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Turkey Cracks Down on Migrant Smugglers

Bodies are lined up in the Sicilian harbor of Lampedusa, Feb. 9, 2015, after at least 29 migrants died from hypothermia while traveling in a life raft from North Africa to Italy.

In the bustling Istanbul district of Laleli, the wood-paneled money transfer office in the Taşhan Bazaar is deserted, with some stationery scattered behind and Turkey's red flag on a wall.

A few weeks ago, this nondescript office – hidden away on the gallery overlooking the 250-year-old bazaar – was handling hundreds of thousands of dollars deposited by Syrian refugees for smugglers to pick up.

Now, under pressure from European governments, the Turks are cracking down on a sprawling Syrian migrant-smuggling operation based in Turkey. The police raid that closed the office last month is just one sign of the Turkish authorities' new get-tough policy on people smuggling to Europe.

Others include the hundreds of Syrian refugees languishing in hotels in the southeast Turkish port of Mersin, where smugglers have told them they must wait because no cargo boats currently are heading to Italy.

'Ghost ships'

No one knows how many Syrian refugees have managed to make it illegally to Europe on so-called "ghost ships," packed with hundreds of refugees, or on the more common, rickety small craft that each smuggle a dozen or fewer people on short trips to nearby Greece.

The latter trips to Greece often start from Izmir or the small border town of Enez.

Greek authorities said they arrested more than 2,000 Syrians who entered the country illegally last year.

The U.N. refugee agency said in October that more than 165,000 migrants tried to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in the first nine months of 2014, compared with 60,000 for all of 2013.

Map showing the route that many refugees take across the Aegean Sea to get to Europe
Map showing the route that many refugees take across the Aegean Sea to get to Europe

About a quarter were Syrians, but most are believed to have set sail from North Africa. The European Union's border agency, Frontex, said what it calls the eastern Mediterranean transit route ranked second in terms of detections, with more than 40,000 in 2014, although it didn't detail the immigrants' nationality or their departure points in the eastern Mediterranean.

One Turkish smuggler contacted by VOA boasted that in the past half year his gang has smuggled "thousands" of Syrians into Europe. And most Syrian refugees will say they know of at least one person who managed to make it, most often through Greece, Romania or Italy.

Once landed, the refugees tend to head for richer countries – Germany, France or Sweden – making their way by train, bus or even on foot.

The lure of Europe remains strong. Traffickers can make substantial profits from refugees willing to risk dangerous boat journeys from Turkey’s eastern Mediterranean coastline.

In January, two cargo vessels from Turkey were intercepted in the Mediterranean with more than a thousand migrants aboard. They'd been locked up by smugglers and left on board with the auto-pilot guiding the boats toward the Italian coast.

Despite a tabloid media focus, such ghost ships are few and far between. In the past two weeks, a Turkish security operation in Mersin appeared to have seriously disrupted trafficking on bigger vessels.

"There are hundreds of Syrians in hotels in Mersin waiting for the chance to get on a cargo ship, but they have been told by smugglers that everything has been canceled," said Mazen, a refugee from Damascus who has friends hoping to find a ship that will take them to Europe.

Smuggler ads

Facebook pages are full of postings from smugglers offering their services — including boat trips to Greece and Romania — or of people seeking passage to Italy aboard larger vessels. In one posting, the smugglers offered spots onboard a 13-meter boat sailing to Greece.

"There are rest rooms on board and everything you need for a comfortable trip," the posting said. Many of the phone numbers listed to start negotiations with the smugglers are based in the United Arab Emirates — others are Turkish.

The smuggling gangs include people from different nationalities. They range from small, family-based groups to large organized crime gangs, according to Turkish authorities.

People-smuggling has long been a big criminal business in Turkey. The routes have not changed that much from the old trade routes of the Ottoman empire or the drug-trafficking routes of more recent years.

Conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan and the resulting floods of refugees have helped build up the business.

In a phone conversation with VOA’s Syrian translator, who posed as a refugee wanting to take his family to Europe, a smuggler claimed he had groups traveling twice a week to Italy aboard boats smaller than cargo vessels setting off from Istanbul.

The journey on 50-meter boats with two decks took 10 days. The price per person was $6,000, and the landings would be on the coastline of Puglia.

"I can make a discount for you and your family when you are ready to go with us," the smugger said. Depending on the smuggling gang, the fee for a trip to Italy ranges from $5,000 to $10,000 per person.

Financial arrangements

Syrians with ties to the traffickers said the closing of the Laleli money transfer office – which handled a considerable portion of the financial arrangements – has added to the refugees' dilemma.

Money deposited there would be released to the smugglers only when the depositor phoned to say he had arrived at his destination.

The refugees fear paying the whole fee up front. They say paying in installments during the journey exposes them to the risk of robbery. Some of the smugglers advertising on Facebook pages boast no advance payment is required; others demand 10 percent upfront.

After an initial phone conversation, the smugglers require a face-to-face meeting to negotiate a deal. For the short boat trip to Greece from Turkey, the fee can range from $1,000 to $2,000 depending on the boat and the point of departure.

Risk factor

For many Syrians, the decision to go and where from is agonizing — the dangers are high and they know it.

Deciding whether a smuggler is trustworthy or not has to be factored in as well. U.N. agencies say that in 2014, more than 3,000 people died or went missing at sea, compared with just over 600 in 2013.

One Syrian migrant, Anas, a 30-year-old from Damascus who is now in Sweden, detailed his tortuous journey to Scandinavia in an email exchange. He explained that he chose not to sail to Italy from Turkey but went to several North African countries before deciding to risk the journey from Libya.

“Each country has its costs and dangers,” he said. His sea crossing, he added, was, in short, a journey close to death in a very old, worn, small wooden boat.

“The smugglers choose the cheapest boats because they know they can’t use them again. We were 380 people in a small boat measuring about 4 meters by 12," he said.

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