“When you hire a human trafficker, you have no control over your life, he has.”
This was something I heard Iranian immigrants say several times. They knew from experience, from the moment they decided to leave Iran to the moment they arrived at their destination. They signed their life over to someone they didn’t even know. Just telling the story horrifies them. Now imagine experiencing it for yourself.
To find and talk with people involved in this business, I became a hitchhiker, seeking out the hot spots in every country I visited. In Istanbul, the big area for human traffickers is a neighborhood called Aksaray. Just listening around, it’s possible to hear conversations in Persian about the specifics and conditions of making a trip to a destination far away. I headed for cafes in Pasha street, where I heard about a now-famous human trafficker who “specializes” in sending travelers to Greece and spends his time roaming that part of town. Some of his recent clients were abandoned on an Island waiting for him — for that reason, my contacts advised me not to meet with him. “He is always carrying a handgun and meets women alone at his home. Whatever you do, don’t go with him to his place,” they told me.
At any rate, I was not able to find him, although I did make contact with him, and he promised me a phone interview. However, I did meet another human trafficker, who claimed he’ll take me to France in four or five days.
Among refugees and asylum seekers, one popular route is from Turkey to France via air, usually from Istanbul. After reaching an agreement with and paying a human trafficker, the trafficker forges passports and IDs for clients, buys plane tickets to the agreed destination and sends people on their way. After landing, it is up to the traveler to get past the police and airport checks. Many of the people I met confirmed this, adding that they have to appear confident and not show any sign of stress or anxiety. However, many get caught every year in the airports of Turkey and Greece and are forced to take their chances again later.
Different Types of Fake IDs
The human traffickers usually forge either passports or IDs. Rarely will a trafficker provide clients with both forms of ID, which would allow travelers to pass police checks easier. There are two types of forged IDs, “similar” and “changed”. “Similars” are lost or stolen valid passports with photographs that bear some resemblance to the client. These passports are simply bought and sold with no forgery involved and have a very high chance of success passing the checkpoints. “Changed” on the other hand is a forged ID with the actual photo of the client on the document.
But all of the steps to obtain documentation only take place after an agreement between the human trafficker and his client has been reached. The human trafficker is in full control and travelers have to be on call to show up at the time and place they’re instructed on short notice. Many of the immigrants I talked to described how they felt a new sense of freedom when they reached their destination and were finally out of the cycle of human trafficking, and out of the human trafficker’s control.
I met someone who told me human traffickers sometimes kidnap their female clients and trap them in their houses to use them as a stream of income. As I walked with him down the streets of Istanbul I asked him if he knew anyone involved in sex trafficking. After a moment of silence, he said he might know someone, a person involved in selling girls and women and sex workers. He showed me some photos of the women on his phone, photos that his contact had sent him.
I asked him to set up an appointment with the trafficker for me. After all, I was a traveler heading for France. He called him and introduced me as a wealthy client who is scared of traveling by airplane and preferred to go by land as much as possible. The trafficker showed interest in my case and agreed to meet me the same day. I waited for him at a currency exchange store he trusted. Although it was not my first time meeting a human trafficker, I was stressed that if anything went wrong, my contact or I would be in trouble. I had my recorder on when he finally showed up, 15 minutes late. He was not alone; a young man was with him who he introduced as “his handler.”
Prior to our conversation, he had had a heated debate with the store owner on the price of currencies. And then he brought me into the conversation by telling me he was trying to buy his mother a house. He also assured me that giving me his home address in Iran and Turkey meant I could trust him. But then it was time to get to the point. “We have a nice trip planned for you via air and ground to Italy. The Greece borders are closed, and you get stuck if you choose that path. The Bulgarian border is fine for now. We will drive you for an hour and a half to Bulgaria for and then you’ll be on a five-hour flight to Italy.”
I told him I was heading to France since I’d heard about the situation in Italy and that there were hard new immigration laws against immigrants. “From Italy, you can get a taxi to France. No one will even bother you,” the trafficker replied.
Traveling via Bulgaria
But I knew he was not right. In recent years, very anti-immigration alt-right parties have gained power in Italy. Therefore, stricter rules are in place to fight against illegal immigration and especially to control the borders.
“You are like my own sister,” the trafficker told me. “Ladies will experience more difficulties than men. There was a group of Iranians who were taken to the borders, but before getting on the ship they were asked to pay the fees. When they paid the fees, instead of boarding them on the ship, they took them to an apartment and threatened them and told them to call their families and say they had reached the destination before they would be released. Don’t trust human traffickers! Not at least until you know and see where they live.”
And then I had a series of questions:
“Where exactly does this ground trip you’re talking about go? How much do you charge?”
“There is a an hour-and-a-half drive to the Turkish border with Bulgaria," he said. "Then we pass the border and, depending on the situation, we will stay in a shelter for one or two nights until we can go further. Because you are a woman, I can’t charge you any less than $6,000. Single men are easy to pass, but women are the most difficult.”
“How about the Bulgarian police? I heard they’re brutal.”
“Don’t worry, their supervisor at the border is our contact. If the situation is good when we get there, we might be able to send you on your way to Italy the first night. And you don't need to worry about after that. I’ll send someone to take you from Italy to France.”
