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How Human Traffickers Swindle Refugees

May 13, 2019
Aida Ghajar
9 min read
To take refugees through Iran’s western borders, the traffickers either make a deal with border guards or take them through dangerous mountain routes
To take refugees through Iran’s western borders, the traffickers either make a deal with border guards or take them through dangerous mountain routes

“When you hand over your control to the trafficker — from the moment that you close the deal with him — you no longer have any power. You do not decide anything. You live in suspense and wait for him to call you or send you a text message. If the police catch you the trafficker blames you, but you are not able to protest. You have put your life and your identity, the love of your life, your beloved or your child at his disposal. It is the trafficker who decides everything about your life, from where you sleep and how you live to what you eat and how you dress. He even decides how you look when you cross the border. That is why reaching your destination means deliverance, means the end of bondage.”

This is how countless numbers of people have experienced human trafficking, forced to deal with people who make a living out of others’ misfortune. As one refugee told me, “There are no good traffickers, only some that are better than others.”

For Iranians and Afghans, the route extends from their home countries to northern and western Europe, sometimes going through the Balkans and other times via the Mediterranean Sea. Sometimes the route goes via airports and sometimes by land or sea. People trying to make their way to a new country ride in the backs of trucks or on mules, or simply on foot, walking for hours on end.

Refugees and immigrants are trying to reach a land where they might have the chance to rebuild their exploited, wasted and damaged selves, despite not knowing the language or culture of that final destination. They have to fight on multiple fronts along the way — dealing with traffickers, border patrols, police and the challenges nature throws their way.


A New Wave of Refugees

It used to be that Iranians who risked this perilous journey were mostly political and civil activists, or journalists escaping persecution. But this has changed. In recent years, with a deteriorating economy and a worsening human rights situation, a new wave of refugees has emerged. This new category is comprised of ordinary citizens who are either trying to escape the economic meltdown or flee from unreasonable and heavy sentences handed down by the judiciary. In addition, there are also those who travel to Turkey legally and seek asylum when they arrive, or spend months or years living and working in the country and then continue their journey illegally, going toward western or northern Europe.

Even before getting to Turkey, the traveler starts looking for a human trafficker, ideally someone they can at least partially trust. They start asking friends and family members who have either left the country or know somebody who has. Many refugees stuck in Turkey and Greece work as brokers for human traffickers to bring in money for themselves.

In addition, there are plenty of brokers online who introduce refugees and traffickers and usually get a percentage of the final trafficking fee.

There are many people posing as traffickers on social media too. In Turkey, the first waystation for many Iranian refugees wanting to get to Europe, there are large numbers of people who, with the persuasive promise of a new life, successfully manage to extract money from vulnerable people. Often these slick talkers simply disappear after they get their money, or abandon refugees after sending them in the direction of Greece, the first EU country they reach when traveling from Iran. In addition, sometimes inmates in Iranian prisons act as brokers for human traffickers.

Trafficking has become such big business in Iran that in some cities so-called “neighborhood rowdies” offer help to people hoping to make their way to Europe.

These “rowdies” operate at every stage of the trafficking process. They are present in refugee camps, in forests and parks where refugees sleep, on the streets of cities and along the routes used by refugees. They bill themselves as representatives for Iranian refugees, but operate more like mafia heavies, stepping in when fights break out between refugees, especially between refugees from different countries.


Empty Promises

There are also options at border terminals, where traffickers wait to bargain with refugees over the cost of getting them to their desired destination. Desperate refugees are often seduced by these border traffickers, but the people I talked to — most of them refugees who left Iran illegally, and some luckier than others when it came to settling where they wanted to — say these people usually fail to fulfill their promises.  

When it comes to smuggling people across Iran’s western borders, traffickers either make a deal with border guards or take people via dangerous mountain routes. When dealing with border guards, the trafficker pays the border guard and the two sides agree on an exact time, the so-called “sales time,” during which the guard will disappear or simply pretend not to notice the illegal refugees crossing the border.  

Money changers are another hidden partner in the trafficking business. With the booming market for human trafficking, fraud has also escalated. “You must not pay the trafficker anything until you arrive at your destination,” some refugees told me. But there are still many people who pay the trafficker the full agreed-upon fee even before they start their journey, and many of these trusting travelers are simply abandoned midway. To combat this, many people use money changers. With money changers, the traveler hands over their money to be put in contact with a trafficker. A trafficker in Iran might work with a money changer in London, while another who lives in France might be connected to a money changer in Iran. The arrangement between the trafficker and the traveler stipulates that the money changer will release the money to the trafficker only when the traveler reaches his or her destination.

