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Behind Every Statistic is a Human Story

Edited by Joanne Roberts

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the year 2016 witnessed the largest number of victims of drowning among migrants crossing the Medtiterranean Sea with the number of missing and dead estimated to be five thousand people.

Although the year 2016 was the deadliest in terms of statistics it was the year in which I decided to cross the sea to Europe. I had often heard from my friends who left Turkey before me about the panic of the sea and the fear they experienced during the crossing. Many migrants who had preceded me were forced to go through the adventure of the rubber boats and had to deal with the human traffickers who had spread in Turkey and become like stock brokers. Gambling here is not only about money but also with lives.

Human trafficking in Turkey is the only bridge for the refugee to save them from humiliation and homelessness. It is the only hope to their dreams of a decent living in Europe.

According to the Australian WalkFree Foundation, Turkey is first in the European Countries in human trafficking and modern slavery in 2014 other than the sexual and human organs trade.

The beginning of March 2016 was the final decision I made with myself to leave Turkey with no return. I had been displaced for more than two years. The bitterness in Turkey was nearly the same bitterness as experienced in the war, if not worse.

I do not want to give a lengthy explanation of the destructive bureaucracy of the refugee life or the reasons why some would venture to the sea instead of having patience and trying to live again. This is another topic I might write about later.

Smuggling stories often start from Izmir as most of the refugees pass through it to the nearest Greek Islands such as Mytilene or the Island of Chios. Before going into the sea the refugee has to find the right escape plan at the right price and the right place. Just like the others before me I have to plan my trip with perfection. I asked a lot of friends in Istanbul. I tried as much as possible to collect all the information about smuggling so I surfed the internet about the best life jackets and I read about European regulation towards the refugees. In these days the topic of closing borders in the Balkans was in the media and in the face of the refugees stranded there.

I continued with my predecessors to find the best escape plan and eventually I collected all what I had with everything I could gain in Turkey during my work in the black market. The amount barely was sufficient to secure the getaway and smuggling price. The price of smuggling ranged between US$600 and US$1000 in that month and sometimes may exceed this amount in the coming summer months. I had heard that some people had paid approximately US$2000 in the Summer.

After a while I struck a deal with one of the smuggler residents in Istanbul. I will not mention his name nor for many reasons. We agreed on US$700 for the trip and the departure will be from Izmir on one of the March nights. I had to wait for the appropriate weather conditions, only a couple of days.

I left Istanbul on the morning of March 11 heading to Izmir. The situation in Izmir was easier than I expected. As soon as the Syrians arrive at Izmir bus station he will see with his own eyes how widespread the smuggling trade had become. It had become closer to a legal trade than that of the forbidden.

I had not imagined the spread of shops selling the smuggling equipment in this simple manner. In the shop windows nearly all the stores placed cheap life jackets and rubber tyres and other things required for the trip. In addition to that you found that most of the shops hired Arabic speaking vendors, I think most of them were fellow Syrians. Even the offers from the phone credit kiosks are spread out and they put posters on their windows in Arabic to offer their assets and special offers. It simply showed me how the Turkish Government turns a blind eye to smuggling and evades its responsibilities towards refugees in its territory.

It was a real irony to see refugees spend their life savings and everything they have brought from their country to spend on this trade. Many of my friends worked in the black for more than two years or even more just to save enough to finance their smuggling routes. They suffered humiliation of all kinds. Smuggling seems a really lucrative business even if it has its risks.

In the middle of the night on March 11 I arrived in Izmir with my friend. Despite the cold of that night the weather looked fine and the sea seemed calm. No grand waves and there was no rain. We first had to get to the house of the smuggler. We left the bus station on foot to avoid any problems. We had to be wary of night Police patrols. I only had my money with me and no identification papers recognised by the Turkish Government.

Using a GPS only we arrived and the travel fatigue overwhelmed us. What caught my attention at the moment of our arrival was the huge number of different pairs of shoes at the entrance to the house. Apparently we were the last two joining this trip on the boat. The house was the assembly point where the refugees gathered to wait for the moment of departure. The beautiful thing about the smuggler or the correct one who works for him is that he is probably Syrian.

He appears with a smile and a sense of speech not like the monster way these people had been described in the media. I felt like I was in a hotel for a booking not a refugee gambling with my life. Despite the tightness of the place and overcrowding of people. I had a warm and comfortable place to sleep.

The morning came and we prepared for the departure by leaps and bounds. To ease the panic I had to convince myself I was in Izmir for tourism purposes. The first thing I did was to tour Izmir and get to know it's markets. It was one of the most beautiful days I spent in Turkey. I was full of satisfaction. Finally I will leave. Turkey will finally become a mere accumulation of memories and I'll throw them into oblivion. The warm sun on that day was a source of pleasure. The beginning of the spring and the sea waves seemed to be calm.

A quick end to the day, I did not even feel the hours passing by and by evening it was necessary to go back to the assembly point to wait for the transport to the crossing point. I had to wait for the sunset in a public park. Caution was the instruction for everyone. Keep out of sight as much as possible. We were told not to draw the attention of the Police.

Izmir looked much nicer to me than Istanbul. A friendly city with it's simplicity more beautiful than the pressure of life in Istanbul. No traffic congestion and no crowded people on the pavement. I wish my visit to Izmir was in different circumstances. It would be fun tourism and I would enjoy it's wonderful weather.

We were about forty people in a public park hiding out of sight but it was crystal clear that many people were in close proximity. We all knew there was a group of refugees all waiting for a smuggling bus.

To be continued ...

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