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Wednesday, 5 June, 2002, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
Turkey's booming people trade
Passenger ship
Boats carrying illegal immigrants favour the long Greek and Italian coastlines

In one day Turkish authorities found the bodies of 24 illegal migrants. Among them were nine children, found frozen to death with the rest of their family on the mountainous Turkish-Iranian border.

On the same day five Pakistanis were found drowned on the shore of Turkey's Aegean coast.

The death toll has underlined that Turkey has become one of the main centres for human trafficking and the problem is growing.

At the centre of the trade is the country's largest city, Istanbul.


They [smugglers] adapt very quickly to any action by the security forces. There are small groups operating around the world and they are in contact with one another all the time through mobile phones.

Professor Ahmet Icduygu, studying illegal immigration

Among the swarms of tourists in the historical part of the city I met John, not his real name. He is from West Africa and has been involved in the trafficking people for the last five years.

He eventually hopes to earn enough money to secure a passage for him and his family to go to France. He says the business in smuggling is booming.

"They come from Africa, West Africa, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and also northern Iraq," he said.

"They come to Turkey because Turkey is the easiest point to get to Europe. There are boats that go to Greece and Italy.

"They ask $1,500 for passage to Greece and to Italy $2,500. By land to Greece, they ask from $500 up to $1,750. They want to move to Europe because it is something like an El Dorado, it's a dream. Even for myself I feel Europe is a paradise."

Traffickers' web

The explosion in demand has been met with an equal growth in those ready to provide passage. John's job is to bring the migrants together with the smugglers.

He lists the different areas of the city where various nationalities congregate to find passage. "Sultanahmet Nigerians, Talabasi Bangladeshis and so on."

John deals with 15 different smuggling gangs operating in the city. Competition between the gangs is so stiff that the prices have now started to fall. Some smugglers now only expect to be paid if the migrant successfully enters Europe and payment is made by a third-party guarantor.

But John is quick to point out that failure to pay is out of the question. "These people are very dangerous, if you don't pay they will kill the guarantor, it is quite simple," he said.

Such a system is an indication of the confidence of the smugglers to deliver.

Professor Ahmet Icduygu has been studying the trade for more than a decade.

Istanbul is the gateway to Europe
Istanbul is the gateway to Europe

He says that between two thirds and three quarters of the boats get through to their destinations in Greece and Italy. The smugglers, he says, run an efficient operation.

"They are more organised than the state system. It's complicated and very diversified, there is no single way of doing it. They adapt very quickly to any action by the security forces. There are small groups operating around the world and they are in contact with one another all the time through mobile phones.

"A person who wants to leave Northern Iraq - within a week they will be in Berlin, London or Rome. Last summer I interviewed an Ethiopian woman captured by Turkish authorities in the Marmara Sea.

"She said she had missed the boat leaving the day before because she was sick. A week later she called me from Rome saying she had arrived with the smugglers. That means within a week there were three boats going to Italy."

Mobile phones allow the smugglers to remain in contact with their network across the world.

Along with Europe a small trade exists in smuggling to North America and Australia. According to police records one smuggler sold his mobile phone containing the directory of his contacts to another smuggler for $15,000.

Growing problem

In the last seven years the numbers arrested by Turkish authorities for illegal entry and exit has increased 900% from 11,000 in 1995 to 92,000 in 2001.

According to Professor Icduygu the growing numbers of migrants is putting an intolerable strain on the meagre resources of the Turkish security forces.

"They don't have the money to fight, and if they donšt fight again this, criticism comes to them and it feeds the whole circle."


Without a visa you have to take the boat, there is no choice. We are forced into this.

'Christopher', migrant

But the European Union is demanding more from Turkey. The EU's frustration with Turkey was most recently voiced by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He warned Turkey that it should do more to curtail the illegal migration.

Following that warning Turkish authorities intercepted a ferry carrying 250 migrants off Turkey's Mediterranean coast. One of the migrants was killed and five others wounded when the security forces opened fire.

The following day one of Turkey's main newspapers headline ran: "Blair warned us , we caught them."

Border controls

But Professor Icduygu argues that the European Union has to be prepared to pay if it wants the Turks to secure its long coastline and rugged land border.

He says the EU has so far refused to be forthcoming with financial assistance other than paying for a few training programmes and some computers.

"In the United States they spend $5.5bn every year to control their borders. At the same time , according to some estimates, up to five million people illegally enter the US."

Istanbul skyline
Illegal immigrants congregate in Istanbul

The explosion in the numbers of migrants caught started in 1995, the same year that EU countries started to tighten their visa requirements on would-be immigrants.

That is widely seen as driving many migrants into the hands of the smugglers.

Christopher, not his real name, is from Senegal. I met him in a small dirty hotel in the Aksaray district of Istanbul. The area is a popular waiting point for illegal migrants with its hundreds of cheap hotels.

He says that the tougher EU restrictions mean that the smugglers are the only way for him. "Without a visa you have to take the boat, there is no choice. We are forced into this.

"I had all the correct papers for my visa. But it was refused by the [French] Consul. They give no reason, they just refuse.

"So me and many friends have no choice. We are being forced into this, paying big money and taking big risks. I want to join my family and this is the only way into Europe."


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19 Mar 02 | Europe
30 May 02 | Europe
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