to Lesbos with a group of six other young Syrian men from the Syrian town of Suweida, and they were hurrying to buy their tickets for the ferry to Athens.

"I can't continue my studies. I want to start my life. If I go to Germany, I will start my life from zero. I want to study, I want to get married maybe," the 19-year-old said.

Not far away, clusters of travelers from Afghanistan camped in a park next to the waterfront. Two Greek police marched into the park and warned several Afghans to extinguish a camp fire they lit beneath the trees.

"I can't take my children to the park any more, it's too dirty and crowded," complained a Greek hotel owner. But he also appeared to be catering to the visitors, with a sign scrawled in Arabic taped to the hotel's front window, advertising available rooms.

Barbed-wire border crossing

On the mainland of Europe, hundreds of miles northwest, Greek police escorted clusters of migrants and refugees down a dusty train track to an opening in a waist-high coil of barbed wire.

Macedonian soldiers in green uniforms then waved the travelers in.

"Thank you, thank you," a Syrian man said clasping his hands to his chest, as he walked into Macedonia.

"Cigarettes! Cigarettes!" yelled Macedonian vendors who followed immigrants down the trash-strewn dirt road that led to a nearby transit center in the town of Gevgelija.

"You can pay Turkish lira," a cigarette salesman added, offering transactions in Turkish currency.

Working alongside the UNHCR, the Macedonian government has turned this Balkan country into a transit corridor for migrants and refugees. They are encouraged to enter and leave to Serbia – the next country on the migrant trail – as swiftly as possible.

Ivo Kotevski, a spokesman for the Macedonian Interior Ministry, said of more than 70,000 immigrants who had arrived illegally since Jun 19, only 49 had applied for asylum to stay in Macedonia.

At the transit center, immigrants received documents allowing them 72 to hours to stay in the country to request asylum. At the same time, the Macedonian authorities quickly directed the new arrivals to nearby trains and buses which departed every hour for the northern border to Serbia.

Naim Nazari was an Afghan who had spent the last seven months living with his wife and toddler son in Greece. They lined up to buy train tickets, shortly after having crossed into Macedonia.

Asked where the family was going, Nazari appeared to be at a loss.

"I don't know," he said, sounding unconvinced. "Maybe Austria."

By the time hundreds of migrants and refugees boarded, many passengers were left standing in the aisles aboard a train bound for Serbia. Railroad workers charged passengers 25 euros per person. Only a week before, the price had been 10 euros.

When the graffiti-covered train rolled out from the transit center, some of the migrants celebrated. Their ululating Middle Eastern cheers echoed over the Balkan countryside.

Stopped in the Serbian town of Horgos

At the main border crossing from Serbia to Hungary, the mass migration across Europe suddenly hit a wall.

At midnight on September 15, Hungary announced new measures aimed at stopping the more than 140,000 migrants and refugees who had entered its territory throughout the crisis.

It shut the main crossing from Serbia, building a fence across the border terminal through which 600 cargo trucks a day had once passed.

By the evening of Wednesday September 19, about a hundred young men clustered around the new fence, banging against the barrier and chanting "let us in."

Far more of the travelers pitched tents on the fields and stretch of highway around the fence. For many, it was the first time they had stopped moving in days.

At sunset, a Serbian municipal worker moved among the migrants, trying to sweep up discarded plastic bottles and garbage quickly being scattered around the area. A lone volunteer, a Syrian man with a gray ponytail and silver earring worked alongside the Serb.

The man's name was Wael Noor. He was a musician from Suweida who said he had been forced to flee to Turkey several years ago, after he participated in protests against the Syrian government.

Hungary's decision to close the border now left him in limbo.

"I have to wait. No choice," Noor said, hoping perhaps for the Hungarian government to change its policy.

"There's no choice to go back to Syria," he said, adding that he was wanted by Syrian authorities.

