Mersin, Turkey – Abu Ziad, 21, is a Syrian refugee who fled from his hometown in Homs to Beirut in 2012. Wrenched from a once promising future, he made his way to Turkey two years later to search carefully for a smuggler. In September 2014, he found one he thought he could trust.
“He called himself Abu Nasser,” said Abu Ziad (not his real name), while walking along the coast of the southern Turkish city of Mersin. “I was told he had a good reputation.”
Abu Nasser promised to hide Abu Ziad on a cargo ship and transport him to the shores of Greece but on the night of his departure, he was crammed into a van and taken to the Turkish port town of Marmara. When Abu Ziad exited the vehicle, he saw over 75 people waiting to crawl on top of three inflated rafts.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Syrian civil war has uprooted over one-third of the population with 3.8 million people fleeing to neighbouring countries.
The crisis has threatened to destabilise the region and forced Syrians to turn to Europe for protection. And though they are practically ensured of receiving asylum once they arrive, European governments have restricted legal passage to those fleeing from war.
With nowhere else to turn, many have relied on smugglers, who have formed a lucrative business exploiting the mass exodus and misfortune of refugees.
Michael Diedring, the secretary-general of the European Council of Refugees and Exiles, a pan-European alliance advancing the rights of refugees, says that if the European Union wants to stop international smuggling, they must offer legal access to those escaping persecution.
“Syrians have a legal right to seek protection in Europe,” Diedring told Al Jazeera over Skype. “But how can we honour that right if they aren’t provided with any legal way of getting here?”
Nearly 150,000 Syrians have sought asylum in the EU since the war began, a number that amounts to less than four percent of the conflict’s total refugee population.
Those who managed to survive the Mediterranean and make it to Europe fall under the Dublin 3 Regulation.
This law – the cornerstone to the EU’s asylum system – stipulates that those fleeing to Europe must register an asylum claim in the first country they enter.
That country is then responsible to determine their asylum status even if the asylum seeker wants to submit a claim to another member state.
Yet because countries on the EU’s exterior are ill-equipped to accommodate large influxes of refugees, nearly all Syrians evade registration in their first country of entry and rely on a second ring of smugglers to facilitate their movement elsewhere.
Syrians have a legal right to seek protection in Europe but how can we honour that right if they aren't provided with any legal way of getting here?
Stefan Kessler, the policy and advocacy adviser for the Europa Jesuit Refugee Service, a Catholic NGO supporting refugees worldwide, said that though external border control is the primary reason facilitating human smuggling, the legal makeup of the Dublin Regulation is helping them as well.
“Many refugees who have family in other countries don’t want to stay in Bulgaria, Italy, or Greece,” Kessler told Al Jazeera over Skype. “So if they don’t want to register in these countries, what is there to do besides rely on smugglers?”
“The Dublin Regulation is inequitable,” added Diedring. “People don’t escape to Europe from all directions. They generally seek protection from one of two routes.”
While the Syrian refugee crisis has exposed the Dublin Regulation’s shortcomings, smugglers from all corners of the Mediterranean have readily taken advantage. But many are careful to only facilitate passage to their fellow countrymen and speak through phone numbers that can’t be traced.
“No one departs from Mersin any more,” said a smuggler who goes by the name of Haji. “That port has become too controlled.”
Haji has numerous recruiters who surf closed social media pages to inform refugees of his next operation. Before embarking on any precarious journey, Syrians typically entrust their expenses to one of two exchange offices in Turkey. These offices advertise their services publicly on social media, guaranteeing to hold a person’s money and only channelling it to their smuggler once they arrive to Europe.
On January 20, an unidentified man wearing a black ski mask and black shirt uploaded a video on YouTube to warn others that one of the exchange offices had robbed him of his money.
But an employee working at the same office in Istanbul told Al Jazeera that their branch merely plays the role of an honest broker.
“We have a system,” said a man from the office who goes by the name of Adam. “Money is accessed through a pin code, which we demand only after a person arrives in Europe.”
Abu Ziad says he entrusted the branch in Mersin with $6,000 before his trip to Greece. Once he arrived,
border officials told him that he could stay in the country for up to six months. Eager to traverse across Europe to apply for asylum in England, he gave his pin to the office and sought out new smugglers immediately.
When he found one, he paid over $3,000 for forged documents but they were confiscated by border officials at the airport. Destitute and unwilling to turn back, Abu Ziad tried to hike to Germany by foot. Unable to reach beyond Macedonia under freezing temperatures, he turned back to Greece in December where he slept on the street for days before deporting himself to Turkey.
“I thought I would freeze to death,” Abu Ziad told Al Jazeera, while sitting on a park bench that overlooked the coast of Mersin. He said that he intends to try to get to Italy after he gathers the money to do so again.
Ambivalent if he’ll survive a second time, he lapses into a vision of a life free from persecution and border restrictions.
“I don’t have a choice,” he told Al Jazeera, while staring into the abyss of the Mediterranean. “If there was another option, I’d use it.”