In Basmane, a neighborhood of smugglers and migrants in the heart of Izmir, il manifesto interviewed a key figure in the human trafficking operations between Turkey and the Greek islands. Abu Muhammad, around 50 years old, appears unremarkable save for the old scar on the right side of his face, between his eye and ear. He has manicured nails and wears a stylish blue worsted suit and a white shirt, open at the neck. He claims to have come from Mardin, in the south of the country.
A young Kurdish man, who fled to Izmir from violence in southeastern Turkey, set up the interview. “You have 20 minutes,” he said, pointing to a subcompact car parked in view of the Basmane train station.
Muhammad welcomed me inside with a handshake. He looks like a low-level trafficker, but that’s not so. He’s the boss of one of four organizations involved in smuggling migrants from Izmir, this port city on Turkey’s Aegean coast, to the Greek islands. These groups don’t cooperate with each other, but they don’t battle either — there’s enough demand that everyone profits.
Muhammad has never spoken to the press until now, so he was trying to keep a low profile: “A bigshot wouldn’t go around in this car,” he said, explaining that his usual vehicle is an armored jeep that everyone knows in these parts, including the police. Better not to attract attention. But like any business manager, even a smuggler occasionally needs the press, to announce new plans or to make sense of times of change. And since the agreement between the European Union and the Ankara government to turn refugees and migrants back to Turkey, this is a time of change for Izmir.
It’s hard to say how much of Muhammad’s statements are true, but there’s truth in the numbers, his strategy and his prospects for the future of his business. He started off declaring “it’s all over,” but contradicted himself shortly afterward, announcing new routes and predicting “many people.” Because time was short, the questions and answers came rapid fire.
How is business since the agreements between the European Union and Turkey?
Ninety-nine percent is lost. It’s done, it’s all over.
But in the days following the agreement there were many crossings. How do you explain that?
It is true, but the police definitely stopped them, whereas previously they would say that it is not their business and let them go.
You mean that now the police intervene more?
Before it was easy. Now there is strong coverage by agents.
It is said that new routes to Europe will be more lengthy, costly and dangerous. Is that true?
The alternate way is to Italy and to Athens. It will cost $6,000 to Athens, and $7,000 or $8,000 toward Italy. With larger boats.
These boats will be positioned in international waters?
With small boats migrants will be brought to the big boats offshore. Or the big boats will dock in dedicated, isolated ports distributed anywhere along the coast, from Antalya to Istanbul.
Do you expect a lot of people?
Yes, many people.
The networks you’re talking about are here in Izmir or is the organization more extensive?
It’s like a big company. I cannot handle it alone. I have people helping me in Syria, also in Greece. I send people to one place or the other. Then there are people from Egypt, Afghanistan, Morocco. If it were not for the business, it would never work.
How many people have passed in a year?
In all, about 80,000 people. This year I have not worked much after many people died because of unreliable traffickers, criminals who don’t care about safety. But if a person knows his job, nobody gets killed at sea.
Do you still work or not?
Yes, I have been working this year but not much, for fear of the government. Because if a passenger dies, you can go to jail for years.
How do you divide the money among the various members of the organization?
For example, if the main boss for Greece asks $5,000 for passage on the big boats, and I bring him the people, I take $1,000 per person. If I take a big boat and fill it with passengers, then I will be the boss. Whoever has the money can manage the business.
Who exactly are the traffickers?
Most of them worked for the government, then they lost their jobs and were put up in this business. … But there are also engineers, lawyers, public officials, police officers.
Will the E.U.-Turkey agreement last, or will it be temporary?
The whole question is in the hands of Europe. If Brussels wants it to last, it will last. Otherwise it will be stopped.
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