With The Help Of Smugglers, Syrian Refugees Sneak Into Europe
The 27-year-old Syrian, who once smuggled arms for Syrian rebels, is now waiting in Istanbul for a human smuggler to get him to Europe. He says his name is Mohammed. He does not offer a second name. He will go by air, he says, the safest route. He has paid a smuggler more than $8,000, and he's sure he will get to Austria.
In the past week, he connected seven friends with smugglers.
"I know that most of them made it," he says, with a tight smile. He is traveling light. Everything he owns is in a backpack.
"I am leaving Syria under a lot of pressure," he explains.
He seems exhausted by the waiting. Twenty days ago, he got into a fight with an al-Qaida-linked group while helping a friend in the Syrian town of Sarqib. Mohammed says he killed two of their men.
"I needed to leave Syria because I was facing death," he says.
He joins a surge of Syrian refugees smuggled to Europe. Many are from Syria's educated, professional class, and have the means for the underground routes. The preferred destination is northern Europe, where economies are strong and the Syrians believe they can start over again.
The numbers seeking asylum in European Union countries doubled this year to more than 36,000, according to EU officials. The journey is long, but the travel is safe, depending on how much you are willing to pay.
Air routes are top of the line. The price tag for Sweden, the most desired destination, is $16,000.
The most dangerous route is by sea, where smugglers sell space on overcrowded fishing boats. The Italian coast guard recently rescued 120 mostly Syrian refugees off the Italian coast. In October, 30 Syrians drowned in a shipwreck between Malta and Italy.
More than 2 million Syrians have fled their homeland since Syria's civil war broke out more than two years ago. Most have resettled in neighboring countries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Many believed it was a temporary move. But as the war grinds on, some Syrians are making a different calculation. There may be nothing to go home to for years.
Negotiating The Best Deal A Matter Of Life And Death
Over the past several months, the Syrian exodus has increasingly focused on Europe. For many, the journey starts in Turkey, where the human smuggling trade has long flourished.
In the Fatih district of Istanbul, past an outdoor market and down a narrow alley, the tea houses and kabob shops caters to Syrian refugees.
The menus are in Arabic, and so are the conversations. This is the place to make contact with a smuggler and begin the negotiations over price and destination. The tables are full. Syrian men drink sugary tea and swap stories about the best routes and prices.
Abdel Ghani, a medical technician from Qamishli, in northern Syria, sold his house to finance his trip. He's on his third try.
"It becomes an addiction. I would try 100 times," he says and shakes his head and laughs at his latest failed attempt. His smuggler got him a fake Swiss passport, but the birthdate made him 20 years older than his actual age.
He grew his beard, tried to stick out his lip like the man pictured in the passport. He made it to the Istanbul boarding gate before his documents were spotted as fakes.
He watched other Syrian families with fake passports board the plane. His documents were confiscated, but he wasn't detained.
"I'm going to try again the day after tomorrow. I hope to get to Sweden," he pledges.
Another Syrian at the table, a real estate agent before the revolt, says he sold everything he owned, and paid a smuggler $35,000 to get his wife and daughters to Germany. The trip took four months to arrange. He interviewed more than one smuggler.
"I had to pick a smuggler for my kids; it's a matter of life and death," he says, noting that his family arrived safely in Germany a month ago. "We got the right smuggler."
Every part of a smuggled trip is a matter of luck. Hiring the right smuggler is only the first hurdle; getting into Europe is just the beginning of the journey.
There's been a surge in the number of Syrians arrested in Romania, Macedonia and Bulgaria. Thousands of Syrian refugees are languishing in Greek detention camps. These are the perils of the route to northern Europe that begins with an air ticket, but usually involves trains, buses and sometimes a final border crossing on foot.
As Demand Rises, So Do Prices
A smuggler, who gives his name as Abu Salman, doesn't want to talk in the restaurant. He invites us to a shabby hotel lobby next door. He's in his 50s, wearing a frayed gray suit. He says he owned a successful restaurant in Syria before the revolt. Now, his trade is in people.
"There are Turks we've been working with; there is a relationship of trust," he says.
