From Syria to Europe: A human trafficker’s tale

One of our Observers in Turkey was able to secretly record a conversation in which a human smuggler describes his work. In the recording, the man goes into detail about how he gets Syrians to Europe – detailing the dangers and the cost.


One of our Observers in Turkey was able to secretly record a conversation in which a human smuggler describes his work. In the recording, the man goes into detail about how he gets Syrians to Europe – detailing the dangers and the cost.

Turkey is one of the most important hubs on the route taken by Middle Easterners looking to reach Europe, particularly for Syrians. Since the start of the Syrian conflict, more than one million Syrian refugees have crossed into Turkey; it also hosts tens of thousands of Iraqis, Iranians and Afghans. Those who can afford it often try to leave Turkey for other European countries, where they are more likely to obtain asylum.

This has made Turkey a paradise for smugglers, or “human slingers” as they are called there. Ahmad is an Afghan human trafficker based in Ankara. Our Observer, who we are keeping anonymous for security reasons, secretly recorded this conversation, which was carried out in dari.

“If the client gets arrested or dies, who cares? We’ve already received part of the money up-front”

Parts of the following transcript of the recording have been reordered for clarity.


Right now about 80 percent of our clients are Syrian, the rest are Iraqi, Iranian or Afghan. They rarely have a specific destination – we send them to Italy or Austria. They may then choose to go on to other countries on their own. Prices vary greatly between human slingers – it really depends on how much money the slinger himself is willing to spend to secure passage for his customers. If a slinger wants to spend very little money, well, there’s more risk the customers will be caught. And if the client gets arrested or died, who cares? They’ve already received part of the money up-front, so they never lose money.

There are three ways to get out of Turkey: by air, sea, and land. The sea route goes to Greece. If the client opts for inflatable boats, it’s about 1,600 euros; for a fishing boat, it’s 2,400. If they want to take one of the tourist ships, it’s 3,200. The cheapest way is by land, though – if they ride in a container loaded on a truck to reach Italy or Austria, it’s about 800 euros. Some take airplanes, which cost about 12,000 dollars.

Another smuggler posted his rates on Facebook. The prices are as follows: Iran to Greece = 2,500 euros. Greece to Germany = 4,000 euros. Greece to the UK = 6,000 euros. Greece to Sweden = 4,000. Greece to other EU countries = 3,500 euros.

It’s expensive to fly because clients need to have “notebooks” [Editor’s Note: this is a term used for Western passports]. Police can easily detect fake passports, so we need to buy real ones from Westerners in Turkey. Some slingers have as many as 50 notebooks at a time! We find customers who have similar appearances. The person who sells us the passport will wait for our customer to get through airport security checks, and will then go to the police and to their embassy to say their passport has been stolen. [Editors’ Note: While this is not discussed in the recording, our Observer says these “notebooks” cost between 2,000 and 2,800 euros. He says he met a refugee who got an Israeli passport, and studied Hebrew for months before going to the airport.]”


"There have been cases where people in trucks are crushed between the loads inside containers"

Most of our customers don’t like the route that goes through Bulgaria, because the police are very violent there. The situation in Bulgarian refugee camps is awful, and in some cases the authorities try to send the refugees back to their home country.

In most cases slingers send customers to Italy and Austria – after that it’s up to them how they want to continue traveling. If they have a specific destination in mind, they might want to spend a lot of money and go directly by airplane, because if they take land routes, there’s the risk of the police arresting them. And once they’ve been arrested, they can only apply for asylum in whatever country they’re in.

This video shows a group of Afghan refugees who were smuggled out to sea on an inflatable boat. They were trying to reach Greece, but had to turn around and head back to the coast of Turkey due to dangerous waves. They say it's crazy, and that nobody should attempt the crossing.

There are always risks – after all, they’re doing something illegal. For example, a smuggler might put 45 people in the back of a truck and drive for 12 hours – and the passengers can’t open any windows. There have been cases where people in trucks are crushed between the loads inside containers, when the driver suddenly hit the brakes hard. I even heard that some smugglers that take boats to Australia will dump containers into the ocean if they find out they’re being tracked by the police.

Even if customers are arrested, they don’t tell the authorities who their smugglers are because they’re scared. And even if they do, we have informers that tip us off, and we can change our name, address and phone numbers so that the authorities can’t track us down.

“Smugglers care about nothing but money – they are ready to sacrifice everyone else for that”

Sam Sarabi, an Iranian journalist working in Turkey and a former adviser for Human Rights Watch in Turkey regarding refugee cases, has contacts with many refugees there. He says the details provided by Ahmad match up with refugees’ stories of their journeys, and adds:

Each case is unique, but there is one unchangeable law: the smugglers think and care about nothing but money, the benefits they will reap and their own security. They are ready to sacrifice everyone else for that. In no scenario can they imagine losing money – it’s just about how much they profit. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but they always profit.

In Turkey, it can take years for refugees to even talk to an immigration officer at the UN office for the first time, and explain what their problems are back home. So their best option is getting smuggled out. In most cases, they don’t have a lot of money, and will choose the cheapest route, which is the most dangerous too. Imagine a Syrian family that has lost everything they had in the war – how can they come up with thousands of euros to pay for safe routes to Western countries? They don’t have many options.

Governments are cracking down on human smugglers, and this has a secondary impact – smugglers are now sacrificing human lives to escape arrest. I don’t think that government should close their eyes on human trafficking, but they need to think of ways to avoid such a situation.

At least 150,000 migrants have been rescued in the Mediterrean Sea in the past year by Italian authorities, through their Mare Nostrum rescue programme. However, they have decided to terminate the programme, saying it was no longer sustainable without help from other countries. A European initiative was meant to replace it, but floundered after Britain’s refusal to participate. Britain’s foreign minister claimed it would encourage more people to attempt the dangerous sea crossing. At least 2,500 migrants are believed to have died in the sea since the start of the year.

Earlier this month, the EU border agency Frontex launched a new operation called Triton, which will focus on border surveillance. While it will operate within 30 miles of the Italian coast, it won’t carry proactive search and rescue missions.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Ershad Alijani (@ErshadAlijani).