“I’m not a smuggler, I’m a humanitarian”


The Basmane neighbourhood of Izmir, a city of nearly three million on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, is a curious place. It feels worlds apart from the rest of the city, particularly the café and bar-lined waterfront just ten minutes drive away.

It feels, in fact, like ‘little Syria’, a tiny Arab enclave where Arabic competes as the lingua franca and Syrians make up the bulk of the – albeit transitory – population. This is because Basmane is a key node in a well-trodden smuggling route from Turkey to Greece. Izmir is the nearest major town to several Greek Islands, which are the entry point for most migrants trying to reach Europe.

Basmane is also the location of my October meeting with one of the areas’ more notable residents: Abu Rabih, a Syrian people smuggler involved in a multibillion euro business that has moved over 900,000 migrants and asylum seekers to Europe this year, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Abu Rabih shatters the image of a trafficker. Wearing a white shirt, dark jacket and spectacles between grey-cropped hair and a broad smile, his appearance is almost professorial. This image is reinforced by his demeanour: soft-spoken, chirpy and encouraging debate on the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

“It is disgraceful that European leaders allow migrants to take life-threatening risks,” he said, while sat around a restaurant table on one of Basmane’s busiest streets.

Abu Rabih refused to acknowledge that he shares any responsibility and rejected the term ‘smuggler,’ labelling himself a ‘humanitarian’ instead.

When challenged about how he could justify charging US$1,200 to individual passengers – a standard rate for Izmir, though it fluctuates according to the season – Abu Rabih went on the defensive.

“I have let many Syrians who can’t afford it travel for free,” he stressed. “In October I paid for three sisters who had their money taken from them as they tried to cross the border into Turkey.”

Abu Rabih revealed to Equal Times the multitude of people involved in this booming cottage industry, from the bus drivers to the translators to the more established smugglers and suppliers of rubber dinghies.

Abu Rabih’s role is essentially that of a go-between: he collects money from the migrants and coordinates their transport and lodgings from Izmir to a remote beach four hours away. There, the migrants are loaded onto rubber dinghies destined for the nearest Greek island, Lesbos.

Although less than 10 kilometres separates Lesbos from the Turkish mainland, the journey can be perilous. Vessels built to hold 10 to 15 people are filled to three times capacity, particularly now as worsening weather conditions turn seas choppy. This year alone some 200 people have died attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece and over 100 people are missing, but despite the risks migrants continue to take their chances.


“People trust me”

Abu Rabih maintains that he only works with trustworthy Turkish smugglers who don’t overload their vessels; he even claims to go to the beaches to make sure that his customers aren’t forced onto overcrowded vessels. This claim, however, was refuted by one migrant who said that Abu Rabih was not on the beach during her failed sea crossing. She also said that Turkish smugglers on the beach overloaded the boat despite Abu Rabih’s assurances.

On the other hand, the Syrian smuggler did return her payment after the ordeal – not a given in the illicit migrant operation taking place in Basmane, where there are crooks aplenty. Abu Rabih, which means ‘father of Rabih’ in Arabic (a name he holds dear particularly since the death of his son early into the Syrian War), says trust is the key to his business.

“People come to me because of my reputation for honesty,” he says. “They trust me to hold their money,” he adds, before taking out half a dozen matchbox-sized wads of dollar bills, each tightly wrapped with clingfilm. He says he is the financial guarantor, and only releases funds to his Turkish counterparts when migrants’ journeys are successful.

When vessels are turned back by the Greek or Turkish coastguard, or – more often – they fail to make it out to sea because of a faulty motor or a damaged dinghy, Abu Rabih says he takes care of his “customers” in Izmir until they can reattempt the journey.

This claim proved more substantive, as not long after uttering those words over a dozen men, women and children approach our table. Speaking Arabic with a Syrian dialect, several members of the group tell Abu Rabih that their vessel was intercepted by the Turkish coastguard and turned back. The vessel was probably located by Turkish authorities after one of the migrants used a GPS-enabled phone, forgetting Abu Rabih’s prior warnings.

“I told you not to turn on your phones,” Abu Rabih grinned. “Nevermind, sit down at that table and order whatever you want. I’ll put you all on a bus later tonight.”

This doesn’t appear to be an uncommon occurrence. Abu Rabih seems unbothered, and the restaurant manager, with whom he is on very friendly terms, delights in the extra business.


Altruism or business?

There is little doubt that by redistributing of some of his profits to the community in which he operates, Abu Rabih manages to ease the business process. As well as paying for meals out of the US$200 he claims to pocket for every US$1,200 charged, he provides migrants with local accommodation while coordinating another vessel to take them across to Europe.

How much of this is altruism and how much of it is smart business is unclear: Abu Rabih was open about the fact that if he did not accommodate his customers, their presence on Izmir’s streets might antagonise authorities – “and nobody wants that.”

It is also worth noting that his is a terribly lucrative venture, and that those involved in the smuggling operation to Europe are making massive profits off of desperate individuals.

Millions are generated each week from the Izmir to Lesbos route alone, while the numbers of refugees landing in Izmir on a daily basis currently stands at around 1,000 – down from a high on 11 September 2015 when 9,500 people arrived in a single day.

The frankness with which Abu Rabih spoke would have been surprising were it not for the fact that Basmane is full of paradoxes. Dozens of shops openly sell life jackets, while a uniform shop sells police outfits. Outside upmarket hotels, street vendors sell whistles, phones, lights and plastic wallets to migrants planning a seaward journey to Europe.

The smuggling operation is so visible in Basmane that the police, who have at least one station in the area, cannot claim to be unaware. To understand why Turkey has done relatively little to stem the tide of migrants to Europe, one has merely to look at the figures: Turkey is currently hosting over two million Syrian refugees at a cost of around €7.5 billion, according to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

But this appears to be changing since the signing of a deal between Turkey and European Union leaders on 28 November to control the flow of migrants to Europe, in return for a €3 billion aid package and an easing of visa restrictions for Turkish citizens traveling to Europe. At least 1,300 asylum seekers were arrested just days after the deal was signed.

The crackdown will almost certainly extend to smugglers like Abu Rabih, but it is unlikely to fully halt smuggling operations. So long as there is still demand, supply is never too far away.