Turkey’s Migrant Boom Creating Market for Low-Quality ‘Life Vests’ to Wear to Greece

AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis
AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis

Illegal migrants trapped in Turkey and hoping to enter the European Union are invigorating that nation’s black market for life vests, useful in crossing the Aegean Sea into Greece. Manufacturers in Izmir, a popular interim destination for refugees, are warning, however, that many black-market life vests are poorly constructed and actually serve to pull the wearers deeper into the water, not keep them afloat.

As early as mid-2014, shops in Izmir that would otherwise not carry such products began stocking life vests, which many migrants buy hoping it will protect them from any maritime disasters on the way to Greece. Hurriyet‘s report on the life vest market boom in August 2014 notes that many of those illegal immigrants living in Izmir at the time were from Iraq and Syria, fleeing the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), which has since expanded its reach in the region.

In 2015, the migrant wave from ISIS territories has gone from a steady flow to an outright deluge of migrants attempting to enter Europe and restart their lives. As a result, not only have shopowners begun to stock more life vests, but an entire black market of poorly constructed floatation devices has emerged in Turkey. Hurriyet reports that Basmane, a neighborhood in Izmir, has become notorious for selling these products at a significantly lower rate. No evidence suggests they help migrants stay afloat should they land in the water, however; on the contrary, experts say they endanger the wearer even further.

Sait Güderoğlu, a manufacturer of well-crafted life vests, tells the Turkish newspaper that the illegal models he has seen on the market are makeshift backpacks stuffed with sponges, which do little to help in the water. “They can’t even help a small child keep afloat, let alone an adult,” he says. “They are made of the fabric that handbags are made of and stuffed with low-quality sponge. Rather than keeping one afloat, they pull the user further down as they absorb water.” Güderoğlu recommends 100-Newton life jackets, which are pricier but can be trusted to function for up to 12 hours.

For migrants, who often must pay their life savings to a smuggler to earn passage aboard an illegal human trafficking ship, the price of a real life jacket may prove prohibitive. Sabah reports that the average well-constructed life jacket can cost up to 75 Turkish lira. The cheaper versions cost between 20-30 lira.

Upon leaving Turkey, these migrants head to the closest Greek islands they can reach. Greece, already beleaguered by a woeful economic situation, is experiencing a steep decline in its tourism industry, as the preferred islands for illegal migrants also happen to be its most popular tourist destinations. Greek newspaper Ta Nea reports that the Association of Greek Tourist Enterprises has recorded a 50% drop in airplane bookings to the Greek islands between July and September, and a 60% drop in ferry bookings, perhaps due to fears that a ship will come across human smugglers. This has represented a 20% drop in the tourism industry as a whole, particularly damaging tourism in islands like Kos and Lesbos, which are geographically easiest to reach from Turkey.

The number of migrants reaching these islands remains staggering week by week, exacerbated by the pleasant–and thus safely navigable–weather that would have otherwise attracted tourists to the islands. More than 1,000 migrants reached Greece between Friday, June 26 and Monday, June 29. Greek Coast Guard officials have described themselves as “overwhelmed” and “paralyzed” by the efforts needed to rescue all the migrants trying to reach the country.

Turkey has done little to stop the influx of refugees into both its own territory and the Greek islands. The Turkish government has, however, vowed to help Greece surpass its current economic crisis, caused by the government’s current inability to make debt payments to its creditors, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union. “We are ready to do whatever we can in terms of cooperation in tourism, energy and trade,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said this week in remarks regarding the Greek economic crisis, vowing that “Turkey will be positive toward any proposal for cooperation.”