Human trafficking plagues Turkey, a country that is a transit route between Asia and Europe and used by thousands of Syrians, Palestinians and Africans dreaming to escape a region mired in conflicts and economic troubles. Hundreds seeking a better life in Europe have paid a steep price when journeying with Turkish human smugglers, sometimes losing their own lives or the lives of their children along the way.
For its own convenience, Turkey seems to open or close border crossings for illegal immigration depending on the ups and downs of its relations with the European Union, which is deeply concerned about the uncontrolled flow of migrants into its territory. Human trafficking survivors report that the Turkish police would often turn a blind eye to smuggling routes and release arrested migrants when they fail to reach Europe so they could try again. Warda, a Palestinian who fled Gaza and headed to Europe, recounts her journey with a network of traffickers operating both in Gaza and Turkey.
She arrived in Turkey three months ago, accompanying her injured brother. The journey from Gaza to Turkey was not easy for her, despite flying through Cairo International Airport. “Getting out of Gaza can happen either through registration with Hamas lists for those who wish to leave, which could drag for months, or to arrange for passing through the Rafah border crossing from Gaza Strip into Egypt, which costs between $5,000-7,000,” Warda said.
She explained that those who paid the fee were not asked to wait and were guided easily through the border crossing. “We met a group of people in Gaza who in turn introduced us to a network of Palestinian human trafficking operators. We were allowed to contact them through WhatsApp or e-mails and were asked us to delete the messages after every conversation,” Warda said.
Speaking on how vigilant human smugglers were, Warda said “they were always so careful that I did not see any of them, so the money was delivered by an entrusted third party.” Warda said she had to go through many offers provided by different human traffickers before she settled on a package promising her a safe voyage from Turkey to Greece. “This is a fairly safe route but it travels very long distances on foot and costs more than $1,700 to get to the Greek city of Thessaloniki, where you later head to European institutions for migrants or look for another escape from Greece to Belgium, Germany, Norway or any other European country,” Warda noted. She also mentioned a very tempting offer, set at a more reasonable price range of $1,300 - $1,500 but demands that the migrant walks over nine hours on foot.
Warda refused both land-bridge travelling offers because they demand long arduous journeys she could not take and decided to travel by sea instead, a journey she described as a never-ending horror movie and a living hell. “Means for safety and survival are nonexistent, a human life means nothing to a Turkish human trafficker… they would throw you into the bottom of the ocean and wouldn’t care if you live or die, all they care about is money,” Warda said. “We took the bus from Istanbul and headed for the coastal city, Izmir. The trafficker guided us throughout the trip, gave us instructions, after which we took a taxi that drove us to a place where a large group of migrants were gathered.”
“The cost of the first trip was $ 500. We were about 50 people with different backgrounds, some from Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and a very large number of Africans,” she said. “There were senior people, children and even infants,” she added.
Wada went on talk about how people were inhumanly accommodated in a back of a truck. “We could barely breathe. After three hours we reached a coastal area close to the sea. We walked for 10 minutes before meeting Turkish people, who spoke no Arabic.”
At one o'clock in the morning, Warda and the migrants put on life vests and boarded a rubber motor boat, whose wooden hull broke from the excess weight. Ironically, the person navigating the boat was an immigrant himself and was clueless about in which direction to steer the vessel. Warda said the boat, lost in Turkish territorial waters, circled the same spot for about nine hours. After the engine fuel ran out, she contacted Turkish police. “Turkish security forces treated us good. There was no harassment of any sort,” she said. She continued, “They gave children and women blankets to protect them from the cold and took all those aboard to a police station where we were fed and later taken in for investigations in the presence of a lawyer and translator.”
After investigations concluded, all immigrants were relocated to a shelter in Turkey’s Aydın city. A day later all Palestinians and Syrians were released.
Despite her disappointment, Warda still was hopeful of someday reaching Europe. After her release in Adyin, she was contacted by the very same smugglers who told her to prepare for going for another shot. This time, Warda boarded the boat with about 60 people, mostly Africans. Their second try also ended in failure after a fishing net jammed the engine. “Suddenly, we were in the water,” she said. “Smugglers were telling us that they would return with a rescue boat. My brother and I were trapped by land, sea, and hovering helicopters and guard dogs scattered everywhere.” She added, “We got to Turkish mainland and my brother and I walked through a mountainous area until we reached the public road two and a half hours later. We took a car and went back to the smuggler’s house.”
