Turkey faces uphill battle to stop migrant smuggling

The European Union and Turkey hope to reach a comprehensive deal this week to tackle illegal migration and the refugee crisis

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Business begins in earnest at sundown at “smugglers square” in Istanbul’s Aksaray neighborhood.

Families trickle in, clutching their belongings and lifejackets in plastic bags while smugglers weave their way around the park, cutting deals and finalizing the logistics of the journey to Greece on their cellphones.

Ali, a Syrian refugee who got into the business of smuggling fellow migrants to supplement his income as a waiter, says anyone who wants to be smuggled out of Turkey must pass through Askaray first.

“Go into any store or café in Aksaray and say you want to go to Europe - you will get a million offers,” he said.

Like other smugglers interviewed by The Associated Press, he asked to be identified only by his first name because what he is doing is illegal.

The European Union and Turkey hope to reach a comprehensive deal this week to tackle illegal migration and the refugee crisis spurred by conflicts in Syria and beyond. Under the “one-for-one” deal, which hopes to blunt the appeal of smuggling, one Syrian refugee in Turkey would be resettled legally in an EU country for each illegal Syrian migrant turned back to Turkey.

But critics fear the deal could set the stage for blanket deportations from the EU and the scene in Aksaray - where buses loaded with would-be migrants take off in the cover of night - illustrates the uphill battle faced by law enforcement officials in a country awash with refugees and smugglers.

Last year, an estimated 850,000 people, mostly Syrians but also Afghans, Iraqis and others, used Turkey as a launching point for dangerous journeys to Greece, often on overloaded rafts. Hundreds died along the way to their first stop en route to the rest of Europe.

Over the past few months, to show it’s getting serious, Turkey has all but shut its borders to new arrivals from its conflict-torn neighbor and cracked down on trafficking by increasing sea patrols, prosecuting smugglers and stopping people before they can leave for Greece.

In return for its efforts, Turkey stands to gain $3.3 billion in EU funding to help it improve the situation of the 2.7 million Syrian refugees already within its borders; a much-anticipated easing of EU visa restrictions for Turkish citizens; and expedited talks about the country joining the 28-nation EU.

Turkish officials at all levels say they are doing the best they can. But three smugglers interviewed by The Associated Press insist it is impossible to shut down their business, pointing to a sharp rise in demand this winter compared to last. These men, whom Syrian refugees have used in recent trips, asked to be identified only by their first names because what they are doing is illegal.

Meanwhile, people waiting for unmarked buses arranged by smugglers in Istanbul or boats in the port cities of Izmir and Canakkale often declare they would rather drown in the Aegean Sea than die in Syria, now in its sixth year of war, or stay in Turkey, where it is hard to make ends meet.

“I am not happy to go to Europe,” says Abu Dildar, a bespectacled Syrian Kurd who says he tried and failed to make a living ironing clothes in Turkey despite receiving aid from two agencies. “But I am going so that my children have a future, an education. If they remain illiterate, they will blame no one but me.”

For the smugglers, the risks are high but so are the rewards. Every journey requires a minimum $6,000 investment for a rubber boat, which will be abandoned once the migrants reach Greece. The average fare is $1,000 for departures from prime locations only a few miles from the Greek islands. Assuming at least 30 people per boat, that translates into a minimum profit of $24,000 per journey, divided among a handful of people.

Hussam, a smuggler in the coastal city of Izmir who says he raked in more than $50,000 last summer and $7,000 so far this winter, says there are more patrols along the coast now, but people still go out once the patrols are out of sight.

Although six of his smuggling buddies have been detained in the past month, he’s confident that business will pick up again in the summer. He interprets increased patrols at sea as a bid to prevent further dramatic drowning accidents rather than an effort to stamp out illegal migration.

Law enforcement officials in Turkey defend their efforts.

“We are trying our best,” says Bahadir Yesiltepe, head of the anti-smuggling unit in Izmir, a coastal city of nearly 3 million people.

In 2015, Izmir’s police caught 11,844 migrants, including 10,566 Syrians, while 345 smugglers were sentenced. Between January and February this year, they caught 5,803 migrants, an alarming number given there are fewer departures in winter. These figures exclude those caught by the gendarmerie or the coast guard.

“As long as the situation continues in Syria, and with weather conditions improving, we anticipate that the intensity we saw last summer will continue,” Yesiltepe says.

Turkish officials say smugglers are switching strategies in response to the crackdown, exploring new departure points such as the resort town of Kas, sending out “decoy” boats that get intercepted by the coast guard while others dart across, and using different forms of transport such as rickety fishing boats and even jet skis.

“They just keep coming and coming and coming,” a law enforcement official involved in such operations told the AP, requesting anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss smuggling. He acknowledged that a few “bad apples” in law enforcement are turning a blind eye or profiting from the business but said the main challenges are the sheer scale of the smuggling, the shifting tactics and the inaccessibility of the kingpins.

Catching small-time smugglers or intercepting boats or buses is relatively easy, he says. He thinks the best way to dismantle the more complex operations is to target the small businesses, or “safes,” that have sprung up in the main trafficking nodes.

Syrians rarely pay the smuggler directly, preferring to deposit their money at a “safe” house in exchange for a code they will share with the smuggler once they have crossed to the other side. Most migrants don’t bother to call in this odd honor system, but the smuggler is entitled to the money if five days pass with no news.

One such venture in Izmir advertises itself as a “limited liability company” specializing in money transfers and tourism. But there are no computers or glossy brochures at the third-floor office of the Boss of Homs. The young men in leather jackets who mill there insist it is a regular business, but one migrant described it as “the best and safest place to put your money in Izmir.”

“It’s a very complicated system that they have developed,” says Elif Ozmenek Carmikli, an analyst at the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization.

Ziad, a Syrian smuggler operating out of Aksaray, sums up the challenge for law enforcement.

“If one person is caught,” he says, “they can’t dismantle the network, because everyone knows just one person in the chain.”

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