Who is behind the smuggling of refugees from Turkey to the Greek islands? How are these potentially deadly trips planned and organized? In the second installment of an ongoing investigation into dangerous routes to safety, Syria Deeply speaks with a people smuggler in Izmir.
Abu Yazan is a Syrian smuggler who arranges the transport of refugees from the shores of Turkey to Greece. The 25-year-old worked in construction before the Syrian uprising began, when he took part in peaceful protests.
As the uprising shifted toward armed conflict he briefly joined Ahrar al-Sham, before fleeing to Turkey when the Islamic State group took control of his home city of Raqqa in January 2014.
Abu Yazan was barred from entering Turkey’s refugee camps because he was a young, single man. His struggle to survive eventually led him to the coastal city of Izmir, a central hub for the people-smuggling business between Turkey and the Greek islands.
A year and half after moving to Izmir, Abu Yazan began working as an intermediary for smuggler networks. His task was to approach refugees on the street and connect them to a smuggler who would organize their journey. He did so in exchange for a commission based on the number of refugees he managed to attract.
When he felt he had made sufficient connections he tried to branch out on his own – before partnering with a Turkish man who operated one of the key smuggling points in the city.
In a cafe in the Basmanah neighbourhood of Izmir, Abu Yazan spoke with Syria Deeply about the ins and outs of the human smuggling industry and its continuance in the face of E.U. and Turkish pressure.
Syria Deeply: How do the refugees find smugglers?
Abu Yazan: There are several ways for people to find smugglers – either by word of mouth from refugees who have already taken the trip and have arrived at their destinations in Europe, or through “agents” that walk the streets and publicize their services. Another important way of meeting is through relatives and friends, as well as at the insurance offices where the fees paid by refugees for smuggling are usually kept.
Syria Deeply: Are the smugglers Syrians? Or are they other nationalities?
Abu Yazan: Most of the smugglers are Syrians – because of their language and relations. But the actual owners of smuggling access points and the owners of the equipment are Turks. You might find some Afghans or Tunisians or Iraqis as their partners. What Afghans and Iraqis went through ... before the Syrians [arrived] gave them experience – and with their excellent relations with the Turks [smuggling] became a good source of income for many of them.
Also, there are Syrian and Turkish companies that purchase pockets of land close to the sea and use them as smuggling points.
Syria Deeply: Who is responsible for preparing the equipment before the trip?
Abu Yazan: From the start, the smuggler is responsible for the cost of transportation to the smuggling points. The smuggler also takes care of finding a suitable place for the refugees to stay and covers all costs related to renting a place, including food, regardless of how long they stay. This could also be subject to a previous agreement.
The smuggler is also responsible for providing necessary equipment such as life jackets, swimming rings and special bags to protect documents and mobile phones.
The most important equipment they arrange is the means of transportation.
Syria Deeply: What types of boats are used in transporting refugees from Turkey to the Greek islands?
Abu Yazan: Rubber boats are the most common in Izmir, but people also use yachts and jet boats.
Rubber boats are 30ft (9m) long and 10ft (3m) wide, with a wooden floor and an engine installed at the rear end. They can hold up to 45 people over the age of nine. Some of these boats are made in China, others are made in Turkey, but the best ones are Russian-made.
Yachts, on the other hand, are metallic boats with engines. They are a faster and safer choice and come in three sizes.
Large yachts have a capacity of 40 passengers. Smugglers fit 80–90 passengers on board.
Medium yachts have a capacity of 30 passengers. Smugglers fit 60–70 passengers on board.
Small yachts have a capacity of 20 passengers. Smugglers fit 40–50 passengers on board.
A jet boat is the fastest option. It’s a small metallic boat with a capacity of eight passengers. Smugglers fit 15–20 passengers on board. This boat is known for its speed. On a jet boat the crossing takes only 20 minutes.
Syria Deeply: Can you tell us more about the prices and payment methods?
Abu Yazan: Prices differ depending on the type of boat used for the trip and the number of passengers. The cost for a family would be different from that for a young, single man.
The smuggler agrees with the owner of the access point on a price for each passenger, then the smuggler agrees with the passenger on a different price. The difference in the two prices is the smuggler’s share, in addition to what he gets from the access point owner as a commission.
There is even a deal between the access point owner and the smuggler for one passenger free of charge for every seven passengers arranged. [For every seven passengers the smuggler arranges, he can include an eighth passenger for whom he does not have to pay the fee to the access point owner – so the smuggler makes more money, because he gets to keep the entire fee paid by the refugee.]
Prices in winter per adult are:
Rubber boats: $500–700
Jet boats: $1200–1500
Prices in summer increase by 30 percent as the numbers of migrants rapidly increases when the water temperature gets warmer. [Children are usually smuggled for free because they don't take any seating space as long as their parents carry them throughout the trip.]
The captain of the rubber boat is normally one of the passengers and would be exempted from travel fees. But the captains of the yachts and jet boats are appointed by the owner and are normally Turkish citizens.
Syria Deeply: What procedures has Turkey taken to eliminate illegal migration from its shores? What punishments are imposed on refugees and smugglers caught by the authorities?
Recently the Turkish authorities reinforced the operations of observation along the shores and the routes leading there. They also installed checkpoints on roads that lead to smuggling access points to check passengers’ documents and ensure that all have travel permissions [to travel within Turkey].
Coast guard patrols are active. When the authorities capture refugees in Turkish regional waters, they detain them for 24 hours and then release them to bus stations – and they return to the Turkish cities they started out from.
On the other hand if the authorities capture the smuggler he faces a prison sentence of between one and 30 years and a penalty of up to $15,000.
Syria Deeply: What are your expectations for the coming season in terms of refugee numbers?
Abu Yazan: Despite decisions following the agreement between the E.U. and Turkey, migration is not going to stop, especially with the coming summer that many consider to be the best time to make such a journey.
You need to realize that Turkey doesn’t offer much to Syrian refugees, so anyone who finds a small chance to leave and start a better life would immediately take it.
We have been through similar periods, and smugglers always manage to find new ways to transport people to Europe.