Why you should care
Because human traffickers think they’ve found a new way to perfect this inhumane business.
The terrace is almost empty at an all-inclusive Turkish resort, except for a group of elderly Germans discussing their eating habits and a brawny man in a black jumper who’s sitting behind a palm tree and talking on his cellphone. But that brawny man, whose pseudonym is “Abu Ahmad,” isn’t in the mood for idle chitchat this sunny afternoon. “I have taken $5,500 from my own cousin,” the Syrian says, irritated. “I can’t help you.”
A woman’s voice on the other end pleads with him. She desperately wants Ahmad to smuggle her son to Europe.
Ahmad, 35, is a human trafficker. For about $5,000 he sends people on a perilous journey, with the presumption that they’ll have a better life once — and if — they make it to the other end. Many refugees have confirmed that they’ve used his services, and even European security authorities know who he is. After all, Ahmad is supposed to have smuggled folks onto the now infamous “ghost ships” that were sent — on autopilot — toward the Italian coastline in recent months. “Another is waiting out there right now,” says Ahmad, nodding unemotionally toward the sea. “We have to fill it with at least 400 refugees for it to be worth it.”
It — trafficking people — is a ruthless business, assuming ever-increasing dimensions. And delivering increasingly terrible news. Earlier this year, more than 300 people paid the ultimate price — with their lives — after attempting to escape their homeland across the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, more and more individuals are being driven by poverty and despair to cross these waters in dangerous conditions. (Think crammed, open-air boats with small engines and no food or water.) All told, 170,000 refugees came across the Mediterranean to Italy last year, four times the number in 2013, according to the International Organization for Migration. Of those, an estimated 3,500 people died in transit. They either drowned or froze to death.
Many of them could have been saved. But a cross-border rescue program called Mare Nostrum, which protects the Mediterranean coastline, expired in October because Italy no longer wanted to bear the bulk of the costs, and some European partners refused to contribute. The boats of the replacement operation, known as Triton, no longer patrol up to the coast of Libya, where many refugees have fled, and now travel only up to about 30 nautical miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa. Anyone signaling distress outside of this radius will not be helped.
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In the past, traffickers would put refugees in wooden fishing boats before sending them out into the open sea. But in order for boats to better brave the rough waters, even in winter, the traffickers have pieced together a new business model. Today, refugees get crowded by the hundreds into the rusty hulls of discarded container ships. Since the end of September, some 15 cargo ships have arrived in Italy alone.
For a long time, business went well for traffickers like Ahmad. For five months he ran his business out of Mersin, a harbor city in southern Turkey, which was to become a human-trafficking hub. But since all of the commotion surrounding the ghost ships, it’s become increasingly difficult for people like him over there. “Police everywhere,” he says, shaking his head. He has needed a new hideout, and he’s found one — in Side. Never heard of it? It’s in the middle of a vacation paradise.
It’s the start of the season at this particular Turkish resort, and 80 or so guests are soaking up the sun and 60-degree heat. Ahmad is lounging on the terrace; a white plastic wristband identifies him as a guest. He likes his hiding place — that much is clear from his satisfied smirk. And why shouldn’t he? From 9 p.m. until midnight, there’s a disco, and several vacationers are dancing away this mild evening.
Less than half a mile away from this four-star getaway — on a dead-end street — other people are dancing too. Arabic music pulsates from the ground floor of an apartment complex, where Ahmad is housing 150 refugees. For a week he’s been saying to them: “Tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll leave.” But they keep waiting. So they dance, knowing that each dance could be their last before the big trip.
If you believe what Ahmad says, then he’s smuggled out many of “his” refugees through the cargo ship Blue Sky M, which traveled unguided toward Europe at the end of December, bearing the Moldovan flag. Sure, the police know him in Italy, as well as Germany, but here’s his real bragging point: “When my people arrive in Europe, they’re asked, ‘You’ve come from Abu Ahmad, right?’”
Two [toilets] is enough… It’s not supposed to be a vacation.
— Abu Ahmad, human trafficker
It was New Year’s Eve when Blue Sky M was spotted at the heel of the Italian boot. Some of the 700-plus refugees aboard the ship, who were believed to be mostly Syrians, were treated for hypothermia, though Ahmad says he supplied them with some 1,500 blankets, 500 life jackets and 2,000 cans of mortadella sausage. “I took care of that myself.”
Yet 46-year-old Abdo, who was onboard the Blue Sky M, recalls the blankets were wet and the mortadella ran out after three days. “The children — that was the worst,” says Abdo. “To see them freeze like that.” When Blue Sky M sent a distress signal on Dec. 30 and took shelter from the waves in a bay off the coast of the Greek island of Corfu, “we were all staring death in the face,” says Abdo. The situation was abysmal below deck: Many of the passengers were seasick, throwing up. And there were only two toilets. “Two is enough,” says Ahmad, the trafficker. “It’s not supposed to be a vacation.”
When he talks about his previous life, Ahmad seems to resonate with shame, especially in light of the things he does today. He says he used to be a doctor and that he was also trying to escape from Syria. He tried many times to make it to Europe; many times he failed. And so he changed sides. He befriended the traffickers, becoming their henchman. Then he went into competition with them. “They demand $7,000 for the crossing,” he says. “So I have offered it cheaper.”
Ask how he feels about making money from his own people’s suffering, and his response is fairly typical of any trafficker: “I support my family in Syria, and my own here in Istanbul,” he says. He’s managed to gain a foothold in this highly criminal corner of society by fostering relationships with others — mostly members of the Turkish mafia. Today he has two partners and a staff of 15 spread across Turkey — in Mersin, Istanbul and Antalya. Everyone works on commission — up to $350 for each passenger, though Ahmad earns as much as $1,400 per refugee. And the Turkish mafia — for whom Ahmad has a lot of respect (they protect him, after all) — takes the biggest cut. They organize the refugees’ bus ride from the hotel to remote parts of the coast and receive $1,500 per refugee for arranging this, well, service.
Of course, in this business there are no guarantees. “In every boat there are several who do not pay,” Ahmad notes.
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“Franz, would you also like a beer?” It is noon in the Side-based resort, and a red-faced German pensioner wearing tinted glasses orders a couple of cold ones. Normally, Ahmad would be sitting nearby in his corner by the pool. Not today, though. He excuses himself over the phone — he has to work. Everything, after all, is ready. The first group of 75 refugees is to be taken out to the freighter later. “Tomorrow,” it seems, has now become “this evening.”
Ten days pass and still it isn’t possible to send out any more feeder boats toward the freighter, as the Turkish coast guard has increased its control of the area. The 75 refugees, like so many before them, are still residing onboard the ship in international waters, somewhere out there.
Photography by Alice Martins
Infographic by Charles Jones