Migration Trail: Sky Travels With The Refugees

Alex Crawford, Special Correspondent

There are more than 70 people crammed into this cattle truck which is setting off from an olive grove on the outskirts of the Turkish town of Izmir, bound for the boat smuggling drop-off point.

There's a family of five children right next to me, toddlers' arms and legs are splayed across the family's rucksacks.

A four-year-old girl is cradled in her father's arms. Another child is lying on an elder brother's back.

The mother is nursing her baby as she sits cross-legged and hunched against the side of the truck.

We're so crushed up against each other, no-one can move.

Sky cameraman Garwen McLuckie and I have joined the migration throng trying to get to Greece, and have witnessed how the people smugglers operate , with adults paying $1,200 to cross over to Greece.

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Elbows and feet and digging into any soft surface, be it someone else's ribs, belly or breast.

There's not an inch of spare space here and for some, the only option is for them to stand for the entire four-hour journey.

The smuggler tells me before boarding that we are lucky.

The refugees here are transported in open-topped trucks with tarpaulin protecting them from prying eyes en-route but allowing them constant access to air.

He's referring to the locked refrigerator truck found abandoned in Austria with 70 people trapped inside who'd suffocated en-route.

But this part of the journey seems much longer than four hours and is both stressful for those involved and deeply uncomfortable.

More than once, arguments break out as people struggle to move or try to re-adjust their aching limbs.

We occasionally pass through police check points and an urgent whisper goes around "ssshhhh! ssshhh! Police!"

But no-one inspects the truck and it's impossible to say why we are repeatedly waved through, although many refugees suspect money changes hands to secure free passage.

When we arrive at a place just past the town of Assos, everyone scrambles out gratefully into yet more darkness.

We're led in lines down a rocky sandy path which is strewn with abandoned clothing, human waste and litter.

Many have been here before us.

We're taken to a clearing and even though it's still dark, Garwen and I can make out large groups of people.

Many are laying down, trying to rest.

Others have already starting blowing air into black rubber rings with small handheld pumps they've brought with them.

There are far too many families to count.

Little children sit or lay near their parents already with their small life jackets on.

But we're told nothing will happen until after 8am, well after dawn.

Once daylight breaks, we're sorted into groups according to a codename provided by the smugglers.

The group we're in is more than 40 strong and there's a family with five young children, one of whom is still being breastfed.

Everyone has at least one bag. These are now all their worldly-possessions.

We sit in lines in our group awaiting the next orders from the Turkish smugglers.

They're extremely unhappy about being filmed and insist we take no pictures which could identify them, although Garwen uses his secret camera to record as much footage of the operation as is possible.

Much of the business is being conducted in broad daylight, which seems to suggest the smugglers don't really fear a raid or interruption to their business by the Turkish authorities.

A tractor brings in fresh inflatable boats still in their cardboard boxes.

An inflatable costs about 5,000 Turkish lire without a motor but even once the cost of a motor is added, the entire outlay is only around $3,300.

Every adult will be asked to pay about $1,200 for the sea passage, with those under ten being charged about $600-$700 and babies and toddlers under two go free.

The unofficial smugglers' handbook restricts the number of children to nine per boat.

"Otherwise it's too difficult to handle," one says.

Capsizing the boat through panic or overcrowding is a common problem.

But most inflatables will be packed with between 40-45 individuals so each crossing can earn the smugglers nearly $50,000 - and there're dozens a day from different parts of the Turkish coast each territorially divided up by the smuggling gangs.

The Turkish government has already made it clear the refugees streaming into their country will NOT be granted work permits.

They already have more than two million Syrian refugees camped on their land which has cost the country more than $5bn (£3.2bn) over the four-year conflict, but Turkey's high 10% unemployment rate and slowing economy has led them to determinedly refuse permission for the refugees to work. 

Faruk Celik, the Turkish Minister of Work, told the Reuters news agency last month that it would be "unfair" to take away jobs which their own struggling workforce needed and instead hand them to the refugees.

The Turkish authorities want other countries to help out by offering sanctuary to some of the tens of thousands of refugees.

So that's why many, even those with small ones, take the tough choice to try a life elsewhere.

When the command comes to board the inflatable, there's a bit of a panic among our group as they scramble to pick up their bags.

The smugglers urge them to ditch their belongings, saying the boat is already going to be weighed down by people.

Their urgings prompt many of them to pull on multiple layers of t-shirts and tracksuit bottoms so they at least have a change of clothing when - or if - they reach the other side.

The remainder of their meagre belongings will be picked over by the smugglers left behind.

We join them as they wade through the water until it's up to their thighs.

Small children are handed over and placed in the centre of the inflatable and are immediately almost buried under the crush of people who follow.

The inflatable would probably comfortably house ten people. It now has 43 crammed into it.

Most of the men sit round the edge of it and I struggle to wedge my posterior in alongside them and Garwen.

There's a squash of young children at my feet looking bewildered and worried.

