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Monday, December 11, 2017

By Glen Johnson and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

IZMIR, Turkey — In the courtyard of a humble mosque, volunteers with garbage bags packed with canned food and medical supplies dispense 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 objective — though specific destinations on the continent are often vague.

Izmir, on Turkey’s western coast, has become a hub for the 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 crisis in the European Union and refocused 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 died 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 agency.

“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.”

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

More than 800,000 Syrians, Afghans and others have passed through coastal Turkey this year, according to figures provided by migration monitors. Smuggling fees of $1,000 each 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 in Izmir. “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 remain 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.

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.

More than 600 miles southeast, in the Turkish city of Antakya near the Syrian border, several hundred Syrian arrivals recently waited at a bus station. Many had traveled 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, 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 home in the Syrian city of Homs.

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

(Johnson is a special correspondent. McDonnell reported from Beirut.)

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: A Syrian refugee kisses his daughter as he walks through a rainstorm towards Greece’s border with Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 10, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis