The number of illegal immigrants caught is on the rise and smugglers are increasingly forced to adopt new routes to try to infiltrate their live cargoes into Europe.
Stung after being named in a US State Department report last year, which declared Turkey a leading country in human smuggling, Ankara has also been under pressure from the EU to close this back door into Europe.
As a result, Turkey has stepped up measures to turn back the human tide.
“Human trafficking is at its lowest level in years,” Turkish Interior Minister Abd al-Kadir Aksu said on 11 November.
The minister's statement was made after more than two dozen mainly Somali illegal immigrants were pulled off a small boat at the Aegean port of Avyalik, their destination the Greek islands.
“Turkey is really working hard on this and the results are showing,” he added.
Ankara has increased military patrols and identity checks in its European provinces, is using x-ray equipment designed to scan vehicles for drugs to detect illegal immigrants hidden in cargo containers and has boosted its security in the small ports lining its Aegean and Mediterranean coasts.
The measures are paying off according to Aksu, whose department is responsible for much of Turkey’s domestic security.
As one measure of Turkey’s success, the US this year downgraded Turkey’s rating as a major player in human trafficking, removing the threat of sanctions that went with a worst status report.
“Before the First Gulf War, we paid Egyptians to come and work in our country, now we have nothing. We want nothing from the Turks but to be allowed to go”
Iraqi would-be European immigrant
In the first nine months of this year, Turkish authorities intercepted more than 18,000 illegal immigrants, mostly from Middle Eastern countries.
Still work to do
However, unofficial estimates suggest that as many as four times that number have slipped through the still porous Turkish net and reached their European goal, belying some of Aksu’s optimism.
Many of those seeking to enter Western Europe end up in Turkey’s largest city - Istanbul - its economic hub and main port, which is conveniently located less than 250km from the Greek border.
Some, those with cash in hand, come to Istanbul to find either a guide to lead them across the border or an agent to cram them aboard a rusting derelict from Turkey’s merchant shipping fleet.
However, most arrive penniless, hoping to earn the $2000 or more for the passage by working illegally at whatever they can turn their hands to.
Desperate and exploited
Every day, up to two hundred Arab men, mainly Iraqis, are to be found near Istanbul’s Balkan Bazaar, hoping to pick up a day’s work to help in their escape.
If they are lucky, some can pick up work labouring on building sites for a few dollars a day, though with Turkey’s economic crisis, even this is drying up.
Few want to stay in Turkey, indeed most want to return to their homeland, citing the life they once had.
“Before the First Gulf War, we paid Egyptians to come and work in our country, now we have nothing,” said Yusuf, an Iraqi from Baghdad. “We want nothing from the Turks but to be allowed to go.”
Turkey has become a destination
as well as a transit point
Many, too, complain of the racism of their unwilling Turkish hosts, beatings from the police and of being exploited.
“Turks come here, offer us a day’s work and then tell us to go after we are finished. They give us no money and tell us to go and complain to the police. They call us ‘dirty Arabs’,” says Ali, from southern Iraq.
Those illegal immigrants caught by the Turks are usually deported, not always to their country of birth, but back over the Iranian and Iraqi borders through which many had originally entered Turkey.
Even this journey is fraught with danger, as one Turkish police officer from Western Turkey who did not want to be named, explained.
“We take them to near the border and tell them to cross,” he said. “We won’t take them all the way as the border is mined and the army won’t tell us were the mines are.”
Many of those who do manage to cross the border with Greece find themselves arrested and thrown back into Turkey by the Greeks, equally unwilling hosts.
“I have been caught by the Greek police three times and sent back,” says Ali. “Each time I get more money and try again. Next time I will get through.”
According to Interior Minister Aksu, Turkey’s improved security is causing human traffickers to rethink their methods.
“The routes are sliding more to the north, through the Black Sea, and to the south in the Mediterranean," he said.
Aksu also highlighted another development in the trade, one reflecting the slow improvement in the Turkish economy.
“Turkey’s status has now changed,” he said. “Now it is not only a transit country but also a destination country, especially for people from the former Soviet Union.”
As Turkey moves towards EU membership, what was once Europe’s back door may one day become its front.