17 Sep 2015

We have no choice’: On board with Syrians fleeing their homeland

With a couple of blasts of the horn drowning out the cicadas for a moment, the venerable Med Dream 2 finally cast off at 3.17 am – just short of twelve hours late.

Built in 1964, around 60m long it is designed to take around 250 passengers. At least 400 are aboard, almost all Syrians with one-way tickets.

Welcome to the daily conveyor on which the educated, trained, Syrian middle-class are fleeing their disintegrated country by the thousands – all of it completely legal.

For $250 (£161) single and a valid passport your passage to Turkey and the gates of the EU is booked. I will need a Turkish visa – my new friends from Homs, Aleppo, Latakia, Tartus and beyond, will not.


To be fair the Bangladeshi crew do what they can to make people comfortable, showing you to “your” bench seat and table.

The cabin we have booked for an extra $100 (£65) dollars does not exist. Nor does much by way of food for the 14 hour Mediterranean crossing.

After hours of waiting, after three in the morning, the Med Dream 2 casts off. Official departure time was 4 the previous afternoon.

The lights of Tripoli on the north Lebanese Coast quickly fade and we will track north, parallel to the Syrian coast so many are fleeing tonight, east of Cyprus, towards the new life in Turkey and beyond at some point tomorrow.


The dominance of young men is obvious throughout the long delay aboard as we get to know each other.

Just like Elias and Ahmad, who we had met waiting at the dockside, the groups of early-20s men had different reasons for not wanting to be filmed.

Some are fleeing the call-up to fight for the Assad army. Talking on camera about your dream of a new life would not be a smart move. The reach of the Assad machine is deep and vicious – they fear the police will come for their families.

Bashar from Tartus on the Syrian coast, speaks of completing his studies in Europe. His father sits by listening intently as Bashar explains, in English, how he wants to train as a doctor.

He is seventeen. His father will try to get work in Turkey, find a house and his two brothers and sisters will then come across to join them.

Like almost everyone, Bashar’s dream relies on somehow to Greece and then the favoured countries: Germany, Holland, Scandinavia and UK:

“I must try,” Bashar explains, “I have to make my father proud of me. To complete my studies is my dream. It is my duty to go to Europe”

Hours later Bashar will come and sit down and whisper to me:

“Alex, I want to tell you something. You cannot know what it is like in Syria. What is it when the police in your country make you and enemy? What is it?”

We dig down together into this. Most of these men are from areas which have seen little fighting along the coast – Assad’s heartland.

But what they flee is the terror – for many it is not IS, not the barrel bombs or the bullets or the fighting at all – but that terror if being taken away by Assad’s police. Of coming back broken, mentally or physically, or of not coming home at all.


Next to him is a young man in his early 20s who prefers not to be identified.

“There are no jobs in Turkey,” he says, “you know this?”

“Everyone says so, all the Syrians on this ship.” I reply.

“So I have to go to EU. There is no choice. But two weeks ago my friend was drowned. He was trying to get to Greece.”

“I am very sorry,” I tell him, “but will you still try for Greece even after this?”

He simply smiles back, indulging me as one might a small child asking a foolish question:

“Of course, of course – there is no choice.”

There is no choice – the chorus, the mantra, the words on everyone’s lips.

After waiting all these hours the ship was full to way beyond the 250 the travel agents said would be aboard. The crew waited for the overladen 4x4s, cars and minibuses to reach Tripoli quayside from the Syrian frontier about twenty miles north.

Through the night on the floors, seats, gangways, wherever a human body can somehow fit collapsed into the escape of sleep.

A baby lies close to us, little Halla, sleeping soundly enthroned on a small mat on the table.


But what are these people? Refugee or migrant?

Some in Europe think the definition of these terms are simple and easy to apply: It is impossible tonight aboard the Med Dream 2.

They are not poor. Everyone has a smartphone and they have been doing selfies to mark their journey all night – as they did all afternoon on the dockside. There is a mad scramble around 4am when a deckhand sets up a charging point.

Some have laptops. All are well dressed. What you are witnessing, night after night, day after day, is the nothing less than the exodus of the Syrian middle class.

The evisceration from a country being dismantled, of the skill, knowledge and training to rebuild it, come the day.

One man, a lecturer in Arabic from a major city in Northern Syria who can’t be identified because the authorities may take reprisals against his family. He cannot move freely around Syria and is desperate to leave – but he can still do his job. Refugee? Migrant?

And the deserting army officer with five years’ service who has had enough and is fleeing with his girlfriend and just does not want to know anything at all about Syria – just about the new dream life. Refugee? Migrant?

Tonight it all seems like the luxury of a debate you can have in dear old secure safe Europe – not here. But one day some luckless official will some arbitrate, somehow define, somehow judge.

Most have the foundations for the new life well in place. Friends or family are often already in the EU. Contacts will meet them in Turkey as they transition from this first legitimate stage to the coming illicit entry to the EU via the dangerous sea route and people- smugglers to Greece.


This has been the easy part: money, passport with Lebanese transit visa and you’re into Turkey and you are at the EU back gate.

