The Terrible Flight from the Killing, by Hugh Eakin, The New York Review of Books, 23.09.2015
The Syrians arriving in Europe in recent weeks have been equally dependent on smuggling networks. In the past, the “Western Balkans” migration route, which since 2008 has been the second most common path to Europe after the Central Mediterranean route, often involved crossing Turkey’s land border with Bulgaria. In 2014, however, the Bulgarian government started building a border fence to keep out growing flows of asylum seekers, and smugglers shifted their attention to sea routes across the Aegean.
In immigrant neighborhoods of Istanbul, and in the backstreets of the resort towns of Izmir and Bodrum, smuggling outfits have been using Syrians and other Arab speakers to promote crossings in inflatable rubber dinghies to one of the Greek islands only a few miles off the Turkish coast. For €1,000 or more, you can buy a spot in a dingy with as many as seventy other people to try to reach Kos or Lesbos; if you make it, you must then join the thousands of Syrians and others vying to get on one of the large car ferries Greek officials have occasionally used to ship refugees from the islands to the Greek mainland. Until the recent border closures, you could then, by paying smugglers, continue through Macedonia and Serbia to Hungary. According to Frontex, the European border control agency, in the second quarter of 2015, the number of people entering Europe this way had risen more than 800 percent since last year.
In a recent investigation, Der Spiegel reported that the smuggling organizations in Turkey tend to be run by Turks and Kurds and often employ “dozens of recruiters, financiers, drivers and guards” of various nationalities. In the Balkans, major smuggling rings have been observed working from a hotel near the train station in Belgrade and from bases in Budapest; many of the drivers, who can earn up to several thousand euros a day, are believed to be Bulgarians. (Three of the five suspects in the deaths of the seventy-one refugees in the truck in Austria were Bulgarian nationals, including one with a Lebanese background; a fourth, who is believed to have been the ringleader, was an Afghan with a Hungarian residency permit.)
Syrians carry lists of smugglers’ phone numbers for use at every stage of the journey; with so much demand, prices have risen rapidly. Earlier in the summer, Der Spiegelreported, the 125-mile trip from Belgrade to the Hungarian border could be arranged for €1,500.
Already anticipating the recent closure of the Hungarian border, smugglers have long been exploring alternative ways to reach Northern Europe. According to the German newspaper Die Welt, one of the pioneers of a bold new strategy is a thirty-five-year-old Syrian smuggler based in Mersin, on the southern Turkish coast near the Syrian border. Last winter, working with two business partners and a staff of fifteen, he began using large container ships to send hundreds of refugees at a time from Mersin all the way to Puglia on the east coast of Italy. In its Annual Risk Report this year, Frontex describes this innovation as a “multi-million-euro business” that is “likely to be replicated in other departure countries”:
The cargo ships, which are often bought as scrap, tend to cost between EUR150,000 and 400,000. There are often as many as 200–800 migrants on board, each paying EUR 4,500–6,000 for the trip, either in cash a few days before the departure or by Hawala payment after reaching the Italian coast. The cost is high because the modus operandi is viewed as being safe and has been demonstrated as being successful. Hence, the gross income for a single journey can be as high as EUR 2.5 or even 4 million depending on the size of the vessel and the number of migrants on board. In some cases, the profit is likely to be between EUR 1.5 and 3 million….
A tragic aspect of the burgeoning industry is the extent to which it has seemed to taint the refugees themselves. Part of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s rationale for refusing to take part in a European plan to redistribute asylum seekers, for example, was that the new arrivals were associated with a seamy underworld. Elizabeth Collett, the European director of the Migration Policy Institute in Brussels, told me, “The British were saying, ‘We don’t want to reward people who we believe have taken matters into their own hands’” by getting smuggled into Europe.
In fact, because of the costs involved, the bar to setting out to Europe is already high, and many of the Syrians I have met are well-educated doctors, engineers, and urban professionals who no longer see any future in Syria or the surrounding region. For these Syrians, the continual dance between exploitative smugglers and hostile European authorities has often seemed baffling. Here is the account of one thirty-four-year-old Syrian man who recently made the crossing to Lesbos and was interviewed by the International Rescue Committee:
The journey costs $1,125 [USD]. You pay the money to a broker in Izmir. You give him the money and they give you a secret number. You give this number to the smuggler when you reach the boat, so they can collect the money….
I saw the boat was a dinghy. It only seated 40 people but there were 54 of us. The smugglers had lied. They only want to get your money. They don’t care if you die.
We travelled on the sea for an hour. We then came across another boat. We didn’t realise it was the police. We were told by friends not to stop because they will take you back to Turkey. We don’t know the Greek language. We can’t understand what they are saying. They were saying stop the boat.
We held the children and we shouted at the police, “We have children!” …The boat was punctured and we fell in the water. I was in the sea for 45 minutes before they pulled me out….
They helped us ashore. But why are they doing it this way? Don’t help us the hard way. Help us the easy way.