AUGUSTA, Sicily—“There is a little office near the port where a broker takes your money and gives you a password,” said Ali Saed, explaining how he and his wife and their 5-year-old daughter bought three tickets in the Turkish town of Mersin for passage to Italy on a smuggler’s boat. They had heard about what Saed calls “a company” in Turkey that smuggles Syrians at a “fair price” of just $4,000 apiece. “It is very organized,” he said. “You can wire them the money or give them cash. They sell other kinds of tickets, too, for tourism excursions.”
There was nothing touristic about this journey. Saed, 37, his wife, Lama Mostafa, 30, and little Thia were fleeing the gruesome war in their Syrian homeland that has killed at least 200,000 people and shows no sign of ending soon. We were talking at the Italian military port at Augusta, where Saed and his family and more than 400 other Syrians were brought after they were plucked from the sea in a rescue orchestrated by the European Union’s Frontex Triton mission launched on Nov. 1. The Italian navy is phasing out its year-old Mare Nostrum search and rescue missions that cost the country around €9 million a month. Frontex, which has a budget of less than €3 million a month, is not supposed to be a search and rescue operation, according to the European states that fund it. But the ships deployed already have been involved in the rescue of more than 1,000 people during their first month of operation.
For both humanitarian initiatives, a major concern is the extent to which refugee smuggling has become a cynical and highly organized business that exploits the fear and suffering of the victims along with the effort of European governments to do the right thing.
Before Saed and his family left Turkey, he said, they stayed with other Syrians in a little house in Mersin recommended by the smuggler’s broker, where they could rent a room while they waited for a boat to pick them up. “There are no discounts for children or families,” he said. “Everybody pays.”
In their case, they spent just one day waiting for a boat to come, even though the broker warned them it could be longer because of rough winter seas. “When the smuggler boat is ready, they call you,” Saed says. “You have just a few hours to get ready. When you are safely out, you give your password to the smuggler who calls it in to the broker to release the funds. If you get turned back by authorities, they guarantee another chance for the price.”
Syrian national Moutassem Yazbek, 27, an IT specialist who worked for six years in Dubai before he got laid off and had no visa to stay and no country to return to, says he tried to make the trip three times before he finally arrived Wednesday. He bought his ticket through the same broker as Saed. The first two times, the Turkish military stopped his boat. “We all had to sign a piece of paper that said we wouldn’t try it again,” Yazbek told The Daily Beast. “But a few days later, the smuggler’s broker called and said he had another boat. He didn’t want me to ruin his reputation. He was worried I would spread the word that he failed me.”
Yazbek says the demand for safe crossing has made the smugglers very competitive. He said there are even websites in Arabic that have TripAdvisor-style ratings to help people decide who to use. He says it is standard to call ahead to ask what sorts of services are offered. “When you talk to the smugglers, they tell you it’s going to be luxury like the Titanic, with LCD TVs in every room,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s never quite the experience they are selling, but no one really thinks it will be.”
He said the brokers promise that the Italian navy will pick them up, which he says has actually driven the prices down. “It’s a very sophisticated business,” he says. “When you think about the smugglers, you assume these deals are made in the dark at night in a shady place. But this is a regular office with fax machines and telephones and computers. It is done in broad daylight.”
Yazbek says he will wait a few days in Italy to regroup and find people to travel with. Then he has the names of land smugglers who have a good reputation, he says. “I’ll use a different smuggler to try to move north,” he says. “I have a couple of good recommendations.”
Most of the people who arrived Wednesday spent 11 days at sea, on a mid-size ship with little food and water available beyond what they brought. There was one bathroom on the ship, and there were no showers or beds. They were allowed to bring one bag per family, which most fill with food. Five days into the trip, they stopped and waited for a smaller smuggler’s boat to deliver dozens more Syrian refugees. Then they set sail for open water, where they were assured someone would rescue them.
“It was a terrible experience,” said Saed’s wife, Mostafa, a grade-school teacher, as we talked inside the tent camp set up in Augusta. She held Thia’s hand closely to her side. “I thought we might all die so many times,” she said. “We slept outside on the decks until the seas got rough and the rain started. Then we crowded inside. There was nowhere to go. We couldn’t see land. I thought we would be there forever. At one point, I wished I had stayed in Syria.”
Once in Sicily, the refugees are processed and released by the Italian authorities, who have streamlined the experience. More than 160,000 people have made it to Italy, and the group of 400 that arrived Wednesday was through in just a few hours. Once the ships that rescued them dock at port, they disembark.
Most people are carrying a piece of hand luggage. It is almost as if they’ve just gotten off an airplane except for the fact that few are wearing winter jackets and many of the children don’t have shoes.
White ambulances shuttle the sick. A dark minivan quickly fills with pregnant women and those carrying infants. Everyone else walks the quarter mile to the camp in a huddle of shiny gold Mylar rescue blankets, followed by a line of police vans ready to give chase to anyone who tries to escape.
The worst may be over for many of the refugees, but their first look at life in Europe is pretty grim. The wooden floor inside the white makeshift reception tent is scuffed from the many thousands who have been processed before this group. There is something of Ellis Island about this place, even though Europe never wanted to embrace these huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Hundreds of blue and green cots are lined up in neat rows, but they are quickly rearranged into little groupings so families can sit together. Children run and laugh. Old people stretch out to sleep. The weak and sick are taken to a medical tent. There is a distinct smell of apples, which are handed out by volunteer workers. Translators—many of whom came by boat themselves—work through the crowds with Italian authorities to take down names and details. Everyone is given a number and an application for asylum, which could take months if not years to be processed once they fill out the tedious forms.
Representatives from non-governmental organizations like Save the Children and intergovernmental groups like the International Organization for Migration collect details from the refugees, trying to determine first and foremost how many people died on the way. The authorities try to sort out who might have been a smuggler’s helper. Within five hours of the landing, buses pull up and take the arrivals to centers across Sicily, from where they will almost all try to move north. Families go in one bus, single men in another. No one knows where they will spend the night, but at least it will be on land and not at sea.
The Syrians who arrived in Sicily this week are lucky to be alive. Last week, 18 people making the same trip died of hypothermia on the way. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 3,419 others are known to have died at sea in 2014, so far.
But for people who come from a country where the tyranny of the Assad regime vies for power with the murderous so-called Islamic State, that is not a deterrent. “There was death and death and death everywhere, all around us,” Alaa Slaipe, 26, a Syrian hairdresser, told The Daily Beast shortly after he got off an Icelandic ship in Frontex fleet. “When there is so much death around you, it doesn’t shock you anymore.”
And so it is with the stories of the migrants and refugees who make the journey. The refugee stories are compelling at first, but horrific details are numbing. Stories of war, death, fear and desperation do not have happy endings. Arriving in Italy means they have made it to the next phase, but they have most certainly not reached the end of their journeys. Their reasons for leaving and their experiences are all unique to them, but they all start to sound the same, especially to many Europeans, who see them as just more people trying to move in on their territories, and not people with individual dreams.
At the opening of a policy meeting this week called Protection at Sea, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres warned that some European governments are making keeping foreigners out a higher priority than upholding asylum standards. “This is a mistake, and precisely the wrong reaction for an era in which record numbers of people are fleeing wars,” Guterres said. “Security and immigration management are concerns for any country, but policies must be designed in a way that human lives do not end up becoming collateral damage.”