25th Oct 2016


Istanbul: smuggler capital for EU-bound migrants

Many of the groups which smuggle people into Europe are based in the migrant quarters of Turkey's vast city on the EU border - Istanbul.

Kumkapi in Istanbul's Fatih district on the Marmara Sea coast is home to French speaking African communities and to Somalians.

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  • Istanbul's kumkapi neighbourhood is home to many African migrants and Russian-speaking import-export firms (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Further west, Afghans and Iranians cluster in Zeytinburnu. Iraqis and Nigerians live mostly in Kurtulus, near the tourist hotspot of Taksim Square. Syrians favour parts of Kucukcekmece.

In Kumkapi, one smuggler hotspot is a street which runs parallel to the Katip Kasim mosque.

Here, young African men work by pushing around heavy loads of various goods among run-down buildings, dozens of which house Russophone import-export firms.

A white Mercedes GL 320 with Ukrainian plates is parked outside the Blue Marmaray hotel. It is in the heart of the impoverished district, but a suite costs $600 a night. Further north and east, clothes shop windows display prices in Turkish and Russian.

The locals call the smugglers "kacakci."

It is a term predominantly used by Kurdish, Turkish and Asian people who move migrants through Turkey into Europe.

Each ethnic group has its own kacakci networks.

A diplomat who works on security issues at the Athens embassy of a large EU member state, said some of the big kacakci operations have cells in Europe which work in such a way that they cannot be linked to the parent group if they are infiltrated by police or intelligence officers.

They also operate separate departments, each of which specializes in a particular activity - for instance, one does drug smuggling, while another one does human trafficking. They never mix.

Opinion is divided on the role of the Turkish or Russian mafia.

Anna Triandafyllidou - a professor at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies in Florence, who co-wrote a book on migrant smuggling - says there is no evidence linking the mafia to the smugglers, which are loose operations run by people of the same ethnicity as the people they smuggle.

"There is no overarching international structure that takes you from Afghanistan to Greece, having taken care of everything," she told this website.

For his part, Michel Koutouzis - a Paris-based narco-trafficking expert of Greek descent - says the business is dominated by Turkish mafia families, who make tens of millions of euros out of it each year.

He said the families are organised like an army with a godfather-type figure, called a "baba," at the top of the structure.

They do not work directly on smuggling operations.

But they host them and oversee them. They also provide local knowledge, contacts and the infrastructure to help people move around.

"People in Istanbul know everything about you before you even arrive - how much money [you have], who is bringing you, the transport means are already organised," Koutouzis told EUobserver.

The Athens-based diplomat said non-Turkish kacakci need local support to successfully bribe Turkish officials.

"It's without a doubt that the networks need to find corrupt officials, either to obtain papers or to ensure local authorities don't stop them," the contact noted.

Meanwhile, Triandafyllidou described some of the methods used to get people into the EU.

She said that every migrant's journey is divided into stages.

Kacakci cells hand the people from one cell to the next at each stage, using disposable mobile phones to co-ordinate the operation.

The migrant hands over cash at the beginning of each new stage. Sometimes, he may have to pay a percentage up front and then the rest on arrival. "Trust plays a very important part. The way to get it is that you pay half in advance and half when you arrive," said Triandafyllidou.

In Istanbul's Zeytinburnu district, kacakci are charging - as of November 2012 - up to €1,500 to smuggle an Afghan migrant into Greece.

An Afghan national who works with Afghan smugglers in the neighbourhood, but who asked to remain anonymous because of the dangers involved, said the migrants are recruited in Afghanistan.

"They take them up through Iran and into Istanbul. They then house them [in Istanbul] for a few days before taking them to Izmir where they cross on boat," the source told this website.

The Afghan migrants pay 20 percent up front in Istanbul and the rest when they reach their final destination.

Those who run out of money in Istanbul try to raise extra funds by doing cash-in-hand low-skilled labour. But smuggler groups who also traffic drugs do not use them as mules because their risk of being stopped by border guards is greater.

For the whole trip from Kabul to Athens, the estimated price is from €5,000 to €8,500, depending on the quality of the services and whether obstacles arise along the way.

The Research Institute for European and American Studies in Athens estimates that one in four irregular migrants rely on smuggling networks to enter Turkey and then to go to the EU.

Frontex, the EU border control agency in Warsaw, says 18,000 people were detected crossing the border illegally in the third quarter of 2011. Nearly 50 percent were Afghan nationals.

If the estimated prices are correct, it means that Afghan smuggler networks in Istanbul made well in excess of €3.5 million over those three months alone.

Whenever Greece or the EU take fresh steps to insulate the border, it means more money for the gangs.

Prices to cross the River Evros - which flows along the Greek-Turkish border - soared after Greece launched Operation Shield - the deployment of an extra 1,800 border guards in August.

They are going up again because of the completion in December of a razor wire fence on the Greek-Turkish land border.

"Because of our fence, migrants are paying a lot more than they did over the summer," Pashalis Syritoudis, the director of police at the Greek border town of Orestiadas, told EUobserver.

"Before 'shield' they paid around €300 per person [to cross the river]. Now it is €3,000 to €4,000 person," he noted.

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