I ask one little girl who looks about eight if she's ok and try to give her an encouraging smile. She nods and smiles back, clinging to her father's leg.

We are pushed off by the smugglers and within moments it becomes apparent the "driver" who has opted to be our skipper (the skipper gets a free passage so there's a massive incentive) knows very little if anything about steering an inflatable.

We spin around in circles and find ourselves at one stage heading back towards the Turkish shore.

Some of the other passengers are shouting in panic.

We spin this way and that until a good 20 minutes has passed and we're still only half a mile away from Turkey.

Another passenger wrestles control of the motor and takes us back into the beach from where we have just set off.

There's been so much time wasted, it would be foolhardy to do anything else and still expect to evade the Turkish and Greek coastguards.

As we arrive at the water's edge, one of the smugglers mounts the inflatable and gives the "skipper" several strong slaps to the face whilst shouting loudly at the same time millimetres from his face.

We all clamber off and are ushered behind the trees framing the beach and told to wait.

The smugglers time the launches in between patrols to cut down on the interceptions from authorities.

The second time we set off, some hours later, there's a more steely order to our embarkation.

The children and women are helped on first.

Everyone knows the drill now and there's a quiet, determined air to the grouping.

One woman who is in hijab and long dress tells me she has attempted this crossing five times previously and on one occasion the boat collapsed, throwing them all into the water.

As a non-swimmer, she was terrified, yet here she is back again, trying another time.

She is with her husband, who says he is a heart surgeon, their two daughters and teenage son.

The family is from Damascus, they say, but fear the capital is about to be overtaken by Islamic militants and finally they've been forced to flee their homeland.

The launch from the coast is much more successful this time round and smiles have soon replaced the frowns and furrowed brows.

But we've only been on the water for about an hour when someone spots a much larger vessel steaming towards us.

It's apparent immediately that we will not be able to outrun it - and that it is the Turkish coastguard.

The new skipper pushes ahead but we are still some way from the unmarked Greek border.

As the vessel approaches we can hear its sirens blasting out and a voice shouts over a megaphone: "Stop! Stop! Turn around now."

The skipper is urged by many of the passengers to ignore the commands and push on, which he does with a look that is a mixture of fear and desperation.

A man who appears to be a coastguard commander is at the helm holding a 9mm gun.

"Stop! Stop!" He says again as the much larger vessel cuts in front of us causing the skipper to steer to the left.

Then as we are sweeping round, the commander fires his pistol into the air.

The unarmed people on board the inflatable seem shocked but several urge the skipper to carry on.

"Yallah, yallah!" (Arabic for "come on!") The coastguard fires another two shots and one of his colleagues draws his rifle and points it directly at Garwen whose camera is trained on him.

The passengers see the same intimidatory stance and shout; "TV! TV!"

Someone adds we are German TV for good measure (not sure why, perhaps in the hope that Angela Merkel will hear and condemn this?) but the coastguard are not listening.

A couple of other shots are fired, all over our heads.

One of the male passengers grabs the baby and holds him aloft. "There are children," someone shouts.

The larger vessel now comes alarmingly close, its big bow creating a surge of water which makes the inflatable rock in a way which is frightening many on board.

"They're trying to smash us and turn us over," one of the passengers says to me.

It does seem that way as the much bigger vessel keeps crossing in front of us, getting closer and closer and bearing down on our small boat in a way which is intimidating at best.

The occupants start chanting "Allahu Akbar!" a shout of Muslim faith and in this case, utter defiance.

Their arms are punching the air despite the coastguard vessel appearing to close in on us.

The skipper ploughs on regardless as his fellow travellers urge him to make speed.

"Go, go!" they shout at him as the heart surgeon leads the screaming directed at the coastguard; "Get away!" he says.

Inexplicably, as there are no clear indications we are in Greece or have crossed the unmarked water border, the vessel suddenly pulls back and we find we are steaming ahead and away from it and towards Greece and Europe.

There's immediate relief and again the "Allahu Akbar" chant, only this time it is chanted in sheer delight.

They start hugging each other, kissing and raising their eyes and heads to their God, thanking him.

The Greek coastline is close, probably only a quarter of a mile away, when the engine cuts.

There's a worry the petrol has run out. But after a few heart-stopping moments, the engine is re-started and the inflatable cruises in.

The beaches are mostly empty. But there's a man and a woman standing looking at us as we head to where they are.

It's only as we draw much closer that we, and the others, realise they are naked. It's a nudist beach.

The skipper quickly swerves and steers the boat to the adjoining one where a young couple quickly gather up their young children and depart hastily.

Several of the young men dive off the boat. They can't wait for it to land properly.

There are yelps of delight and then it bumps on the sand and within minutes everyone and everything is off-loaded.

Both children and adults now willingly return to the water to celebrate. Fathers are crying.

The occupants, many strangers just a few hours earlier, are now hugging and kissing each other.

The skipper is carried off the boat on shoulders as they chant their thanks. It's chaos.

They have reached Europe and a whole new set of unpredictable events and challenges is about to begin for them.