Our first day of the journey from Bodrum to Belgrade. We left Istanbul as the sun rose over the Asian side of the city and wound our way down the western coast to Assos, Turkey, a small town overlooking the Aegean Sea. Eight miles off the coast, the Greek island of Lesbos spread across the horizon. To us, eight miles seems like nothing. It even looked swimmable to the competitive among us, but to Syrian refugees the distance appears much greater and has a very different context. Because only eight miles away lays the EU, and if they can make it that far, they have overcome a significant hurdle towards getting to mainland Europe, and in most cases they are hoping their journey won't end until they reach Germany.
We spent the night at a hotel down the hill from Assos, on a small dirt road along the water filled with small tourist accommodations and local fishermen. It was empty. Over dinner we spoke with the hotel owner's son about his direct experience with the refugee crisis. Between September 2015 and March 2016 dozens of tour buses would arrive each and every day filled past capacity with Syrians. The smugglers they paid to take them across the water to Greek territory used vessels unfit for the crossing and often went regardless of impending storms, much to the horror of locals. With the support, and sometimes turned blind eye, of the local police, the local residents took safety matters into their own hands. Some boats sank, but fishermen were able to drive their boats out to rescue the refugees in time, then confronted the smugglers and threatened to shoot them if they attempted the crossing in unsafe conditions.
"We will shoot and kill you and bury you here where no one will find you."
The owner's son estimated that tens of thousands of refugees crossed from the shore to Lesbos in those seven months. The roads were packed with Syrians disembarking the buses and wandering with their life jackets as they waited for boats to cross. It was eerie almost, sitting outside beneath the trees on this empty main road, imagining so many people waiting for their chance for safety and freedom.
The influx of Syrians stopped almost immediately after the EU-Turkey deal went into effect on 20 March 2016. The EU gave Turkey 3 billion euros to "assist" with the crisis, which allowed Assos to increase their police force of 10 officers to 55. Still, Turkey had already spent over 9 billion for the refugees and their tourism industry is down over 70%. Turks are frustrated. On a short walk along the water after dinner, every restaurant and bar had no more than one table filled. Tomorrow we continue to Bodrum, another major crossing point for Syrians to reach the Greek island of Kos.
We are working our way to where the refugees now are. We are working our way to the heart of the crisis.
Written by: Kaitlyn Lynes
Photos by: Everita Silina