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.