Turkish police report sheds light on smugglers thriving on exploiting illegal migrants

A Turkish Coast Guard boat tows a boat carrying migrants off the coast of Çeşme, a district of İzmir, in this undated photo.

Human smugglers have played a major role in the rise of illegal migration from Turkey to Europe, and a report by Turkish police illuminates how a carefully organized network of smugglers runs a business that often leads to the deaths of migrants at sea

An investigation by Turkish police into human smugglers has revealed a network operating out of Turkey's western shores. Though seemingly disorganized at first, smugglers run operations with strict hierarchies, a report by the police says. The report by the police directorate in İzmir, a western Turkish city that is among the hot spots for illegal migration to Europe, details the schemes of smuggling networks, some of the main actors in the rise of illegal migration from all around the world to Europe.

Almost every day, illegal migrants, mostly Syrians who fled the civil war in their homeland, arrive in the Aegean coast of İzmir and other Turkish cities near the sea that serve as maritime borders between Turkey and Europe. Most are intercepted by police and the Coast Guard, while a few manage to cross into nearby Greek islands aboard dinghies. A small number, however, perish when the unsafe, overcrowded boats capsize.

The report, based on testimonies by captured smugglers, details the accounts of intercepted migrants and the surveillance of smuggling networks and depicts the smugglers as part of a broad network with a hierarchy and separate assignments for each member to smuggle migrants to the Greek islands.

Smugglers contact their potential victims or "customers" once the latter either sneak into Turkey through land borders or with tourist visas. Approached by smugglers, migrants are then instructed to travel to the country's western regions, including İzmir, Muğla, Çanakkale and Aydın, cities on the coastline, as well as Istanbul, the country's most populated city. First "contact" is by the "yolcu başı," or the "head of the passengers" in English. This member of the smuggling network, mostly Syrians who make up the majority of refugees in Turkey and migrants seeking to cross into Europe, approaches foreigners at hotels and similar venues where they stay. Other migrants contact smugglers themselves through the advice of fellow migrants who have already paid the smugglers to take them to Europe. Then, the migrants are directed to a "safe," another member of the smuggling network. The "safe" keeps the money migrants pay in exchange to cross into Europe. Generally, the amount varies between $1,000 to $2,000, depending on the risks of the journey. The "safe" in return gives them a password that is later used as proof of payment for the other members of the smuggling network. Migrants are later directed to safe houses and after a brief stay, the smugglers take them to the coast in trucks, minibuses or cars. The vehicles are the middle part of the convoy of smugglers, who warn the drivers carrying the migrants about security checkpoints along the road. Once on the coast, another member of the smuggling network awaits the migrants, guiding them to rubber boats or larger boats in secluded spots of the coast. This member sometimes accompanies the migrants on their journey but most of time, a migrant picked among the others is told the steer the boats. After they arrive in Greece, the migrants call a "yolcu başı" and give him the password that the "safe" gave them, enabling all involved in the smuggling operation to collect their share.

The İzmir police intercepted 9,687 illegal migrants in the first nine months of this year, substantially higher than the only 4,922 in the first nine months of 2017. As for human smugglers, 205 suspects were detained and 138 among them were arrested in the same period.

Connecting Asia to Europe, Turkey is no stranger to a continuous flow of migrants. The influx of illegal migrants, however, has risen considerably in recent years due to the war in neighboring Syria, other conflicts around the world and poverty affecting underdeveloped countries.

Turkey's seas, particularly the Aegean in the west, saw a large influx recently with more migrants boarding dinghies to reach Europe. They travel in overcrowded, unsafe boats to reach Greek islands scattered across the Aegean, only a few kilometers from Turkish shores. Deaths are common in crossings as many migrants, despite paying thousands of dollars to the smugglers, are forced to travel in flimsy rubber boats.

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