The next day, Warda asked the smuggler to take her to another island where security measures were less stringent. This time, they were headed for Samos Island. She and her brother safely arrived at the Greek Island early morning the next day. Warda contacted the Greek police who took them to the island. “After vetting us, the police took us directly to the refugee camp. They gave us medical tests, fed us, probed our phones to find out the contacts of the smugglers and told us that Palestinian and Syrian refugees were not refused.” Warda, currently staying in Athens, says she is still looking for a way into Belgium.
Adham, a Syrian asylum seeker, says he entered Turkey legally and had never considered using it as a transit route into Europe. He says his only hope was to return to his homeland, Syria, after the war was over and he had no plans to settle in Turkey. But as the days unfolded, Adham said the feelings of insecurity he experienced made him contemplate heading for Europe. After arriving in Turkey in 2012, were he stayed for three years, Adham pursued his career in tourism, an industry in which he was employed back home.
“I started considering migrating to Europe after I was treated in Turkey the way Palestinians were treated in Syria, trapped in a corner like a mouse, caught between an icy closed wall and a fierce vicious cat,” Adham told 7D News. He recalls not being able to breathe, feeding off leftovers thrown away by the guarantors or the hosts whom with he was staying. It was the extreme maltreatment he faced that pushed him to seek a better life in Belgium, noting that he had lost all hopes of return to Syria. “I was lucky enough having migrated to Europe at a time the EU policy was tolerant towards refugees and when humanitarian organisations helped newcomers and provided all sorts of aid,” Adham recalls with gratitude while taking note of Turkey’s border leniency and policy for encouraging asylum seekers it harbours to cross into Europe. “Turkish streets were filled with brokers and human traffickers, arrangements to smuggle people across borders were being made overtly in coffee shops, parks and over the phone, not to mention the abundant online ads,” he said, but noted that things have “changed today.”
The Turkish city of Mersin, alongside other Turkish coastal cities, were overflowing with so-called “ghost ships” and entire buildings housing illegal immigrants waiting to sail to Greece, Adham said, while adding that it was impossible for the Turkish government not to have detected such high-level activity.
Adham's trip to Greece was not a risky one. After a Syrian broker arranged an offer for his travel, he migrated by sea, making the voyage from the Turkish coastal village of Kash in Antalya to the Greek island of Castello. Being separated by a short distance of two kilometres, some Syrian refugees would even swim from Kash to Castello. “The journey lasted only about 20 minutes. The trafficker charged me $ 1,000. The boat was medium size, 3 metres long and we were about 20 people, he said.” “After arriving on the island, Greek security gave us papers, known as expulsion forms, after which we mounted a boat to Rhodes then to Thessaloniki. It was a long journey, passing through Serbia to finally arriving in Belgium, where I was given official asylum two years ago,” Adham said about his voyage.
Murad, an investigative journalist working for a private channel in Turkey, told 7D News stories about illegal migrants he has reported on and personally met. In 2015, Murad forged identification papers stating that he was a Syrian from Aleppo, set on exposing security at Syria- Turkey border crossings and channels used for human trafficking.
Given that he spoke Turkish fluently, it was not difficult for Murad to make needed trips across the Turkish-Syrian borders. His reentry to Turkey went smoothly and at the border crossing he was given documents claiming his status as a temporary Syrian refugee. After contacting a third party mediator, used for security purposes, Murad said that he “did not personally meet the smuggler,” and was given directions via WhatsApp to head to Mersin where he stayed for 10 days.
Later on, he was phoned by the human trafficker and asked to prepare himself to travel the very same evening. The fare was set at $550, and those who did not have the money or a deposit receipt from insurance offices linked to the trafficker would not be able to board the boat.
Insurance offices grant the immigrant a $550 voucher and a security slip that costs up to $130 which states the name of the trafficker’s name with whom they will be travelling. Nevertheless, the name mentioned on the slip is often, if not always, fake.