Risking journey to Greece, more than 20 migrants drown off Turkey

GWEN IFILL: Now to another tragedy at sea.

Earlier today, a boat filled past its capacity with migrants and refugees capsized off the Turkish coast, drowning more than 20 people.

PBS NewsHour's Malcolm Brabant, who was on shore as survivors returned to the Turkish city of Bodrum, reports tonight on why so many are still willing to take the risk.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The boat capsized and sank less than two miles after setting off from Bodrum. More than 240 people were packed into the 65-foot-long vessel, which was normally used for tourist trips. It was heading for the nearby Greek island of Kos, which has become one of the main entry points to Europe.

Turkish Coast Guards managed to rescue 220 people, but 22 drowned, four of them children, one a 16-day-old baby. The survivors were brought back to the coast guard station in Bodrum, where medical teams were on hand to deal with the trauma of their experience.

A group of small children were among the first to be placed on special buses by police. The whole drama was played out in front of European tourists like Harlene Bown, who had been to Turkey for a day shopping and were boarding boats back to their resorts in Kos the legal way.

HARLENE BOWN, Tourist: I have got very mixed feelings over it, obviously, sympathy for some of them, and obviously concern over the others.

MALCOLM BRABANT: What do you think about the journeys they have to make?

HARLENE BOWN: Oh, that's terrible. We sit from our balcony and watch the lanyards go in and out with them on. And they're being pushed from pillar to post. They must doubt where their future lies in the end of all this.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The regional authorities drafted in extra police to hunt down the trafficking gang responsible for this latest Mediterranean tragedy. And three men were taken away.

The going rate for the short voyage to Europe is $1,000 a head. So this one boatload could have earned the people smugglers a quarter-of-a-million dollars. Officials at the coast guard headquarters suggested these men were the prime suspects.

Excuse me, sir. Are you the smuggler? Are you the smuggler responsible for these people's deaths? What's your involvement in this?

The Turkish authorities have kept us quite some distance away from the survivors, but we have been close enough to one of the buses to hear the most uncontrollable weeping coming from a couple of people who have lost relatives during the sinking.

Now, these people haven't just endured the most profound personal tragedy. They have also probably lost money to the traffickers who were promising them a new life in Europe. And what's more, once the Turkish authorities are finished processing them, they're going to take them away from the Mediterranean, hundreds of miles away, to the southeastern part of Turkey, near to the Syrian border to an overcrowded refugee camp.

And perhaps then they will try to escape and come and go through this whole experience one more time. Such tragedies don't deter Abed Allmugharbel, a 21-year-old Syrian student who spent the past three years in Lebanon. He's already had one failed crossing after his boat was intercepted by the Turkish coast guard, as are many.

But he's ready to try again, with the intention of getting to Sweden.

ABED ALLMUGHARBEL:
I look at it as a redemption, as a redemption, to start a new life in these countries, these free countries, these free countries where they respect the human rights, all the human rights. Yes.

MALCOLM BRABANT: How many — it is worth the risk going on the boat? I mean, how scared are you?

ABED ALLMUGHARBEL: I mean, I have already been in the boat for the first time. I failed. I'm now going back. It's not that hard, because starve for the family is hard, OK? When — it's better than to stay in Lebanon and die slowly in there, without study and nothing to do in Lebanon. It's — it's worth it to go there. It's worth it.

ABED ALLMUGHARBEL: Have you got something to give to Europe?

ABED ALLMUGHARBEL: Yes, yes. If I study there, I am willing to give the Europe back what they gave me, to give them back what they gave me. If they gave me shelter, I give them back my whole energy to — to build their country.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This is Basmane in the city of Izmir, which is the gateway the Europe. It's a magnet for Syrians and scores of other nationalities. We were taken to a smugglers cafe by the head of the regional refugee support group, Cem Terzi, a consultant surgeon.

CEM TERZI, Surgeon: It's a meeting point for smugglers and the refugees all day, during the day or during the night. They are all coming together here and talking and reaching about a price.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The regional government estimates that there are 70,000 asylum-seekers in the Izmir region, but professor Terzi believes that the number is really 400,000, half of whom want to come to Europe. The figures dwarf those that Europe is concentrating on resettling.

CEM TERZI: We are seeing, I think, one of the most tragic situations in history. At the moment, three million people are in Turkey, and at least half of them are trying to go to Europe and to survive, to have better conditions, to get refugee situation.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The professor and other medical volunteers offer a rudimentary health care service for the thousands living rough, where infection is rife among the dirt and dust.

Turkey doesn't grant these people full refugee status, and so, unless they have money, they are in serious trouble. As the professor treated children with bronchitis, we caught up with Abed. He had found a smuggler, who told him to go to a secret rendezvous for a boat to the Greek island of Samos.

How does this feel in terms of your life? How much of an important day is today?

ABED ALLMUGHARBEL: It's — it might be my best day or might be my salvation day.

MALCOLM BRABANT: And what do you think?

ABED ALLMUGHARBEL: What do I think of what?

MALCOLM BRABANT:
What is it going to be?

ABED ALLMUGHARBEL: It's going to be, hopefully, my salvation day.

MALCOLM BRABANT: And what does salvation mean to you?

ABED ALLMUGHARBEL: Salvation means start a new life, find a new hope, not to stay stuck here in Izmir in Turkey and going back to Lebanon and live a miserable life.

MALCOLM BRABANT: In this corner of Turkey, we have not been able to discover where Abed made it. This is the prosperous and exotic Mediterranean, tantalizingly close to Europe, but, to refugees, it's an illusion, for this is a deadly sea.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Malcolm Brabant in Bodrum, Turkey.

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