With The Help Of Smugglers, Syrian Refugees Sneak Into Europe
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Now to Syria, where refugees continue to stream out with the help of people: Smugglers. A number of Syrians seeking asylum in the European Union has doubled this year to more than 36,000. The exodus continues for those who can afford it. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Istanbul.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This street in the Fatih District of Istanbul is a hub for human smugglers, a trade that's long flourished in Turkey. Take a walk past the outdoor market, down a side street. Here, the teashops and restaurants cater to Syrian refugees. The menus are in Arabic and so is the conversation. This is the place to start negotiations over price and destination.
As soon as walk into this cafe, the stories come all at once. Going by air is the safest, but it's the most expensive, says Abdel Ghani, a medical technician from Northern Syria. Others explain that passports are for sale and so are visas. Eventually we figure out how the smuggling business works. For Abdel Ghani, he sold his house to raise $10,000. That's the price to get smuggled to Sweden, and he's on his third try.
ABDEL GHANI: Three times.
AMOS: Three times?
GHANI: Three times. (Foreign language spoken) no problem.
AMOS: He laughs at his latest failed attempt. His smuggler got him a fake Swiss passport with a birth date 20 years older than his actual age. He made it to the boarding gate in Istanbul before his documents were spotted as fakes and confiscated by Turkish authorities. But he was let go, so he'll try again in three days time.
GHANI: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: If God wills, the next time you see me I'll be in Sweden, he says. It's the most popular destination. The first European country to announce all Syrian refugees will get asylum when they apply. Another Syrian at the table, Ahmed, says he's going there too.
AHMED: I go any way to Sweden because in Syria my finish.
AMOS: Syria is finished. That's the calculation for so many here. Most are from Syria's educated, professional class. As the war grinds on, they say, there may not be anything to go home to for years, so Syria's best and brightest are heading for Northern Europe, where economies are strong, a place to start over. They sell everything they have to get there.
After he sold his house and his car, Abu Jwan, a real estate agent from Northern Syria, paid a smuggler to take his wife and daughters to Germany for a hefty price.
ABU JWAN: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: Thirty-five thousand dollars, he says with a sigh. It took months to arrange. He says he interviewed many smugglers to find one he thought he could trust. It's a matter of life and death. It's for my kids, he explains.
His family arrived safely in Germany last month where he hopes he can join the family through reunification program after his wife gets residency. We were lucky to get the right smuggler, he says. Every part of the smuggle trip is a matter of luck. Getting into Europe is just the beginning. There's been a surge in Syrians arrested in Romania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece.
These are the perils of the route to Northern Europe that begins with an air ticket but also involves trains, buses and sometimes a final border crossing on foot. Abu Salman's phone rings often. He's in his 50s in a frayed gray suit. He says he owned a successful restaurant in Syria. Now his trade is in people. There are Turkish smugglers I work with, he says. There is a relationship of trust.
ABU SALMAN: (Through Translator) Every ten days there are like shipments of people.
AMOS: How many people have you helped go to Europe?
SALMAN: (Through Translator) Through my way, like five hundred people.
AMOS: Make it?
SALMAN: (Through Translator) Most of them made it. There's like approximately 150 families in Bulgaria, but the rest reached Europe.
AMOS: It's another customer. He's been in the smuggling business since February. Success brings more clients. People are starting to call me from Syria, he boasts. Please, make all the arrangements to get us to Europe, and they're willing to pay whatever it takes. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.