Demographer Alfred Sophie defined the term immigration as the way “for humans to go where there is wealth.” In Syria’s war, that has meant a rush of refugees heading to Europe, many of them migrating illegally.
Syrians now represent the world’s largest group of refugees, with more than half of the population either internally displaced or fleeing the country. Thousands of them have risked the journey to Europe, putting their lives on the line to reach what is perceived as stability. For some it has led to death by drowning en route to Greece or Italy.
Refugees have been led by human smugglers who specialize in making illegal journeys from the Middle East to Europe. Hamad, a 31-year-old Syrian smuggler presently living in Greece, spoke to Syria Deeply about his work. He described in detail how he – and other, less scrupulous agents – move desperate Syrians to a new life in the West.
Syria Deeply: What led you to this line of work?
Hamad: Money. When I arrived in Athens I never thought I’d be a smuggler, but I saw other people doing it and making a lot of money. I’m not reinventing the wheel, I’m just helping people.
Syria Deeply: How does the smuggling work?
Hamad: There are four ways for people to leave Greece for Europe. The safest and easiest way is by airplane. The traveler knows he has a certain amount of hours to arrive in Europe and there’s no real danger to his life. The second way is via boat from Greece to Italy. It’s dangerous and those working in the smuggling business by sea are new in the profession. I believe they are godless; they are human traffickers. The third way is transport by land on a truck from Greece to Italy, and the fourth way is also by land but via Macedonia and Serbia.
A smuggler can choose which of these four to work with. I help get people on planes at the airports. They either make it or they don’t, but the losses are limited to material things. No one is risking their life. I don’t meddle in other smuggling methods and I wouldn’t advise anyone to.
Syria Deeply: What are the factors that ensure your airport smuggling operation is a success? How is it done?
Hamad:A person’s looks, gender, height and age all come into play when determining whether he or she will pass through airport [customs] easily. The fairer the person looks, the easier it is for them to be waved through. The darker they are, and if they have prominent Arab features, then the operation becomes more difficult to execute. Usually women are easier to smuggle than men.
People of all ages and social backgrounds want to be smuggled to Europe. Their ages vary, from 10 to 60 years old. I once had a 10-year-old boy request to be smuggled to Europe on his own so he could ask for a reunification with his family. European countries usually grant reunification requests quickly to minors. In this specific case, I had to arrange for him to be smuggled with another family, and for him to pose as their son.
There are many ways to get travel papers, whether it be an ID or a passport. Sometimes, we try to find a [real] passport of a person who looks like the person who wants to travel illegally. Other people get forged IDs or turn to smugglers to provide them with the needed documents.
Some people prefer to buy their own travel papers and plan their trip on their own. They would have to bear the losses in case they were discovered to be using fake papers at the airport. Most people prefer to buy IDs as they are cheaper than passports. Most people opt to go to Sweden, Holland, Denmark and Norway. Another way of doing things is to deposit 3,500 – 6,000 euros with the smuggler, who then becomes responsible for paying any extra costs in case the traveler was stopped at the airport. It costs 150 – 300 euros for an ID, and 700 euros for a passport. In this field, losing is always a real prospect. It’s very much like gambling.
Syria Deeply: What was the most challenging moment or case you’re ever faced?
Hamad:People with injuries or disabilities, such as paralysis or blindness, are the most difficult to smuggle. Unfortunately, I can’t help most of those people, as I only work with smuggling people via the airport. Having them at the airport is a complicated process as they have a separate procedure to move through the airport and finish their paperwork. A person in a wheelchair receives special assistance at the airport, which could lead to exposing that this person is really an Arab and isn’t a European since she/he are in contact with a larger circle of airport employees.
Syria Deeply: Do you ever think of staying permanently in Europe?
Hamad:I won’t live in Europe and I won’t keep doing this. The end of the road for me will either be prison or death, which is why I will try to quit this job before I’m 35. After all these years, I had wanted to return home, but it’s impossible to return to Syria now. So I’m considering moving to an Arab country, either Egypt or Lebanon, or even Turkey. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life abroad, and I don’t want my children to grow up away from their extended family. But I am unsure about my plans as I could get arrested tomorrow. So who knows?
Syria Deeply: There are rumors that the smugglers belong to one network working for a certain group. Is that true?
Hamad:That’s all untrue. The reality is that smugglers don’t communicate with each other and no one tells of their ways or methods. They don’t wish each other well. Each smuggler provides their travel papers from different sources, and no one reveals them. Those who forge papers are Moroccans, Algerians, Sudanese and Syrians.
Syria Deeply: What are your thoughts about the 3,000 people who drowned in the sea trying to make it to Europe?
Hamad:I’ve heard about this and it only confirms my belief that smuggling via the sea is human trafficking. My role as a smuggler is to facilitate the movement of the travelers, not human trafficking. They put 500 people on a boat and send them out to sea. That’s a dirty business. I know a lot of smugglers who are specialized in smuggling by sea, but I don’t want to be associated with them. I would never move a person from Turkey to Greece by sea.
Smuggling is a lucrative business, but money comes and goes. I am happy with one person making it safely to Europe and them praying for me. Life is not only about money. One day, I might need the help of one of the travelers I assisted to get to Europe. When I deal honestly with people, I know that they won’t hesitate to help me [if I ever need them]. There are some people I helped smuggle back in 2008, and we’re still in touch. They call me regularly to check up on me.
In my opinion, illegal immigration won’t stop. Wars will take over the Arab world, and Lebanon and Jordan are next in line. People will keep emigrating as long as there are sick people and hatred among us.