IZMIR, Turkey — A family is hunched together on a patch of grass close to a busy roundabout on a bus stop. They snack on sunflower seeds and discuss their future; within days they will board a boat to start a new life in Europe. “They call it the journey of death, did you know that?” asks Radwan, a 42-year-old truck driver from Homs. Neither he nor his three children can swim.
It’s a familiar sight in Basmane, a neighborhood of Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city. While tourists enjoy cocktails along the boulevard, Basmane feels like Syria. Men sip tea on the sidewalks, barbers advertise their business in Arabic. Bright orange life vests are sold openly in clothes shops, modeled on mannequins next to hanging suits or knockdown shirts. Anyone loitering on a corner is approached with the same question: Want to go to Greece?
This is Izmir’s migrant economy—and it’s booming. Since the start of the year, more than 350,000 migrants and refugees have passed through Turkey en route to Greece. The vast majority of them are from Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, with smaller numbers of people originating from Africa and other Middle Eastern states, in what has become the largest mass migration since the Second World War. It’s a lucrative trade—on average the more than 350,000 people who entered Europe from Turkey this year paid $1,200 each. Every day, millions are being made.
Finding a smuggler is not difficult; recruiters receive $200 for everyone they convince to sign on with their boss. The lobbies of Basmane’s cheap hotels are filled with men making deals, exchanging handshakes and money.
Poorer or more frugal asylum seekers, such as the truck driver Radwan and his family, sleep at a nearby mosque. Like many, he has borrowed heavily to pay for the trip. At the city’s cafés, advice is traded, acquaintances made. Reputation is everything, as the system is entirely governed by trust. Since the smuggling route through Izmir is well trodden, many arrive to the city with references of “good” collectors from friends and family who have successfully made the trip across to Europe.
Rowan, a 28 year-old Palestinian-Syrian with long black hair, chose the father of one of her friends from the Yarmouk camp near Damascus to get her across. But it was a tough decision to trust anyone at all. Every day we heard people here saying “ah, someone drowned yesterday,” or stories about the Turkish coast guard catching them, or dishonest smugglers who pocketed the money without ensuring migrants had made it to Greece.
A broken motor meant the boat never made it more than a few hundred meters out. As she knew her smuggler personally, she managed to get her money back. An unsuccessful border crossing is costly for both parties; good collectors pay for the board and food of their clients until they are able to leave the city; a mechanism that ensures that the transaction is concluded as soon as possible.
Khodor, a 21-year-old nursing student from Idlib, is one of those waiting to wage a second attempt; during his first crossing the motor failed. He lost the life vest he stole from the plane he took to Izmir, but managed to retain his black backpack with the image of a bare-chested bodybuilder. “Luckily I only lost fifty dollars, because I had taken out insurance,” he says matter-of-factly.
In another safety mechanism, a myriad of insurance offices has sprung up. Such informal offices, or a third party, will safeguard the payment until the client reaches Greece. Once safely arrived, they will ring through with a personal code, which will release the money to the smuggler.
But even these third-party operators are not without risk; sometimes they are closed down by the authorities, other times owners empty their safe and are not heard from again.
At a later stage the collector transfers the bulk of the money in his possession to the Turkish smuggler, who organizes the logistics of getting asylum seekers from a bus in Izmir to the rubber dinghy bound for Lesvos.
Once a place on board is secured, most migrants will shop for the lifesaving necessities the trip requires. Vendors have set up temporary stands at street corners, selling all sorts of trinkets, from whistles to waterproof plastic wallets, ideal for holding passports, phones and other valuables. Cellphones, SIM cards, and portable smartphone chargers are also on sale.
Migrants are usually instructed not to bring more than one backpack, so prioritization is key. Clothes and dry foodstuffs tend to take up much of the space, but we met some people with more surprising contents, including several ouds, a string instrument popular in the Middle East. Khodor, the nursing student, decided to bring three boxes of Apple flavored smoking tobacco. “I hear you can’t get good stuff in Germany,” he added with a grin.
Like so many others about to embark on a trip to Europe, Khodor was also carrying a large, black plastic bag containing a recently purchased life vest. These are sold for from US$14 to $30, depending on quality and brand. Old, cork-made models are on the lower end, while lightweight Yamaha vests retail for more. In a shoe shop, which had added life vests to its stock, a sales assistant admitted that they sold fully functioning copies at half price. Khodor went for a blue Yamaha vest.
At nightfall, migrants gather their belongings and board busses or taxis, chartered by the smugglers, to begin the journey. Crowds gather near the bus station in Izmir, in plain sight of the police. From Izmir they head northward, usually in the dead of night. They travel in darkness; the curtains are closed and the lights switched off on the bus. The migrants are told to be quiet: the less attention they get, the better.
There are numerous departure points, but a huge amount of smuggling activity is concentrated around Assos, which is separated from Lesvos by just six kilometers of water. The trouble is, it can take eight hours on a bus from Izmir.
Depending on the location, it is usually a bit of a walk from where the bus stops to the ‘camp’, a particular area of operations of the particular Turkish smuggler designated by the collector.
There the dinghies are unloaded from their boxes or lie waiting by the shore. It is here that many of the migrants discover that they have been lied to, as Turkish smugglers and their translators direct 45 or more people onto dinghies that migrants were told would carry significantly fewer. Weight distribution is key, and smugglers size people up and direct them to different parts of the five meters (16 feet) -long rubber vessel to get the balance right. In some cases, people are literally sitting on top of one another.
Migrants are instructed, as they have been repeatedly since stepping on the bus, that they are to shut off any electronics that have a GPS signal, which is used by the Turkish coast guard to track vessels.
Once the dinghy is ready to depart, the captain (usually a migrant who rides for free in return for taking legal responsibility for the smuggling if caught) gets ready to start the engine and begin the journey across the sea.
Here, the hurdles are many. The engine might not start or may cut out en route. The vessel could scratch off a rock near the beach, resulting in an irreparable tear. Out at sea, it’s a gamble not to be spotted or apprehended by the Turkish coast guard, and sent back to shore.
Nerves are understandably high at this point. Some of the passengers carry small children, others cannot swim, others still are without life vests. For some the risks are too great and they get cold feet. For those that remain, there is little to do but hope that seas remain calm and the overweight, cheap vessel makes it into Greek waters.
Even those that make it across to Lesbos will remember that journey. “We saw death,” says Jalal Khalil Khamis, an accountant who fled with his wife and three children from Diyala in Iraq. The family was beaming after their safe arrival and were enjoying chocolate chip cookies as their wet clothes started to dry. He had tried the land route, but with the borders being close saw no other option than to put his family on a boat, despite the dangers. “The sea is worse than soldiers, as on the water, there is no way out.”