What the people-smugglers of Istanbul make of the EU’s deal with Turkey

Not much. Greece is an hour away, and the Turkish coastguards do nothing to deter migrants from making the crossing

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

19 March 2016

9:00 AM


Shops in a rundown neighbourhood sell fake life jackets to refugees planning to brave the Aegean Sea. Last year, nearly 4,000 refugees died trying to make this journey. ‘But what am I to do?’ says Erkan, a shopkeeper, as he pushes me out of his shop. ‘I tell them they are fake but the poor souls continue to buy them. The genuine ones don’t sell so well.’

We’re in the suburb of Aksaray, the makeshift centre of the smuggling trade in the city. Here the language is Arabic and the restaurants are Syrian. A town square serves as a hub for migration brokers. This is where dreams are sold. Each night, hordes of Syrians fill the area, their lives on their backs, preparing for the dangerous journey ahead.

Behind the 19th-century mosque are dozens of money-exchange offices. These are fronts for the ‘deposit banks’ where migrants leave their money after closing a deal with one of the people-smugglers. The payment is only handed over if the refugee successfully reaches European shores.

If you can’t find a deal in Aksaray, offers abound on the internet. Facebook groups, set up in Arabic, advertise a range of services. One reads, ‘Istanbul to Greece, only $650/person. Leaving every night, call Muhammad for details.’

So I did just that, with the help of Abdurrahman, a Syrian friend. The cheapest route on offer, Muhammad told us, is across the Aegean sea to a Greek island. ‘When you leave the Turkish coast, you can see Greece. It’s only one hour away,’ he assured us, quoting a range of prices: $500 for a boat to as much as $10,000 for a fake European passport. ‘Once you land in Greece, the Red Cross will help you and select a country where you can claim asylum.’ This is not true — but it was a statement repeated by every smuggler I spoke to.

Last week, a new agreement between Turkey and the EU was thrashed out and hailed as a breakthrough. Turkey agreed to shut down the people-smugglers and take back any refugee crossing to Greece. For every refugee readmitted, another will be resettled from Turkey to another EU member state. The EU is offering €6 billion to sweeten the deal — twice the figure offered last November — and will grant Turkish citizens visa-free travel to Europe. Turkey’s long-stalled application to join the EU will be fast-tracked. The EU is desperate and Turkey holds all the cards. Turkey’s willingness, let alone capacity, to keep its side of the bargain is questionable at best.

There are no police to be seen in Aksaray. Abu Omar, a smuggler loitering in the square, laughs off Turkey’s deal as little more than hot air. ‘The Turkish coastguards aren’t doing anything,’ he assures Abdurrahman, who is posing as a potential client. ‘It’s a question of luck whether you’ll make it or not.’ The new Brussels agreement won’t save the unlucky.

Abu Omar is one of many Syrian brokers in Aksaray who connect migrants to smugglers and hope eventually to save up enough money to make the crossing to Europe themselves. It’s the Turks who control the business. ‘Turks are at the heart of the smuggling operations,’ explains Ahmad, a Syrian who now lives in the UK — having spent two months being smuggled in from Syria last year. ‘They organise everything, including co-ordinating with the police and coastguards.’

This month, a Turkish court sentenced to four years in jail the smugglers responsible for the death of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on Turkey’s shores last September. But such crackdowns have been few and far between, and do nothing to deter smuggling operations. More than 110,000 refugees have made the crossing to Greece this year. ‘Everybody knows that nobody can stop a smuggler — they’ll always find a way,’ Ahmad explains. ‘It will simply become more expensive.’

Last year swollen demand caused a boom at the cheap-and-dangerous end of the market, which meant a rise in the number of refugees drowning. With the EU deal, smugglers will take greater risks to organise longer voyages, perhaps from Turkey to Italy or across the Black Sea. Many have died making the Aegean crossing, but the relative proximity of the Greek islands means it is a safer route than across the Mediterranean.

The Turkish government is suspected of deliberately turning a blind eye to the smuggling problem in order to extract a better bargain from Brussels. President Erdoğan was quite open about this blackmail, threatening to ‘bus migrants to Europe’ if the EU didn’t accept his demands. But even if Turkey wanted to crack down on the networks of human traffickers, there are doubts as to whether it would succeed. ‘Ankara is likely to have made promises in Brussels that it can’t and won’t deliver,’ said Aykan Erdemir, a former opposition politician, now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. ‘Human smugglers will outsmart the Turkish authorities just as they have outsmarted EU authorities.’

President Erdoğan, dogged by controversy, is an awkward partner for the EU. Earlier this month he made headlines by seizing control of Turkey’s leading opposition newspaper, Zaman. This week he reignited a war with Kurdish militants in the south-east, forcing thousands of Kurds to flee their homes. In recent photos, the besieged city of Cizre resembles Aleppo.

