The story started in spring of 2019, when Shima (not her real name) and her mother, after spending a month in an Athens-based “closed camp” for refugees, managed to borrow some money so that they could leave Greece to try their luck in another western European country. A refugee who had been staying in the same house as them introduced them to an Iranian human trafficker known as “Ranko,” and they gave him 2,000 euros in cash. But instead of helping them, Ranko abandoned them and left Greece.
After the Greek police raided refugee “squats” in April 2019, Shima and her mother were arrested in the neighborhood of Exarchia. Because they did not have the correct documents, they were transferred to a closed camp. For a full month they were not even permitted to step outside the fence surrounding each group of eight conex boxes, shipping containers measuring two by three meters used to house refugees.
The squats are usually empty buildings that groups of anarchists had taken over and made available to refugees. Refugee camps in Greece are of two kinds — open and closed. Refugees in open camps are free to come and go and to receive visitors, but in the closed camps, the residents have to get permission to leave, and visitors are only allowed to speak to the refugees for a few minutes from across a fence.
Like hundreds of other undocumented refugees, Shima and her mother were forced to seek asylum from Greece after they were arrested. After their release, with the help of a human rights activist, they and a number of other refugee women were able to find a temporary place to live.
Not the Ideal Destination
Often, refugees do not necessarily want to settle in Greece. But because it is the first European Union country they reach as they travel from the Middle East to the West, they have no choice. Still, every day, refugees staying on the Greek mainland or its islands try somehow to get to their ideal destinations.
In the summer of 2018, the European Union reached an agreement with Greece, Turkey and Italy that meant an increase to the budget allocated to these countries for handling refugees. In exchange, these countries agreed to cooperate toward helping to slow the tide of refugees moving into northern and western Europe. They also agreed to reinstate the 2013 Dublin Regulation, which refuses refugees the right to choose the country in which they seek asylum. Instead, the regulation states that the person must apply for asylum in the first country he or she arrives in, and in which authorities officially register them. As a result, if an asylum seeker has registered in Greece and somehow manages to reach another EU country, he or she will be returned to Greece once discovered.
Now that Greece is playing the role of a breakwater for the EU, it must host more and more refugees. And, in the areas where refugees are given shelter, many human traffickers are spreading their nets to catch them.
Shima and her mother were told that Ranko was so “good” that he even spent his own money to get refugees out of Greece. And, in the messages exchanged between Shima, her mother and Ranko, he did his best to bolster this image: “Praying to God that it works out for you at the first try and you can save yourself from this place. I am pure in heart and mind. May the Almighty help.”
“Come to Victoria Square at 6pm...have your money ready. Praying to God that it works out for you at the first try...”: Ranko’s message to Shima and her mother
Usually, to project a trustworthy image of themselves, traffickers send their customers to money changers with whom they work. The idea is that they will receive the money the clients leave with the money changer only when the refugees arrive at their destination. But in many cases, traffickers, or the guides and accomplices they work with, take these people hostage before reaching their destination. They force the refugees to call the money changer and lie to him, telling him that they have arrived at their destination and that he should release the money.
“Cash only,” Ranko had told Shima’s mother. Immediately after their release from the closed camp, they were able to borrow 2,000 euros, which they then gave to Ranko in cash. Ranko had told them he would use this money to smuggle them out of Greece. He said he would try up to four times.
“I can start...with this two thousand euros...I will try four times...but if you can arrange an additional 1,000 euros, I will do even more work — more than your money[‘s worth].”
“How gorgeous you look!”
Ranko and Shima’s mother communicated mainly through WhatsApp and after many exchanges, he eventually provided them with fake identification papers. He then asked them to buy backpacks and appropriate clothes so he could send them on their way.
“He asked me to wear the dress that I had bought and send him a picture,” says Shima’s mother. “After he received the picture he wrote: ‘How gorgeous you look! What a beautiful tattoo. You are very alluring in this dress!’”
