On the journey from Iran to Europe, many migrants experience financial stress and long waits that can continue for weeks, months or even years. This drives some to work as “dealers” for human traffickers. In return they receive some money, and perhaps a little power and influence.
However, the price can be high. These are the people who often get caught in anti-trafficking operations, rather than the traffickers themselves.
Amir has worked as a dealer for several years. He is 30 years old and came to Turkey eight years ago. He and his family applied for refugee status, but their case is still on hold. He was born in Afghanistan, but grew up in Iran from the age of four.
After occupying Mazar-e Sharif, the Taliban imprisoned and badly tortured his father. Upon his release, the family took him to Mashhad for medical care, but it was too late. After his father died, Amir took on as many jobs as possible, from selling cigarettes to working as a cobbler.
I met Amir in a small city near Ankara, where he lives with his mother and sister in a typical Turkish apartment. After welcoming me, he said his mother was sick and resting in the other room. We talked in the living room, where he provided bowls of sweets and nuts.
He was only a child when his family of 15 left Afghanistan for Iran, he told me, and he remembers little of this time. In Mashhad, he attended an Islamic school that was exclusively for Afghan children.
"Never Pay Up Front"
They paid a human trafficker US$1,000 to take the family from Mashhad to Urmia, and then across the border with Turkey. The trafficker loaded all of them into a van and bribed the border patrols to let them through. This process remains in place now: the trafficker buys the officers off, and they give him a time window to transfer his clients.
“One of our relatives went to Turkey two months before us,” said Amir. “I called him and he gave me his trafficker’s contact. He was a nice young man who treated us very well. We got lucky with him. I had heard that crossing the Turkish border would be hard, but we didn’t face any difficulties.
“The process is still the same, though the numbers have increased. We were 15 people, but now they often take even more people inside each van.”
After taking them across the border, they stayed at the trafficker’s home until their mutual contact paid their fees in full. Usually, when a client reaches an agreement with a trafficker, they put the money in an exchange store or with a trusted mutual contact and the money is released after they reach the agreed destination. However, there are many traffickers who demand all the money upfront and the client has no other option but to pay.
There are also instances of traffickers demanding the money early. In these situations, clients are often forced to call the contact and tell them they are already at the destination, or else risk being kidnapped or hurt.
I asked Amir about this issue. “You should never pay the guy in advance. You always pay them once they have done the job successfully. I have never had a case when the trafficker has kidnapped my clients, but there were instances when traffickers have threatened refugees or stole their belongings.”
It is often women who suffer the most at the hands of traffickers. I have personally heard stories of rape, kidnap and sexual abuse. Amir shook his head and said: “As far as I know, Afghan women have been threatened with these things. In such situations, people have offered their property as leverage and told the trafficker that they would have to kill the men first to get to the women. Afghan people take this thing seriously and the traffickers who work with us know this and wouldn’t dare to do such a thing.”
Amir has successfully sent all his siblings to Germany, where they now enjoy a better life. But he cannot afford the risk of such a trip himself because of his sick mother and baby sister. His siblings traveled overland to Greece and then boarded a ship to Hamburg.
The Necessary Lies
When the passage for refugees was easier and cheaper, it was possible to reach Germany by paying US$1,000 for each person. “Now the traffickers’ rate for Afghan clients is US$800 to US$1,000 from Turkey to Greece, and this is a very dangerous sea trip with no guarantee for clients’ life," Amir told me. "On land and through the woods, the rate is €2,500 (US$2,867). The rate from Iran to Turkey is US$2,000.
When we get to Greece, it is all over. We can go wherever we want easily,” he said. I told him that many travelers have been stranded in Greece for several years, and that conditions there can be very challenging. Even the most experienced traffickers often wait up to a year. He didn’t believe me.
“If you get a decent trafficker, you can easily do it,” he said.
When Amir entered Turkey he assumed they would leave after three years at most. But they have now been here for eight years, and they are still unsure when and how they can leave.
“I recently heard that they are reopening Afghan cases in Turkey. They picked the United States for me, which I don’t like. Afghans don’t like to go there. Now we need to do all the interviews again and answer everything from the beginning. It’s not clear when they will let us go.”
Afghan people often have an unfavorable view of the US because of the US forces’ decade-long occupation of Afghanistan, which has done little to mitigate the continued violence and instability. They usually prefer Western Europe, where many of them have friends or relatives. Unlike Iranians, who favor the UK, Afghans’ country of choice tends to be Germany.
Despite the great difficulties they face during their journeys, Afghan refugees remain deeply concerned about the insecure situation in their home country. One 23-year-old boy in a Western European camp spoke to me for hours about suicide bombings, terrorist attacks and Taliban brutality, as well as the international intervention that had failed to bring an end to the chaos and bloodshed in his country. But he never told me his personal story and the hardships he had suffered.
Amir voiced similar concerns. Yet he is now caught in a no-man's land, ever more disconnected from Afghanistan, while being prevented from starting a new life elsewhere.
One of the biggest frustrations for him is the lack of honesty in the asylum-seeking process in Turkey. “I knew a husband and wife who lied to the United Nations Refugee Agency. The wife told them she was single and she is now in Australia, while the husband is still in Turkey. Here lies are truth and truth are lies. You have to lie in order to proceed to the next step.
“Many people with fake cases are now in their destination countries. But I have always told the truth, and I’m still here.”
At the end of our conversation I asked Amir if he could help me relocate someone who is banned from leaving Afghanistan, but who hoped and was trying to get to Greece. He said yes. He promised to send me some traffickers’ numbers and set up a few appointments.
What does he receive in return for helping the traffickers out, I asked? He did not answer. But according to traffickers themselves, dealers such as Amir are usually given a discount on their own travels, or may get a free journey for every 10 or so clients introduced.
Before saying goodbye, Amir looked at me and said: “We grew old here. I’m 30 years old now and still single. For Afghan men, it’s a shame. But even if I have grey hairs, I have to take care of my mom and little sister first. You know, I fell in love once. And now I regret all we did to get here.
“If I could go back, I would marry the love of my life and have a different destiny. Not like this, living without an identity for years.”
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