Izmir, Turkey – Yunus’ son eats a cup of corn doused in ketchup, while his father sips tea at a sunny park cafe in a residential neighbourhood of Izmir.
Yunus, a small man with an ample belly, smiles amiably as he discusses his trade: smuggling.
The relaxed setting and Yunus’ nonchalant demeanour are unsettling. Izmir is Turkey’s major smuggling hub, and many of the more than one million refugees who have reached Europe via Greece since January 2015 passed through here.
Yunus is one of the men who made their journeys possible. “If I wasn’t doing this, there’d be other people who were,” he said, apparently unconcerned about the legal or ethical questions surrounding his trade. Yunus is his own boss and works in an organisation with eight other people. There are 30 to 40 smugglers like him in the city, he said.
“If the weather was nice, we would send around 80 people per day. If the weather was bad, we wouldn’t send anybody,” he explained, noting that all his boats and passengers reached Greece safely – a claim impossible to verify.
Turkish authorities never posed much of an obstacle to Yunus’ business. If police in Izmir bothered him, a bribe of around $100 was enough to get them to leave him alone, he said. At departure locations outside the city, he added, $1,000 could buy one the freedom to launch boats unmolested by police or gendarmes for a day.
A senior Turkish official who spoke with Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity said that claims of Turkish police accepting bribes “do not reflect the facts on the ground”, noting that Turkish police have arrested “several hundred” smugglers, including senior leaders, in the past year.
“It was the lack of a legal channel for refugees to reach Europe, not law enforcement agents doing people favours, that created the problem,” the official said.
At prices ranging from $350 to $1,200 per passenger, depending on the season, the smugglers’ profit margins were high regardless. But the future of Yunus’ business looks uncertain given the recent deal between the European Union and Turkey, in which the EU will make financial and political concessions to Turkey, in exchange for preventing asylum seekers from travelling to Greece.
“After the agreement, there are no passengers going to Greece,” Yunus said. “I haven’t sent a single boat.”
A smaller but steady stream of people has continued to arrive on the Greek islands since the EU-Turkey deal came into effect on March 20. But in Izmir, the smuggling economy, and the refugees who are dependent on it to reach Europe, have been thrust into a state of limbo. The first group of people was sent back to Turkey from Greece on April 4, and everyone in Izmir is waiting to see how exactly the deal will be implemented before deciding what to do next.
Um Salah, 48, is among those whose plans have been put on hold. In early March, she was preparing to make the journey to Greece with her four youngest children. The three older ones are already in Europe. But then, on March 9, Macedonia closed its border, stranding tens of thousands of people in dire conditions on the Greek side. “When I heard about the people on the border between Macedonia and Greece, and heard about their suffering, I decided not to go,” Um Salah told Al Jazeera.
Governments of Europe must take people from Turkey to the EU in a legal way, because we don't see the war ending anytime soon.
Life in Turkey has been difficult for Um Salah, who fled last year from the Damascus suburb where she lived after her house was destroyed by fighting between pro-government forces and the Free Syrian Army. The apartment where she now lives is on the edge of a steep hill, in a neighbourhood with cracked and uneven streets far from the city centre. The rooms are dark and musty, and neither the electricity nor the water supply works properly in the building.
Um Salah’s husband stayed behind in Syria. Her 20-year-old son, the family’s breadwinner, works 14-hour days cleaning carpets, but the money he makes is not enough to cover expenses. “Living in Turkey is very hard. We can’t afford it,” said Um Salah. The family has not received any support from the Turkish government or international organisations, she said.
As an alternative to travelling to Europe, Um Salah is thinking about taking her family to one of the 25 official refugee camps in southeastern Turkey. “I don’t know what the situation in the camps is, but we can’t afford rent here. At least [in the camps] there’s no rent or electricity and water bills,” she said. “If there’s an opportunity to leave Turkey for Europe, I will take it. My children’s interests are the most important thing. I’m looking for a solution, but haven’t found one. We just want to live.”
Um Salah is not the only one forced to change plans because of the EU-Turkey deal. In the neighbourhood of Basmane, the heart of Izmir’s smuggling trade, the business of illicitly moving people to Europe is on pause.
Even before last year’s smuggling boom, Basmane had a reputation among Izmir residents as a centre for crime and illicit activity. Today the narrow streets are busy, but not crowded. “In the summer, this place was so crowded you could barely walk,” said Mohamed Meher, a 22-year-old student who is also from a Damascus suburb.
Meher left Syria in 2013 to pursue his education, after his commute to university in Damascus became too dangerous. Unlike many other Syrians, he has decided to stay in Izmir instead of going to Europe.
At the public square in the centre of the neighbourhood, men sit around in small groups talking, playing backgammon and smoking from water pipes. Last summer, all of the many new hotels in Basmane were full. As a result, Meher said, people slept in the square under the sparse covering of a handful of palm trees or in the local mosques. Now, the square is empty at night.
Inside one of the hotels down a side street off the market, a Kurdish man named Mohamed, with greying stubble and sunken cheeks, works the desk. “Nowadays there aren’t many customers,” he said.
In the winter season, when the weather is worse, there would often be around 30 people staying in the hotel per night. In the summer, the hotel would be full to capacity, with about 50 people. But since the EU-Turkey deal came into effect, only one group of refugees has left the hotel for Greece. “Everyone is waiting to see what happens” and how the deal will be implemented, Mohamed said.
Meher has learned Turkish and has a scholarship that supports his studies in electrical and electronics engineering. Even so, last September he tried crossing to Greece with two of his relatives. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. The Turkish coastguard stopped the overloaded rubber dinghy he was on and returned him to shore, along with the other passengers.
Now, one year away from graduating, he does not want to leave. “If I went to Europe, I’d have to start over again. I’d lose three years. So I decided to continue my studies here and then maybe, in a legal way, I can go to Europe,” he explained. Over the course of his three years in Izmir, Meher has helped many of his friends and family to navigate Izmir’s smuggling networks to secure their passage to Europe.
“For people, it’s absolutely not good,” Meher said of the EU-Turkey deal. “Governments of Europe must take people from Turkey to the EU in a legal way, because we don’t see the war ending any time soon.”
The deal has allocated only 72,000 spots for registered Syrian refugees in Turkey to be resettled to countries in Europe. Most people in Izmir wanting to reach Europe are stuck in limbo, waiting to see what will happen.