Syrians, too, are feeling the sharp edge of Erdoğan’s nationalist stance. Having initially announced an open-door policy, Ankara has since silently reversed it. Amnesty International condemned the illegal deportation of Syrian refugees late last year.

Many Syrians, lacking a legal status in Turkey, have set their sights on Europe. But the EU deal fails to confront a fundamental difference between Europe and Turkey: the right to asylum. Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, but her responsibilities are limited to those fleeing Europe. Refugees from the war-torn Middle East are classified as temporary guests and barred from working. The majority of Syrian children can’t even attend Turkish schools.

Back in Aksaray, I speak to another group of Syrians. Most of them work in black-market bakeries and live with their families in squalid one-room apartments on the outskirts of Istanbul. Adnan, a 22-year-old Syrian from Aleppo, is the most vocal. He is trying to save enough money to get to Europe. I ask whether he has any Turkish friends. ‘Of course not,’ he says. ‘Turks simply exploit us. How could we be friends?’

For Adnan, Europe is still synonymous with hope. But not all migrants feel the same way. ‘Forget Europe,’ one Syrian man tells me. ‘The dream is over. They don’t want us. Go back to Syria and fight — that’s what I’m going to do.’

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  • DellerboyNZ

    What? Fight for your country. What a novel thought. Sounding more and more like Israelis every day.

    • Bonkim

      What country? EU is not a country.

      • al_frick


        Syria. It helps to read.

        • Bonkim

          I don’t see Syria, I don’t hear Syria, I don’t speak Syria – leave in in the hell-hole it is – don’t want to know.

      • DellerboyNZ

        If you read the final para you will see what I am commenting on:
        Too tiresome to go that far? Here, I’ll save you the trouble”
        “For Adnan, Europe is still synonymous with hope. But not all migrants feel the same way. ‘Forget Europe,’ one Syrian man tells me. ‘The dream is over. They don’t want us. Go back to Syria and fight — that’s what I’m going to do.’”
        PS Thanks al_frick for pointing this out also.

        • Bonkim

          No time for Adnan – best he takes the advice from the Syrian you spoke to – best if those affected go back and fight for their cause. Not my problem. Humanitarian aid – ask them to walk East to Saudi Arabia their land of milk and honey.

          Seriously Muslims have been slaughtering each other and others around them for centuries – if they have not found a solution then it is probably too late. Europe had its 100 years War – I see no problems Muslims doing one better and having a Thousand years war – as long as they carry out the massacres on their home territory.

          Oh and forgot to mention – ask them to breed fewer children – less suffering of the innocents.

          Perhaps the kindest thing to do would have been to erect undersea wire fence around Greece so the inflatables would puncture before entering Greek line of control.

  • Rik

    Where in this article is the fact that less than 40% of the illegal invaders are Syrian??As for the Turkey/EU deal,what a joke,poor old Greece is supposed to set up secure camps for migrants to be processed and those failing the criteria to be instantly deported.Lets think up a snappy name for the camps,i know!! We could call them concentration camps!!How will this work,”you are all to be deported” “OK thanks very much we will all quietly and peacefully march back on the ferry to Turkey”Fantasy land,the rioting will be epic!!

    • Hybird

      The Macedonian army showed what’s necessary to get them back across the border just the other day. A little bit of determination and a willingness to use strong arm stuff.

      • Joe Long

        Exactly, and how many times have we heard pc imbeciles preaching that the tide is unstoppable!

  • Uusikaupunki

    fake lifejackets worn by fake “refugees” carrying fake passports. Expedited by a fake “Democracy” that gave fake promises to fake EU “politicians…..
    Taqqiya in action

  • gosh

    Turkey diserves international sanctions not deals with the EU. They are one of the few who facilitate if not encourage these waves of people. They should be punished not rewarded with 6bln eu. They should have been told that the talks on their membership are over and will never be reopened. The Turks haven’t done anything for 3bln eu, hoping some more will make any difference is pure stupidity.

    • Donafugata

      They also need to be kicked out of NATO.

  • logdon

    ‘Go back to Syria and fight’

    No, these cowards prefer the easy pickings of white meat.

  • Patrick_Blankfein

    These phoney asylum seekers are people smugglers; they smuggle themselves and minors. They are backward people whose eyes are alive with notions of gold at the end of the rainbow.
    I have never understood the condescending approach to these people, as though they are victims of evil facilitators; as though they are incapable of greed or envy, or even burning jealousy of the Western lifestyle – no, they are in the claws of the wicked dream-mongering people smugglers who lead them astray, these 40yr old children who know no better!

  • Roger Hudson

    The EU is being deliberately vague? Are they proposing a visa free travel for Turks in the Schengen area or throughout the EU, the UK border should be able to weed out the Turks.

