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A Desperate Crossing. Aired 2:30-2:59p ET

Aired September 19, 2015 - 14:30   ET


[14:30:04] ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Your country is in chaos. You have a choice -- stay and face war, or leave and take your chances. Pay a smuggler, follow the crowd, or go it alone. Unsure if you've made the right decision, wondering if you'll survive, unwanted, exhausted, afraid, this is the story of a desperate crossing through the eyes of those determined to find a better future, one that no longer exists back home.

It's night on the Aegean Sea. These African migrants are trying to cross four kilometers or two-and-a-half miles of water, separating Turkey from the Greek island of Kos. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants have crossed the Mediterranean Sea this year in small boats like this, a human tide sweeping into Europe, most looking to escape war, persecution, and death in countries like Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.

This, they say, is the quickest route, but it's far from easy. These dinghies are often no match for the waves and the currents. Many turn back, like these Pakistani migrants were forced to do. Many others drown, plunged into the sea, some without life jackets, unable to swim. Undeterred, 60 more migrants and refugees pile into a rubber dinghy to try to get across.

That was such an example of the sheer determination some of these migrants have to reach Greek shores. They refuse to be intimidated by the Turkish coast guard and have managed to push so far back from the shores that we can barely see them.

They're eventually caught, forced to drop their motor. The coast guard towed them as far as they could. We brought them into the Turkish shoreline. Dejection and tragedy shows in their faces.

The promises of a new life continue to lure them to these waters. Europe's migrant crisis is spiraling out of control on a scale not seen since World War II. The International Organization for Migration estimates more than 300,000 people reached the shores of Greece so far this year. Some are refugees leaving war-ravaged countries. Some are migrants from as far away as Myanmar. And some are leaving the overflowing, underfunded refugee camps in countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

They are middle class professionals no longer able to make a living, students whose studies were halted by war, and with no hope of returning home any time soon, they see no choice but to leave.

(SINGING) DAMON: Many are trying to reach Germany, a country known to welcome refugees. It's expecting to take 1 million asylum seekers this year. There are several routes into Europe, but many make their way through Turkey and across to Greece, then traveling north through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, and Austria to Germany. They know it's incredibly dangerous, but to them it's worth risking everything.

Yilmaz is a media activist from Syria. He fled ISIS almost two years ago.

YILMAZ PASHA: They took my house and they forced my family to leave Syria, and now my family in Turkey.

DAMON: He hopes to make it to Europe, so he can arrange for his family to follow. For many like Yilmaz, the journey begins with social media. A smartphone is a necessity.

PASHA: There is Facebook groups for the whole journey. And it's like marketing. Numbers of smugglers, maps, so you can -- it's easy. When I was in Istanbul, I get these numbers of smugglers.

[14:35:10] The smugglers, they see you as a euro, not a human. So, they start to say, it's easy, man. No, it's not -- but it's not easy, actually. When you cross -- it's sea, you know.

DAMON: Passengers pay smugglers anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to attempt the crossing.

So you're on the beach?


DAMON: And they're pumping the boats in front of you?

PASHA: In front of us.

DAMON: And who do they send with you?

PASHA: They didn't send anyone with us. We drive the boat. You can see right in the front of you, and you can see, it's just five minutes. But you know, the boat is not fast. So, so yes, we jumped in the boat, and I want to say my friend, my friend was the captain.

DAMON: So had your first driven a boat before?

PASHA: No. The smuggler said to us, you know how to drive a bicycle or a motorcycle? It's the same, man. It's so easy. Yes.

DAMON: More than 28 people have drowned crossing the Mediterranean Sea so far this year. That danger weighs on the minds of Yilmaz and his friends as they attempt a rare daytime crossing. Uncertainty and fear are masked by sheer determination.


[14:41:03] DAMON: A safe arrival on the shores of the Greek island of Kos. Yilmaz and his friends know they're lucky to be alive. They walk to a holding area to register with port police then board a bus to move north. Few migrants intend to stay in Greece. Once the migrants and refugees have crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece, they head to the border with Macedonia, then into Serbia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, thank you.

DAMON: From Kos, the journey is more than 2,400 kilometers, around 1,500 miles. The massive numbers of refugees and migrants means there's safety in numbers, but also overwhelmed local police, whose governments failed to prepare for this type of influx.

In late August, Macedonia closed its border with Greece, creating a bottleneck, leaving thousands stuck under the rains with no shelter and no one to help them. When the border opened again, chaos. Panic swells, the police launch smoke grenades. This woman got her son across, but she was pushed back. Shock, dismay, despair that Europe would be treating them like this. Those who make it keep moving north. At a train station in Macedonia, we find 20-year-old Mohammad, a man we first met after we towed his dinghy to shore.

This train will carry these migrants and refugees through Macedonia. Their next stop, the border with Serbia, a country many say is the next hospitable. Of all the nations they have crossed, this is the one whose population remembers war, who knows too well that in an instant all can be lost.

A park in central Belgrade is a way station for refugees. Hejar (ph) strums an old Kurdish song. His lyrics are sorrowful, about feeling like a foreigner, a sentiment that echoes with all we spoke to here. He was with the Syrian army at the start of the revolution. Then he defected and went to Turkey where he met his wife. They have a five- month-old son. He tells us they're determined to make it to Germany.

