National Security & Defense

Who Benefits from Syria’s Refugee Crisis: Human Smugglers

Refugees evade authorities near Roskze, Hungary. (Dan Kitwood/Getty)

Belgrade, Serbia — The sea journey to Greece seemed less daunting from shore.

After all, 33-year-old Zakaria reasoned, his smuggler sent between 15 and 20 boats from the Turkish shorelines daily. “He had a lot of customers he helped,” Zakaria recalls. “If he has that much work, he’s probably trustworthy.” So Zakaria and his companions shelled out $1,200 each, strapped on their life jackets, and clambered onboard the black inflatable boat on a clear, breezy morning a few weeks ago.

The unease set in as the shoreline of Assos, Turkey, grew more distant.

“I was with my friends and their family, a lot of women and children,” Zakaria recalls. “If I were alone, it would have been scarier. But because we were together, we were, like, ‘Okay, we can do this.’”

Syrian refugees' boat ride

Someone began singing praises of Mohammed, and a few of the other men joined in, hooting and cheering like they were at a sports game. Other passengers stared at the nearing Greek shoreline or fiddled with their phones. Despite the men’s efforts at lightheartedness, several passengers’ faces still looked tense.

They made it to the Greek beaches after one hour at sea, Zakaria says — the first leg of a journey that has brought them on a gray October morning to the temporary refugee camp in Krnjaca, on the outskirts of Belgrade, where they’re crashing briefly before continuing on.

Syrian refugee camp near Belgrade

Zakaria and his friends are among the lucky ones, having survived the sea voyage and made it so far north safely and quickly. Unscrupulous smugglers and human traffickers pose one of the gravest dangers to Europe’s newcomers, and because of Europe’s disjointed response to the largest population shift since World War II, the smugglers’ business is thriving.

#share#Germany, which already offers generous welfare benefits to asylum seekers, announced in August that it would suspend the European Union’s Dublin Regulation, which requires asylum seekers to register in the first eurozone nation where they arrive. Germany opted to welcome refugees from Syria and offer them special treatment.

“That was a message that spreads around the world in one hour,” says Rainhard Kloucek, the secretary general of the Pan-Europa movement, a prominent group that has long supported European unity. “From Kosovo to Karachi, everyone knew that Germany had extended the opportunity for a better life.”

RELATED: Help Refugees, but Stop Feeding the Refugee-Resettlement Industry

But Germany’s open-arms announcement met immediate opposition in some corners of Europe, particularly in Hungary, which has taken a harder line on immigration. Citing security, economic, and cultural concerns, Budapest has passed strong legislation limiting the passage of immigrants and strengthening border controls.

Gergely Gulyás, Hungarian parliament’s deputy speaker of the house, tells me: “We see very clear fragmentation lines within the European Union, and sometimes even within different countries. . . . As the migrants’ purpose is to make it to Germany, they will move in the path of least resistance.”

Often, this means turning to traffickers, despite the risk. The situation remains fluid, and open routes to Germany or beyond can change in a matter of hours. For many, making it to their new home alone is simply impossible.

RELATED: Thank Germany for the Influx of Fake Syrians

“By inviting [people] in but closing all of the tracks, we are basically building a business model for traffickers,” says Christof Zellenberg, the Vienna-based chairman of the Europa Institute. “On one hand, welcome — and on the other hand, we won’t let you in. So they have to enter illegally. . . . They have to use traffickers.”

Zellenberg, who volunteers extensively with refugees and migrants, says he’s heard firsthand some disturbing details about the smugglers that Europe’s newcomers rely on. The motorized boats many use to reach European shores are intentionally cheap and flimsy, Zellenberg says; that way, if authorities confiscate them, the smugglers who own and operate them don’t lose too much of their investment.

By the time sojourners realize the perilous reality of their situation, it’s often too late to turn back. As early as April, Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat told CNN: “Gangs of criminals are putting people on a boat, sometimes even at gunpoint. They’re putting them on the road to death, really, and nothing else.”

The International Organization for Migration counted at least 2,887 dead or missing on the Mediterranean route as of October 5.

Such hazards aren’t limited to the sea, either. On August 27, Austrian authorities found the rotting corpses of 71 migrants — including four children — in the trailer of a forsaken meat truck on the side of the road not far from Hungary. Crammed into the small space by smugglers, they had suffocated.

In total, the International Organization for Migration counted at least 2,887 dead or missing on the Mediterranean route as of October 5.

And many of those who have survived the ordeal have horror stories to tell, says Zellenberg. He’s heard of smugglers raping the women entrusted to them and using threats or brutality to control those they traffic.

RELATED: Why So Many of Europe’s Migrants Are Men

Hungary has undertaken an especially aggressive effort to catch and prosecute these smugglers, says Col. Dr. Balázs László, head of the border police department at the National Police Headquarters.  In 2014, Hungary apprehended roughly 600 smugglers; and throughout the first nine months of 2015, the number of traffickers arrested rose to more than 1,100. They’re a diverse bunch, heralding from Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Afghanistan and even beyond.

“The Hungarian government and police forces are targeting the roots of human smugglers as a phenomenon,” László says. “We think that if we can start criminal proceedings and put them in prison, we can attack them at the roots.” Still, there are significant challenges: “Smugglers are very difficult to catch because they are well-organized and operating in units,” he says. 

Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine that law enforcement will be enough to curb the smuggling business. Black markets thrive on a combination of demand and control — and in this crisis, neither of those elements seems to be abating.

#share#As for Zakaria, he seems aware of both his own legally dubious situation and the hazards of his journey. To prove his identity, he neatly organized his Syrian identification cards in front of him on the table, but he implored me not to use his last name.

Likewise, he showed me photos and videos from his sea voyage and his trip through the Balkans but requested that I wait several days before publishing them. That way, inshallah, he’d have time to reach Germany.

It’s a tough situation. Staying in Aleppo wasn’t an option, he tells me. The city was growing scarier as war intensified, and the water and electricity had been shut off. One day, he found he couldn’t access his savings from the bank. So he left for Istanbul, working at a restaurant and struggling to get by. When he heard of the chance to build a new life in Germany, he went for it.

Still, though Zakaria talks daily to his parents, whom he left behind in Syria, he hasn’t shown them the photos or video he took from the boat trip with the smugglers. It would simply be too frightening for them, he says.

“Germany will protect us better,” he says, adding that he hopes to settle in Munich or even New York. “We lost our nationality, [some of us] lost our passports. . . . I’m not afraid of Western culture. We want to go to a country where there is no economic crisis. We’re looking for a better life.”

#related#But that transition into Western society may prove as difficult as the voyage itself. Zakaria speaks a smattering of English and is trying hard to learn more. But as we said our goodbyes, a young man in my company reached out to shake the hand of a young woman in Zakaria’s group. Everyone froze. She shied away, looking at Zakaria and the other men in her party for guidance.

Amid the awkwardness and cultural confusion, I never did see whether she decided finally to touch his hand.

— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and the Tony Blankley Fellow at the Steamboat Institute.

Jillian Kay Melchior — Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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