ISTANBUL — They are fleeing the war that’s raging in their country and have scratched together their last money to pay for a place on a flimsy boat that is supposed to take them from Turkey to Greece and to a better, safer life in Europe. But when their dinghy capsizes in the icy waters of the wintry Aegean Sea, as many do, some Syrian refugees find that the life vests they bought on shore drag them down because they are stuffed with foam, cloth or paper packaging instead of flotation materials.
As Turkey is trying to reduce the numbers of Syrians crossing into the European Union in line with a deal it struck with European leaders in November, authorities also are struggling to fight an illicit economy that has sprung up around the mass exodus and that includes more than just gangs of people smugglers.
Greece received around 850,000 refugees last year, most of whom came to the country via Turkey. That’s a lot of people in need of life vests and other items.
This week, police in Izmir, the biggest city on the Turkish Aegean coast and a center of the exodus towards Greece, raided an illegal workplace producing life vests for refugees. Officers found two underage Syrian girls and two other people working on vests that were filled with packaging. The owner of the place was arrested.
Cash-strapped refugees pin their hope of survival on these life jackets that cost as little as 20 Turkish Lira ($7), according to Turkish news reports. Some are filled with sponges that soak up water and cause deaths rather than save lives. Earlier this week, the bodies of 34 people who had drowned trying to reach the nearby Greek island of Lesbos were washed onto beaches in northwestern Turkey. Many of the bodies were still wearing their bogus life vests.
The police raid in Izmir was not the first sign that some in Turkey are trying to cash in on the wave of refugees, even if it means putting peoples’ lives at risk. Last summer, Turkish newspapers reported that refugees in the Izmir area had turned to cheap under-the-counter life vests that were black instead of orange, in order to evade Turkish coast guard boats during the crossing to Greece. The vests also made them less visible in the water, and less likely to be rescued, if their boats capsized.
The quick-buck corruption appears to be pervasive. Last September, France suspended its honorary consul in the resort of Bodrum after television footage showed her selling boats and life vests to refugees. The sacked official, Françoise Olcay, said at the time that if she did not sell the items to the refugees, someone else would.
She was right in the sense that there is no shortage of cynics exploiting the Syrian exodus. Well-organized gangs of people smugglers rely on networks that include cheap hotels in coastal towns, bus and taxi drivers ferrying refugees to the beaches, sometimes from as far as Istanbul, and suppliers of boats. In October, police in Izmir discovered a workplace producing rubber boats to be sold to refugees. Authorities said the boats were not seaworthy.
Well-heeled Syrians don’t have such worries. They can book a crossing on a luxurious speedboat. Police in the southern resort of Marmaris broke up a people-smuggling gang two months ago that specialized in ferrying wealthy migrants to a nearby Greek island in small groups to avoid attention. Dubbed a “VIP service for refugees” by Turkish media, the gang offered a safe 10-minute crossing at the price of $3,300 per head, about three times the going rate of a place in a rubber dinghy, to Syrians who were posing as tourists.
The Turkish government says it is doing all it can do bring refugees numbers down and to battle people smugglers. “More than 200 irregular migration organizers have been apprehended and numerous rings have been dismantled so far since 2014,” a government factsheet said last November.
But Ankara says it is not only up against the smugglers, but also against the refugees’ determination. “Behavioral profiles clearly show that irregular migrants take all current risks in cases of migration by sea and they do not hesitate to try such perilous journeys repeatedly until they succeed,” the factsheet said.
That fact shows no sign of changing. In Aksaray, a neighborhood on the European side of Istanbul that has become a central meeting point for refugees, passport forgers and people smugglers, Syrians said that they were aware of stricter checks by Turkish police along the coast and of promises of a better life in Turkey with the help of $3.3 billion in EU aid money that is part of the deal hammered out by European and Turkish leaders. But that doesn’t mean they have given up on their dream of going to Europe.
Mehmet, a 51-year-old father of four who was selling instant coffee to passers-by in Aksaray one cold morning recently, said he was struggling to make enough money to pay the monthly rent of $220 for the apartment where he lives with his family. “If I had the money, I would go to Germany tomorrow,” he said. For the moment, however, Mehmet can’t see how he can come up with the $1,000 per head that the smugglers charge for the boat trip to a Greek island.
One of Mehmet’s friends pointed to a four-lane road nearby that passes Istanbul’s police headquarters and leads out of the city to the highway. “Tonight, buses will be leaving for Izmir again,” he said. “And from Izmir, it’s just a hop and a jump to Greece.”
For those scraping together every cent to try to make it, the temptation to save money on a bargain boat or bargain life vests is great, even if the fraud behind them proves fatal.