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World & Nation

The migrant crisis, as seen through the eyes of a people smuggler in Turkey

Migrants in Turkey
Migrants wait at a Turkish coast guard station at the Dikili district in Izmir on March 20, 2016, after they were caught trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos from the Bademli village, western Turkey.
(Ozan Kose / AFP/Getty Images)

The smuggler roams the backstreets of Turkey’s impoverished Agora area in Izmir, past street vendors pitching their knockoff wares.

He talks of guiding thousands of people through labyrinthine cities, along beaches and ultimately aboard frail and overcrowded boats as part of an underground trade worth billions of dollars. Each customer was willing to take the necessary risks in hopes of reaching Europe, often to get away from war and poverty in their homeland, he says.

“I tell them, ‘The boat may capsize, you may drown. Are you sure you want to go?’ ” the smuggler says. 

“I don’t even have to look for them; they find me,” he says. “Most have relatives or friends who we have smuggled. One name is enough. Just come here and ask for ‘Ibo from Mardin.’ ”

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Izmir — Turkey’s third-largest city and traditional hub of its Mediterranean trading class — has served as the country’s central staging post for the people smugglers whose operations exploded over the last year along the Aegean Sea. Other such smuggling occurs from places such as Antalya and Bodrum.

More than a million people boarded rickety craft in the secluded inlets and bays along this coastal expanse, ferried by night to a scattering of nearby Greek islands during at least the last year, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 

The European Union’s border agency, Frontex, estimates that the trade was worth about $4.6 billion during the last year.

In April, Greece began implementing a plan to send thousands of migrants to Turkey as part of a broader deal to stem the massive flow of people trying to reach mainland Europe. The plan arranged by the 28-nation European Union and Turkey immediately drew criticism from rights groups and generated unrest in refugee camps and reception centers in Greece. 

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Although the changes may slow migration in the short term, Ibo doubts that the EU-Turkey deal will have a lasting effect, apart from encouraging smugglers to find alternative routes. Since the deal went into effect, he said, smuggling fees have dropped as low as $300 per person from a high of about $1,500 per person. Ibo charges $400 per person.

As Ibo walks through the slums of Kadifekale, a prominent hill on the fringes of downtown Izmir, children scurry about, playing soccer with an empty cola bottle. The area is home to a large refugee population — Arabic graffiti is scrawled across walls. 

Khadeja Abdullah says she shares a run-down two-bedroom house with her four children and husband. The 32-year-old from Aleppo, Syria, recently was planning to risk the trip soon.

“My husband cannot find any work. We are living in a house unfit for animals,” she says, clutching the paperwork for her visa application in hopes of going to Germany. 

Her sister and brother smuggled their families to Greece not long ago and were searching for a way into Macedonia or Albania.

“I would prefer to follow the legal procedures,” Abdullah says. “Instead, I will have to risk my children’s lives at sea. We can’t go back to Syria.”

As Ibo moves on, he points to a shuttle bus, its windows tinted white, parked down a winding back alley. His crew has four of these vehicles, paid for by the “big boss,” a person he would not identify. 

“Can you imagine it? We can squeeze 50 people into it,” he says. 

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A smuggler for the last five years, he says he had worked other jobs in southeastern Turkey and Aleppo. He saved about $500 and moved to Izmir.

In Izmir, he learned to navigate the smuggling world’s complex landscape of middlemen, profiteers, corrupt authorities — and the tides of desperate migrants, here one day, gone the next.

“I smuggled Afghanis mostly. Now, it is all Syrians and Iraqis,” he says, then whistles. “Many many people.”

Located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Turkey has long been haunted by smugglers, moving opium and heroin, oil, tea and people. 

Ibo, however, says the last year was without precedent. He smokes a cigarette, eyes reddened, and laments the influx of inexperienced smugglers.

“The new smugglers ...  they don’t understand the weather, how the winds work,” he says. “That’s why there were so many deaths.”

From the slums perched near the top of Kadifekale, Izmir appears a sprawl of high-rises and boats sliding through the choppy harbor waters.

Ibo opens a green bicycle lock wrapped around the door handles of a dilapidated house.

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“The big boss owns this place,” he says.

The house has three rooms, each dank and illuminated by a single low-wattage lightbulb. Rugs cover the windows. Filthy mattresses — makeshift seating — line the walls and floor. There is the detritus of mass movement: abandoned clothes, empty water bottles and the lingering stink of sweat.

“When we’re ready, we bring people here,” Ibo says. “We tell them to come with taxis from different places. On a good day, we have 40, 50 people in each room.”

He says his gang has five scouts, who each hope to gather a minimum of 10 people.

“It’s 40 people minimum for us to go,” he says. “The scouts take $100 for each person he finds. That leaves $800, 900 [per person], sometimes more, for the big boss.”

The refugees come at dusk and wait in the house until around midnight. Then the vans come, whisking the refugees away.

“We have people watching to see if police have followed them,” Ibo says. “Then we drive them to the boats. The boats usually leave at around 3 a.m. If [the waters] get too bad, we come back.” 

Upon arriving on the Greek islands, refugees send messages confirming their location to a trusted relative or friend who then releases money to Ibo’s gang. 

“If they don’t make it to Greece,” Ibo says, “the money stays with the guy and they try again.”

Ibo locks up the safe house.He looks at the sky. It seems he can almost hear the howling wind and thunder and see the lightning that will come hours later.

Before he drifts off toward the bustling crowds of Izmir’s Basmane district, he makes a judgment call: “We won’t be going tonight.” 

Johnson is a special correspondent.

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