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Undeterred by winter, Syrian refugees flock to a Turkish city for risky boat trips to Europe

Syrian refugees, including a child who lost his hand in a bombing, wait at a bus station in Antakya, Turkey, for rides to Izmir.

Syrian refugees, including a child who lost his hand in a bombing, wait at a bus station in Antakya, Turkey, for rides to Izmir.

(Glen Johnson / For The TImes)

In the courtyard of a humble mosque, volunteers brandish garbage bags packed with canned food and medical supplies, dispensing the contents to Syrians hunkered down in this coastal city.

The refugees have come here from throughout war-ravaged Syria, their ranks including the young and the aged.

All await word from the shadowy middlemen who arrange passage to the nearby Greek islands, entry point to Europe, everyone’s ultimate objective — though specific destinations on the continent are often vague.

“Maybe we will go to Germany or maybe to Sweden,” said Ahmad, one of a number of young Syrian men at the mosque, waiting to hear about space on a boat to Greece.

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Izmir, on Turkey’s western coast, has become a hub for the historic mass movement of Syrians and others toward Europe. From there, they embark on a relatively short voyage to the Greek islands, a route that is eclipsing the more established, and more dangerous, sea routes from North Africa to Italy.

With the onset of winter, there is little sign of a letup in the migrant surge that has created a European Union crisis and refocused global attention on Syria’s war.

Fears mount that stormy weather will result in further tragedy for those making the crossing on flimsy craft. More than 700 migrants, many of them children, have perished off the Greek and Turkish coasts this year, their waterlogged bodies washing up on Turkish shores, according to the International Office for Migration, a Geneva-based intergovernmental agency.

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Nineteen more people, including six children, drowned Thursday when their boat capsized off Izmir, the Associated Press reported. Rescuers saved 21 people.

“Winter brings rougher seas and a higher chance of the boats overturning,” said Abby Dwommoh from the Turkey branch of the International Organization for Migration. “There are added risks of hypothermia. And many of these refugees cannot swim.”

Many of those gathered in Izmir left Syria months or even years ago, first settling in neighboring nations, particularly Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, that offered little future beyond a marginal refugee existence. Others have left Syria more recently.

All are caught up in the fervor to reach Europe, widely seen as a land of opportunity. The yearning to get there has motivated many to risk it all, enduring rickety boats, filthy camps, endless delays and sundry other trials as they push toward their goal.

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Ferries from the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli to the Turkish mainland are booked in advance for months, mostly with Syrian refugees making a beeline for Turkey’s coastal smuggling hubs.

More than 800,000 Syrians, Afghans and others have passed through coastal Turkey this year, all with their eyes on Europe, according to the latest figures provided by migration monitors. Smuggling fees of $1,000 a head to cross into Greece define who can afford to make the trip.

“It is mostly the middle-class Syrians who leave from here,” said Cem Terzi, a surgeon who heads the civil group A Bridge Between Peoples, which distributes aid and medical care to refugees, including at the mosque where Ahmad and his friends wait. “They think that if they make it to Europe, they will be able to continue their studies or find a job.”

Those who cannot afford the smuggling fees, he said, tend to stick around Izmir and vicinity, living off aid and meager income from informal employment. Many Syrian children have joined the workforce, on farms and in the cities. The booming people-smuggling business also provides ample employment opportunities.

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In a ramshackle cafe opposite the central Basmane train terminal, sketchy middlemen brazenly work the phones. They hook up refugees with the smugglers spread along the coast, who launch inflatable boats from secluded inlets, making for the nearby scattering of Greek islands.

Street vendors sell life jackets in Izmir, Turkey, to Syrian refugees hoping to make the dangerous journey by sea to nearby Greek islands, an entry point to Europe.

Street vendors sell life jackets in Izmir, Turkey, to Syrian refugees hoping to make the dangerous journey by sea to nearby Greek islands, an entry point to Europe.

(Glen Johnson / For The Times)

Life jackets are hawked from makeshift street stalls. The window of one shoe store features hanging vests, including flimsy models for children. Many of the life jackets on sale are knockoffs that would not keep anyone afloat.

For a phony life vest, refugees pay the equivalent of about $10 or less. That beats the $40 asking price for the real deal.

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“You can tell which one’s a fake by blowing on it,” said a street seller, who gave his name as Ibrahim. “If the jacket is real, your breath won’t go through the fabric.”

One Syrian man approached Ibrahim, and they negotiated a price: 25 Turkish lira, or about $8.

“He bought one of the fake jackets,” Ibrahim confided.

Turkish authorities have started to break up the smuggling networks, local reports indicate, arresting hundreds of people connected to the trade. The crackdown is part of an agreement between Turkey and the European Union, which contributed more than $3 billion to the effort.

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More than 600 miles to the southeast, in the Turkish city of Antakya, close to the Syrian border, several hundred Syrian arrivals recently waited at a bus station. Many had trekked with smugglers into Turkey over a rugged mountain range.

One group of young men from the eastern Syrian city of Dair Alzour said they had no money left and would seek work in Turkey to save for the trip to Europe.

Another man, 32-year-old Abdul Monaim, lamented the loss of his carpentry business, which he said was confiscated by a rebel group.

He said his wife and three children — one of whom, a 6-year-old son, lost his right hand in a bombing — had moved from one place to another since a government airstrike in 2012 destroyed their residence in the Syrian city of Homs.

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“We will go to Izmir,” Monaim said. “After what we saw back in Syria, we have no fear: The sea is comforting in comparison.”

Special correspondent Johnson reported from Izmir and Antakya, and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut.

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