Since February, Abu Salman says he has arranged for more than 500 Syrians to get to Europe. Most made it, though 150 are still stuck in Bulgaria.
As he explains the business, his cell phone rings. His cousin is calling from the Netherlands, where he just arrived.
"There was a delay of a month," explains Abu Salman. His cousin had to spend time in Bulgaria and Serbia before finally getting to the Netherlands. The delays add to the cost. But this still counts as a success. Abu Salman is building a reputation.
"People are starting to call me from Syria, 'Please make all the arrangements,' they say," according to Abu Salman.
The prices are rising as the demand grows.
"It used to be $6,000 for a boat to France," he says. Now it's $10,000, and some smugglers are asking for more. But desperate Syrians continue to sell everything they have and pay whatever it takes.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Now to Syria, where refugees continue to stream out with the help of people: Smugglers. A number of Syrians seeking asylum in the European Union has doubled this year to more than 36,000. The exodus continues for those who can afford it. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Istanbul.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This street in the Fatih District of Istanbul is a hub for human smugglers, a trade that's long flourished in Turkey. Take a walk past the outdoor market, down a side street. Here, the teashops and restaurants cater to Syrian refugees. The menus are in Arabic and so is the conversation. This is the place to start negotiations over price and destination.
As soon as walk into this cafe, the stories come all at once. Going by air is the safest, but it's the most expensive, says Abdel Ghani, a medical technician from Northern Syria. Others explain that passports are for sale and so are visas. Eventually we figure out how the smuggling business works. For Abdel Ghani, he sold his house to raise $10,000. That's the price to get smuggled to Sweden, and he's on his third try.
ABDEL GHANI: Three times.
AMOS: Three times?
GHANI: Three times. (Foreign language spoken) no problem.
AMOS: He laughs at his latest failed attempt. His smuggler got him a fake Swiss passport with a birth date 20 years older than his actual age. He made it to the boarding gate in Istanbul before his documents were spotted as fakes and confiscated by Turkish authorities. But he was let go, so he'll try again in three days time.
GHANI: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: If God wills, the next time you see me I'll be in Sweden, he says. It's the most popular destination. The first European country to announce all Syrian refugees will get asylum when they apply. Another Syrian at the table, Ahmed, says he's going there too.
AHMED: I go any way to Sweden because in Syria my finish.
AMOS: Syria is finished. That's the calculation for so many here. Most are from Syria's educated, professional class. As the war grinds on, they say, there may not be anything to go home to for years, so Syria's best and brightest are heading for Northern Europe, where economies are strong, a place to start over. They sell everything they have to get there.
After he sold his house and his car, Abu Jwan, a real estate agent from Northern Syria, paid a smuggler to take his wife and daughters to Germany for a hefty price.
ABU JWAN: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: Thirty-five thousand dollars, he says with a sigh. It took months to arrange. He says he interviewed many smugglers to find one he thought he could trust. It's a matter of life and death. It's for my kids, he explains.
His family arrived safely in Germany last month where he hopes he can join the family through reunification program after his wife gets residency. We were lucky to get the right smuggler, he says. Every part of the smuggle trip is a matter of luck. Getting into Europe is just the beginning. There's been a surge in Syrians arrested in Romania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece.
These are the perils of the route to Northern Europe that begins with an air ticket but also involves trains, buses and sometimes a final border crossing on foot. Abu Salman's phone rings often. He's in his 50s in a frayed gray suit. He says he owned a successful restaurant in Syria. Now his trade is in people. There are Turkish smugglers I work with, he says. There is a relationship of trust.
ABU SALMAN: (Through Translator) Every ten days there are like shipments of people.
AMOS: How many people have you helped go to Europe?
SALMAN: (Through Translator) Through my way, like five hundred people.
AMOS: Make it?
SALMAN: (Through Translator) Most of them made it. There's like approximately 150 families in Bulgaria, but the rest reached Europe.
AMOS: It's another customer. He's been in the smuggling business since February. Success brings more clients. People are starting to call me from Syria, he boasts. Please, make all the arrangements to get us to Europe, and they're willing to pay whatever it takes. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.