Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on traffickers hired to take refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia to Western and Northern Europe. Part two can be read here.
BODRUM, Turkey — In a villa in the suburbs of Bodrum, surrounded by vacation homes, three Syrian smugglers sit on a porch after midnight eating nuts and drinking Johnnie Walker Red Label whiskey. A beautifully arranged fruit spread, with apples, bananas and grapes, sits on the table in front of them. For the past few months, the men have been smuggling any refugee who will pay — Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans — from the coast right down the street to Greece.
The man who goes by Messi, 30, is the head of the group. He is from the eastern part of Syria and has worked as a smuggler for the past three years — first on the Syria-Turkey border and then the Turkey-Bulgaria border before arriving in Bodrum. He says the group smuggles about 50 refugees per day, although some days there may be as few as a dozen and others as many as 150.
The Captain, a man in his 40s with gentle features and wearing a red tank top, sits next to Messi. Raised on the coast in Latakia, he is a self-taught sailor and self-proclaimed son of the sea. He makes the 6-mile trip from Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos in a wooden yacht that transports a dozen or so people in 25 minutes. He drops the refugees off quickly. They pay 2,500 euros ($2,800) per trip, the Captain says. “For each trip, I get 1,500 euros. I’ve done four so far. But the big money goes to the Turkish bosses in charge of the business.”
Almost on cue, a Turkish man walks into the apartment and heads outside to the porch, only to stand at a distance, glaring skeptically. Messi offers him whiskey. “It’s haram [forbidden],” he says, “I’m having arak [an anise-flavored liquor] instead.” Everyone laughs loudly. The Turk sips on his drink. The conversation continues until the Turk asks who the visitors are and, hearing they are journalists, quickly squirms away. “See you later, alligator,” he says, slipping out the door.
Messi says he pockets 100 euros from each refugee who makes the trip. His phone keeps beeping with messages about how far refugees he has sent out that night are from Kos. Leaning in, he says, “They’ll be there in just a few minutes.” It’s unclear what mode of transport the refugees who set off earlier that night took, since the two other men sitting with him are the ones who sail the yachts Messi says he uses.
His phone rings. “Who sent you?” Messi asks the caller. “Oh, your uncle Abu Azzouz. Yes, I’m Syrian. Come tomorrow, and we’ll meet.” Prices are discussed. “It’s 2,500 euros. How many are you? Just you and your wife? OK, that’s 5,000 euros. In dollars? I don’t know how much it is. You’ll have to calculate it. But you have to pay me in euros.”
Messi explains that refugees are assigned a smuggler when they arrive in Bodrum and then ushered to a hotel near the coast to sleep. “Late at night, we pick them up, drive to a public beach near the big hotels and send them off,” he says.
However, ever since the body of 3-year-old Alan Shenu (reported elsewhere as Aylan Kurdi) washed up on the shore in Bodrum in early September, Messi says, Turkish police have cracked down on smugglers along the coast.
“They’ve arrested 15 smugglers, including everyone in the chain of command that was involved in the incident of the boy,” he says. But he sees his work as a national service.
“In the past, life was good in Syria,” he says. “There was work, electricity, clean water, food … Today there’s nothing. Everyone wants to escape. I feel like the messiah. The people I meet feel like they’re already dead by the time they reach me. I breathe life back into them. And in the end, I get them to a safe shore.”
On the other side in Kos, refugees hold a different view.
“They are human traffickers,” says Turki, a Syrian who escaped fighting in the Golan Heights with his wife and six children. “We spent two hours in the dinghy until water began to fill the rubber boat and it started to sink. Only a small portion remained afloat. That’s where we put the kids. Everyone else held on to a rope that was wrapped around the boat.”
“We saw death in our eyes,” he quietly adds. “[The smugglers] just don’t care about our lives.”
According to Roberto Mignone, U.N. refugee agency’s emergency coordinator in Kos, the number of refugees arriving in Kos is dwindling. In late August, he says, more than 750 refugees arrived each night. By early September, that number had fallen to about 200. Mignone and Kos police claim this drop is due in part to the images of Shenu’s body that circulated around the world.
The International Organization for Migration says that 226 refugees have died in the Mediterranean en route from Turkey to Greece so far this year. Dinghies meant for 18 but packed with 45 people end up drifting astray, out of fuel and awaiting rescue by the Greek coast guard.
Messi insists he doesn’t send refugees in rubber dinghies and that nobody has died on his trips, although two passengers fell overboard but were saved.
“For us, it’s important that people get to their destination. If a customer is satisfied, he will give my contact information to his mother, brother and his whole family. That’s how I’ve stayed in the business for three years. Other smugglers will not last,” he says.
Many do make it to Kos safely. One Tuesday morning in early September, a group of seven refugees traveling from Damascus stepped ashore. One of them, Pierre, proudly expressed his ability to navigate the waters safely on his own, without a captain or smuggler on board.
On the porch with the whiskey and the fresh fruit, the third man, Abu Husam, describes transporting European tourists on yachts from Bodrum to Kos. Mixed in with the tourists are about 12 refugees per trip. Each refugee pays 4,000 euros to board this boat, and he says he receives 1,500 euros total per trip. Before departure, refugees receive haircuts and new clothes so that they blend with the European tourists.
“If a woman is wearing a hijab, we tell her to remove it,” Abu Husam says.
When the boat arrives on Kos, those aboard set off to explore the island. When it’s time to return, the Syrian refugees stay behind.
In the living room inside is Ahmed, a 20-year-old Iraqi, who collects the money from the refugees and runs small errands for the other men. He goes out to the porch every once in a while proudly parading videos of refugees in dinghies on their way to Kos, sending thanks to the smugglers. “Want to come and film me counting the earnings from tonight?” he asks.
Abu Husam and the Captain are saving their earnings to smuggle their wives and children out of Syria.
“I want to go to Germany,” says the Captain. “The most important thing for me is to provide my children an education.” He hopes to bring his family out of Syria to Turkey by the end of the month.
Messi’s family, meanwhile, is already in Turkey, and that’s where he sees a future for himself. “I’ve found a woman that I like,” he says. “Hopefully, we will be engaged soon.”