Magazine article The Spectator

Among Istanbul's People-Smugglers

Magazine article The Spectator

Among Istanbul's People-Smugglers

Article excerpt

The Turkey-EU deal will do nothing to fix the migrant crisis. Just ask the people-smugglers in Istanbul


Shops in a rundown neighbourhood sell fake life jackets to refugees planning to brave the Aegean Sea. Last year, nearly 4,000 refugees died trying to make this journey. 'But what am I to do?' says Erkan, a shopkeeper, as he pushes me out of his shop. 'I tell them they are fake but the poor souls continue to buy them. The genuine ones don't sell so well.'

We're in the suburb of Aksaray, the makeshift centre of the smuggling trade in the city. Here the language is Arabic and the restaurants are Syrian. A town square serves as a hub for migration brokers. This is where dreams are sold. Each night, hordes of Syrians fill the area, their lives on their backs, preparing for the dangerous journey ahead.

Behind the 19th-century mosque are dozens of money-exchange offices. These are fronts for the 'deposit banks' where migrants leave their money after closing a deal with one of the people-smugglers. The payment is only handed over if the refugee successfully reaches European shores.

If you can't find a deal in Aksaray, offers abound on the internet. Facebook groups, set up in Arabic, advertise a range of services. One reads, 'Istanbul to Greece, only $650/person. Leaving every night, call Muhammad for details.'

So I did just that, with the help of Abdurrahman, a Syrian friend. The cheapest route on offer, Muhammad told us, is across the Aegean sea to a Greek island. 'When you leave the Turkish coast, you can see Greece. It's only one hour away,' he assured us, quoting a range of prices: $500 for a boat to as much as $10,000 for a fake European passport. 'Once you land in Greece, the Red Cross will help you and select a country where you can claim asylum.' This is not true -- but it was a statement repeated by every smuggler I spoke to.

Last week, a new agreement between Turkey and the EU was thrashed out and hailed as a breakthrough. Turkey agreed to shut down the people-smugglers and take back any refugee crossing to Greece. For every refugee readmitted, another will be resettled from Turkey to another EU member state. The EU is offering [euro]6 billion to sweeten the deal -- twice the figure offered last November -- and will grant Turkish citizens visa-free travel to Europe. Turkey's long-stalled application to join the EU will be fast-tracked. The EU is desperate and Turkey holds all the cards. Turkey's willingness, let alone capacity, to keep its side of the bargain is questionable at best.

There are no police to be seen in Aksaray. Abu Omar, a smuggler loitering in the square, laughs off Turkey's deal as little more than hot air. 'The Turkish coastguards aren't doing anything,' he assures Abdurrahman, who is posing as a potential client. 'It's a question of luck whether you'll make it or not.' The new Brussels agreement won't save the unlucky.

Abu Omar is one of many Syrian brokers in Aksaray who connect migrants to smugglers and hope eventually to save up enough money to make the crossing to Europe themselves. It's the Turks who control the business. 'Turks are at the heart of the smuggling operations,' explains Ahmad, a Syrian who now lives in the UK -- having spent two months being smuggled in from Syria last year. 'They organise everything, including co-ordinating with the police and coastguards.'

This month, a Turkish court sentenced to four years in jail the smugglers responsible for the death of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on Turkey's shores last September. …

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