[14:45:06] Nearby at the Belgrade train station, we meet up with Mohammad again. He carries mementos from his family and friends back in Aleppo, a city with multiple front lines, where death can come at any moment.

Mohammed and his friends will take a bus to the Hungarian border, where they'll walk across. This wasn't always a demarcated border, but now a razor wire snakes its way menacingly throughout. This is Hungary's attempt to control the record flow of refugees, making it even harder to evade capture, something they all dread. EU law requires asylum seekers to be fingerprinted. And if asylum is denied in their final destination, the person can be returned to the country where they were fingerprinted, in this case Hungary, where few want to stay.

Hundreds of migrants and refugees follow the well-worn path along the railroad tracks. The human highway trudges on under the moonlight.

There's a break in the fence right here and there weren't any authorities around, so the group that we've been following just cut across and disappeared out into the fields. They're going to take their chances.

For the rest, Hungarian authorities are waiting. And this is what awaits. This field is meant to be a holding site amid the filth, with little to no shelter, and just a small local nonprofit to help. This group has been waiting for days, and now, they can't take it anymore. This is the reaction of a desperate people who just want to keep going, trying to force their way through the police line, but fail. Another frantic dash and they break through.

People are in quite a bit of a panic. They're worried that the police are going to come and potentially use violence to try to get them back into the camp. And you can hear the sirens right now. It's causing people to run even faster, and especially those with the kids. They're the ones that are really struggling to get away.

The police close in. No one knows where they're going, just that they need to get far away.


[14:52:48] DAMON: Crowded on the train tracks, these migrants and refugees are trying to escape a holding area where they've been waiting for days. The police close in, but they refuse to stop. Crushing bodies, screams, babies crying.

The police eventually convince them to stay, promising buses and a train to take them to the Austrian border. The Hungarian government takes a hard line to prevent more refugees and migrants from coming here, maintaining that they are simply abiding by EU regulations when it comes to processing asylum seekers. Everyone fears ending up in the camps in Hungary where all we spoke to say the conditions are inhumane.

Yilmaz made it across Macedonia and Serbia to Hungary, where he was detained.

PASHA: They put it in a little caravan, a little room. It's from plastic, and there were 40 persons, I think.

DAMON: Do you think it was over or do you think you failed?

PASHA: Yes. I think I failed at that time.

DAMON: But he was released and came to Budapest, a city where, for many the journey grinds to a halt. This is the train station in central Budapest. Hundreds of people wait to board a train to Munich.

People are still asking if they can travel with just their Syrian I.D., and what we've been told here is that, yes, they should be able to get on these trains.

But then the message changes. Only those with passports and visas can travel. Days go by. More people arrive and no one is going anywhere.

[14:55:05] Then the government closes the train station, forcing people into the streets, including the musician's family we met in the Belgrade park in Serbia. Confusion and frustration turns to anger. Demonstrations erupt.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have been here five days. No food, no sleep, no place to sleep. No anything.

DAMON: Police block the entrance to the station, urging people to leave. Desperate and defiant, they decide to take matters into their own hands, no longer willing to be left at the mercy of governments and political decisions.

We are on the highway that connects Budapest to Jena, and there are thousands of people, most of them refugees of the war in Iraq and Syria, who have decided to walk.

It's 175 kilometers or 100 miles to the Austrian border. They say they'll walk, if they have to, all the way to Germany. Along the way, surprising and heartwarming acts of kindness, Hungarian citizens handing out supplies in stark contrast to the response by their government.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm very sorry for the people with little children, and I would like to help. Night falls and more volunteers appear, with hot food, clothing, and supplies. Mustafa's leg was blown off by a barrel bomb in Aleppo.

He was on his crutches the entire way. But then someone stopped and actually gave them a child's stroller. Otherwise he wouldn't have actually been able to keep going.

After almost 10 hours of walking, Hejar (ph) and his family along with hundreds of others have to stop. Exhausted, they camp by the side of the highway. In the middle of the night, the Hungarian government, under immense pressure, finally charters buses to take people to the Austrian border. The migrants and refugees walk across as day breaks.

The trip took 32 days. Yilmaz paid a smuggler to take him from Hungary to Germany. Now he hopes to bring his family from Syria.

PASHA: My parents have been forced to leave their home and I was the reason of that. So I need to do something --

DAMON: You want to make it up to them?

PASHA: That's it.

DAMON: Mohammed also paid a smuggler to drive him to the German border. There he caught a train and had a bit of luck.

MOHAMMED MOUZAYEK: (FOREIGN LANGUAGE) I found a German there. She took me in. She helped me. She is a married woman. So I stayed with her, took a shower, and changed my clothes. She purchased my ticket and refused to take money from me. I returned the money to her.

THERESA STREYER: I don't think it was that big of a favor. It was a couple of hours that I could make him feel better than the days before and the days after, and I think that was very little compared to everything that he go through at the moment. But it was, OK, it was good that I could do it.

DAMON: So much uncertainty still lies ahead for Mohammed, Yilmaz and Herrer's families. They are the lucky ones. Their journey's have ended. But so many others are in camps, train stations, bus stations, or trying to cross borders that are quickly closing, leaving them in limbo, with no future at home or abroad.