This Syrian Refugee Wants to Swim to Europe

6 minute read

Each morning since the start of September, when he arrived on the Turkish coast with plans of escaping to Europe, Hasan Musally, a 42-year-old welder from Syria, has come to Fener Beach to practice swimming. He starts each time by looking out at his destination—the northern tip of Kos, a Greek island about six km (3.7 miles) away—and then he swims toward it through the choppy waters, going as far as he can before the fear and the pain in his lungs makes him turn back. Two weeks into this daily ritual, Musally feels he can just about make it across.

“But wind is a big problem,” he said on a recent evening, when the gusts prevented him from attempting to swim the entire channel for the first time. As the seasons change, the waves are also getting higher, and even migrants who can afford to pay human traffickers or to buy their own inflatable boat for this journey often fail to make it across. On Sept. 13, 34 migrants drowned in the Aegean Sea after their dinghy deflated in the water, joining more than 2,000 others who have died trying to cross to Greece this year. Yet up and down the western coast of Turkey, there are still hundreds of thousands of migrants preparing for the trip to Greece—and according to Turkish authorities, they are resorting to ever more desperate means of doing so.

“They swim, they paddle, they buy a little outboard motor, with maybe three or four horsepower, and see what they can do,” says a senior maritime official in the Turkish seaside town of Bodrum, who agreed to discuss the migrant crisis only on condition of anonymity. “We found one couple from Syria who tried seven times to go across. Every time they failed.” The Turkish coast guards would turn back their boat, or human traffickers would simply rob them. But each time the couple would try again.

Through the window that faces his desk, the official can see a vast harbor crowded with the sailing and fishing boats, which wealthier migrants from Syria have used to get safely across the waters to Greece. (Some have paid as much as $4,000 to hide in the hold of a luxury yacht for a journey of no more than 15 km (9.3 miles), said one local businessman who helped arrange such a crossing.) But the poorest asylum seekers—not Syrians, but more typically Afghans or migrants from other parts of South and Central Asia—have meanwhile been turning to cheaper and deadlier methods.

Their logic, though desperate, is simple enough: They believe Germany has opened its doors to all asylum seekers, and most of them seem unaware—or unwilling to accept—that those doors are quickly closing. On Monday, about a week after easing its own migration rules in order to welcome Syrian refugees, Germany imposed emergency controls along its border with Austria, and the government announced that it has reached “the limit of its capabilities” in managing the influx of migrants coming across that frontier. “It is not just a question of the number of migrants, but also the speed at which they are arriving that makes the situation so difficult to handle,” Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told a German newspaper on Sunday, when 13,000 migrants arrived in Munich over the course of 24 hours.

But whether or not the Germans are ready, many others are already on their way from the Turkish coast, having interpreted Berlin’s initial hospitality as proof that Syrians—if not all migrants—are welcome to settle in Germany. Among them is Mazin Awad, a 47-year-old asylum seeker from Damascus who has been camping outside a mosque in the center of Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city, for the last two weeks. Last week he saw the footage of cheering crowds greeting asylum seekers in Munich, and he has since had trouble understanding why the German government cannot just send a bus to pick him up. “If Germany takes people,” he asks, “why not take us from here?”

It is a common sentiment among the dozens of down-and-out migrants TIME spoke with on the Turkish coast last week. On social networks, a growing movement has emerged among them calling for unrestricted passage for Syrian migrants to Europe. One Arabic-language Facebook group—“We Are Just Passers-by”—is urging Syrians to gather at Turkey’s land border with Greece and demand safe passage into the European Union.

That would allow many thousands of migrants to avoid using those overcrowded boats—or more even perilous methods—to get across. But the E.U. isn’t likely to be so generous. In Hungary, Poland and other Eastern European nations, governments have called for member states to stop the migrants before they enter the E.U. Hungary has gone so far as to declare a state of emergency, sealing off its southern border and detaining migrants who cross it illegally. In a warning to his peers last week, Polish President Andrzej Duda said accepting asylum seekers would only encourage others to leave their homelands in a “vicious circle” of migration to Europe.