The “easy” bit has meant long waits in the blazing humidity of Tripoli after the casual looting and extraction of money by soldiers at both Syrian military checkpoints and by the Lebanese army this side of the frontier.

All that is as nothing compared to what is coming and what each and every one here seems entirely prepared for – closed borders or no closed borders.

“But they are shutting the border with Hungary,” I say.

“No problem – I go to Croatia that way.”

I could mention that there are mines on this route. Why? Nothing will make any difference.

All over this small, crowded ferry the same phrase keeps coming back at you:

“We have no choice.”

*Some names have been changed to protect identities of those on the ferry.

Tweets by @alextomo

11 reader comments

  1. M stanley says:

    Those young men should stay and fight either for Assad or for the rebels, it’s their country. But no they will bring their religion over to us and inflict their proplem religion on to us.

  2. Adil says:

    I’m sorry, but in my book all the examples you gave are refugees. They are fleeing to safety from a terrible situation. Perhaps in the narrow legal(?) definition of a refugee some don’t qualify. But, if the rule were applied to the refugees during the Second World War how many would have qualified?

    Of course the refugee crisis is a fallout of the asinine war in Syria and neighbouring countries. People’s anger shouldn’t be directed towards the refugees (if we were in the same situation we would do the same thing), but towards our own governments who should be forcing an arms embargo on all sides (again) and force the sides to start to talk.

    So far the only winners in this situation are the gangsters: the arms dealers, people traffickers and those intent on killing as many people as possible under the misguided belief this will give them a free-pass to heaven.

    1. M j stanley says:

      If these people are true refugees, why has it taken so long for these people to flee in such large numbers.? The war has been ongoing for nearly 5 years.

  3. James Alton says:

    Via their smartphones they know everything, especially that some short sighted Europeans will welcome them – they only have to reach them. To do that they will do anything – even the possible loss of their lives is not a deterrent – so much for them fleeing for their lives. And if they had deadly weapons do you think they would hesitate to use them on those who would dare to even try to pause their journey? And the hordes of their kinfolk at their destinations are waiting for their numbers to be swelled even more by these hordes of economic migrants who are flouting laws because of their shear numbers, and because most European governments haven’t the courage of the Hungarian government in stopping this invasion. But let me repeat that these people are nothing but economic migrants.

    1. oliver s says:

      Just like the Jews after Kristallnacht. These are the educated ones and it is a supreme irony that Germany is the main country willing to take them.
      A refugee is someone escaping from war. There is no ambiguity as far as I can see. The EU could have done or could do a great deal more to help Turkey and to push the Gulf states to do more

  4. Hala says:

    Alex Thomson describes these poor souls so well. For people who think so badly of them whether refugees or desperate migrants, I say put yourself in their place . Will you behave differently??

  5. Nicola Jackson says:

    In 1956 250,000 left Hungary in 8 weeks. The whole free world was welcoming them and offered the most genuine help imaginable. But we did not storm police cordons, did not stampede onto trains fighting with other refugees, small children and babies.We totally abided by the laws of our host countries and would never have contemplated to antagonise anyone. . All the countries en-route this time face appaling difficulties, transport, motorway-traffic hugely disrupted, having to conquer unsurmountable logistical problems. Aided by the unbalanced reporting by the media migrants/refugees provoke, indulge in stone-throwing, tactics perfected in the occupied West Bank.Hamas, Hitzbollah appear to have provided a ‘working model’ of disruption. Why not apply at the German/Swedish etc.consulates in an orderly fashion from Turkey, Greece or Serbia?

    1. oliver S says:

      An excellent question Nicola. What it seems is that the EU in general has totally failed to help Turkey , Jordan and Lebanon in particular to establish any kind of formal asylum system and furthermore has failed , until now, to put enough pressure on the Gulf States that have taken so few.
      The UK has managed to absorb a huge number of legal Eastern EU economic migrants which the politicians totally failed to foresee. Within the context of those numbers, the total number of refugees – if spread throughout Europe- should be perfectly manageable – albeit providing a logistics problem initially.

      But like you, I too have wondered at the behaviour of some of the young men that have been aggressive and demanded their “right to be in Germany” but on the other hand you see the babies and the truly exhausted of all ages.The aggression perhaps comes from desperation and a failure to be treated humanely or to be given the tools to be processed as asylum seekers. Barbed wire fences are hardly a welcome and , if no information is given or if the bureaucratic machines of some countries just fail to do their jobs, then it is perhaps understandable.

  6. peter cubbon says:

    Lock your doors and thank goodness some countries are now locking the borders.
    This is organised emigration to try and de-stabilise the western European economies as part of the ongoing jihad.

  7. Barbara says:

    I agree with Nicola,
    I sympathise immenseky with these migrants, but they should respect the laws of the countries they pass through and apply ti a consulate in the correst manner. By gathering and antagonising the authorities in their large numbers they do themselves no favours.

  8. cmcn says:

    “……. A dog starv’d at his Masters Gate
    Predicts the ruin of the State
    A Horse misus’d upon the Road
    Calls to Heaven for Human blood…… ”
    Wm Blake

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