ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We're going to get a closer look now at an early step in the hazardous journey from Mideast conflict zones to Europe. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been to both ends of the short, treacherous voyage from Turkey across the Aegean Sea to Greece, and he asked people why they're choosing to risk everything to get to Europe rather than stay in Turkey or Jordan or Lebanon where some 4 million Syrian refugees are located. Peter begins his report in Turkey.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Izmir, long known as Smyrna, is a melting-pot city of 3 million on the Aegean coast. Its reputation is secular, hedonistic, sun-and-fun-loving. But these days, come to the working-class strict of Basmane for the sights and sounds of Syria or Iraq.
This is Grand Central for migrant smugglers and their customers. Make a deal here and your family could soon be risking its life in an overloaded, underpowered inflatable boat. Sympathy has grown for these families on a desperate journey, along with a persistent debate. Are these refugees fleeing persecution, as the law says, or economic migrants looking for a better life? Real life doesn't always divide neatly into such legal categories.
Meet Muhannad Dasur, a 24-year-old Syrian who is studying for his master's degree in engineering when he decided to bolt for Europe. Like many, he wants to go to Germany not because of its strong social welfare benefits, but to continue his studies.
MUHANNAD DASUR: This is my dream from about five years, to study in it. But I have no money. This is a chance to go there.
KENYON: In other words, he couldn't afford to go to Germany legally, so he's joining the migration north. Dasur sounds like a classic economic migrant, but dig a little deeper, and you find he's from Homs, a city devastated by the Syrian army and various rebel groups. Dasur would probably qualify for asylum in most Western countries. It's a murky case, and it still leaves another question unanswered. Why not stay in Turkey. More on that in a minute. First, we're going across the Aegean to the Greek island of Lesbos.
At the port in Mytilene, a rare scene of refugees and water that doesn't involve tragedy. Adults wash themselves and their clothes while letting their kids have some fun and forget the trauma they've been through to get here. Mohammed, a stocky, balding Syrian who's afraid to give his last name, sits with his feet dangling in the warm water.
As a Syrian from the ravaged area of Deraa, Mohammed would also likely be eligible for asylum. But he says he left because he couldn't find work and his wife is pregnant with their second child. His dismay at hearing of the border closing bumps up against his stoic Middle Eastern sense of humor.
MOHAMMED: Why did they do this? Oh my God. I will find my luck (laughter).
KENYON: Mohammed can't answer the question, why didn't you stay in Turkey, but Adil can.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking in foreign language).
KENYON: Adil Mohammad is a 28-year-old mathematics teacher from Hasakeh Province in Syria. He spent several months in Turkey before deciding he had to leave and wound up swimming to Lesbos when the motor on the boat he was on died. As to why he didn't stay and build life in Turkey, his emphatic reply is that he did try but quickly found out that he's not allowed to.
ADIL MOHAMMAD: The big problem for anyone in Syria - you live in Turkiya - Turkiya, its very bad.
KENYON: Why is it bad?
MOHAMMAD: You can't rent a house because you are from Syria and didn't give you anything to be legal in country - in Turkiya.
KENYON: For Adil and nearly 2 million others, that's the core of the problem. Unlike most countries, Turkey says if you're not from Europe, sorry, you can't get asylum, only temporary protection. It's very generous protection to vast numbers of people, but it never leads to legal status. Renting a house, finding a job all has to be done under the table, putting refugees at the mercy of landlords and business owners. Adil says his Turkey experience made him more determined than ever to keep going.
MOHAMMAD: No future, no hope in Turkiya. Because of that, I will go to Europe. I will work, and I will make my future.
KENYON: It's a sentiment shared by many on both ends of this perilous trip from Turkey to Europe. Peter Kenyon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.