That doesn’t seem far from the truth on the Turkish coast. Though Syrians still make up the largest share of people headed to Greece by boat, they have been joined by at least as many migrants from impoverished or war-stricken countries in Asia and Africa. In Bodrum, at the edge of the main bus terminal, hundreds of men from Pakistan have been camping out for weeks on a craggy slope, sleeping on scraps of cardboard with no protection from the sun. One of them, a 38-year-old from Lahore named Mohamed Rizwan, says he and several of his friends intend to buy an inflatable paddleboat and row it all the way to Greece. “We have no money for food,” he said. “How can we buy a motor?”

Though still verging on the suicidal, their plan for getting to Europe is at least a better one than swimming. The winds on the Turkish coast were fierce last week, and temperatures are steadily dropping. But Musally, who hails from the Syrian city of Aleppo, has no intention of going back to Istanbul, where his wife and three children are waiting for him to make it to Germany. Earlier this month, on the beach where he’s been honing his breast stroke, the body of a three-year-old Syrian migrant named Aylan Kurdi washed ashore, and Musally witnessed the ensuing commotion as police and foreign journalists descended on the scene of the tragedy. That, too, did not dissuade him from going in the water. “Allah,” he said. “Allah will protect us. That is what I hope.”

(As of Tuesday, when a reporter last spoke with him on the phone, Musally had yet to attempt the crossing. The winds were still too high.)

