The smuggler sits smoking, engulfed by king-sized sofas, two of them facing each other on either side of the room, with high backs and intricate brocading. In this house of constantly revolving guests, spaces for socializing are important. The man looks very small — head down, eyes on his phone, wisps of smoke curling from his cigarette, his combat trousers merging with the muddy green of the sofa fabric. There is slight arrogance about him, a youth caught in the first flushes of adulthood. He holds the power of fear, of grief, of life and death. He is the keeper of future possibilities and the fervent dreams of men and women.
Zeytinburnu district in Istanbul has one of the largest concentrations of Afghans in the city. The Afghan community springs up fully formed in the gaps between Turkish spaces. The smuggler, also an Afghan, seems to own the streets, the keeper of history and secrets.
We are sitting talking in his home, the transit point for many of his customers caught between Afghanistan and Europe. There’s a large Turkish flag on the wall, while a much smaller Afghan one rises from a metal stand. “I like Turkey,” he shrugs. The flag’s location is an intimate affirmation of his devotion to the country, not a public demonstration. Opportunities to hang the flag publicly are limited anyway. His home is reached through an innocuous door on a winding side street, obscured by drying laundry. A Turkish flag hung here would be seen by few eyes.
The smuggler pulls nuts, sultanas, dried mulberries from various plastic bags stowed in piles of suitcases stacked against the wall. His existence here is as transient as his customers — a brief pause to accrue enough money before moving on. He is 30 years old. He has deep brown wells for eyes and the warm face of a young boy. He is very attractive. Flashes of mischief and charm enliven a face than can harden with seriousness. His father died six years ago. He left Kabul when he was 17 to move to Tehran. He never went to school. He learned English from the mouths of American soldiers who occupied his street.
His job has become increasingly difficult over the past two years — the length of time he’s been working in this business. It’s getting harder for migrants to cross into Europe owing to tighter control of the border and the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal of March 2016, by which migrants are deported back to Turkey. Most people are still being stopped by the Turkish gendarmerie. The smuggler tells us:
If 500 people go, 400 of them will be stopped by the police. They’ll be arrested or deported or kept in detention. The 100 who manage to slip past the gendarmerie may also be stopped by the Greek police on the other side of the border, when they buy tickets. They’ll be sent back to Turkey to be dealt with here.
It’s not the Greeks or the Bulgarians or the Serbians, it’s the Turkish guys … If the Turkish guys were to allow them to cross, the Greek side would not be able to control it. The Turkish guys are so keen for heightened security because the [EU-Turkey] deal is still in place. It’s still working.
In the last two months, I had six people I tried to send. Three of them made it. The others kept getting pushed back. They were arresting them, keeping them for two months, taking their fingerprints and then sending them back to Istanbul. I’m still trying.
The smuggler pokes holes in the border regime that has closed and securitized all land and maritime boundaries. He operates through both the so-called “Balkan route” (via Bulgaria and Serbia) and the sea lanes to Greece. He chooses not to send customers directly to Italy, citing the danger of the passage: “The trip takes five days — I can’t guarantee the weather across that time period. There could be a storm.”
His various tales of subterfuge — of wriggling through gaps in the legal and bureaucratic processes that enforce the border — underline the multifarious ways in which the border exists, and the cracks and ruptures that fissure it. For those making the journey, it is far from a game: they are facing multiple forms of violence, official border control being merely one layer. Their persistence and creativity in finding gaps in the system is a testament to the weight of burdens they are seeking to leave behind. The smuggler comments:
When people leave Afghanistan, they leave for many reasons, all legitimate. Maybe they’re economic migrants, they’re coming to Turkey because they have nothing else. Maybe they sold their homes in order to come here. Maybe people are being discriminated against. They have saved money over many years and they use it all in order to leave. People put everything they have into leaving.
