Behind the scenes with a people smuggler in Istanbul

The United Nations International Organisation for Migration estimated world migrant figures in the year 2015 at 244 million – one in 30 people.

Much of the flow of migration, legal or not, moves through Turkey, a country that links states where conflict or poverty drive people to abandon their homes with the European Union, a destination where many hope they can build a safe and prosperous life.

In recent years Turkey, too, has become a source of migrants, with political repression and worsening economic conditions forcing many to seek a new life abroad. Data from the Turkish Statistical Institute shows that 254,000 Turks emigrated in 2017, the majority to Europe.

With legal ways to leave Turkey becoming ever harder, people smugglers remain a last resort to many, and business is booming. Ahval will examine this trade and the people running it across Turkey in a series of articles starting with this one.

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At a retiree’s coffee house far from the clamour of Istanbul’s busy main streets, one customer, clearly busy, answers one of the telephones in front of him just as he hangs up another.

From afar this man seems innocuous enough – if anything, you would say he has a fatherly air about him.

Drawing closer, though, you get a slight sense of something sterner about the man as he loudly berates the person on the line.

“How many days are we going to keep them waiting, man? When are you coming?” he asks, before another telephone rings and he answers it to demand another update.

“Have the troops arrived safe and sound?”

The coffee house is the migrant hotspot neighbourhood of Istanbul’s Fatih district, and the fatherly man at the table – called “uncle” by his associates – has worked for 25 years as a smuggler of people.

The “troops” he refers to are his migrant customers.

Every day he arranges to transport dozens of people out of Turkey using telephone lines registered under names of foreigners. And he goes about his business openly, like any other businessman exporting his goods to Europe.

The other customers are not the least interested in the man or in the trade he openly engages in at the coffee house – everyone there is in the same business, either as a smuggler or one of their clients. It is at this “smuggling bureau” that we meet “uncle” and see him at work, dealing with a heavy flow of phone calls and visitors.

He is not too eager to talk to us at first, but agrees to on the strict condition of anonymity.

“More than half the foreigners you see on that street have come here en route to migrate elsewhere,” he says, pointing at a main road in Fatih. “As long as there’s injustice in the Middle East and Asia, the flow of migrants won’t stop and neither will our work.”

As for our guide, his long years working in a trade that attracts the attention of international as well as Turkish security forces have landed him in more than a little trouble in the past, including a 15-year stint in prison and a series of ongoing court cases. Yet he sees no alternative to what he says is the only business he knows.

That business brings a flow of migrants to Turkey from across the world, but most frequently from conflict zones in the Middle East and further afield. The highest volume of people comes from Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, and many see Turkey as the best choice due to its geographical position: while millions have remained in the country, many who have arrived on its doorstep see Turkey as one stop on a longer journey.

“Migrants fleeing wars or poverty prefer to come to Turkey by legal or illegal means because it is a bridge country. Compared to other routes, it is a little easier to make the crossing from here to Bulgaria or Greece,” the smuggler tells us.

The two hotspots for the migrant trade within Turkey are Istanbul and the western Turkish city of Izmir, he says.

As uncle becomes more comfortable, he begins to explain in more detail.

As in any business, cash is paramount: the amount customers are willing to pay determines how quickly and how comfortably they will reach their destination.

High fees secure a quick flight, but on the other end of the scale there are arduous journeys of days spent hidden in lorries and ships. Uncle says he draws the line, though, at sending migrants on the kind of flimsy makeshift boats or inflatable dinghies that have led thousands to their deaths trying to cross to Greece.

“It’s too risky,” he says. “The boat can capsize with the slightest wave, or just because the passengers are sitting the wrong way.”

In fact, for many of uncle’s clients, the journey is as safe and routine as boarding a standard international flight.

“Well-off refugees pay good money, and they go by air. That’s normally between 9,000 and 10,000 euros, but for Britain its 12,000 or 13,000, and for Canada 15,000 euros. We can afford to give guarantees, and arrange the necessary documents and even visas,” he says.

What you get for 7,000 euros, though, is a journey that begins with days concealed in the truck bed of an articulated lorry, and then more days on a freight ship from Istanbul to a port in Italy. There are no guarantees for the customers who pay the lowest rates, but, uncle says, the smugglers will not spare any efforts to get them where they want to go.

Then there are the “new methods” used by smugglers to get around strict visa restrictions.

“If a refugee comes to Turkey through legal channels – most who do are from Iraq and Iran – and if they can’t get hold of a Schengen visa, they come to us,” uncle says.

This way past border controls, referred to as the “VIP method”, can only be used if the customer already holds an ordinary passport. The smuggling networks approach contacts involved in forging documents to procure a fake passport. This can be from a range of countries, but the Turkish special green passport, which allows visa-free travel to some countries, is among the most in demand.

The forgers charge smuggling networks just 200 euros for the passports, which are built to contain the latest biometric technology with the migrants’ details loaded onto them. The forgers also include backdated entrance and exit stamps on pages of the passport to give the impression of previous journeys to Europe – a move designed to ease the suspicions of border police.

Most striking of all is the smuggling networks’ claim that these fake passports can make it past passport control devices without being detected. This is because, uncle says, the fakes they use come from suppliers who claim to have sourced supplies of the same passport books that are used to manufacture real documents. The customers’ data is loaded onto the fake passport by specialists, who reportedly also run tests on the finished products.

Migrants who buy these passports are told to book flights to destinations like Cuba, South Africa or Brazil, which have the double benefit of providing electronic visas and being far enough away to require transit stops in Europe.

The first leg of the journey is taken with the traveller’s real passport. Once they have reached the transit stop they switch to the fake and attempt to enter the European country. If the police notice anything awry at the border, the migrant can simply apply for asylum then and there.

The price for this service – which includes guidance via mobile phone from a smuggler at each step of the journey – is 8,000 euros.

With uncle estimating that around 1,000 people leave Turkey through smuggling networks per day, the volume of money transferred between migrants and smugglers is huge. Smuggling networks and their clients use a special network of companies they call “schools”, which exist throughout countries with a flow of migrant traffic. They take payment from the migrants at the beginning of their journeys and transfer it to smugglers once they reach their destinations. Hundreds of thousands in various currencies are transferred through these “schools” on a daily basis.

“There are branches of these companies operating legally all over the place. Nobody stops them. They are in Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Germany, even Britain,” uncle tells us.

One would think that with these illegal activities being so developed and entrenched in Turkey, they would attract the attention of security forces. Uncle’s answer to this point is striking.

“The state turns a blind eye to the flow of migrants. Of course they know. But the migrants are a great source of income for Turkey ... Our trade is a great support for the national wealth, because every migrant who enters Turkey leaves behind between 3,000 and 10,000 euros. And the government knows that.”