“What a beautiful tattoo! You are very alluring in this dress.”
“Once he said he was going away to the island and asked me to wear the same dress and to go to his home so that when he departs we can live there,” she said. “I have dealt with other Iranian traffickers and knew what he was after so I did not go there but I continued communicating with him — until he disappeared.”
Shima herself was a witness to Ranko’s inappropriate behavior. “We took one of our friends who was 16, the same age as me, to Ranko,” she said. “Our acquaintances had vouched for his integrity but when he saw my friend he took her hand, caressed it and said, ‘what pretty nails!’ My friend decided not to trust Ranko. She is, of course, now in Germany.”
Pretending to be Upstanding — But Actually Merciless
After Ranko gave Shima and her mother fake Greek IDs, he sent them to Athens airport — where every day one can see illegal travelers being arrested. Police hold suspected illegal travelers for hours in fenced-off areas located behind each gate in the airport. Sometimes they detain them for days and sometimes just for hours. When Shima and her mother arrived at the gate, the agent there addressed them in Greek because they were carrying Greek ID documents but, because they were not able to answer him, they were stopped. Since they had requested asylum when they were in the camp, they had documents and were able to avoid arrest.
“I’ll buy your documents today...Please tell me when exactly you are going to send me the money.”
Ranko had promised them four tries to get them out of Greece, but this attempt ended up being the only one. “After being stopped, I sent Ranko a message,” Shima’s mother said. “He told me not to worry; he would send us again in a couple of days. But he abruptly disappeared — he who constantly claimed that he was helping immigrants and was an upright person. In our first meeting, he behaved respectfully and claimed that he was educated. He repeatedly claimed that he had a ‘sponsor.’ But he easily stole our money and disappeared.”
A few days later, Shima’s mother tried again to contact Ranko but received no answer to any of her messages. Then she found out that Ranko had even taken down their messages from his Telegram channel. Recently they heard that both Ranko and his accomplice, or his girlfriend as he called her, had arrived in Sweden. There are also rumors among Iranian refugees that he plans to return to Greece.
I asked Shima’s mother about the woman who had introduced them to Ranko. “That woman was able to put together some money and Ranko bought her documents and a plane ticket with that money. Everybody said that they were having an affair. Neither Ranko nor this woman have mercy for anybody. She eventually managed to get out of Greece.”
Many human traffickers sexually exploit women refugees they claim to be helping, demanding sexual favors in exchange for a place to sleep or free airline tickets. Many underage girls fall into their trap. Sometimes the trafficker takes “pity” on them and after a period of sexual exploitation sends them to their destination. Or he might just abandon them.
After a year in Athens, Shima and her mother have not yet succeeded in leaving Greece. Shima’s mother wants to get to a safe place so that her daughter can continue her education, to a country where at least her child can build a future for herself. But after Ranko stole all their money and disappeared, they are stuck in Athens. For perhaps five euros a day, Shima’s mother works at a hairdresser to support her daughter. “It was all the money that I had,” she said. “I told him so. I told him that even that was just a loan. ‘I’ll save you even if I have to pay for it out of my own pocket,’ he told me. But he took our money and just vanished.”
Using Social Media to Expose Traffickers, September 16, 2019
The Life and Loves of a Human Trafficker, September 6, 2019
A Life Lost: Two Decades of Asylum-Seeking in Calais, August 30, 2019
Iranian Human Traffickers and the Journey Across the Balkans, August 19, 2019
Rape and Sexual Abuse is Common, August 8, 2019
“I left Iran so my daughter could choose her own destiny”, August 1, 2019
From Christian Refugee to Austrian Futsal Star, July 25, 2019
"The Biggest Torture Was Losing my Identity”, July 11, 2019
“I Left My Daughter With a Human Trafficker”, June 28, 2019
The “Hellhole of Athens”, April 3, 2019
Asylum Seekers in Greece: A Life of Fear and Suffering, January 29, 2019