Wednesday 13 December 2017

'I give people in crisis a lifeline,' says people smuggler

Migrants being smuggled into Europe abandon ship to swim towards their rescuers. Photo: Christophe Stramba/MSF
Migrants being smuggled into Europe abandon ship to swim towards their rescuers. Photo: Christophe Stramba/MSF

Louisa Loveluck

The 21-year-old people smuggler says he is doing God's work. "I have understood this humanitarian crisis and want to help in a merciful way," he says, as he gathers his fees for his latest boatload of refugees. "We give these people a lifeline."

Anonymous men like this are still operating openly along Turkey's shoreline, as the migrant trail across the country to the Mediterranean and Europe gears up for a new season.

Already, this year, more than 8,000 people have crossed the sea, 7,700 of them making the short hop from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands opposite.

The enthusiasm of young Syrian men like this one, who hails from the home province of President Bashar al-Assad, Latakia, is undimmed - not least by fees of more than €500 per person for a place on an crowed rubber dinghy.

The reality is as grim as ever. So far also, 321 of those 7,700 have died on the crossing, just six weeks into the year. The few kilometres that separate Turkey from Kos and Lesbos has also divided families. Six-year-old Ibrahim and his parents Bilal and Khaloud survived one recent disaster, when their dinghy overturned, leaving them freezing in the Aegean waters for three hours.

His cousins Mahmoud (6) Hassan (9), and Mohamed, (10) did not. Their bodies were fished out of the water later. "We stayed in that water for three hours with children screaming all around," Bilal said, in a cramped basement flat they are renting in the Turkish port city of Izmir while they wait to make another attempt. "As I struggled to hold on to my children, it felt as if they were trying to beat back at me. That sea is hell."

After seemingly looking the other way as an estimated 850,000 migrants and refugees crossed by sea into Greece last year, Turkey last week agreed to try to stem the tide, sending a warship to join others from Nato in patrolling the coast.

But as Syria's war approaches its sixth year, by one estimate claiming almost half a million lives, the towns dotting Turkey's Aegean coast are still home to hundreds of lucrative and overlapping networks of handymen, brokers, boat owners and smuggling overlords, filling a combined total of thousands of boats each month.

"I want to build myself up as a smuggler, but not in immoral ways that God does not accept," the 21-year-old said, without specifying how this was to be achieved.

He said police crackdowns happened, but rarely. "They still see us leaving and do nothing to stop us, but they can't keep all these people here," he said.

He claims that he has not lost a boat - as do most such smugglers. In practice, the boats are over-full, and the "captains" rarely have much experience beyond the ability to drive a car.

Mahmoud, Hassan and Mohammed's father has now taken their bodies home to Syria to bury them there.

"Their bodies were too small, too weak for those waves. He watched them slip right through his fingers," Khaloud, their aunt, said.

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