Hard trail for Syria refugees desperate to reach Europe

Sun Sep 1, 2013 8:20am EDT
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By Valerie Hopkins and Tsvetelia Tsolova

PRESEVO, Serbia/SVILENGRAD, Bulgaria (Reuters) - Oliver Ivanovic's patience paid off. Shortly before midnight, on a hilltop in no-man's land between Serbia and Macedonia, dozens of grainy figures shuffled through the sights of his thermal goggles.

"I have a feeling we're going to get lucky tonight," the Serbian border patrol officer said with a grin.

Among the 34 illegal immigrants netted that night trying to steal into Serbia was Mohammad Bakr.

The 25-year-old Syrian, a clean-cut student of electrical engineering, said he had fled the besieged city of Aleppo after his home was struck by a rocket fired in an unrelenting civil war.

With him were 11 relatives, including small children, part of a rising tide seeking passage from Syria and the tented squalor of refugee camps on its borders to the safety of Western Europe.

It had taken Bakr six months to get this far, running a gauntlet of extortion and abuse at the hands of professional people-smugglers and corrupt police.

As Washington weighs a military strike against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, the human fallout of two and a half years of conflict that has sent millions to flight is no longer contained to the Middle East.

It's on Europe's doorstep.   Continued...

A migrant, who said he was from Somalia, sits on the ground after being apprehended by the Serbian border police, having illegally entered the country from Macedonia, near the town of Presevo some 383 km (238 miles) from capital Belgrade July 17, 2013. Every year, the Serbian border police catch thousands of migrants from Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere who are trying to reach Serbia illegally. In many cases they come from Turkey, through Greece to Macedonia and Serbia before they reach Hungary and with it, the borderless Schengen travel zone. With chaos and conflict raging in Syria, last year saw a huge increase in the number of Syrians trying to enter the Western Balkans in search of asylum in the West. Picture taken July 17, 2013. REUTERS/Marko Djurica