    • davidshort10

      Only Schengen. How lucky we were not to join. But even then the borders are being closed and Schengen is more or less dead.

      • Tom Cullem

        Give it time – “only” Schengen never stopped anyone else from slipping into the UK if they really wanted to. Our Immigration Office is pathetic and our borders shambolic. The entire deal with Turkey is really aimed at saving Schengen and Merkel. For Britons looking at IN or OUT of the EU – don’t be fooled. Those Turks will find a way here unless we have absolute right to close our borders to anyone.

        • davidshort10

          I’m not so sure. Look at the Calais Jungle. They are in France but cannot get into Britain. An African colleague of mine went to a conference once in Rome on a Schengen visa. She wanted to visit friends in Dublin but couldn’t. I told her it was because the Irish Republic isn’t part of Schengen even though they have the euro because if they joined there’d have to be a border between Eire and the UK, even with Northern Ireland, for the first time since independence. We are so lucky not to have been drawn into this mad project, and we should probably now vote Leave as there will always be pressure to give in.

  • al_frick

    When we intervene and try to stop genocide in another country, the liberals all scream and gnash their teeth, saying we’re not the world’s police. Who are we to decide what “lifestyle” they should have??? But when illegal immigrants cross borders and try to invade our lands, all of a sudden we need to take them ALL in. Well I say to them “who are we to accept the world’s problems? “

  • barbara thomas3

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  • Patrick_Blankfein

    So the E.U. is sending migrants/ refugees back to Turkey…ergo, it is a safe country and those who have left it are no longer refugees? On a separate note, those Syrians who have left for Europe, what are their rights back in Syria? Does someone who has fled forfeit their property rights over there (if they still have a property) , and do they forfeit their citizenship of the current or any reincarnation of the nation? It would be a supreme cheek for Syrians to get access to two countries having claimed they had no prospect of return.

  • davidshort10

    If people are paying as much as $650 for a passage, and some are paying more, I cannot for the life of me understand why say ten people don’t get together and buy a new, safe boat with an outboard motor…..

    • Ingmar Blessing

      Well, I read a couple of weeks in a German magazine about those precious highly-skilled refugees. One story was about a man who was a trained ship officer from Latakia. He paid 10.000$ to get to Germany.

      If that story is just half true (I assume the magazine has seen his credentials), I realized those people might be to stupid to make a knot in their shoes.

      Expecting self-sufficiency and planing and organizing skills apparently is too much.

  • boiledcabbage

    Of course the Turks will come to the UK – use of the free NHS is a supreme luxury for the sick, old or pregnant.

    • DellerboyNZ

      According to news I read, migrants to the UK are to pay a one-off levy so as to access free care via the NHS.
      Someone has pointed out the unexpected consequence of this will be chronically sick Turks and others will pay the levy and then access in toto all of the treatments available for their health issues. These will cost multiplexmultiple times the one-off levy.

      • nutsingha

        Yes, even common infections in people from this part of the world (such as TB) will cost the UK taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds to treat, once you add up the hospital stays, the chronic nature of most of the conditions, the drugs etc etc. It is a bargain to pay a few hundred quid for that.

        • DellerboyNZ

          Not to mention the damage caused to others by their ‘sexual emergencies’.

      • sebastian2

        This will happen. The levy is quite trivial compared to the cost of, for instance, a heart bypass, a hip replacement, or a caesarean birth. They will, without doubt in time, obtain European Health Insurance cards which will entitle them to free treatment in any EU country under the terms of each country’s “NHS” scheme.

        The entire project is a monumental and eye-wateringly expensive, division and resentment causing, cock-up.

  • Robbydot1

    (Europe) don’t want us, go back to Syria and fight. Hallelujah!

  • Marvin

    They are the people smugglers of Europe. The EU bribe is peanuts compared to what they make aiding, abetting and running this lucrative business.

  • Commonman

    Erdogan is determined to fight to get his people into Europe and is weapon of choice is illegal immigrants of all persuasions.

    • Donafugata

      The choice s between a tsunami of people with EU passports or a tsunami of people.

  • Davedeparis

    Once they leave Turkey, even if they are originally from Syria, then under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, they loose that status.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Loose is something wobbly.

      • Davedeparis


    • KesterR

      That’s completely untrue and doesn’t even make sense in terms of what refugee status means in international law. Here is the Geneva Convention 1961 http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.pdf which Article and paragraph do you think justifies that claim?

      • Davedeparis

        Article 1. Because they are not fleeing Turkey and renouncing Turkish protection because of a well founded fear of persecution in Turkey.

      • bob rivers

        Kester you are wrong, face facts.

  • Baz

    we might as well start learning the Koran because we won’t have much choice in the future.

