Money Flows with Refugees, and Life Jackets Fill the Shops

Ben Hubbard, New York Times, September 26, 2015

For months, Ahmed Abdul-Hamid, a Palestinian from the Syrian city of Aleppo, tried and failed to cross the sea to start a new life in Europe. The Turkish police detained him. Smugglers tricked him. Once, his boat stalled and he had to swim back to shore, leaving him stranded and broke.

But his fortunes changed this summer when a Turkish smuggler hired him to recruit passengers from among the refugees and migrants flooding into this port city. Soon, his phone was ringing nonstop with people trying to get to Europe, and the cash was pouring in for him–as much as $4,000 per day.

“Some weeks I get nothing,” Mr. Abdul-Hamid, 21, said. “Other times, I’m so busy I can’t keep up.”

Mr. Abdul-Hamid’s swift success is a small part of the multimillion-dollar shadow economy that has developed in Turkey to profit from the massive human tide rushing toward Europe. Much of this new economy is visible in the streets here, where smugglers solicit refugees, clothing stores display life vests and inner tubes, and tour buses and taxis shuttle passengers to remote launch sites along the coast.

Money is flowing through Izmir, the third largest city in Turkey, now a grim hub for migrants and a boom town for residents. Hidden from view is an extensive smuggling infrastructure, with makeshift “insurance offices” that hold migrants’ money, covert factories that churn out ineffective life vests and underground suppliers of cheap rubber rafts that sometimes pop or capsize during the voyage to Greece, stranding or drowning people at sea.

The vast majority of the nearly half-million migrants and refugees who have entered Europe by sea this year have arrived from Turkey, according to the United Nations. And while Europe struggles to respond to the influx, there is no sign here that the outflow will wane as long as there is so much money to be made. If anything, the numbers appear to be growing.

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But the abundance of life vests covers one of the city’s dark secrets: many of these items are locally made with cheap materials that leave the migrants vulnerable as they cross the sea. Some of the vests, for example, are made of foam that absorbs water.

“We tell people not to buy the life vests because they’ll sink,” said a Syrian selling inner tubes on the sidewalk, declining to give his name for fear of retribution. “We tell them to buy inner tubes.”

The largest profits, however, go to powerful Turkish smugglers on the coast who oversee the boats, according to the Syrians they employ and Greek maritime officials who track their activities.

To fill their boats while remaining out of sight, they use Syrian “agents” who earn commissions for bringing passengers. Most passengers pay $1,200, and one person selected to pilot each raft rides free. Children go for half price.

Most rafts hold 45 passengers, earning the smugglers a total of nearly $60,000. Even after paying commissions, the cost of the boat and motor and bribing officials, smugglers can net more than $30,000 for each successful crossing, according to Syrians involved in the process.

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