A 21-year-old Syrian man who smuggles migrants across the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece at $580 a head says that he is a humanitarian who only wants to help people.
“I am doing God’s work,” he says, while collecting cash and cramming as many people as possible into his dinghy for the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to the Greek islands of Kos and Lesbos.
“I have understood this humanitarian crisis and want to help in a merciful way,” he said. “We give these people a lifeline.”
According to reports, there are now hundreds operating as people smugglers along the Turkish coastline. In 2015, more than 800,000 made the short trip from Turkey to the Greek islands, and so far in 2016 nearly 8,000 people have attempted the crossing. Of those, 371 have died.
Whatever their motives, the people-smuggling business into Europe is booming as well as incredibly lucrative for those involved.
Recent reports suggest that people willing to shuttle migrants from Turkey into Greece are earning as much as $20,000/week, far more than they would make in virtually any other field.
A 25-year-old Syrian refugee named Mohamad was trained as an electrician but was unable to find work on the Turkish black market as an electrician, in large part because his status gave him no access to the legal labor market. He eventually turned to the illegal business of assisting fellow migrants in their efforts to get into Europe, a job he has found lucrative beyond his dreams.
Speaking of those who have drowned trying to make the crossing, Mohamad believes it’s silly for anyone to blame himself since people’s lives are ultimately in God’s hands.
“It’s not our fault – it’s fate,” he said. “It’s what God decides. Only God knows who will make it and who won’t.”
Another Syrian named Abu Mahmoud who used to practice as a physician in Aleppo got into the people-smuggling business and now makes more money than he ever did in medicine. In a single month he drew $100,000 from boating migrants into Greece.
According to Mohamad, the Turkish police are turning a blind eye to the smuggling trade, and only conduct raids to keep up appearances that they are doing something. He was only aware of four crackdowns during the entire year 2015.
“It all depends on the pressure that they’re under,” he said.
The 21-year-old unnamed Syrian agrees. “They still see us leaving and do nothing to stop us, but they can’t keep all these people here,” he said.
Still, he insists that in smuggling migrants, he is doing a good thing.
“I want to build myself up as a smuggler, but not in immoral ways that God does not accept,” he said.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome