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Migrant Smugglers Shrug Off Turkey's Clampdown

Refugees and migrants arrive by dinghy from Turkey on the Greek island of Lesbos in February. Despite Ankara's crackdown on such transports, people smugglers are confident that it won't have too much of an adverse impact on their trade.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged to clamp down on illegal migration out of Turkey, but smugglers in Istanbul say they have no plans to stop their lucrative trade.

"If Greece is locked, we'll go through Italy," Mouheib, 30, a Syrian smuggler originally from Deir al-Zor, says. "It's a big game. It's impossible things will stop."

He is speaking in an apartment on the second floor of an alleyway in Istanbul's Aksaray neighborhood, where Arabic script advertises falafel restaurants, mobile-phone shops, and travel agencies serving the city's growing Syrian and Iraqi populations. Mouheib, who declines to give his last name as a precaution against arrest, is wearing a tight, blue V-neck shirt, bright blue sweatpants and flip-flops. He has thick black hair and a five-o'clock shadow and is smoking inexpensive Prestige cigarettes.

A shop downstairs still sells life jackets, but smuggling is increasingly switching away from rubber dinghies as Turkish authorities crack down on the trade, he says.

For $1,150, a migrant can attempt the Turkish-Greek land border at Edirne, Mouheib says. For each traveler, he says, $150 goes as a bribe to the Greek police. Half the profits are given to the Turkish mafia to keep the road to the border clear, and the remainder is split between Mouheib and his partner, he adds.

Migrants with more cash to spare can pay $2,500 to carry on from Greece to Italy by boat. Mouheib does not specify where such migrants arrive in Italy, although the UNHCR reported that a boat carrying 22 Syrian and Somali nationals arrived at Otranto in southeastern Italy on March 31. It originated in Greece, the UN refugee agency said.

In his most far-fetched scheme, Mouheib claims, he sells a $6,000 package involving a black-market tourist visa to Canada, which allows migrants holding original passports to enter Canada and stay on illegally. He claims he helped a Syrian doctor get to Canada on such a tourist visa.

The Canadian Consulate in Istanbul did not respond to a press query on the matter.

Under an EU-Turkey deal struck in mid-March, Ankara will take back all migrants who entered Greece illegally from March 20 unless they qualify for asylum. For every Syrian deported, the European Union will accept one Syrian refugee for resettlement. The EU pledged to provide financial assistance, visa-free travel for Turkish nationals, and progress in EU membership negotiations.

Trade Continues Despite Arrests

Turkey also pledged to reduce smuggling out of its borders, and authorities are cracking down.

On April 6, the Turkish coast guard apprehended about 60 migrants attempting to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece, the AP news agency reported.

On February 5, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported the Turkish police had established a division to counter migrant smuggling and human trafficking. The Daily Sabah reported that 3,000 police officers will staff the office.

"They [the smugglers] are not untouchable," said a senior Turkish official who declined to be identified.

Shops in the Istanbul neighborhood of Aksaray, the hub of smuggling in the city's "Little Syria" area, still stock and sell life jackets for those who fancy taking their chances on the sea route to Greece.
Shops in the Istanbul neighborhood of Aksaray, the hub of smuggling in the city's "Little Syria" area, still stock and sell life jackets for those who fancy taking their chances on the sea route to Greece.

Abby Dwommoh, a spokeswoman for the Turkey office of the Geneva-based Organization for International Migration (IOM), says her group is working with Turkey, Greece, and Bulgaria on strengthening border management.

She says that in 2015 Turkish police arrested or detained more than 2,000 smugglers and organizers, including mostly Turkish and some Syrian criminals. Another 275 smugglers and organizers were apprehended in January, she says.

The Turkish coast guard reported that it apprehended an additional 52 smugglers and organizers in the first three months of this year, but it will likely have more work as smugglers take to the seas.

Still, the trade continues.

Unscrupulous Smugglers

Izabella Cooper, a spokeswoman for the Frontex European border agency, says smugglers "advertise their services very much like travel agencies [advertise] on Facebook."

One Syrian smuggler in the seaside city of Mersin, in southwest Turkey, tells RFE/RL that he and four partners bought a 110-meter ship and plan to sail it to Italy. He says the vessel will stall in international waters while small boats motor up to 2,000 migrants from Mersin to the large ship.

Another smuggler in Mersin says he sent a boatload of 170 people to Italy on April 2.

This direct Turkey-Syria ship line would reinstate a route that had been abandoned in 2015, due in part to Turkish coast-guard enforcement and the emergence of the inflatable boat route.

"The ongoing border closures typically lead to smugglers coming up with new ways to make money, and sadly these ways are often more and more perilous for the migrants," Dwommoh of the IOM says.

She says her organization started a missing-migrant project last year to trace hundreds of people who drowned while trying to reach Europe in unseaworthy vessels.

Cooper of Frontex says unscrupulous smugglers sometimes remove the manual navigation equipment of large vessels and set them on autopilot with no crew, making them particularly risky.

The Turkish official said that "the important thing is to create a long-term strategy to create incentives for refugees to stick to official channels. The Turkey-EU deal is an important step forward provided that European nations will be willing to welcome refugees who are playing by the rules."

In Aksaray, Mouheib says he does not feel threatened by tightening law enforcement. "One smuggler was caught by police but we paid $3,000 and he was released," he says. "The one who does this job has to have a lot of friends in the police."

Still, he takes precautions. He keeps his cash in a knee-high safe in a small bedroom of an apartment in Aksaray, alongside a bunk bed and a twin mattress. The apartment is one of four homes he moves between in the neighborhood. On a visit, RFE/RL sees a few men shuffling between rooms lined with bunk beds; in summer, Mouheib says, migrants slept 15 to a room on mattresses tiled on the floor while awaiting travel to Europe. He estimates that he smuggled about 950 people to Europe on rubber dinghies.

In Syria, he says, he was a clothing designer, and he worked in Kuwait in textiles for several years before moving to Turkey, leaving about $200,000 in debt. Smuggling, "an easy job with a lot of money," helped him repay his debt.

Eventually, Mouheib says, he would like to return to the clothing trade. For now, however, "If people need to go, we will find a chance to take them."