A former doctor from Syria has described how he now makes £60,000 a month trafficking people from Turkey to Europe. He has warned European Union (EU) member states that the refugees will continue to come even if all the borders are shut, saying “They will dig tunnels if necessary.”
Until 2012 Abu Mahmoud (a pseudonym) was a doctor working in Aleppo, earning a decent salary. But when rebels took half of the city in July of that year, he found himself wanted by both sides – by the Assad regime because he was treating wounded activists and rebels, and by the rebels who had decided that he was pro-regime.
He quickly made up his mind to travel to Europe, booking passage on a boat from Turkey along with two cousins and a friend. It sank, and he watched women and children drown in front of him. He and his companions who could swim were rescued 11 hours later.
Undeterred, he made further attempts to make the crossing, all of which failed. But by that time he had built up such a network of contacts, both smugglers and fellow Syrian refugees, that he began to put people in touch with one another.
“At first, I wouldn’t accept any commission,” he told The Telegraph. “Then I needed money to survive and I had family to support. Then I found it was good business.” From accepting commissions, he quickly progressed to setting up his own operation.
“They trust me because I was a doctor,” he said.
Based at first at Mersin, on the south east coast of Turkey at the end of a ferry route often used by refugees travelling from Lebanon, he would buy a boat, load it up with hundreds of passengers, and send them to Italy. The boats would be impounded by the Italian authorities, but with each passenger paying £3,000 he could afford to write the boat off as a loss.
Four months ago disaster struck when he received a tip off that he was on Interpol’s wanted list; information which he had corroborated by a general in the Syrian police force. After he repaid debts and reimbursed clients for trips not yet made, he had nothing left, but has since set up again in Istanbul, working as a middle man.
Thousands of refugees have gathered there in parks and plazas, many looking for a ride to Europe.
For hooking up people like this with the Turkish gangs running boats across the sea, Mahmoud charges $1,100, of which $850 goes to the gangs, leaving him with a tidy profit of $250 per person. He still incurs costs – the police occasionally turn up at his offices demanding bribes of $1,000 to ignore him, but he is making enough to save up for a new boat and rubber dinghy to start running his own operation again.
In total, he estimates that he has sent between 8,000 and 9,000 people to Europe over the last two years “without a single sinking or drowning.”
He blames the surge in migrants making the crossing on the policies of European governments. “It’s easier to get smuggled on from Greece, because they opened the border,” he said, a fact which has been reflected in costs. Passage to Greece costs $1,100, while a ticket all the way to Germany costs just €2,000, made cheaper by the recently opened borders.
Norway or Sweden, seen as desirable locations because of their generous asylum and resettlement policies, cost an extra €3,000 to €4,000 on top.
“I just want to send this message to the EU,” he said. “Refugees will come to your countries even if they close all the borders. They will dig tunnels if necessary.
“So why don’t they arrange to take refugees through the UN? Why do they let people pay the mafia? Let them go legally to your countries. Why do they allow people to put themselves at risk? A lot of people are now food for the fishes.”
As for Mahmoud himself, despite his newfound wealth he’s still determined to make it to Europe. He has sent his 11 year old son to live with a friend in Holland, hoping that, as an unaccompanied minor, he will be given preference – including being able to arrange for the rest of his family to join him.