Inside a refugee camp in Mannheim, Germany

After EU-Turkey Agreement Smugglers Run Out of Business but Refugees Are No Less at Risk

The reporting for this article was carried out shortly after the EU-Turkey deal of March, 2016 and was meant to be published sooner. However, the issue remains unchanged despite the silence surrounding it in mainstream media.

Aksaray, Istanbul’s former human smuggling epicenter, is Yakzan´s office and hunting ground. The square is now empty and Yakzan is out of business for the first time in twelve years. After the closure of the Western Balkans migration route and the signing of the EU-Turkey Agreement that is meant to end irregular migration to the EU, even the most veteran smugglers like Yakzan have reached a standstill. With no customers in sight, he glides lethargically through the neighborhood as many of Turkey’s more than 3 million refugees and asylum-seekers face the bleak prospects of living in Turkey. Both actors in the human smuggling business wage in the consequences of an agreement rights groups call illegal.

The 38-year old smuggler is an imposing man. His towering body, built by weightlifting and protein supplements, juxtaposes the soft lines around his eyes and mouth. He is soft spoken and bashful whenever conversation drifts away from his line of work. But once his work phone starts ringing, he stares away and begins to shake his leg frantically.

Yakzan began working as a smuggler in Syria in 2004, sending Syrians to Europe through airports in Libya, Egypt, Algeria, and sometimes, China and Russia. He lived in Libya between 2006–2008, where he personally handpicked his network of middlemen inside the airport. “I approached people and gave them my number,” he explained while sipping arak, an anis-flavoured liquor, and his habitual nocturnal drink. Once he got the ball rolling, he smuggled around 200 Syrians a month through airports in Algeria and Libya.

At his friend’s place near Atatuk airport, Yakzan made a few calls and scheduled a trip to Turkey’s Northern border, where he also smuggles people to Bulgaria inside freight trucks for about $3,500. He offered to get a second bottle of arak, but only had euros on him and the plan fell through. He lit another cigarette and with the sound of a plane taking off in the distance said in jest: “In this plane two people are go,” meaning two people are being smuggled into Europe.

On a Thursday morning in April, shortly after the first round of deportations of refugees and asylum-seekers from Greece to Turkey, Yaksan sat on the second floor of one of Aksaray´s cafés. He stared out the window into an empty park, taking in the view with an abscent gaze. A few children ran in the playground and old men sat on benches, chatting and counting their prayer beads. “This place used to be packed,” he said motioning to the playground, “look at it now.” Men and women from countries like Syria, Irak, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, to name a few, would gather in the park before boarding buses to Turkey’s western coast. Today Yakzan chain smokes and downs one Nescafé coffee after another.

“The problem is not that there are no routes, but that there are no customers,” he said. In the three weeks prior to the implementation of the EU-Turkey Agreement of March 18, around 26,878 refugees and asylum-seekers arrived in the Agean islands from Turkey. Only three weeks after the agreement, the number of arrivals decreased to 5,874.

Amnesty International condemns the EU-Turkey Agreement on the basis that Turkey’s asylum system fails to meet the basic needs of its more than three million asylum-seekers and refugees. Yakzan, like most of his customers, is a Syrian Kurd from Northern Syria. He fled to Turkey with his family during the early stages of the Syrian conflict and settled in Aksaray to carry out his business. It wasn’t long before Yakzan’s family became afflicted with the same troubles his customers were trying to escape. At the lack of durable solutions, difficult access to the labor market, lack of education for children and an elusive protection status, Yakzan decided to send his wife and two young daughters on the parlous sea crossing to Greece last summer. Yakzan’s seven-year-old son stayed with him in Istanbul as leverage. He is not attending school, but this is a sacrifice Yakzan is able to justify as his family’s best shot at reunification in Europe. The EU-Turkey deal will return men, women, and children who made it to Greece after March 18 2016 to refugee camps and detention centers in Turkey.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) recorded 156, 364 people arriving in Greece from Turkey this year, most of them from the world’s top refugee producing countries. Refugees and asylum-seekers risk their lives taking different routes in the Mediterranean from countries like Libya and Egypt. Around 2,443 have drowned at sea this year alone and the toll keeps rising. On June 3, 342 people were rescued from a shipwreck of Crete with an estimated 700 believed to have been on board. Without an ambitious resettlement program for refugees, people will continue to turn to the deadly Mediterranean routes. Yakzan looks at Europe´s response to the crisis in slightly different terms. “Turkey will pocket the money from the EU but will not be able to stop the flow of people,” argued Yaksan. “For every dollar Turkey gets from Europe, I will get a dollar.”

