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Syrians in Turkey: The Human Smuggler and the Young Refugee

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After earning $800,000 in 2015 by sneaking migrants into Turkey, a smuggler says he has left the guilt and complications of his business behind — mostly. And a Syrian refugee boy, homeless and out of school, must keep roaming the country to find farm work and help his family survive. This is the third part in the State of Emergency series, in which our correspondent takes us behind the scenes of today’s Turkey, a nation in crisis.


A Migrant Smuggler Moves On, but Misses His Profits

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CreditPhotographs by Patrick Kingsley/The New York Times

Abu Mohammed is bored. He estimates that two years ago he earned more than $800,000 from smuggling thousands of migrants into Turkey from Greece. He rented an office in Aksaray, an area of Istanbul popular with Syrians, to serve as his headquarters. At one point, he had more than 80,000 missed calls from prospective customers.

Today, his phone doesn’t ring so often. He no longer rents the office. Occasionally he gazes at it from the street below.

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Migration between Turkey and Greece has fallen by more than 95 percent since the peak of the refugee crisis in late 2015. And with it, Abu Mohammed’s business has collapsed.

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Since early 2016, Balkan countries have made it harder for people to migrate through Europe, lowering the demand for Abu Mohammed’s services. Turkey has also made it harder for smugglers to work, detaining men like Abu Mohammed for several weeks last year. For this article, he agreed to talk only if his face was obscured in photographs and he was identified by his nickname alone.

I have interviewed more than a dozen smugglers on three continents. Like most of them, Abu Mohammed is more complex than journalists and politicians usually suggest in their portrayal of the human-smuggling industry.

He grew up in Syria, and became a surgeon’s assistant — someone who once saved lives instead of, as some say, endangering them. He turned to smuggling only once he had fled to Turkey, after he himself almost drowned trying to reach Europe as a passenger. Later, his own passengers were not simply his customers: They included relatives, and even his young son. Sending them to sea, he says, was stressful and sometimes frightening.

It was also shameful, he says. Though he acknowledges a quiet pride in his role in such an extraordinary flow of people, which was “not an ordinary thing,” it’s now not something he wants to be associated with. “It’s a dirty business,” he says. “It’s hard to find someone who’s honest in this work.”

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Like many smugglers, Abu Mohammed saw himself as the one honest broker among a crowd of liars — acknowledging the wider moral problems within his industry, but skirting his own personal agency. Today, he says he avoids the places where he used to close his deals.

We stroll through Aksaray, Istanbul’s main smuggling hub, and Abu Mohammed points out cafes where he no longer meets clients. Shops that no longer sell life jackets. A small park where refugees no longer sleep rough.

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Life is slower for Abu Mohammed now, but it is less stressful. He says he does not miss the late-night calls from panicked customers, who sometimes phoned him from the sea itself. In fact, it is Abu Mohammed who now badgers his onetime clients. Of the roughly $800,000 he said he earned in 2015, around a quarter has yet to be paid by refugees who promised to pay once they reached Europe.

Still, he has made enough to change jobs for the third time in his life. Now he plans to use his profits to buy a cafe. He has started scouting potential places.

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But does a smuggler ever really leave smuggling? A few days after we met, Turkish politicians threatened to encourage a new wave of migrants to reach Europe — and I wondered if Abu Mohammed thought he might soon be back in business.

If Turkey can “at least turn a blind eye to those who are trying to get smuggled,” he replied, “we will take care of the rest.” He giggled as he said it.

Kamal Shoumali contributed reporting.


Migration Never Ends for a Syrian Boy Needing Work

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CreditPhotographs by Patrick Kingsley/The New York Times

As Ismail Alanzi works in his oversize overalls, it’s hard to tell how old he is. He is among a dozen Syrian refugees furiously scrubbing root vegetables in this field in western Turkey. Head down, smothered in a baggy green jumpsuit, he could be man or woman, child or adult. Until, suddenly, he looks up — and I see his face.

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It’s the face of a 15-year-old who should be in school. Instead, Ismail is one of an estimated 380,000 school-age Syrian refugees in Turkey who are trapped in some form of child labor, or simply not in class. Why does he work? “Because I have to live,” he says, then shrugs.

His father, Yassin, offers a fuller answer: Their family is homeless. Their house in Syria was damaged in the fighting, and they cannot yet afford to rent an apartment in Turkey. Yassin cannot always find work, since the local farmers prefer younger, fitter workers — people like Ismail.

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Ismail’s job each day is to pick and wash about 1,000 celeriac, which is used in stews. He works up to 11 hours a day, six days a week. In return, he gets about 800 Turkish lira a month, or about $225. In addition, his boss has let Ismail’s family pitch a tent on his land at no cost.

Most of Turkey’s estimated 2.9 million Syrians are forced to work illegally, because their employers will not help them get work permits. As a farm laborer, Ismail does not need one, as the agricultural sector is exempt. But his wage is just over half the legal minimum.

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In my previous job as a migration correspondent, I wrote mostly about the Syrians who braved the boat journey to Europe. But a majority of Syrian refugees are in fact stuck in countries like Turkey, which hosts more Syrians than any country other than Syria itself. For impoverished families like Ismail’s, Europe is just a dream, as the smuggling fees are too high.

“I wouldn’t know how to go about getting there,” says Ismail’s cousin, Yasser Khaled, who works alongside him on the farm. Ismail and Yasser have little savings, which is why they live in this makeshift camp in the western Turkish countryside. “That’s a big amount of money. I can’t even think about it.”

But within Turkey’s borders, Ismail is still migrating. By law, Syrians must stay in the province in which they are registered, but the reality is that most must keep moving to find work. If they are caught, they can be sent back to their original province.

On the day I visit, the camp across the way is told to move on. And then the police come for Ismail’s. Tomorrow he and the other workers will move to the nearby village, where their boss has found them some rooms.

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It’s the fourth such move for Ismail in the two years since he fled Syria. For now, though, Ismail has even more pressing concerns.

“You’ve made me very shy. I’ve got to play,” he says, and turns to a game of Uno with his younger brother, Khaled. 

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