In Turkey, EU-bound migrants put faith in smugglers, cheap lifejackets

BODRUM, TURKEY, Fulya Ozerkan- Duaa, a 22-year-old Syrian refugee and mother of two, is nervously counting down the hours in the Turkish resort city of Bodrum, hoping this will be the night her family's life will finally take a turn for the better.
She says her husband paid people-smugglers $1,200 (1,000 euros) for each member of the family to squeeze into an inflatable dinghy for the short but perilous passage from the Turkish coast across the Aegean to the Greek island of Kos and -- maybe -- to a new life in the EU.

"My husband is now talking with the man (the smuggler). We paid him $1,200 each," she said, waiting in the garden of the town's municipality with her family.
"We are scared if he takes the money and just disappears. We don't know. Tonight at 11:00 pm we go with him."
Migrants escaping Syria, Afghanistan, Africa and elsewhere are taking advantage of the calm summer conditions to make daily attempts to cross the Aegean between the Bodrum peninsula and Kos, one of the narrowest waterways between Turkey and the European Union.
Far from striking out independently, they rely on the services of people smugglers who coordinate the enterprise, including taxi transport to the embarkation point.
Inflatable boats are ordered by the traffickers from the Turkish cities of Istanbul or Izmir and then delivered to the bus station.
Hasan, 16, who learnt Turkish in a camp from Syrian refugees on the border, said would-be migrants make contact with the people smugglers in southeast Turkey before making their way to the upmarket holiday resort of Bodrum.
"The smuggler gave us the news. He tells us to wait. We don't know when to leave," he said, frustrated.
Without money for a hotel, Hasan has been sleeping rough in a playground for children along with some 100 other refugees.
"Hotels are very expensive. I am staying here for a week. We eat only yoghurt and bread."
- 'Pledges of a better life' -
With the Turkish security forces stepping up their presence on the Bodrum coast, there is no guarantee that the refugees' faith or investment in the smugglers will be repaid.
"Today we caught one Iranian organiser red handed," one member of the Turkish gendarmerie told AFP at the scene, saying the smugglers come from countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, and even Ivory Coast.
He said if convicted, the traffickers face up to eight years in prison.
If refugees are caught making what is an illegal violation of the Turkish border by crossing, they receive a fine of 2,200 lira ($770) and are then sent to an office of the Turkish migration agency and onward to a refugee camp.
One eyewitness involved in rescue operations said: "Most cannot pay the fine. They go to the camps and come back again."
He said he had seen one man try to make the crossing four times.
Metin Corabatir, president of the Ankara-based Research Center on Asylum and Migration (IGAM), said after more than four years of civil war many of the 1.8 million Syrian refugees in Turkey were losing hope of ever going back home and were instead trying their luck getting into the EU.
"Smugglers encourage refugees to travel to Europe with pledges of better lives in return for money," he told AFP.
Corabatir said it was a profitable business for smugglers and that the money they get varies according to the number of people who are waiting to cross and their destination.
According to Turkish government figures seen by AFP, Turkish coastguards rescued almost 18,300 migrants in the Aegean Sea in the last month and more than 5,275 in the last week alone.
- 'Regular customers' -
The refugees take almost no possessions with them on the already over-loaded rubber boats.
But almost all ensure they are carrying some kind of lifejacket to give them a reasonable chance of surviving several hours in the water.
Some even take inflatable rings used by children for playing in swimming pools.
Shops on the Bodrum peninsula, which would normally be doing a roaring trade catering to beach tourists, are now focusing on selling the life vests to the refugees.
"I sell 100 to 150 lifejackets in a week," said one souvenir shop seller, who asked not to be named.
"I buy them for 30 lira ($10.50) each and sell for 35 lira ($12.25)," she added.
"I've been selling (them) for 16 years. But in the past I sold them to holidaymakers as there are aqua parks and swimming clubs here."
Another seller in a market said local businesses were simply responding to a commercial demand.
"If they were tourists, I would sell wine," he said.
Meanwhile, the local taxi drivers have no qualms about taking refugees to the beachheads, saying they are treated like any other customer.
"A taxi driver cannot say 'you are refugee and don't get in my car'. He sees them as regular customer," said one Bodrum driver who gave his name as Memduh.

Tuesday, August 18th 2015
Fulya Ozerkan

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