Noor's plan had been to reach Germany or the Netherlands, and to arrange later for the immigration of his wife and daughter from Syria. He refused to bring them on the migrant trail, saying it would have been far too difficult and dangerous for a child.

That night, Noor fell fast asleep on the pavement, huddled in a white windbreaker. He used a piece of cardboard for a mattress.

One border closes, another opens

A day after Hungary closed its border, another European country announced it was opening its doors to the travelers.

The government of Croatia declared migrants and refugees would be welcome. It only took a matter of hours before the first travelers began exploring this newly-opened corridor.

They took buses and taxis to Serbia's Western border, where they disembarked less than a mile from the formal border crossing.

Then groups of migrants hiked through cornfields in the direction of Croatia.

There is no fence separating Croatia from Serbia, just a dirt road straddled on both sides by fields of corn and turnips.

Blue-uniformed Croatian police officers stood here waiting as a half dozen young Iraqis from the southern Iraqi port city of Basra trudged in their direction.

The travelers hesitated momentarily upon seeing the police.

"Come on guys, don't be scared," a Croatian police officer said, beckoning the Iraqis to enter his country. The young Arabs were then invited into the back of police vans that drove them to a registration center established near the border.

Among the new arrivals waiting for a ride in a police van was a trio of young Syrian men from Aleppo, who had been living as refugees in Istanbul for nearly a year.

"We are following the people," explained Muhammad Msattat, a 29-year-old fluent English speaker.

Msattat, his younger brother and cousin said they were all "on an adventure," trying to reach central Europe to continue their university studies. They said they understood why some Europeans were opposed to allowing in more migrants.

"They are afraid the refugees will come more and more and more and more and it will be very difficult for them to control it," said Msattat's younger brother Mukhis.

But by nightfall on Wednesday, the trickle of migrants trudging through the cornfields swelled to a constant stream. More and more buses from the Serbian capital arrived, disgorging scores of migrants and refugees.

The next morning, the once-pristine fields of corn were now littered with garbage.

Meanwhile, the Croatian police had stopped sending vans to drive migrants and refugees to the transit center. Instead, they told new arrivals to hike several more kilometers to a train station in the small Croatian border town of Tovarnik.

It quickly became apparent that on Thursday, less than 36 hours after opening the border, the flood of migrants had overwhelmed the Croatian authorities.

At Tovarnik's train station, mass hysteria set in among some of the more than 5,000 migrants and refugees who gathered next to the train tracks.

Hundreds of screaming people heaved against a barrier manned by Croatian riot police. The officers struggled to pull free sobbing women and wailing children who were being crushed by the crowd. Every few minutes, a migrant would scramble under a nearby fence and make a run towards a staging ground where officials were organizing buses to transport migrants deeper into Croatia.

An Arabic-speaking female translator armed with a loudspeaker tried in vain to calm the crowd down.

'Where do we go now?'

Suddenly, the police lines broke. Hundreds of people surged forward, trampling barriers and fences and rushing deeper into Croatian territory.

The Croatian riot police could do little more than watch. An English-speaking migrant turned to a Croatian police officer and asked, "Where do we go now?"

The officer shrugged his shoulders.

"The Croatian government, I believe, was taken a bit by surprise by the numbers," said Terence Pike, the head of the UNHCR office in Croatia.

"The people lacked information," Pike explained. "Without that information, they became frustrated. It was extremely hot. ... They broke loose."

Pike said the government had been prepared to welcome around 500 immigrants a day. Instead, more than 7,000 people entered in less than 36 hours. By the weekend, the number had swelled to more than 11,000 and the Croatian government debated whether to close its borders.

But at earlier stages in the migrant trail, there are many thousands of additional migrants and refugees who are en route in this direction. Immigrants still clamber aboard rafts to reach the Greek islands that have become a back door into Europe.

Meanwhile, months into the migrant crisis, European governments are still struggling, clearly unable to figure out what to do with all these

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