    • sebastian2

      We have every choice. We just have to insist on it.

  • sebastian2

    This whole episode of EU incompetence, failure, exorbitant costs, death, betrayal and contempt for popular opinion is gruesome indeed.

    Who in their right minds will now cede yet more power to those who’ve used so badly and inconsiderately the power they already have? Which sane person could trust such self-seeking and slippery politicians as Cameron who will walk away chortling unscathed and rich – as Blair did – from the mess he’s trying to drag us further into? Who with half a brain could ever place faith in highly-paid faceless Brussels bureaucrats who, taking our money, can’t tell us where the costs for migration to date have gone and whose hare-brained antics have invented such mayhem?

    This EU is a Titanic designed and built by professionals; but professionals who’ve equipped it with their very own luxury lifeboats.

    • Donafugata

      Chillingly, I no longer believe it to be incompetence.

      Until this recent madness I thought that dystopian societies only existed as a genre of film and fiction.
      I never expected to be living in one.

      • sebastian2

        It’s life imitating art.

  • Ingmar Blessing

    Hm, what’s that thing in my pocket?

    Oh, it’s a knife!

  • Jackthesmilingblack


  • Jackthesmilingblack

    UKBF (Border Force)
    Dedicated to letting the wrong people in, while keeping the right people out.

  • Sue Smith

    Instead of bleeding about refugees people need to come to terms with this!!!


  • Jacobi

    The Germans try but get it wrong. Merkel at first was quite sensible on immigration and then
    the old false German conscience cut in.

    Her now infamous invitation to Islam to continue to flood in will go down in European history as a German blunder is line with the Prussian 1914-18 war and the nationalist socialist 1939-1945 war.

    Her invitation will destroy the EU, like it or not, and will greatly increase the danger and conflict which will consume Europe in the coming decades, the aggressive Islamification of Europe.

    The latest absurd agreement reached with the Ottoman Turks i the work of Merkel and is on line with that odd German obsession with Islam such as we saw in the 1914/18 Prussian/Ottoman Turkish alliance, the gastarbeitern phenomena and now this to 80 million Turkish Muslims to the “European” scene. No marks for guessing what alliance will dominate should that ever come to be!

    • Daiseymae

      The old dirty hag has already destroyed Europe, and more and more are invading it each and every day by the thousands.

  • Marvin

    When people smugglers of Istanbul are mentioned, do they mean the Government?

    • jae


  • The Turks absolutely do not “hold all the cards”. Only the spineless appeasement of EU politicians being outmanouvered on every front has allowed this to happen. Firstly, the sanctions the EU imposed on Russia could be imposed on Turkey instead and made even more punitive if necessary. Secondly, a complete ban on commercial air flights between the EU and Turkey could be instigated. Thirdly, their membership of NATO could be suspended, after all they hardly behave as allies. In fact a complete embargo on all trade and tourism could be imposed until they see reason. Let’s see who holds all the cards then.

    We just need leaders with the backbone to use them, but there doesn’t appear to be one in sight. No wonder we are in such disarray, but it is all so unnecessary. .

    • jae

      I agree, it’s a lack of a backbone and people not wanting to be harsh b/c we haven’t had to be harsh since WWII. The problem is that Italy will keep taking people in, the Pope wouldn’t allow pushing people back, even if the other routes are shut down. I think he has way more power than people give them credit for. Are they not loaded b/c of foolish people giving them their hard earned money. People should help the poor directly if they want to rather than through an establishment that we know is corrupt and abusive.

  • Daiseymae

    They all want their freebies, and they will do anything to get it.

  • Sue Smith

    Once upon a time in the deep, distant past there was a leader of the free world like this; he had a sense of humour, charisma and something to say (and do!): this is very funny –


    What we are seeing today is a world sans leadership.

    • jae

      That’s b/c there are TOO MANY PEOPLE to lead.

    • jae

      Haha. Yes that was funny! Thanks. I was still a kid back then so wasn’t much interested in POTUS speeches. Trump is doing what he did. He is a Dem but running as a Rep. Well, he’s kinda mixed, I’d say. I loved the joke where the farmer told the pastor that god didn’t do crap, the farmer did! Religion is tied in too much with politics these days, it’s wrong.

  • jae

    That deal makes no sense and will only enable more Turk smugglers into the EU! So foolish. If a country lets it’s people sell fake life vests, without fault, they are NOT like Western societies. The EU is now lost due to that deal. What so Turkey will take in an abuse Syrians and Kurds?

    It’s not that Europe doesn’t want Syrians, the world is overpopulated and these are old cities whose infrastructure can’t take these numbers of people. The EU is densely packed already. That Syrian man has the right idea, go back to Syria and fight for your country. That’s what I would do for mine if being invaded.