The veteran smuggler makes a sharp distinction between his work and the baseness attached to his profession, particularly the thriving business of sea crossings. He describes his work using the Arabic word for beautiful — “shogel helu” — and steers away from ethical conundrums by following a utilitarian approach. “Smuggling people is not a crime,” claimed Yakzan. “People need to survive and I am helping Syrian Kurds who are stateless in Syria reach a better life.” Under Turkish law, migrant smugglers face between three to eight years in prison, and more if they are part of a larger organization. “I wouldn’t go to jail because there is no one dying through my work,” he said matter-of-factly. As an example, he tells the story of a friend, a smuggler like him that served three months in prison for being caught with 1000 fake and stolen passports. “Sea smugglers deserve to die in prison,” he argued, but not him. “We are Kurds and we don’t put people’s lives in danger,” he finished.

However, most of the refugees and asylum-seekers that arrived in Greece resorted to crossing the sea in overcrowded rubber dinghies because they couldn’t afford to pay a safer, if not more successful, passage. Yaksan’s most expensive destination is the UK, at $15,000 USD. Scandinavian countries go for $12,000 and transit countries like Italy for $9,000. Paradoxically, in the human smuggling business the cheapest options are the costliest in human lives. Safety is an expensive service in the smuggling business, but so is paying off a network of airport clerks and government officials. “I can send people ‘by luck’ or through a deal with Turkish airport authorities,” Yakzan added. “When I send five people this way in a day, maybe one or two pass,” he said, “but if I make a deal with an airport employee, he will pass.” Yakzan pays around $9,000 to a middleman who is then in charge of bribing the necessary authorities.

Back in Aksaray, two young Syrian men with sleek hair and hardened demeanors joined Yakzan in a small poker table. One was a young Syrian smuggler working in the Turkish coast. His business halted completely after the implementation of the agreement, which he deemed unfair. Engaged in conversation, he claimed never to have crammed people into the boats and instead of going into the logistics, he simply said no one had died. Before the agreement he used to be an observant of other people’s odyssey to Europe. Now he is the one planning his own.

During Yakzan’s daily rounds of Aksaray, a man greeted him profusely and whispered a few words into his ear. “He is a police officer,” he later said. “He was asking for baksheesh”, or a bribe. Shortly after, another man crossed his way and stopped to exchange a few words. “He works in the Bulgarian route,” he explained. For Yakzan, the human smuggling business consists of a chain and he is only part of it. “If I don’t make money, nobody in Aksaray makes money,” he said referring to the smugglers, middlemen, hotels, restaurants, and landowners who catered to the hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers that reached Europe in 2015. “Turkish officials are not making money anymore,” he said in reference to the agreement, “so in Turkey, there will always be a way.”

What the international community fails to understand is that “Europe is our last solution,” said Yakzan after finishing a plate of kunafe, a popular Syrian sweet. Refugees and asylum-seekers choose to take dangerous and illegal pathways to Europe when they cannot live dignified lives in Turkey. Even though Yakzan wants to leave Turkey, he is skeptical of life in Europe and imagines his future with heartfelt distrust. “People think Europe is a paradise, but once they get there they find out it’s not true.”

Yakzan is hopeful that the smuggling business will pick up again, but he is betting on reunification in Europe as a way out. He claims he will leave the smuggling business behind in Europe and dedicate himself to learning the language. However, he vows to continue speaking Kurdish at home. Ultimately, “Europe is for the children,” he said before doing one more round in the empty streets of Aksaray.

Names in this article have been changed at the request of the source to protect his identity.*