Get to Know Your War Smugglers!
Turkish traffickers help Syrian refugees
by MITCH SWENSON
Skilled at sneaking people and goods across the border between Syria and Turkey, these traffickers—many of them just teenagers—are actually humanitarians by another name. Without them, many Syrian refugees would be stuck in the war zone and others wouldn’t be able to afford food and medicine.
Crossing the border dozens of times a day, they work for a small fee but often waive it when the customer is an impoverished, desperate refugee. At the Bab Al Hawa border crossing, we met three smugglers, each with his own specialty.
Seventeen years old with young man’s swagger, Khaled works with the Free Syrian Army to smuggle people from Turkey into northern Syria. The FSA has even given him an ID card to flash at checkpoints to make his travels a little easier.
Khaled says he smuggles around 20 people per day through a hole in a fence in the mountains. He charges 25 Lira ($12) per head for the journey. Since the revolution began nearly three years ago staple items in Syria have become much cheaper as a result of the declining Syrian currency.
This has goaded many Turks to travel inside Syria in order to bring gasoline and other commodities back to sell at Turkish premiums. Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of them poor and homeless, also rely on these cheaper goods simply to survive. People on the Syrian side of the border also smuggle items from Turkey that are unavailable in Syria. Certain medicines, for instance.
Khaled says he supplies a vital service. He adds that he’s been illegally leading groups across the border since he was 13: some 10,000 people in all.
Twenty-eight-year-old Sayeit says he crosses the border every hour. It’s not hard. “The Turkish police know I am poor and that I mostly work for free, so they let me through as much as I want.”
He’s been smuggling since 2007; the frequency of his trips has doubled since the Syrian war began in early 2011. Ahmed’s most common export is medical supplies that are desperately needed on the Syrian side.
He says northern Syria is becoming more dangerous. He was just 500 yards from a car bomb that exploded near the crossing on Sept. 17. “Everybody is afraid but I have no problem doing it,” he says of his trips across the national line.
A veteran of 55, Damer has been strolling across the Syrian-Turkish border for 35 years. We asked what he transports and he answered only vaguely: “Luggage and things.”
Although he insists that he has never hauled anything dangerous, he grew suddenly quiet when a Turkish police officer approached during our interview. The two exchanged glances and finally Mostafa said khalas—finished—and walked away.
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