Istanbul attracts migrants here to stay as well as those making the city a starting point for illegally crossing into Europe. Daily Sabah’s Emir Somer went undercover with a group of migrants secretly trying to take a sea route to Europe with the help of smugglers
Istanbul, Turkey’s most populated city and main financial hub, has attracted migrants from all over the world for centuries. Increasing numbers of conflicts and rising poverty in Asia and Africa have made it a favorite destination for migrants seeking a better life. Though some choose to stay, others seek to pursue their dreams elsewhere, making the city a starting point in a dangerous, potentially fatal, journey. It is a matter of hope and death for illegal migrants of all nationalities who brave challenging journeys to reach Turkey, getting closer to their ultimate goal of crossing into Europe where either their relatives or the promise of a better life awaits them.
I became “one” of them, a “migrant” for a firsthand account of how their lengthy journey to Europe begins, or rather, ends, as a police operation thwarted their plans to board boats to the continent and as a matter of fact, saved their lives. A human smuggler is what you need in the first step of an illegal journey. Upon learning that İskender Paşa, a neighborhood in Istanbul’s historic Fatih district teeming with migrants from all nations, is “a market” for smugglers, I visited the place. This is where a migrant should contact the intermediaries of smugglers who arrange the journeys.
Posing as a Turkmen and with a language peppered with Turkish, English and Turkmens dialect, I checked coffeehouses where intermediaries reportedly hang out.
My small talk with eight people where I implied that I wanted to migrate fell on deaf ears — or so I think. About half an hour later, a man who introduced himself as “Mustafa” approached me and asked if I needed “help.” His next question was if I knew Sorani. I didn’t and he didn’t speak Turkmen. He was not without help, however, and tells me “Refik” would take care of me. “Refik,” presumably his code name, arrived 10 minutes later, but he was blunt too and gives me a piece of paper with one name and location: Samet on Zeytinburnu shore. No phone number. As I found out later, Samet is the guy you visit if you want an illegal crossing into Europe and the main organizer gathering migrants traveling alone.
Nabil Sorrua, who arrived from Somalia, was deported after police stopped the young man from taking a boat journey arranged by smugglers.
My next stop was Zeytinburnu shore where it was easy to spot scattered groups of men, sitting together or alone, apparently waiting for something. Some of them were in Turkey illegally and plan to leave the country that way too. Some were not. I also found Samet and he gave me yet another address: Pendik, a district on Istanbul’s Asian side. As for the migrants, they were understandably shy and anxious, thinking I am a policeman. My efforts to start a conversation failed at times, but I finally managed to help some open up after I convinced them I was just like them.
JOURNEY BEGINS AT 3,000 EUROS
Some said they would wait until evening for a visit to Pendik, while others said they would wait for a car to take them to Babakale, a place in Çanakkale where migrants heading to Greek islands go for journeys aboard boats. Finally, I learned that a boat would arrive in a spot on the Pendik shore at 3 a.m. and take the migrants to a ship waiting off the coast. The boat fee is “at least 3,000 euros ($3,364),” Samet says. Those who do not pay before boarding cannot go, he strictly warned. “At least” is key in this sentence as some are charged more based on the “risk” of the places the migrants want to go. I later found out some are required to pay as much as 7,000 euros for a longer journey.
The smugglers operate out of Istanbul’s Pendik and Zeytinburnu shores, and outside the city in Gebze, a town just outside eastern Istanbul, is a destination for human smuggling. Picking up migrants from the shore, they take them to larger ships anchored off the coast. From there, the journey to Europe begins. For those preferring the land route, gangs arrange journeys to Edirne, a city west of Istanbul and on the border with Greece. Smugglers also arrange trips to Balıkesir, Çanakkale, Muğla and Tekirdağ, where migrants are transferred to boats.
DREAMS SPOILED, LIVES SAVED
Finally, the evening came and I went to the “shock house” as the smugglers call it, on the Pendik shore. This is not a literal house as the name implies but rather an abandoned, decrepit building. After a brief wait there, it was 2:36 a.m. and I join my companions, Nabil Sorrua from Somalia, Hamza Besseboua from Algeria, Anouar Asbihani from Morocco, Ayoub Ahnar from Palestine, Amer Dhat from Iraq and Muhammed Soragin from Uzbekistan for a walk to the nearby shore. I was the only one with a bag of food. All had some sort of food package, apparently delivered by the same guy, a member of smuggling gang. All had the same brands of foods, chocolate and snacks to prevent hunger during the strenuous journey, a loaf of bread and a small slice of cheese.