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Syrians Risk Death to be Smuggled to Europe

The city of Amuda, in northeastern Syria, has become famous as the provenance of one of the Syrian conflict’s deadliest smuggling accidents: in September, 43 of its residents drowned while trying to reach the coast of Europe.

Written by Ahmad Khalil Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

“Now, the only dream we have is to survive and secure a better future for our children and to have the basic minimum of stability,” said Moustafa Abu Fanter, who lost his sister, brother-in-law and one-year-old nephew.

“My sister sold all her jewelry and the house in order to provide part of the travel costs. They had nothing left except the clothes on their bodies. The greedy brokers now take a dozen times more than before the war.

“My sister and her husband were always saying that living in security will compensate for their loss. That was the dream of she and her friends … No one had illusions of becoming rich or important by going to Europe. They only dreamt of a future and stability for their children.”

On Aug. 29, taking only photos and some clothes, the family headed across the nearby Turkish border, en route to the coastal city of Izmir. They waited two months until their fixer was able to gather 72 people to travel in the boat — despite a capacity of just 25.

The News Reaches Amuda

Nearly one month later, in late September 2012, news reached Abu Fanter that his sister’s ship had sunk and the family had drowned. Of the 72, there were only 12 survivors.

“They didn’t have enough money to travel by other means such as land or air. Her husband refused to travel by himself, leaving her alone with their baby as she refused also to travel leaving her husband alone,” said Abu Fanter. “They went together and they drowned together. And now they are buried beside each other.

“Now, I am offering my house and my small store for sale to gather money for his family to leave [Syria]. I will try not to travel by the sea, but it is the cheapest way.”

He estimated the cost of a sea smuggle at around $4,500, compared to a land journey of $7,500 or more.

“Traveling by plane is simply impossible, because it costs $12,000 [his estimated average cost for one person] — an amount that I can’t provide,” he said. “My family is afraid to travel by sea, but I myself may have no choice. I would take that route alone. If I were to survive, I would send for my family. But let God be with them if I failed.”

The Trafficked Life

Abu Omar al-Alawi, as he is known, is a Turkish merchant turned human trafficker. He oversees dozens of so-called “brokers,” or smuggling fixers.

“I can provide a heart or a kidney, but, thank God, the traffic business has been booming over the last two years,” he said.

He described the routes used, boasting about what he said was a clean safety record, and said he’d helped dozens of people out of Syria.

“I took them all to Europe. Some of them by the sea, and up to this day no one has drowned with me,” he said. “I take double the price for each person, but I’m very precise when it comes to the weight.” He claimed he has never put more than 50 people on one ship.

But al-Alawi says he has faced many problems in recent months, as Syrians were banned from entering Egypt or Libya, stopovers to Europe, without visas.

From Turkey, “We used to send the customers to Egypt or Libya with their Syrian passports, and from there we used to take them through the fishing boats to Europe. But then the Libyan fishermen started to make problems, asking more money than we agreed.

“Once, the fishermen informed the police about one of my merchant friends. Then, the Libyan police started to shoot at the boat. Some people drowned that day. After that, the British government interfered and some people were rescued.”

But as problems arise, traffickers have adapted. Today, al-Alawi has shifted his human cargo to tanker ships or trucks. He claims that both routes are secure.

“The tanker ship now costs $7,500 and the truck $8,500. As for air travel, it depends on the country and the price ranges from $11,000-14,500” for the ticket and necessary forged documents,” he said.

On the tanker ship, the Syrian customer is placed in a sealed container with small air holes in a port in Izmir, and locked inside before being loaded along with the rest of the cargo. Often, the ship takes two days to set sail and the actual journey by sea takes another 48 hours. An additional day is spent waiting at the Italian customs where the person must endure more hunger as he hides, waiting in the dark. Then, the cargo continues on to Germany.

“The customer must be strong; we rarely use this link with women because they cannot endure hunger and thirst,” al-Alawi said. “In order not to use the bathroom, the customer is not allowed to take food with him — only some sugar and nuts — and is only permitted a salty water bottle (to use for cleaning after he urinates). Finally, he arrives to Germany where the customer’s dream of living in comfort becomes true.

“The truck is better than the tanker ship because we only put three customers in the truck. It is more comfortable because after crossing the border passages, the customer can get out of the truck between countries. But this way only leads to Austria. The customer is free to request political asylum from Austria or to travel to another country.”

Al-Alawi helps his customers obtain fake foreign passports, which are helpful for those who can afford air fare.

“I possess dozens of foreign passports. We look for a counterpart: the customer can take the plane if he looks like one of the passport pictures,” he said.

We’ll Take Any Way Out

Nermin Abdel Latif, 27, from Aleppo city, now lives in Sweden. “I have lost everything. My husband enlisted in the Free Syrian Army and after a while, they told me that he was dead,” she said. “They [said they] couldn’t get his body. Both of my parents are dead. I could not stay alone in Syria, so I went to Egypt and I worked for a relief organization for around five months. After that, I traveled to Spain to attend a conference for my work.”

Arriving in Spain, she bypassed the conference and travelled to Sweden, where she requested asylum.

“I know that I caused a lot of troubles to the organization that I was working for and it has lost its credibility as a result. Because I ran away without attending the conference, the organization could not get the funds,” she said.

“I was selfish, but there was no one to help me. I tried, as did thousands of Syrians, to apply for asylum at the embassies. It always depends on the passing mood of the country. The priority goes to minorities. Then, to the wounded and ill people. And it is very rare for widows and orphans. I didn’t have anything to sell in order to travel illegally.

“I only had this chance. I just wish that my friends would forgive me. I had no choice.”

Translated from Arabic by Mazen Madadeh.

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