BODRUM, Turkey — Suddenly, almost silently, a group of young men carrying a small plastic dinghy emerges from the darkness, dashes across a road and a dirty strip of sand and plunges into the waters of the Aegean Sea.
With the lights of the Greek island of Kos twinkling through the darkness — beacons of hope for a new and better life — another group of migrants has set off to make a risky — but less risky than most — sea crossing and apply for asylum in Europe.
The city of Bodrum, a magnet for wealthy tourists from Turkey and around the world, is these days drawing plenty of other visitors— migrants fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and Africa while seeking a better life in Europe, a continent so close they can almost reach out and touch it from the Bodrum peninsula's many beaches. At its closest point, Kos is only 2.5 miles from Turkey.
Migrants, mostly from Syria, but also from Afghanistan, Iran and African nations, often try to cross from the secluded beaches of Bodrum peninsula in groups upward of eight people in inflatable plastic boats meant for a maximum of four, powered by tiny electric outboard motors and plastic paddles.
Mohammad Ali, a 36-year-old Syrian law graduate who was a merchant in the town of Idlib before fleeing, is waiting in the park with his wife, two young sons and others for a second attempt to flee to Europe. They abandoned their first crossing after a smuggler who promised a boat with eight people on board instead tried to cram in 16.
While tourists eat and drink at Bodrum's upscale waterfront restaurants, migrants carrying their meager belongings in backpacks sit across the street under palm and eucalyptus trees close to huge yachts moored in Bodrum's harbor. There they wait to be taken to a remote beach before they are packed into dinghies for the short crossing across a waterway also plied by giant oil tankers, tourist pleasure cruisers and coast guards.
Many of the migrants seen setting off for Greece by an Associated Press team watching dead-of-night departures used a type of boat that can be ordered online for around $111, or 100 euros. The small electric motors cost more, but with smugglers charging around $1,200 per passenger — according to migrants — it is a lucrative illicit trade.
Financially struggling Greece has reported 134,988 arrivals from Turkey this year, it said, while Italy recorded 93,540 newcomers through July. Along with migrants landing in Spain and Malta, 237,000 people have made the crossing so far this year, the agency says, compared with 219,000 for all of 2014.