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In Turkey, an Industry Rises to Profit From Peril

Trafficking in refugees grows as politics and poverty fuel an East-West flow across a natural bridge to the West.

For the young family from northern Iraq, this was supposed to be the moment that changed their lives. But now their long-held dreams were slipping away. They had been captured.

Weary from the pressure of the failed escape through Turkey, the gaunt father explained his family's story. His trousers splashed with mud, his head covered by a black Adidas ski hat, he cast a gentle look over his young wife, who sighed deeply.

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Oblivious to the gravity of the situation, their three-year-old daughter, wearing a bright ski jacket for the midwinter crossing, smiled and tugged at tiny earrings shining beneath her short, curly hair.

Like tens of thousands of other illegal immigrants, this family had found itself in Istanbul, the gateway to Europe where East meets West, waiting for the right combination of good fortune, timing - and the right smuggler - to spirit them to a better life in the West.

They are part of a wave of illegal immigrants who are fleeing war and poverty in their home countries and use Turkey - the crossroads between Asia, the Middle East, and Europe - as a westward bridge.

Their passage is facilitated by men sometimes referred to as here as "smugglers of hope" who fleece desperate migrants of hundreds or thousands of dollars to "guarantee" that they get across the Meric River to Greece, by boat to Italy, or on a flight to Germany. Often the human trafficking is successful, but it can also end in arrest and sometimes deportation.

The spotlight fell on the illicit trafficking over New Year's weekend, when two ships packed with more than 1,200 Turkish and Iraqi Kurds seeking asylum appeared off the coast of Italy.

Open borders among many of the European Union members mean that once inside, travel is relatively easy, and illegal immigrants, many of whom are Kurds, often take advantage of welfare support. Germany, with a large Kurdish population, is a popular destination.

Turkey has stepped up patrols and put its coast guard on alert, and Foreign Minister Ismail Cem has called it a "blatant case of illegal trafficking in human beings, an extremely serious form of organized crime." But Italy angered some of its EU partners when President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro declared that Italy's arms were "wide open" to political refugees.

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'We were so afraid'

This family first fled northern Iraq for Iran, and, after staying there a year, crept across the remote mountain border with Turkey. They hid in Istanbul for another year, worrying that they would be caught.

"We couldn't find anyone we could trust, and we were so afraid," says the father, explaining why they waited so long in Istanbul, and speaking under the watchful gaze of Turkish police officials. They finally decided on a Pakistani smuggler who had gotten some friends to Athens.

This family was part of a group of some 40 illegal migrants, mostly men, who had been driven overnight along a snowy highway from Istanbul and dropped off at dawn on a small village road not far from the border with Greece. They hid in the bushes, but were spotted before a guide could lead them to waiting boats.

Instead, the family and their group will now stand before Edirne's civil court, and be released, imprisoned, or deported.

Each member of the group had paid $400 in advance to the "Pakistani mafia," who organized their exit, they said, with $700 more to be paid upon arrival in Athens. Though none of this group made it across, the smugglers made more than $16,000 just putting the would-be migrants on the truck. A successful run would have netted more than $45,000.

Because of Turkey's relaxed visa requirements and a small fine on migrants, if caught, that amounts to 380,000 Turkish lira ($1.81), officials say that they can see no end to the flood of humans rushing for this border. Some 7,500 people were caught trying to cross here in 1996, and that figure jumped to 12,000 last year - part of the 21,000 total stopped trying to leave or enter Turkey illegally.

"As a country, we have no responsibility for this," says the deputy head of the Edirne police headquarters, who would not give his name. "We are just stuck between Iraq and Greece and nothing else. We're on the humanitarian side of it - we don't want them to go back to Iraq where they will be mistreated, or to Europe if they will be victimized."

Turkey is especially appealing as a transit route because of its long coastline, and Greek islands that can often be reached by speedboat in a few minutes. The pea-soup-green Meric River is in flood stage during the winter, and many people drown as they try to cross. But during the summer, residents say, the river dries to a trickle and crossing by foot is simple.

"Even if we had soldiers all along the border, people would still be able to get out," says one Turkish security official who also asked not to be named. "What would you do? Look at America: It is so powerful, but it can't stop boats from leaving Cuba and Haiti. Turkey has no rich neighbors to the east, they are all poor."

The list of migrant nationals trying to cross here in the past two years reads like a "UN mission," says the official. Though northern Iraqis these days make up 95 percent of the traffic - because of continuing fighting between rival Kurdish groups there - the rest include people from Africa - Senegal, Algeria, Somalia, South Africa, and Rwanda - and from other countries ranging from Afghanistan to Azerbaijan. Some have come from Romania, he says, and use Turkey to go back to Europe.

'It all depends on money'

For those looking for a way to Europe, the options are just as varied, and often depend on cash flow. Migrants, and the officials who deal with them daily, say that Istanbul is rife with mafia groups selling different "packages" for getting to Europe, as a tour operator might.

"It all depends on money," says one man from northern Iraq, who, with smart-looking leather jacket, combed-back hair, and pale complexion, looks like any European soccer fan. He was caught, too, with the family. "Each mafia has its price. If the Turkish mafia takes $100 from you, then the Greeks will take $1,000."

The Greek, Turkish, and Italian mafias all play a role, while "budget" migrants must settle for often cheaper Iraqi or Pakistani organized crime groups, officials say. Pakistani operators sometimes rent safe houses for their many clients while they wait in Istanbul, and smugglers hang out in coffee shops and hotels frequented by illegal migrants looking for business. A "package" may mean being dropped by the river to begin a nine-day walk to Athens, or for much more, a journey by car.

For the poorest, mostly from Africa, smugglers play no role, but their chances of success are slim: The would-be immigrants just buy a bus ticket, jump off near the frontier, and start to walk.

More sophisticated schemes involve faked passports, thousands of dollars changing hands, and the alleged complicity of Turkish authorities.

"If the Europeans want to decrease this number, the EU should stop accepting these people, and Turkey should tighten its visa system," says the Turkish security official. "We have orders to prevent this smuggling, but these are poor people, actually - they're victims."

The young Iraqi with the leather jacket, though, is an example of how difficult it will be to control this flow. He says he "lost" his passport during the year he has been in Istanbul. This is his second attempt to reach Europe.

His brother and uncles already in Germany and Switzerland encouraged him to leave, so that he would not be not forced to fight with one of the Kurdish factions. He is clearly unhappy, but not broken.

"If they send you back to Iraq, will you try again?" he is asked.

"Yes," he answers, "of course."

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