These Photos Show the Massive Scale of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Greece Migrants
Syrian and Afghan refugees warm themselves and dry their clothes around a fire after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, early on Oct. 7, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
migrant refugee greece
A migrant who recently arrived across the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey, watching a ferry in the port of Mytilene, Lesbos island, Greece, on Oct. 5, 2015.Zoltan Balogh—EPA
refugees migrants Lesbos Greek islands
An Afghan wades to the shore after arriving in an overloaded rubber dinghy on the coast near Skala Sikaminias, Lesbos island, Greece, Oct. 1, 2015. Filip Singer—EPA
Syrian refugees Lesbos Greece
Syrian refugees are covered with life blankets upon arriving to the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on Sept. 28, 2015. Aris Messinis—AFP/Getty Images
migrants refugees Lesbos
Migrants and refugees arrive on Sykamia beach, west of the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on Sept. 22, 2015. Iakovos Hatzistavrou—AFP/Getty Images
Croatia Migrants
Migrants and refugees board a train by climbing through the windows as they try to avoid a police barrier at the station in Tovarnik, Croatia, on Sept. 20, 2015. Manu Brabo—AP
Croatia Migrants
A Syrian refugee boy cries while he and his family try to board a train at the station in Tovarnik, Croatia, on Sept. 20, 2015.Manu Brabo—AP
migrants hungary serbia border clash
A migrant holds his child during a clash with Hungarian riot police at the Horgos border crossing in Serbia, on Sept. 16, 2015.Sergey Ponomarev—The New York Times/Redux
migrants serbia
Migrants sleep on a highway in front of a barrier at the border with Hungary near the village of Horgos, Serbia, on Sept. 16, 2015. Marko Djurica—Reuters
Hungary Serbia border
A wagon equipped with razor wire is placed at the border between Hungary and Serbia in Roszke, some 10 miles southeast from Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 14, 2015, to close the gap of the temporary border fence at the Horgos-Szeged railway line. Balazs Mohai—EPA
refugees migrants Lesbos
A refugee reacts from exhaustion while swimming towards the shore after a dinghy carrying Syrian and Afghan refugees before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos, on Sept. 13, 2015. Alkis Konstantinidis—Reuters
refugees migrants Hungary
Syrian people sleep inside a greenhouse at a makeshift camp for asylum seekers near Roszke, southern Hungary, on Sept. 13, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
Hungary Migrants refugees children
Syrian refugee Raed Alabdou, 24, holds his one-month old daughter Roa'a, while he and his wife hide in a field not to be seen by Hungarian policemen, after they crossed the Serbian-Hungarian border near Roszke, southern Hungary, on Sept. 11, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
refugees migrants macedonia
Migrants and refugees beg Macedonian police to allow passage to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia during a rainstorm, near the Greek village of Idomeni, on Sept. 10, 2015. Yannis Behrakis—Reuters
refugees migrants Morahalom Hungary
Migrants run over a motorway from a collection point that had been set up to transport people to camps in Morahalom, Hungary, on Sept. 9, 2015.Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
syrian refugee migrant hungary
A young Syrian man from Damascus tries to evade the Hungarian police by sneaking through a forest close to the Serbian border in Morahalom, Hungary, on Sept. 8, 2015. Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
refugees migrants Serbia
Migrants cross into Hungary as they walk over railroad tracks at the Serbian border with Hungary in Horgas, Serbia, on Sept. 7, 2015.Dan Kitwood— Getty Images
refugee migrant Lesbos
A refugee from Syria prays after arriving on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos aboard an inflatable dinghy across the Aegean Sea from Turkey, on Sept. 7, 2015. Angelos Tzortzinis—AFP/Getty Images
syrian refugees migrants greek coast guard
A migrant scrambles to climb back aboard a rubber dinghy full of his fellow Syrians as they try to cross from Turkey to the Greek islands on their way to claim asylum in the European Union, late on Sept. 6, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
syrian refugees migrants greek coast guard
A Syrian migrant aboard a flimsy rubber motorboat hands his one-month-old baby to Greek coast guards, who have arrived to rescue the boat full of migrants from dangerous waters near the border between Greece and Turkey, early on Sept. 7, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Greece Migrants
A young Syrian boy is wrapped with a thermal blanket as he arrives with others at the coast on a dinghy after crossing from Turkey, at the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Sept. 7, 2015.Petros Giannakouris—AP
Greece Migrants
Refugees and migrants wait to cross the border from the northern Greek village of Idomeni to southern Macedonia, on Sept. 7, 2015. Giannis Papanikos—AP
Migrants walk along rail tracks as they arrive to a collection point in the village of Roszke, Hungary
Migrants walk along rail tracks as they arrive to a collection point in the village of Roszke, Hungary, on Sept. 6, 2015.Marko Djurica—Reuters
migrant refugees train macedonia
Migrant families ride a train from Gevgelija to the Serbian border in Macedonia, on Sept. 4, 2015.Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
Italy Migrants refugees
Migrants crowd the bridge of the Norwegian Siem Pilot ship sailing along the Mediterranean sea, on Sept. 2, 2015. Gregorio Borgia—AP
Aylan Kurdi boy drowned
A Turkish gendarme carries the body of Alan Kurdi, 3, who drowned along with his brother Galip, 5, and their mother, in a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos, in the coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey, on Sept. 2, 2015.Reuters
Migrant crisis
Dozens of refugee families, mostly from Syria, camped near the Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary on Sept. 2, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Migrant crisis
A Syrian migrant bids farewell to the Hungarian volunteers who welcomed him upon his arrival in the European Union in Szeged, Hungary on Aug. 30, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
refugees migrants Hungarian-Serbian border
A father of a migrants family is arrested by the local police near the village of Roszke on the Hungarian-Serbian border on Aug. 28, 2015.Attila Kisbender—AFP/Getty Images
Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke
Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke, on Aug. 27, 2015. Bernadett Szabo—Reuters
Hungary border fence migrants refugees
Hungarian soldiers install a wire fence at the border between Hungary and Serbia near Hercegszanto, 115 miles southeast from Budapest, on Aug. 25, 2015. Tamas Soki—EPA
syrian migrant refugee girl greece
A little girl from Syria looks out of a bus as the ferry she arrived in is reflected in the bus window at the port of Piraeus, Greece, on Aug. 25, 2015. Petros Giannakouris—AP
Macedonian police clash with refugees at blocked border
Children cry as migrants waiting on the Greek side of the border break through a cordon of Macedonian special police forces to cross into Macedonia, near the southern city of Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on Aug. 21, 2015.Georgi Licovski—EPA
Calais migrants
Gendarmerie attempt to prevent people from entering the Eurotunnel terminal in Coquelles, Calais, France on July 30, 2015.Rob Stothard—Getty Images
Kos Migrants Greece
Life vests and a deflated dinghy are seen on a beach on the Greek island of Kos, following the arrival of Afghan immigrants, on May 30, 2015.Yannis Behrakis—Reuters

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