The Nexus: Human Smuggling and Syrian Refugees’ Trajectories across the Middle East and the Balkans

By Luigi Achilli, European University Institute

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Refugees and Migration Movements in the Middle East workshop organized in collaboration with POMEPS and the Center for Middle East Studies at USC and held at University of Southern California on February 2-3, 2017. POMEPS Studies 25 is a collection of their memos from this workshop, available as an open-access PDF here.

Since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, millions of people are estimated to have fled their homes. This tragedy generated a real state of emergency in Europe, with public opinion both confused and terrified by photos of corpses lying on the shores and aggressive strangers trying to push through Europe’s security borders. These images often accompany reports of poor and desperate individuals, deceived by organized crime cartels. In these accounts, the ultimate responsibility of this tragedy are the human smuggling networks— mafia-like cartels of hardened and greedy criminals dedicated to the systematic deceiving and conning of migrants. However, journalists and policy makers do not have an adequate understanding of the relationship between smugglers and migrants— and consistently fail to address the inner dynamics of human smuggling.

Smugglers are often the only available option for those individuals who flee a situation of immediate danger and distress. However, migrants and asylum seekers’ desperate need of finding a refuge and their difficulty to access legal channels of mobility alone are not sufficient to explain the resilience and strength of the bonds between them and the smugglers. To understand this complexity we need to shift the attention away from the categorization of smugglers as reckless businessman toward an exploration of smuggling moral economy.[1] What I argue here is that the relationship of trust between the smugglers and the migrants— as I encountered it during my fieldwork —does not only build on refugees’ desperate need for safety, but it is also embedded within patterns of solidarity and reciprocity and grounded on local notions of moral personhood. Far from their depiction of reckless criminal driven only by profit, smugglers sought and often found moral legitimation by negotiating long-held notions of morality and religious duties with the realities of being involved into what is popularly perceived as a criminal activity.

At the time of my fieldwork, Syrian refugees had ideally two options to reach Europe: one was legal, through resettlement programs, family reunification, university fellowships and scholarships, training programmes, private sponsorships, etc. The other option was— for the majority of them— the Balkan route: an exhausting and perilous journey that took them across two continents and several countries (i.e. Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia).[2] The former was by far the safest and quickest route. Yet, the transfer of refugees from an asylum country to EU member states remained for the very large majority of them a chimera.[3]

Virtually all the people that I interviewed crossed Turkey. Over the past years, the country has become a gathering point for Syrian refugees travelling from Syria and its neighbouring countries to Europe. However, while the country was and still is an obligatory step for the majority of Syrian refugees, displacement patterns to Turkey largely depended on the possession of valid documentation. Syrians with a valid passport travelled regularly to Turkey either by plane from Amman, Beirut, or Erbil or by boat from Tripoli in Lebanon. On the other hand, the large majority of Syrian Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), Palestinian refugees from Syria, and those without a valid passport embarked on a longer and more dangerous journey to Turkey— often inland— that exposed them to greater risks of exploitation.

Smugglers operated almost exclusively in Turkey. The vast majority of those interviewed indicated that they had reached Greece from the isolated areas near the Turkish port of Izmir and Bodrum. Here, smugglers arranged transportation, for around 1200 USD per person to Lesbos or the numerous Greek islands near the border with Turkey. The proximity of the departure point with the Greek islands often meant a one-hour journey with a ten-metre rubber dinghy. Time and price, however, were likely to change according to a number of factors that ranged from the type of boat and number of people aboard to the weather condition and the relationship with the smugglers. The material and affective politics of these connections reveals the unhelpfulness of describing smugglers only in terms of cruel and reckless criminal driven exclusively by profits.

Those very people who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean also often dismiss accounts about the callousness of smugglers. The large majority of migrants I spoke with did not perceive their relationship as exploitative. On the other hand, they were quite vocal in their criticism of what they perceive as the EU’s failure to live up to the moral and humanitarian ideals it claims to champion. Smugglers offered a way to bypass the inherent shortcomings of a blocked system. The words of Mohammed— a young man in his early mid-twenties from Syria, now an interpreter and social worker in Italy— are indicative of this awareness: “Smugglers are neither good nor evil. You pay for a service and you get what you pay for.” Mohammed turned to smugglers when his family was refused a family reunification visa. He paid around 8000 Euro to have his brother smuggled from Syria to Germany. It was a long and tiring journey and Mohammed’s brother crossed several states, via land and sea. Yet, it was the only available way to Europe, the only bridge to overcome the gap between the EU rhetoric of human rights and free mobility and its restrictive border policies. In his and many others’ stories, human smuggling was perceived as part of a system of protection within the context of asymmetric distributions of power where people in certain countries have overarching incentives to move but few legal avenues to do so.

Of course, stories and rumours about migrants and their families deceived, exploited, and mistreated by smugglers were relatively common among my informants. Even some of the smugglers that I interviewed conceded as much: “Smugglers are not all good,” I was told by a few of them. Nonetheless, recent studies based on empirical evidence challenge the image of a few criminal masterminds who control a network of hardened crooks devoted to the systematic enslavement of vulnerable migrants.[4]

Against this backdrop, the question is: what does smuggling human beings in an honest and ethical manner entail? An answer of this kind should take into account local notions of morality and the broader socio-political context in which the act of smuggling takes place.

Syrians use the Arabic term muharrib to indicate the “smuggler.” The word does not have necessarily a negative connotation (even though it often does). The term can simply refer to someone who sneaks something or someone in undetected for either positive or negative intents. Among my informants, for example, smuggling was not only about profiting as the muharrib was not necessarily driven by material gain. It entailed a range of practices encompassing honesty and moral conduct. It involved for the smugglers restricting their margin of profit, using good-quality boats, and displaying civilized and refined manners with their customers. Along this line, they regarded as immoral any misconduct relating to the smugglers’ quality of services or treatment of customers and, in general, the intention to profit of migrants’ situation in order to get shamelessly rich. This is the story of Abu Hamza.