The Turkish government does not recognize Afghans as legal refugees, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees provides only limited resettlement options, hindered in part by the US government’s restricted quota for Afghans. The lack of real prospects drives many onward, through whatever means are available. The smuggler claims to be providing an “honest” service in a highly exploitative but heavily popular business.
His life is little different from those he smuggles, save for the fact that he is on the other side of their battle line. His power lies in his knowledge of the streets, the mobile spaces that exist only as shifting pieces of a jigsaw, never fully forming a whole. He is trying to connect the lines that mark his clients’ destinies. He is the dream-master, the ship’s captain, an entrepreneur of desire. “I am in the business of selling hope,” he says, with a charming smile.
This is not something I do by myself. Playing the Game, for me, is like leading a country — it’s like being president. I have connections with people on the borders, with other smugglers, people in Greece. The people on the border are locals — they have land, houses, connections. I contact them and pay them some money, because we’re crossing through their land, and they prepare the boats to cross to Greece.
Sometimes the police are paying particular attention to, for instance, Petra Port in Greece. But some areas are left a little bit looser, so we look for those places where the police presence is less. We are always in communication with each other.
It’s all about money. The other smuggler who’s working in this area employs the same local driver. Contacts living on the border work with as many smugglers as they can — to work with just one person means earning less. I put a guy from my team in the right place, to know what’s happening and which way the contact on the border is sending other people. That’s how I know. But then I have to pay him, the messenger, to go and come back again.
It’s a fine balance between competition and trust. Each smuggler is playing a neat game of give and take, creating alliances and partnerships where necessary, keeping their eyes sharp and their heads clear. The means of information gathering follows an ancient path, dependent on keenness of vision, the tactile tracing of worn paths, the swiftness of human feet. Technology plays a role, especially in communication, but the real art of smuggling remains the firmness of the handshake, the weighted act of looking another man straight in the eye, the capacity for human trust.
“It’s important how you build your relationships,” the smuggler says.
Other smugglers have been working here longer, maybe more than 15 years, but they can’t do the work because they’re not honest. The work is not just about sending people, it’s about building trust with them. Maybe five percent of smugglers are honest. The rest are not.
One smuggler might charge a customer $2,000. The customer might say, “But this other guy is only charging $500.” The smuggler would reply, “No, no, they are bringing you from a difficult point, a more dangerous point, that’s why their price is cheaper; my way is easier and safer.” Or they might say, “If you pay $1,500, you walk two hours, but if you pay $2,000, you walk 10 minutes.” It’s all lies — in reality, all the ways are the same.
Of course, his own honesty is open to speculation. He speaks very warmly with us (Fattah has known him for several years, since before he became a smuggler), yet there is resignation in his voice, the tone of someone who has no illusions. He hints at dark episodes; possibly he is caught up with people or situations outside his control.
One smuggler may say, “You’re going to walk one hour,” when it’s actually three hours. I tell them, “You’ll walk three hours, you’ll pay $1,300; you may face snakes, spiders on the route, there may be a 50 percent chance of being caught by the police, et cetera.” I tell them the truth about what they will face. When people reach Germany or wherever, they call me to thank me. They appreciate that I’ve been honest with them about their journey. This is how I believe I help people.
The smuggler worked 10 years at hard labor — textiles in the winter and construction in the summer. When he lived in Tehran, he was regularly beaten by the police. He was deported from Iran in 2005 because of his undocumented status. The police were first suspicious of him because of his trousers — “bad man” trousers, the kind with many pockets. Today he still resolutely wears combat fatigues. “In Afghanistan,” he says, “if you wear military pants you’ll be stopped by the police or the intelligence service. But I keep wearing them.” It’s a sacrifice for an identity he deems important to preserve — of rule-breaking and subverting abusive authority.
He was kept hostage during his own smuggling experience because he was in debt. He escaped after a few weeks. Today he still has occasion to escape. The last time he went to Bulgaria, in 2016, he was arrested in a house in Sofia but escaped from the holding camp he was subsequently placed in.
