USA TODAY US Edition
SMUGGLERS LAMENT THE END OF MIGRANT FLOOD
New policy on Balkan route doesn’t eliminate dangers
ISTANBUL Abu Sami, an Iraqi living in Europe, made a good living smuggling Syrians and other refugees from Greece to Germany.
But his good fortune at the expense of migrants fleeing war and poverty is coming to an end now that Turkey has agreed to stop them from flooding into Europe. “Business has decreased by more than 70%,” he said.
The new migrant policy under an agreement between the European Union and Turkey, which went into effect Monday, has largely shut off the Balkan route to Europe that 850,000 migrants took last year, according to the United Nations refugee agency. In all, 1.1 million refugees entered Germany alone via that and other routes in 2015.
Few refugees would shed a tear for smugglers who exploit their plight for fat profits. Smugglers charge about $700 to help refugees travel the short but dangerous boat trip from Turkey to Greece’s Aegean islands, the clos- est gateway to Europe. They charge 10 times as much to arrange the crossing from Greece to Italy to avoid Macedonia, Serbia and other countries that have closed their borders, according to Sami and other smugglers. Many often swindle or mistreat traumatized migrants.
“The journey was a nightmare,” said Clod Marion, 19, a Syrian in Germany who made a dash with her family from the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Lesbos in freezing weather in January. “We traveled in a small rubber boat. The smugglers threw us off the boat into the cold water when we approached the island.”
Abo Taem, a Syrian smuggler based in Turkey, said he and most of his fellow traffickers weren’t seeking to exploit anyone. Many of them had been refugees themselves and saw an opportunity to help other migrants and earn a living in the process. “My business partner was an Iraqi, and he is currently in Denmark as a refugee,” Taem said.
Taem said business dropped off precipitously recently after Macedonia closed its borders, preventing refugees from traveling north and stranding them on the Greek side of the border. In Turkey, police are aggressively stopping travelers rather than let- ting them pass through as before.
“A life jacket in the car would constitute good evidence for emigration detention,” Taem said. “We cannot send people without such life jackets.”
The EU has promised Turkey $6.8 billion in aid to keep refugees there, where an estimated 2.7 million Syrians have fled a civ- il war just across Turkey’s southern border.
Migrants fleeing war and violence are likely to receive asylum as refugees. Those seeking only economic opportunities likely will be sent back home.
As new arrivals to Greece’s Aegean islands slows, refugees stand to suffer more than the smugglers, some experts say.
“It’s more dangerous for asylum seekers in Turkey than in Greece,” said Shahram Khosravi, a migration expert at Stockholm University in Sweden. Many refugees won’t sit idle in Turkey, Khosravi said. “It’s just a matter of time before (smugglers) will find new ways to transport people.”
Abu Hassan, the administrator of a Facebook page dedicated to smuggling, said that’s already happening. “People are now traveling from Turkey to Libya by air and then to Italy by sea in a more expensive and more dangerous journey,” he said.