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Migrants Risk It All To Get To Richer E.U. Countries


We'll try to answer a life-or-death question this morning. The question is why so many people risk their lives to move across Europe. We know why people are fleeing toward Europe - the chaos in places like Libya or Syria drives them that way. What is harder to grasp is this - once they reach the safety of European shores, migrants keep going at the risk of their lives - that's how more than 70 climbed into a truck recently and were left to die there in the truck by a highway in Austria, where they were found yesterday. Joanna Kakissis is with us from Athens, where she's covered migration in Europe for years. Welcome to the program Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's trace the pattern here, first. You're in a rival country, I guess we could call it, Greece - 200,000 migrants or so have come there in recent years. How many of them stay in Greece?

KAKISSIS: Very few of them actually stay here. Most of the people are - stay here for maybe, like, a few days at a refugee camp to get their papers, these temporary transit papers, and then they make a cross-country trek to the Greece-Macedonia border to continue their journey. But most people here say this country's in economic distress, there are no jobs. It's very hard to restart a life here, so why stay?

INSKEEP: But it's - it's certainly safer than Syria, and there is a refugee camp that takes care of them. You wonder why people would risk their lives to move on.

KAKISSIS: Yes, I mean - and that's a good question. Greece is safe. It's - most Greeks are very welcoming, especially to Syrians. But the refugee reception facilities are abysmal. They're very dirty. They're very overcrowded. It's not a place to stay long-term. The Greek state provides no social welfare. So you can't get any benefits, even if you're admitted as a refugee to Greece. And then there are no jobs, so you can't support yourself. So you really are going to end up on the streets at some point if you stay here.

INSKEEP: OK, so we can understand why people might move on to some other European country, but that leads to another question - why is that dangerous? And I ask this, Joanna, because I thought once you're inside Europe, you're sort of inside Europe. There aren't the kind of internal border controls between countries that you would expect elsewhere in the world.

KAKISSIS: Well, if you don't claim asylum in a country - like, if you don't claim asylum in Greece, you're still in transit. So you're not safe exactly. You're still going somewhere to be fingerprinted and say, I want to stay here. And the journey across Greece is what's dangerous. You have to pass Macedonia, which is a very poor country that's not used to immigration. And then you have to go across to Serbia, Hungary, Austria, and then to reach whatever northern European country that you're going to, which is Germany or Sweden in most cases. And along the way, you're going to find gangs. You're going to find people profiteering off refugees because they know many of them, especially the Syrians, are traveling with a lot of money. And they'll say hey, come into my van. I'll take you directly to Germany. And then you end up in a situation that you saw in Austria, where people are just left on the road to die.

INSKEEP: What makes Germany and Sweden such magnets?

KAKISSIS: Well, Sweden has been very open to refugees for many years and people know that. There are strong Arab communities in the country, in Malmo, and Syrian-Christian communities in Sodertalje, so people go there because they know that they're going to have some community waiting for them. Germany has become a more recent destination. There are jobs. There are decent reception facilities. There are opportunities for families to get housing. There is a good education system that does a pretty good job of integrating, especially well-educated refugees like the Syrians, and many, many family members already in the country, so it's a reunion of sorts. I know one family I've been following from Damascus, the dad, who grew up with his best friend, and he saw him in line as they were waiting for asylum papers in southern Germany. And he hadn't seen him since they fled Syria. And he's like, oh, my God, you're here - my best friend, you're right next to me. So you see stuff like that all the time in Germany.

INSKEEP: That's Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

Joanna thanks very much.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.