Desperate Afghans’ harrowing journey to Europe

This is the third article in our series on people smuggling -- enjoy the first two articles here and here

Zeytinburnu, a working-class district on Istanbul’s European side, is known for its shopping centers and restaurants as much as for the ancient city walls that run through it.

It is also an important hub for migration, both for the migrants themselves, crowds of whom can be found on the neighbourhood streets at any time of day, and for the local government’s Migration Management offices, which are located a few minutes from the area’s famous fish restaurants.

One of the largest migrant groups to make their way to Istanbul are the Afghans, crowds of whom are often seen practicing their traditional sport of wrestling along the Zeytinburnu coast. Yet the Afghans have another point of distinction: they play an active and growing role in Turkey’s thriving people smuggling industry.

It is in Zeytinburnu that we met Ahmet Xan, one of the leading smugglers in the migrant trade from Turkey to Europe. This, at first, he denied, claiming to be a simple businessman, until a man walked in to hand him a pile of U.S. dollars, telling Xan the money was payment for taking a group across the border to Greece.

Xan dropped his pretence after we witnessed this exchange, and he opened up to us in fluent Turkish learned in more than 11 years living in the country.

While our previous contacts in the smuggling world had spoken of “VIPs” – wealthy clientele willing to pay more than 10,000 euros for top quality forged documents and flights out of the country – we arrived at this meeting with an impression of Xan as a smuggler with decidedly less wealthy customers.

As if to illustrate the point, the contact who handed him the money enquired about life vests for the migrants. “There’s too little money,” Xan complained.

Tens of thousands of Afghans make the journey to Turkey each year, fleeing poverty and violence in their country.

Xan tells us many Afghan migrants first engage the help of smugglers in the capital city of Kabul, before crossing to Pakistan, on to Iran and then to Turkey. He says he made the trip himself, crossing the borders of several countries before walking 18-20 hours to get into Turkey.

The price for these border crossings is around $1,200. Since groups of migrants can sometimes comprise hundreds of people, that amounts to no small sum. The risk, too, is high. Security forces on the border of Iran may beat or even shoot at people they catch crossing illegally. Finally, on journeys that can involve walking in rough conditions for days, those who cannot keep up risk being left to die.

“People find themselves forced to make the journey even if it costs them their lives. There are a few crossings in Iran to Doğubeyazıt and Van (in eastern Turkey). The smugglers tell their clients they’ve made a deal with the soldiers on the border, but this is usually a lie,” Xan said.

The lack of provisions for migrants on the tough route to Van means they will sometimes be caught outside for two or three days. “There’s a family I just brought in, they’re at the bus station right now, and they were waiting for three days in the rain without food or water,” he continued.

Crossing the border does not mean the migrants are in the clear. Security checks are common on roads in Turkey, and some form of ID is usually required to buy tickets for long-distance journeys, making travel between cities difficult. Prices are much higher as a result. A relative of Xan’s recently made the trip from Malatya in the east of Turkey to Istanbul after coming from Afghanistan, and the ticket cost 700 lira ($130), around six times higher than a standard ticket.

The coach companies that agree to carry undocumented migrants have a deceptively simple way of getting them past police. They dress them up in the uniforms worn by their staff. Xan described this method being used to carry migrants on the long journeys from the eastern Turkish regions near the border to the next leg of their journey in Istanbul - the same method can be used to reach Edirne, near the border with Bulgaria and Greece, or Turkey’s west coast Aegean region, from which they make the sea crossing to Greece.

The route from Istanbul to Edirne is dotted with checkpoints, and Xan described the necessity of sending escort vehicles alongside those carrying migrants to make sure they can get past. At times this can lengthen the two and a half hour journey from Istanbul to Edirne to one of 10 or even 12 hours.

Once there, the migrants are by no means past the worst. The taxis hired to take them to the border are notoriously unreliable, and if one does not turn up, travellers must wait for hours outside to be picked up and taken back to Istanbul. Thanks to this uncertainty, groups of migrants waiting to make the trip to the border are a constant presence in Istanbul, and the smuggling network uses hotels and houses to hold them. At times these accommodate groups of 30 or 40 people.

The discussion about such large groups of migrants travelling together brings up a topic that shocked Turkey in October. A lorry crash in the province of Izmir killed 22 migrants and injured a dozen others on their way to the Aegean coast. The lorry reportedly swerved off the road, smashed through a barrier and ended up in an irrigation ditch. It had been carrying the migrants to the coast to make the crossing to Greece on inflatable dinghies.

“We have to take the most difficult routes because (the migrants) have so little to pay us. So we try the routes you can cross with inflatable boats or on foot,” Xan said.

What that means for many migrants is that, at the end of a tortuous trip to the coast, they find they have been lied to. There is no one waiting for them, not even the boat they had been promised.

Instead, they are handed inflatable rafts – often meant to hold no more than half the number of migrants present – and told, sometimes forced, to make their own way across the sea, with no charts and no guides on board, nothing to guide them but the lights on the opposite shore.