From Syria to Sweden: An inside look at the methods refugees employ to get to Europe

A personal account of the refugees seeking asylum and the perils they face at the hands of smugglers.

Syrians at a refugee camp in Turkey protest in 2011. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrians at a refugee camp in Turkey protest in 2011.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Reaching Europe as a refugee has become the dream of many Syrians fleeing the war which erupted three years ago after the Syrian regime suppressed demonstrations against it. However, most of them recognize that this dream is beyond their reach, as it requires a great deal of money. Reaching Europe legally through obtaining refugee status via the embassies of the developed countries requires a miracle, and therefore most of those reaching Europe must find a way to do it illegally.
The stories of Syrian refugees who try to make their dream come true are not just about suffering and hardship; dying on the way or being caught and deported.
The most interesting stories are about the methods and techniques used by those trying to get to Europe by any means necessary.
In the Syrian dialect of Arabic, the term “smuggling” is used to refer to the process of illegal immigration.
Facilitators are “smugglers” and the asylum seekers are “smuggled.” These smuggling stories are as interesting as any movie that has won an Oscar or been shown at Cannes. The heads of the smuggling networks come in all varieties, good and bad, along with middlemen, those that receive commissions on successful trips, tricksters and criminals. The only one who is not a hero is the asylum seeker.
There are many stories about successful and unsuccessful attempts. Here are two examples:
A successful trip
Tony is a trader from Aleppo. He is 35 years old and a father of two. When he realized that the war was not likely to end soon he decided to sell all of his properties and left for Turkey to look for someone to smuggle him to Sweden. His plan after getting asylum was to demand family unification rights. He had learned that Sweden offers better support for refugees than other European countries and choose it as his destination because of this.
In Istanbul many smuggling networks work almost publicly; they earn plenty of money. Some networks are benevolent, only taking the customers’ money when they reach their destination. Others engage in fraud, so caution is always required.
Tony constantly worried about becoming the victim of such a dishonest network, and so he met with numerous smugglers, none of whom convinced him. Eventually he met a man named Abu Mohamad, an Iraqi, who happened to be at the same café as Tony was. He had overheard Tony talking to a potential smuggler and saw how the negotiation failed. As soon as the man got up Abu Mohamad jumped to Tony’s table, and began making his own offer. He was very convincing, explaining that everything would be done through a trusted official office in Istanbul. So the process began.
The process
The day next Tony and Abu Mohamad met at the above-mentioned office, Tony put up the agreed amount (11,000 Euros), and in exchange received a code which he was to save until he arrived in Sweden. Then he was to call the office to authorize the release of the money to Abu Mohamad’s account. Abu Mohamad was also given a code, which he had to show to the office staff to get the money.
Abu Mohamad contacted his network members, then rushed to the airline office and bought a ticket to an African country which does not require a visa. Tony would never actually set foot in this country; the ticket was purchased because the flight had a stopover at the Morocco airport.
Tony arrived in Morocco, waiting in the transit area for some hours, afraid of being caught as he had arrived late at night and remained, alone, after all the passengers had either checked out of the airport or boarded another flight. After a long wait, in the early morning, a woman came toward him carrying an envelope, and asked, “are you Tony?” “Yes, I am” he replied.
She opened the envelope and handed him a ticket to Sweden, accompanied him to the gate and put him on the flight. No one stopped them. At first he suspected the flight was not going to Sweden, but his fear subsided when he heard the pilot say “Stockholm.” It was his happiest moment since the war had erupted. In a few hours he was in Stockholm airport. He told the authorities there he was a Syrian seeking asylum and, after undergoing a routine interrogation and being allowed in the country, he called the office and gave the code number to release the money to Abu Mohamad.
A failed attempt
Razek and Ilyas are two brothers, also from Aleppo.
Along with their neighbor Tony, they were supposed to travel to Sweden within a few days; their sister in Sweden and her husband had arranged the matter with a Turkish smuggler, through a Swedish smuggling network.
The brothers took the smuggler’s number from their brother-in-law and asked a Syrian friend, who speaks Turkish, to contact him and make an appointment. Two days later they met him. The smuggler asked for their passports and 8,000 Euros as an advance payment. One of the brothers balked initially, but decided to go through with it on the advice of his brother-in-law, who said he trusted the Swedish network the smugglers were with.
Unfortunately, after taking the payment he made them wait a month, and in the end told them he could only smuggle one brother in. He took the older brother to a barber with what was most probably a stolen Danish passport, and told the barber to make Ilyas look like the photo in the passport. The man dyed his hair. The brothers got cold feet at this point, and asked for their passports back, at which request the smuggler deducted 3,000 Euros for the trouble, returning the remaining 5,000.
At that time Tony had just reached Sweden and gotten asylum; he advised the brothers, who called him, to talk to Abu Mohamad. They took his advice and called Abu Mohamad, having gotten his number from Tony. However, Abu Mohamad told them he wasn’t currently able to smuggle them by the same route as he had Tony, explaining that it would “probably get his network in Morocco caught.”
For the brothers it was a moment of desperation.
Razek checked on the Internet desperately for a solution, eventually finding a post on Facebook according to which the next day at 1 p.m. a flight from Sabiha Gokcan International Airport in Istanbul would be leaving for Sweden. Razek called the number in the post. It was unbelievable, he thought, that one could fly illegally from a Turkish airport, as the country’s airports are very strict.
Nevertheless he decided to give it a shot, because he had learned from Tony about putting the money with a middleman; the new smuggler approving this procedure made him seem on the level.
The next morning the two brothers met with the new smuggler, who brought a man with him whom he introduced as “a friend.” They went to the middleman’s office (the same one Tony had used) and put up $18,000.
Each side took their codes.
Now the brothers were supposed to go to the airport and board the flight via the smuggler’s “secret method” which, he said, would bypass the strict airport security.
The brothers were excited and everything seemed to be going well. They even arranged a car to pick them up at their destination.
While they were in the car on the way to the airport, the smuggler told the brothers that before going to the airport they had to make a stop-off to meet the person who would teach them how to bypass airport security.
After a short time the car pulled up in front of a building on a narrow street, and the group got out of the car. The brothers did not realize they had fallen into a trap until the knives were at their necks in the entrance of the building.
They were taken into one of the apartments at knifepoint and tied to chairs. There were other detainees in the flat who had fallen into the same trap, as well as two additional hijackers.
After 24 hours the hostage-takers forced their poor “customers” to call the middleman’s office, report that they had arrived at their destination and give their codes. The smuggler, who had gone back to the office in the meantime, collected the money.
These are just two stories out of thousands, and represent just one aspect of the Syrian people’s suffering.
The author is a Syrian living in Istanbul.