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Migrants Still Leave Turkey For Europe But Winter Makes The Trip More Difficult


We're going to start this morning by reporting on a story that has not changed. Winter and rough seas have not stopped Syrian refugees from boarding small boats and rafts on the Mediterranean. The U.N. says by the end of this year, one million people will have made the crossing. It expects the number to reach one-and-a-half million next year. One of the major jumping off points the resort town of Izmir on the coast of Turkey, which is within sight of a Greek island part of the European Union. NPR's Deborah Amos is in Istanbul, and she joins us now. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: What difference has winter made in these crossings?

AMOS: I just got back from Izmir and I can tell you that there are winter discounts now. The weather is colder and windier, and people say the smugglers have dropped their price by about $400 per person. But the smuggling economy is in plain sight. You can still see orange life vests for sale on the streets. And what is striking is the refugees and the migrants have disappeared. You can't see them on the streets anymore. And this all comes after an EU agreement in November with the Turks. They're getting more than $3 billion to stem the flow. So almost immediately the Turkish police started rounding up thousands of migrants and refugees. Some are sent to camps. Some are deported. They jailed hundreds of smugglers. But international and local aid workers say that the flow is unchanged. Here's Tracy Lucas. She's a project coordinator for Mercy Corps in Izmir. And she says it's very hard to stop people from getting on those boats.

TRACY LUCAS: People are absolutely desperate. By the time they take that decision - I mean, look, you don't wake up one morning and think I know I'm going to leave my home and everything that I know and trust today. You wait until things get so bad that you realize that you are not going to survive and your family is not going to survive.

AMOS: That's Tracy Lucas. And she says, and other aid officials say, too, that the Russian airstrikes in northern Syria has disrupted aid convoys, damaged hospitals, scattered even more Syrians. Turkey has closed its southern border with Syria, but there's always a way to get to the boats.

MONTAGNE: And, Deb, you said that Turkey has jailed hundreds of smugglers. Has that hampered those smugglers, those in the trade?

AMOS: You know, it's a remarkably resilient business. It's hard to shut it down. The smugglers find new ways. I was told that refugees are now kept in warehouses before the crossing rather than local hotels. The smugglers are under pressure, so the boats are more packed. There's a lot more ripoffs. You pay for a crossing and the smuggler disappears with the money, so you're stuck. You can't cross, and you don't have any more money. I met a Syrian at a coffee shop yesterday. He took pictures of his smuggler, sent it to all his relatives who'd already made it to Europe. Do you know this guy? Can I trust him? Failure to cross is now the name of a growing population in Izmir. They lost their money or their boat sank, and Tracy Lucas of Mercy Corps says these people are hard to find because they don't want to be found. They want to try again. Sometimes they have children with them, and aid agencies are struggling to help them.

LUCAS: Now they don't have any money because they lost it the last time they tried to cross the sea. And they're also incredibly desperate. And you'd think - you know, you'd think after the first time that your boat went down that you'd give up, but really no. People are desperate and determined at the same time.

MONTAGNE: Izmir, that town, it's a resort town there in Turkey. How do the local Turks react to this wave of people? I mean, I gather that during this past summer there were enough refugees that it began - part of the town was called Little Syria.

AMOS: Yes, it was. But now you don't see them. Now, local Turks have set up private aid organizations to help. I was with a university student who says he and his friends collect used coats all week and they distribute them on the weekend. Doctors and nurses from the local hospital make house calls on these Syrian families who desperately need help. These groups have built up trust with the refugee population. They can find them. It's an overwhelming humanitarian crisis.

Now, winter is setting in. Mercy Corps has started a winter program with food, coats, working with the locals. You know, but there's new arrivals all the time, so how do you find them? They get stuck in Izmir. They miss the boat. They can't go forward and they can't return to Syria.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Deborah Amos speaking to us from Istanbul. Thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.