The young handler saw the concern and discomfort in my eyes and said: “Don’t worry! If you have any problems along the journey, I’ll personally come and take you to Paris.”
According to them, I had to buy a new SIM card as soon as I got to Bulgaria since Iranian and Turkish SIMs are useless there. As the trafficker was telling me about these tips, his phone rang. and after a brief conversation, he hung up and told the handler: “Do you remember Marjan? Now Turkish intelligence is after her. Apparently, her sons got into a fight with a police officer. I’m also looking for her. Her boss, Khayam, is a guy who lives in Tehran and with her help scammed many travelers around here. I’m saying this in front of our sister, so she knows what is going on around here.”
“How much money did they scam?” I asked.
“Imagine every week they had 20 clients and were charging them $6,000 each. Twenty times 6,000 is $480,000 a month,” he said. “If he only did this for four months, he’ll be a millionaire. He also scammed some of my friends. My police friends are telling me they are after him.”
The young handler said, “I’m thirsty for his blood myself. I’ll pay $800 to anyone who brings him to me.”
Then he told me that, after our agreement, I should be on call to go to the place and time he instructed. He also mentioned Greece, saying we couldn’t use that route anymore since people get stuck there. “My own friend has been stuck in Athens for six months without anywhere to go”
I imagined immigrants who had arrived in Greece and who have now been waiting for years. Life for an asylum seeker in Greece is significantly different from everywhere else. I was in the middle of these thoughts when the trafficker said: “The price I told you is a decent fee. Some people will charge you $4,000 for a trip on the cargo side of a train with no guarantee. I charge $2,500 for a train trip, but you’re in the cargo and have to get off and run wherever train stops to unload them. Wherever, maybe Austria, maybe Italy or anywhere else.”
I asked him about an air-trip fee. “$10,000, but guaranteed. I’ll make you an ID and a passport and you’ll board in Istanbul and land in Italy.”
“What if I can’t pass the airport check? What will happen then?” I asked.
He laughed and replied: “Don’t worry, nothing will happen. They’ll keep you for a night or two and send you back, then we will re-send you again. But who knows, you might pass the first time, don’t worry!”
Apparently, I was successful in communicating my stress. Besides the hectic meeting with them, I already knew too many stories of immigrants’ encounters with human traffickers.
“Sleep on it”
“The path is a difficult one, especially on the ground, which has its own problems.” He continued and reached for his phone to show me a photo: “Look at him, he is a big Instagram influencer. My brother introduced him, and we sent him on his way. I took him via Greece but right now that is impossible. Also, the borders of Albania and Serbia are shut down as well. You shouldn’t have any cash on you. Only the necessities and some clothes. No documents on you and have something for the mosquito bites. Greek mosquitos are monsters and you can also find them on the Bulgaria border. Your trip guide will be a close friend of mine. But don’t decide in a rush, sister, sleep on it for a while.”
I had more questions. “How about those women you said get trapped by human traffickers? Are there many of those instances?” I asked.
“I understand your concerns. Yes, unfortunately, there are too many of them. Human traffickers are dangerous people. They lie to you, especially if you are a single lady. They promise you a safe trip, but in the middle of the journey, hand you to another guy who’ll exploit you as a sex worker. They will take all your money and documents and will rent you around.”
I told him that I’ll think more and would let him know. He stood up and went to the counter to send some money to his family in Iran. His mother had been released from the hospital and he wanted her to have a nice fun trip. He also gave the handler 2,000 Turkish lira ($US365) and said: “I provide him with everything he needs. He has his own home and is buying a car. Here with me is the best life he can ever wish for.”
He also told me a little about his own life. He was born in Islamshahr in Karaj, Iran and his family were involved in construction work. “I was a thug kid since the beginning, awful at school. Only studied for five years and could not even get a single D. Once I got a 40 percent, which made everyone super happy. But my parents raised me in a way that I don’t even smoke a cigarette in front of them. Yeah, sister, don’t look at my broken face, I’m only 40 years and five months old.”
When we were saying goodbye, he told me: “Don’t worry, sister. Go by airplane, I’ll give you some ambient pills right before you get on board.”
He then showed some pictures to my contact and me and said: “These are all women who I sent on their way successfully.”
My contact later told me that those photos belong to the sex workers the trafficker had trapped. I asked him if I could go their places of work and meet them in person, which he promised to do. He told me that he would take me there as his girlfriend in order to be undercover.
I went on my way in the streets of Istanbul, trying to find a familiar sound, and talk of immigration. One tip a traveler gave me rang in my ears: “When you meet a human trafficker see how stressed out you are, multiply that by 10, and that is what we experienced meeting them. We signed our lives away to him.”
Read other articles in the series:
Sex Trafficking and the Iranian Women Working in Istanbul Night Clubs, December 17, 2018
“A Long Journey to Turkey — to Save my Mother”, December 7, 2018
The Love of my Child kept me Alive in the Mountains of Iran and Turkey, November 30, 2018
An Ex-Police Officer’s Illegal Journey to Turkey, November 16, 2018
From France to Turkey: Human Trafficking and Asylum Seekers, November 13, 2018