Syria smuggling 'getting out of hand'

Illegal cross-border trade between Syria and Turkey is flourishing as fighting allows smugglers to open up new routes.

    Syria smuggling 'getting out of hand'
    The narrow Orontes river separates Syria and Turkey, and is crossed by refugees and smugglers alike [AP]

    Hacipasa, Turkey - Abdel Aziz, a 22-year-old Syrian refugee living in the Turkish town of Hacipasa, walks every day down a narrow track that takes him to the bank of the Orontes River, lining the border between Syria and Turkey.

    Once a computer specialist in his home country, Abdel Aziz has become part of a network smuggling goods from Syria to Turkey. He works as a porter, loading trucks with smuggled goods that will be sold to Turkish businessmen.

    Early in the morning, Abdel Aziz and a few other young Syrians stand at the Turkish side of the river, waiting for men on the Syrian side to fasten 50 containers of fuel with ropes.

    The men then put the containers in a boat tied by a thick long rope, which Abdel Aziz and his companions pull across the river into Turkey. "The mazout [fuel] floats on water. That's why you see it travelling on the river smoothly," he tells Al Jazeera." Each of these containers has 65 litres of mazout. I estimate that 100,000 litres are smuggled every day."

    The smuggling route between the two countries has existed for years but has never been as busy as during the Syrian conflict. Since rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad's forces took control of Syrian border villages, illegal cross-border trade has flourished.

    From Turkey, arms, humanitarian aid and medical supplies are brought across the 822km border to sustain the uprising that started more than two years ago. In the other direction, vegetables, flour, tea, wood from window frames of bombarded houses, iron from exploded rockets and even cows and sheep are smuggled out of Syria to be sold in Turkey.

    "If you sit here, you will see trucks coming and leaving every hour," Safiya, a Turkish housewife whose old house overlooks the main road in Hacipasa, told Al Jazeera.

    Buy low, sell high

    Abdel Aziz said it is a good deal for Turkish factory owners to buy Syrian mazout. "It costs 4.2 liras a litre in Turkey ($2.34). It costs less than two liras ($1.11) in Syria. So they are saving a lot of money," he said.

    Some Syrians on the other side are also benefiting from the porous border. Syrian smugglers are making profits from selling goods to Turks for higher prices than they bought them for in Syria, while some residents and shepherds are trading their belongings and livestock for money, fearing they will lose them from bombardment.

    Smuggling has raised the prices for Syrians who remain in the country. Tomatoes were for 60 Syrian pounds per kilo before smuggling started. They are now being sold for double the price.

    Mohammed Merei, resident of Azemereen

    But Mohammad Merei, a member of the local committee of the Syrian border town of Azemereen, says smuggling is getting out of hand. "Smuggling has raised the prices for Syrians who remain in the country. Tomatoes were for 60 Syrian pounds per kilo (less than $1) before smuggling started. They are now being sold for double the price. And the price of olive oil has more than doubled," Merei said.

    "Meat has become very expensive. But more damaging is the fact that smuggling animals is ravaging livestock in Syria. This is heartbreaking."

    Consumer prices in Syria have already jumped by up to two-thirds, driven by spiralling violence and unfavourable exchange rates. Smuggling has only compounded the crisis. "Some residents are not fleeing to Turkish camps because of the shelling. They are fleeing because they can no longer afford to eat in their country," said Sarhan, a Syrian fighter with the Jond al-Rahman battalion operating in Idlib province. "So we need to put our hands together and stop the outflow of basic goods."

    Residents in Hacipasa say Turkish soldiers have been patrolling the area more frequently recently, but in general, authorities "are keeping one eye opened, the other one closed", one resident said.

    "Since the arrival of Syrians into Hacipasa and the setup of a refugee camp at the entrance of the town, the presence of [the army] increased and some Turkish businessmen blamed refugees for hampering some of the smuggling," Abdulkarim Habus, a Syrian refugee who works with aid distribution, told Al Jazeera.

    'Smuggling is not easy to stop'

    More than 1,000 Syrian refugees are living in Hacipasa with relatives, in rented houses, mosques or warehouses. Before the start of the Syrian conflict, the town had only 2,000 Turkish residents. "It's best for us Syrians to stay away from the smuggling topic because we do not want to create tensions. Turkish people have welcomed us and treated us very well," Habus said.

    He believes that if smuggling is to be tackled, it should be tackled from the Syrian side. However, attempts by Syrian rebels in control of border towns to limit the trade have so far not been fruitful. Sarhan says his armed group does try to stop goods from getting out, but other priorities have prevented them from being efficient.

    "We are fighting battles with Assad's regime on the frontline. It is very hard to concentrate on other things when you are in the battlefield," he said. "There were well-established smugglers long before the uprising began, and now there are new ones. So smuggling is not easy to stop."

    Earlier this month, some fighters pierced holes in the containers of mazout ready to be shipped across the river, to deliver the message that smuggling would not be tolerated. This led to a gun battle between rebels and smugglers that caused several casualties. "We were hearing the gunfire clearly all the way from Syria throughout the night," Safiya told Al Jazeera.

    Abdel Aziz, the porter, said he wants smuggling to stop and is ready to give up his only source of income. "Even though I make 20 Turkish liras ($11) from loading trucks, I care about my country more. It hurts to see all its resources getting out. I have seen with my own eyes factory parts like generators and transistors being smuggled," he said.

    "They are smuggling the whole of Syria out. Only its soil will be left to smuggle."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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