Abu Hamza was well known among Syrian refugees for being respectable. The first time I met him was in Elgar, in the courtyard of a four-star hotel near the city center. The man was sitting around a table and sipping a cup of tea while juggling three mobile phones. He was arranging the arrival to the city of a new batch of people wishing to cross the narrow stretch of water that separates Western Turkey from Greek shores. With him, a bunch of boys and young men sat: Abu Hamza introduced them to me as his crew. As I came to discover soon after, it was a mixed group that comprised both migrants and smugglers. However, it was difficult to tell them apart. No distinguishing marks, no details of moral conduct could indicate “smugglers” and “their clients” as belonging to two distinct social types. They were all Syrians; all stuck along the route to Europe. Even Abu Hamza was seeking asylum in Europe. As like many others, he left Syria in 2012, taking the route to Italy via Libya. However, his journey abruptly stopped in Egypt, where local authorities detained him for a few months before sending him back to Lebanon. He tried again. The second time he took the Balkan route: Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. Yet again, he did not make it. While waiting on the western shores of Turkey to be smuggled into Europe, Abu Hamza changed his mind: “I could not any longer watch my fellow country mates suffering in Syria or being exploited by smugglers and locals in Turkey. I decided to do something for them.”

A smuggled migrant himself, Abu Hamza knew the basics of the job. Owning a jewellery shop back in his village in Syria, he also had some financial liquidity to expedite the setting up of his venture. He found a Turkish associate in order to minimizing risks— the man’s personal contacts and knowledge of the country were crucial to set up the activity. This is how Abu Hamza became a smuggler, a good one, as he put it. At the time of my research, around 30 people worked more or less steadily for the organization, helping fellow Syrians reach whatever was their destination in Europe.

In this sense, more than anything else, it is the outcome of the smuggling process that conjures up the “ethical scene” through which migrants and smugglers constitute themselves as a moral community against an immoral “Europe.”[5] With few notable exceptions, all interviewed refugees who applied for resettlement had their application either rejected or left pending for an indefinite lapse of time. Successfully smuggled migrants who I interviewed relied upon smugglers to reunite with their families left back in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon or Iraq. Ahmad was one such person. The man was in his late teens when he left Syria for Sweden in 2012. It took this adolescent and his sixteen-year brother around four months to reach their destination. I met Ahmad in Turkey. He flew from Sweden to meet his mother, sisters, and bride— who he entrusted to the same smugglers that helped him and his little brother to reach Europe years earlier. He spent the few days prior their departure with them, instructing his family on the different legs of the journey. When his family finally departed, Ahmad tracked on the smugglers’ GPS his family’s journey to Greece. He left Turkey only when he received confirmation from his fiancé that they had reached Greek shores.

However, Ahmad’s decision to entrust their family members to a smuggler was not only based on cost-benefit calculations, but also on the idea of belonging to the same ethnic and moral community in exile. The time migrants spend with smuggler was functional for strengthening these social bonds. Indeed, for smugglers, many of the migrants were not only customers but also friends or fellow nationals. The time prior the departure provided migrants and smugglers with complex opportunities to mingle, interactions that went beyond simple working relationships. In Elgar, a coastal town in western Turkey, smugglers and migrants slept in the same hotels, ate at the same restaurants, and hung around the same bars. Mahmud, a young Syrian man in early 20s, was among them. His story highlights everyday practice of coexistence among smugglers and migrants— and the strong bond that can arise out of the time spent together. The young man spent over a month in Elgar with Abu Hamza and his crew. He first waited for his brother to send him the money to pay for his journey to Greece; then, he waited for the sea to be calm enough to allow his departure. When the time finally came, Mahmud did not want to leave anymore: after a month spent living together with the same people who were supposed to smuggle him to Greece, he established a solid friendship with many of them. When I asked him the reason for his reticence to leave, Mahmud replied: “I left my family in Syria; I found a new one here. Now, I don’t want to lose my family again.” Mahmud eventually left, but with the promise to his new friends that he would have come back as soon as he obtained the refugee status in Germany.

Undoubtedly, the pattern of human smuggling that I encountered should not distract from other crueller forms.[6] The media consistently reports about the brutality of smugglers and the plight of migrants. However, the high visibility of this narrative risks overshadowing the brutality of the state and their reasons for leaving. This narrative also neglects to show that smugglers help refugees navigate the unequal geographies of mobility. The resilience of smuggling networks, amid numerous attempts by nation states and border control agencies to crackdown on them, serves as constant reminders not only of migrants’ determination to flee their countries, but also of the strong bond between smugglers and their customers. These bonds feed into shared frameworks of morality and piety.

Luigi Achilli is a research associate in the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute.

[1] My research is largely based on interviews and participant observation with Syrian refugees and smugglers themselves held in Turkey and to a lesser extent in Lebanon, Jordan, Italy and the so-called “Balkan route” (Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia) intermittently throughout 2015 and 2016. While open and semi-structured interviews and field notes remained the most important part of the research, I devoted also part of time to participant observation.

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[2] The situation has changed since early 2016. The EU-Turkey agreement on March 20 and the decision of Macedonia (FYROM) to seal its border with Greece in February seem to have considerably stemmed the flow of people Balkan route.

[3] Achilli, 2016.

[4] For example, see Sanchez 2015, Zhang and Chin 2002.

[5] Cohen, 2011.

[6] For example, see İçli, Sever and Sever, 2015.