Fly-by-Night Money Changers

Of course money changers can’t always be trusted either.  The money changer’s business location might be a fake, temporary set-up that is dismantled the moment the money is paid.

Traffickers sometimes take the traveler hostage during their journey, forcing the family or the money changer to release the money. Refugees told me many stories like this.

Money changers in Iran are not necessarily connected to the Central Bank. It is possible to set up shop in a commercial building and when a client comes in to arrange a journey, he is greeted by the money changer’s accomplices posing as fellow travelers. He might be equipped with fake forms to make it look as if his business is genuine. But after money changes hands and a few months have passed, there is no trace of the shop.  

“Being smuggled out of Iran means losing everything along the way,” an Iranian refugee who now lives in Austria told me. Along the way, the costs mount. Traffickers pass travelers on to other traffickers at various stages of the journey, and the new trafficker might have different demands and ask for more money for expenses like accommodation. The traveler often has no option but to pay them despite the fact that it is above and beyond the amount agreed upon when the initial deal was made. Surviving and reaching that final destination are these people’s overriding concerns so they are willing to pay.


The Danger of Rape

And there are other dangers, many of which the traveler has not even considered.

An Iranian woman called Paria told me she was raped by a human trafficker in northern France. “Whenever I saw women talking about the hardships of the smuggling route in documentaries, I did not believe it, and said that they wanted to deter me from going,” Paria told me. “But now I have been set straight.”

“Now when people mention human traffickers every heinous act comes to mind,” her husband told me.

Eventually she and her husband succeeded in getting to England after living in various countries for a few years, but the trauma and pain of this experience remains. IranWire will publish Paria’s full story in the coming weeks.

Women travelers have been raped in isolated places like forests, but also in places where they thought they might be safe, like hostels. It’s not only human traffickers or their associates who have committed these crimes; other travelers have also sexually assaulted women.

Out of all the many people involved in the process, the refugee is of course the most vulnerable, putting everything they have at the disposal of somebody who, they hope, will get them to a safe place, to the destination on which they have pinned all their hopes. Refugees potentially suffer violence, including sexual violence, at every step of the way. Border police often physically assault refugees when they arrest them, and They run the risk of jail time, deportation and sexThey face the threat of arrest.  They might get arrested by the border police anywhere along their route, in which case they might be subjected to beatings, deportation, prison or sexual assault. I have also heard of some cases where police have unleashed dogs on refugees, hoping to cause injury or, at the very least instil fear.

But no authority will take charge of the situation. For the most part, human traffickers face no consequences for their actions and very few end up in prison. Traffickers regularly move, enabling them to re-start their illegal activities without being noticed and using a huge range of cover businesses, including restaurants and travel agencies, to help them launder the money they make. In European countries, human trafficking is a serious crime, but a huge amount of evidence is needed to prove that the crime has been committed,  and the traffickers, using their various covers, make it very difficult to prove their guilt.

Not that there are many refugees who would file complaints against traffickers anyway. They either fear for their own lives or are afraid that, by exposing the traffickers and their routes, others will lose their chances to get out of Iran. It is an impenetrable, vicious circle kept going by greed and desperation. In the end, of course, it is the refugee who is left damaged, both physically and mentally.


Read more from Aida Ghajar's series on human trafficking, refugees and asylum seekers, including:

Hundreds of Iranian and Afghan Refugees Thrown out on the Streets of Athens, April 23, 2019

Refugee “Caravan of Hope” Ends in Frustration and Violence, April 8, 2019

“Caravans of Hope” in Turkey and Greece as Rumors of Open Borders Spread, April 5, 2019

The “Hellhole of Athens”, April 3, 2019

Frustrated Iranian Refugees in Turkey Launch Twitterstorm, February 15, 2019

Asylum Seekers in Greece: A Life of Fear and Suffering, January 29, 2019

Iranian Refugee Rights Activist Faces Long Prison Sentence in Greece, January 28, 2019

From Asylum Seeking to Asylum Dealing, January 23, 2019

Meeting with a Human Trafficker in Istanbul, December 18, 2018

Iranian Ambassador Shrugs Off Responsibility for Refugees, December 11, 2018

From France to Turkey: Human Trafficking and Asylum Seekers, November 13, 2018

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