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Iraqis join an intensifying flow of refugees to Europe from Turkey


By Liz Sly

BODRUM, TURKEY — The influx of refugees and migrants overwhelming Europe seems destined to intensify as the welcome extended by Germany encourages more people from the world’s most violent and impoverished countries to travel in search of new lives.

Iraqis formed the largest number of people descending from buses in the upscale Turkish seaside town of Bodrum on Sunday to attempt the short but perilous sea crossing to Greece, where two-thirds of those seeking asylum in Europe have arrived this year.

A little more than half of the arrivals in Greece this year have been Syrians fleeing their country’s brutal and unending war — and by August the proportion of Syrians had climbed to 78 percent, according to the most recent figures provided by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

But the Syrians are being joined by Iraqis, as they, too, abandon hope that their country’s conflict will be resolved, said Mohammed Hamed, 33, an Iraqi policeman who left his wife and three children in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala three days ago.

“Many Iraqis are coming now and many more will come in the future if they can get the money,” he said as he mingled with other Iraqis newly arriving at the bus station in Bodrum. He plans to head for Germany, and then secure access for the rest of his family.

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“We were hoping we could fix Iraq, but Iraq is unfixable,” said Ali Fadl, 32, another of the new arrivals, a former Iraqi soldier who was wearing a U.S. Army T-shirt given to him by American troops during an assignment guarding Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Until last month he had been serving on the front lines against the Islamic State in the province of Anbar, but the lack of progress and an increase in car bombings, kidnappings and killings in Baghdad persuaded him to try to leave Iraq.

“Every day that passes, the worse it gets, and the more it deteriorates, the more people will leave,” said Fadl, who said he resigned from the army before setting out. “In Europe, they give rights to animals, so imagine how much they respect human beings.”

Other Iraqis said they had been saving for months or years to make the journey, but were spurred to embark now by the widely broadcast scenes of mostly Syrian refugees being welcomed in Austria and Germany and the offer of temporary residency to all refugees extended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Hussein, 27, who asked to be identified only by his first name, clutched a life jacket in one hand and a gym bag containing a change of clothes as he stepped off a bus in Bodrum after flying to Turkey from Iraq on Saturday. He was following in the footsteps of his 19-year-old brother, who arrived in Greece on Friday, and a cousin who reached Belgium last month.Other relatives will be setting off behind him in the coming days.

“We’ve all been saving money to follow each other,” said Hussein, who said he had been planning the trip for four years. “Now it’s getting easier to go.”

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The discernible presence of Iraqis among the refugees thronging Bodrum suggests there will be no imminent let-up in the numbers traveling into Europe. It also suggests there might be a new surge of Iraqi refugees, who so far this year have constituted only 4 percent of the arrivals.

There were also Bangladeshis and Pakistanis among those milling around the bus station and planning to travel to Greece, where they probably would count as economic migrants, according to United Nations definitions. A Senegalese, who gave his name as Badraman, 42, said he set out from Senegal for Turkey two years ago and just now has accumulated enough money to continue to Europe, after working odd jobs along the way. “I just want a better life,” he said.

But Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others from war-
ravaged countries form the largest group, “confirming that the overwhelming majority of arrivals are likely to qualify for refugee status,” the UNHCR said in a statement last week.

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Bodrum offers one of the easiest routes from Turkey to Greece via the island of Kos, which lies so tantalizingly close that the outlines of the white villas dotting its coast can be seen clearly. But it is a treacherous and difficult journey nonetheless, more challenging than almost any stretch of the European route.

Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian 3-year-old whose death stirred a wave of global sympathy for the plight of the refugees, drowned on the four-mile crossing last week, along with his mother and brother and nine other Syrians after their crude inflatable dinghy capsized.

Turkish police monitor the country’s extensive coastline, tracking the smugglers who prowl its beaches looking for potential routes, and since Kurdi’s death they have been extra vigilant in the Bodrum area, making the journey from this location even more difficult than it was before, the refugees said.

Many of the Syrians at Bodrum had made multiple attempts at the crossing. Most of the Iraqis appeared to be novices, freshly arrived from Baghdad without contacts for smugglers or much of a plan, other than that they have decided that now is the time to go.

One man from Baghdad who traveled to Bodrum with his friends three days ago said he had changed his mind after discovering the hazards of the journey and planned to return to Iraq. He did not want to be named.

His friends, however, said they would press on.

“You have to make sacrifice for the sake of a better future,” said Moukhlad al-Bayati, 32, who decided to leave Iraq six months ago after he almost lost his hand in a car bombing outside his home. He had to wait until his badly damaged hand had healed.

“All the time I didn’t feel safe,” he said. “If you compare between what you risk on the sea and what you risk in my country, the sea is better, and it will bring us new lives.”

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