We were in detention for five days. Then they brought us to a camp. There were Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis — 200 or 300 people in two blocks. I was there for 14 days, and then I escaped. I walked 58 kilometers in eight hours to reach the Bulgaria-Turkey border. I passed through the wires and then saw the Bulgarian police up ahead, coming toward me in a jeep. I went up to them, and said, in English, “Look, I’m not a smuggler, I’m just trying to cross the border, I’m lost.”
When I was arrested, I asked for a lawyer. I know how the system works. There was an old lady lawyer working there, I paid her all the money I had — €200. She told me: “When they bring you to the judge, tell him that you came to work in Bulgaria, that you couldn’t find a job and that now you’re going back to Turkey. They’ll release you with a suspended sentence, six months in prison, but you won’t have to serve it.”
I did that. I paid the €250 fine and they released me. After I was released, I went back to the camp — I didn’t have any other place to stay. I stayed one more week there. Then I found two or three people, friends, who wanted to come back with me, and we crossed the Turkish border together.
In total he has tried to cross into Bulgaria 21 times, alongside his customers. He successfully passed only three times — the other 18 he was pushed back. If he’s arrested again within three kilometers of the border, the Bulgarian police will imprison him for a year — six months for his earlier, unserved sentence and six months for the new crime. And yet, two months ago, he went back to Edirne, on the Bulgarian border. He was arrested, by Turkish police this time, and kept for two days in the police station before being released.
His life is a recurring pattern of arrests, escapes, trials, and retrials. He has an intimate acquaintance with the workings of the Turkish deportation system, the hidden bowels of power where unwanted aliens are held for varying periods of time.
Two years ago, I and another smuggler were supposed to take 10 Iraqis across the Bulgaria-Turkey border. The car couldn’t go further because it was snowing, so the driver left us there. I told the Iraqis — if you want to come back to Istanbul, you should come with me. If you want to go on, then you’re alone. Two of them came with me.
In the street we stopped a police car by mistake. They asked what we were doing there. I told them, “We came to Edirne to work, but after three days our employer kicked us out and only gave us 20TL.” They took us to the detention center and asked us if we wanted to be deported. I said no.
The Iraqis were deported, but they kept me for 28 days. The Iraqis also had the choice to stay, but they would have been kept longer, for six months. [The time individuals spend in deportation centers depends on how many people are being held there — if they have too many, they’ll release more — as well as on the specific agreements between the Turkish government and the detainees’ home countries.]
There was a bed, blanket, pillow, food three times a day. Dinner at 4:00 p.m. You share a room with other people of mixed nationalities. It was a small place — there were 20 people in each room. The detainees were from Somalia, Morocco, two from the Emirates, two or three from Uzbekistan, 10 to 20 Pakistanis and a similar number of Afghans. Most were men, though there were also a few women, divided by a wall. There was a Palestinian couple.
I worked informally as a translator for the Afghans. They gave me an asylum application paper. There were some guys who were being deported, so I went to the IOM [International Organization for Migration] and spoke to someone there about them. This person told me it was better not to go to the DGMM [Directorate General of Migration Management] because I would be deported. So I didn’t go. I applied for asylum and was released.
That’s not to say he dislikes the Turkish police. “They treat me very well,” he says, “compared to the Iranian, Greek, Bulgarian, or Pakistani police. Their behavior is good. When they stop women and kids, they’ll even give them their own clothes if it’s cold.” His relative fondness for the Turkish authorities is emblematic of the loving relationship he has developed with his adopted home.
In his house, men come and go, their histories vague, their struggles remote, their faces blank. To make eye contact would be to acknowledge a tangible connection to the momentary surroundings, which might incur some permanence. Their imminent journeys contain the possibility of failure, of misdirection, of being caught. From outset to arrival, there is the chance of exploitation, abuse, violence.
