A year and a half ago, Abdullah left his home in Afghanistan to settle in Germany.
It was his third attempt. He had previously spent four years in Greece, but his pay was so miserable that he regretted his decision and returned home. On his second effort, he managed to get only as far as Turkey, where he was detained and deported after spending a year and a half in jail.
But Abdullah, whose name has been changed in this story to protect his identity, complains that he couldn't live long in his own country. He owed hundreds of thousands of afghanis to relatives and friends who wanted their money back, and he grew restless with little prospect of turning his life around.
"Whenever I went to my village, I couldn't leave home," he says.
Jobless and still itching to get away, Abdullah somehow convinced friends to lend him money once again and he paid $6,000 to a local smuggler in Afghanistan.
This time, he says, he traveled risky routes through Iran to Turkey for two months, then evaded Turkish police and eventually reached Bulgaria. He rented a shared room with friends in Sofia, living illegally in the Bulgarian capital and working at a friend's Internet cafe.
There, Abdullah found himself advising other asylum seekers on how to avoid police and reach their final European destination. But armed with local knowledge and extensive contacts, he quickly realized he could cash in on his savvy and turn his free advice into a lucrative business: trafficking.
Abdullah prefers to characterize it as helping fellow asylum seekers for money, and he goes to pains to reconcile the work with his conscience.
"We tell people that there could be a shortage of food and water. There could be police arrest. There could even be death."
He says he "sometimes" helps migrants who don't have the money, "just for God's sake."
Abdullah also contrasts himself with "smugglers who squeeze too many people in one car," adding, "You heard what happened to those 71 [people] in that truck."
It is a reference to the macabre discovery last month of the decomposing corpses of migrants in an abandoned semitrailer on the shoulder of an Austrian highway. Preliminary indications suggested the victims -- men, women, and children thought to have been Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis -- had suffocated to death. An Afghan and five Bulgarians have so far been arrested on suspicion of involvement.
The Austrian incident provided one of the signal moments in the migrant crisis that is currently racking Europe and exposing chinks in the notion of a European Union without internal borders.
It also highlighted the power of individuals profiting from the shadowy business of trafficking in migrants, reshaping (or taking) the lives of outsiders seeking refuge within the peaceful and prosperous borders of Europe.
INFOGRAPHIC: A Smuggler's Route (Click To Enlarge)
"I take people up to Serbia and beyond," Abdullah says, in a reference to one of the many Balkan routes into Europe. "Actually, there are other people up there who smuggle people forward. Our responsibility is up to Serbia."
He says migrants are charged between 400 and 500 euros ($450 to $565) to get themselves smuggled from Bulgaria's border with Turkey to its border with Serbia, a distance of between 300 and 400 kilometers. Mostly they are ushered into travel groups of 10 to 15 people.
"There are Bulgarian men with small cars and taxis. They take people to the Serbian border in those taxis," he says. "The uncles" -- a nickname for complicit police -- "have some understanding and deal with them. They let the asylum seekers cross the border [into Serbia]. Sometimes we send an Afghan guide with them as well."
This month, the head of the organized crime section at Europol, the European Union's police agency, called the battle against people smugglers like Abdullah "the top priority, for sure, not only for Europol but for all [EU] member states," according to AFP. He estimated the number of "suspects" involved in "the whole range of illegal migration across Europe, not only focusing on the Mediterranean," at 30,000.
"There is no guarantee in this business of trafficking," Abdullah says. (file photo)
EU border control agency Frontex said in the same article that migrant smuggling -- along with other aspects of human trafficking for illicit activities -- has now surpassed the weapons and drugs trades as a money earner for organized crime. Most estimates are that people smuggling earns billions of dollars a year.
Abdullah describes his own business as modest, and he says that while he has sufficient contacts to deliver people all the way from Afghanistan to Austria or Germany, he prefers small-scale work because "it has fewer complications."
He says traffickers are in contact with each other but do not work under a unified command. Every smuggler is paid individually and has his own network of people who work independently, he adds.
Abdullah draws a distinction between two types of people-smuggling jobs: the small business of conveying people between two or three neighboring European countries, and the start-to-finish business of transporting them from, say, Afghanistan or Pakistan to a destination like Germany.
He describes the way the latter often works, in his experience. Refugees deposit a prearranged amount of money with a local money changer, and both sides even sign a contract in which the trafficker guarantees to take one or more individuals from Afghanistan to a desired European country. Once the individuals reach their final destinations, they phone home and the money is then delivered from the money changer to the trafficker.
"There is no guarantee in this business of trafficking," Abdullah says, again seemingly grappling with his conscience. "We tell people that there could be a shortage of food and water. There could be police arrest. There could even be death. Anything can happen. We tell all this to people. And they understand this. They tell us all this is evident. They tell us they know this. They accept all this on themselves."
Abdullah criticizes traffickers who "do not look after their clients" and allow them to die. Each trafficker, he says, must decide for himself how earnest he is in his job.
Several times the interview is interrupted by telephone calls from "friends in Turkey" inquiring about "business and more people on their way."
"There are other people who take asylum seekers from Serbia to Hungary for 100 euros per person -- the rate was 500 euros before between Hungary and Germany, but nowadays routes are easier," Abdullah says. (file photo)
Business is indeed booming, with the scale of migrant flows focusing global attention on Europe's refugee crisis.
EuroStats reports that 41,370 Afghans applied for asylum in European countries last year, second only to 122,115 Syrians. Pakistanis are third at 22,125.
Germany has routinely seen 10,000 or more migrants enter its territory in a single day since the crisis intensified this summer. (Berlin announced that it expected some 800,000 asylum seekers and other migrants to enter the country this year.)
In a span of just 12 hours on September 11, Macedonian officials announced that some 7,600 migrants had entered that country, which is sandwiched between EU members Bulgaria and Greece to the east and south, and Serbia to the north.
Still, Abdullah insists the trafficking business has become less profitable, in part because EU members closer to the Schengen Area's periphery have been eager to funnel illegal migrants through to particularly desirable destinations like Germany.
"There are other people who take asylum seekers from Serbia to Hungary for 100 euros per person -- the rate was 500 euros before between Hungary and Germany, but nowadays routes are easier," Abdullah says. "We can take people beyond Serbia, since we have friends and contacts. But asylum seekers can go by themselves as well, because everything is easy now. You saw that people are being given tickets to go to [Germany] from Hungary."
That could be about to change.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, who sparked outrage when he announced the construction of a fence along that country's border with Serbia, indicated on September 11 that migrants who cross the border illegally will be arrested starting next week. Divisions are deep among EU members over an appropriate response to the current flood of migrants, but European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker this week unveiled an emergency plan for dealing with Europe's biggest influx of migrants and asylum seekers since World War II.
Abdullah declines to provide an estimate of the number of people he personally smuggles each month, but he acknowledges that he has managed to repay all his debts.
"It's just a matter of time before I leave Bulgaria for Afghanistan or go to another country to get asylum," he says. "It's enough."