In this moment, these men are undergoing a metamorphosis. Their identities are at a point of transformation, prepared to fit whatever new shape they must become, to expand into whatever landscapes their physical bodies will occupy. They are cocoons, fed only some sunlight and water — although even sunlight is sparse in this dark space. They move about the flat like silent shadows, steeling themselves for decisions about what to deny, to erase, to forcibly forget.
This is the moment of unknowns — what will I be made to forget? What things will happen to me that will disrupt everything that has come before? Do I want to forget, or do I want to remember? Their past lives flash in whispered histories. “That man killed another man.” (The man in question has just brought us some tea.) “He is not a bad man. He killed in self-defense. He was the son of a minister and the subject of a kidnap attempt.”
They may not know that the lives that await them will probably be similar to those they have left behind, marked by precariousness and uncertainty. The smuggler takes a call from someone complaining that Istanbul is not what he thought it would be. “I told you that Istanbul would be like this,” he says into the phone. “I told you there are no jobs, there’s high rent, the life is hard, but you still wanted to come.” Some time later he takes another call from a friend who is about to be smuggled into Turkey. “I told him to wait a bit,” the smuggler informs us.
It’s not a good time for him to come to Istanbul right now, it’s not easy to get here, to move to Europe at the moment. It’s not easy to find a job to pay back the money I’m loaning him. But he didn’t listen to me and is coming anyway. I’m supposed to pay a smuggler $1,500 for him to travel. I’m trying to get the money now, and I don’t know if he’ll be able to pay me back.
I ask him about the progress of the three men he sent to the border a few days ago.
I don’t know where they are. First their car was stopped. Then I found another car to bring them to “The Point” (“Nokta-Nokta”), and they got the boat. I don’t know what happened after that, or where they are. Two of my men are with them. They’ll pass the river with them and inform me if they made the journey successfully. They’ll buy them their bus tickets to get to the city, and then come back.
A week or so later, on a Friday night, we sit in an upstairs room thick with shisha smoke. Groups of men are being served by young East European women. Some men sit slumped alone, playing on their phones; others cluster around card or tabula tables. One leather-jacketed group is accompanied by a glamorous woman smoking through a slender cigarette holder. Racy music videos are playing on screens in the background. The smuggler spends a lot of time here in the early hours of the morning.
He tells us that satisfied customers often send him photographs of European girls, trying to pay back their thanks to him with offers of marriage. Without much enthusiasm, he shows us a few candidates, the smiling faces of unsuspecting young women. “I want to build something for myself on my own,” he says, “not have someone offer it to me. When you let people give you things, you can face problems — they may turn around and say, ‘I was the one who offered this to you.’ It’s a form of dependency — they’ll have power over you.”
He takes another call. It’s from his mother in Kabul, reminding him to call his grandmother, who’s sick. “My mother probably knows I’m a smuggler. In the Qur’an it’s not defined as haram, so it wouldn’t be a problem for her.”
He wears his mother’s ring, a bright turquoise stone set in silver. A large portion of his salary goes to support her, and he also sends money to his brother in Germany, a recovering heroin addict. Sometimes, if he has a slow month, he raids his own savings to help people cross the border, relying on trust that delayed debts will be repaid.
He shows us photographs of himself from a few years ago, before he entered the smuggling business. His face has changed in the interim — it has hollowed and hardened, weighted by heavy burdens; his eyes have become more calculating. He’s operating in a game outside his control, summoned by the same forces of hope and despair as his desperate customers. His isolation and vulnerability are as stark as theirs. It’s a lonely and dangerous life of gambles and trust. He’s trapped in a system where his best option for a livelihood is this murky world of exploitation and deception. But it’s also one governed by moral codes and relationships of honor.
He does not see himself as an exploiter. Instead, he is trying to make an unfair world — one based not on rights but on favors — fairer, trying to open passages in a system that continually closes doors.
Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books, based in Istanbul.
Fattah Lemar Rabiei has been working with Afghan and other refugees for different NGOs in Istanbul since 2009.
Photos by Helen Mackreath.