Syria Crisis

On Rafts And Risks: Interview With A Syrian Human Smuggler

Who is behind the smuggling of refugees from Turkey to the Greek islands? How are these potentially deadly trips planned and organized? Syria Deeply speaks with a human smuggler in Izmir, himself a Syrian refugee.

Refugees on a rubber boat
Refugees on a rubber boat
Yasser Allawi

IZMIR â€" Abu Yazan is a Syrian smuggler who arranges the transport of refugees from the shores of Turkey to Greece. The 25-year-old worked in construction before the Syrian uprising began, when he took part in peaceful protests.

As the uprising shifted toward armed conflict, he briefly joined Ahrar al-Sham, before fleeing to Turkey when the ISIS terror group took control of his home city of Raqqa in January 2014.

Yazan was barred from entering Turkey's refugee camps because he was a young, single man. His struggle to survive eventually led him to Turkey's coastal city of Izmir, a central hub for the people-smuggling business between Turkey and the Greek islands.

A year and a half after moving to Izmir, Yazan began working as an intermediary for smuggler networks. His task was to approach refugees on the street and connect them to smugglers who would organize their journeys. He did so in exchange for a commission based on the number of refugees he managed to attract.

When he felt he had made sufficient connections, he tried to branch out on his own, but later partnered with a Turkish man who operated one of the key smuggling points in the city.

In a cafe in the Basmanah neighborhood of Izmir, Yazan spoke with Syria Deeply about the human smuggling industry and its continuation in the face of EU and Turkish pressure.

SYRIA DEEPLY: How do the refugees find smugglers?

YAZAN: There are several ways for people to find smugglers â€" either by word of mouth from refugees who have already taken the trip and have arrived at their destinations in Europe, or through "agents" who walk the streets and publicize their services. Another important way of meeting is through relatives and friends, as well as at the insurance offices, where the fees paid by refugees for smuggling are usually kept.

Are the smugglers Syrians? Or are they of other nationalities?

Most of the smugglers are Syrians â€" because of their language and relationships. But the actual owners of smuggling access points and the owners of the equipment are Turks. You might find some Afghans or Tunisians or Iraqis as their partners. What Afghans and Iraqis went through before the Syrians arrived gave them experience, and with their excellent relations with the Turks, smuggling became a good source of income for many of them.

Also, there are Syrian and Turkish companies that purchase pockets of land close to the sea and use them as smuggling points.

Who is responsible for preparing the equipment before the trip?

From the start, the smuggler is responsible for the cost of transportation to the smuggling points. The smuggler also takes care of finding a suitable place for the refugees to stay and covers all costs related to renting a place, including food, regardless of how long they stay. This could also be subject to a previous agreement.

The smuggler is also responsible for providing necessary equipment such as life jackets, swimming rings and special bags to protect documents and mobile phones.

The most important equipment they arrange is the means of transportation.

What types of boats are used in transporting refugees from Turkey to the Greek islands?

Rubber boats are the most common in Izmir, but people also use yachts and jet boats.

Rubber boats are 30 feet (9 meters) long and 10 feet (3 meters) wide, with a wooden floor and an engine installed at the rear end. They can hold up to 45 people over the age of nine. Some of these boats are made in China, others are made in Turkey, but the best ones are Russian-made.

Yachts, on the other hand, are metallic boats with engines. They are a faster and safer choice and come in three sizes. Large yachts have a capacity of 40 passengers. Smugglers fit 80 to 90 passengers on board. Medium yachts have a capacity of 30 passengers. Smugglers fit 60 to 70 passengers on board. Small yachts have a capacity of 20 passengers. Smugglers fit 40 to 50 passengers on board.

A jet boat is the fastest option. It’s a small metallic boat with a capacity of eight passengers. Smugglers fit 15â€"20 passengers on board. This boat is known for its speed. On a jet boat the crossing takes only 20 minutes.

Can you tell us more about the prices and payment methods?

Prices differ depending on the type of boat used for the trip and the number of passengers. The cost for a family would be different from that for a young, single man. The smuggler agrees with the owner of the access point on a price for each passenger, then the smuggler agrees with the passenger on a different price. The difference in the two prices is the smuggler's share, in addition to what he gets from the access point owner as a commission.

There is even a deal between the access point owner and the smuggler for one passenger free of charge for every seven passengers arranged. For every seven passengers the smuggler arranges, he can include an eighth passenger for whom he does not have to pay the fee to the access point owner. That way, the smuggler makes more money, because he gets to keep the entire fee paid by the refugee.

Prices in winter per adult are:

  • Rubber boats: $500â€"700

  • Yachts: $1,500â€"2000

  • Jet boats: $1,200â€"1500

Prices in summer increase by 30% as the numbers of migrants rapidly increases when the water temperature gets warmer. Children are usually smuggled for free because they don't take any seating space as long as their parents carry them throughout the trip.

The captain of the rubber boat is normally one of the passengers and would be exempted from travel fees. But the captains of the yachts and jet boats are appointed by the owner and are normally Turkish citizens.

What procedures has Turkey taken to eliminate illegal migration from its shores? What punishments are imposed on refugees and smugglers caught by the authorities?

Recently the Turkish authorities reinforced observation operations along the shores and the routes leading there. They also installed checkpoints on roads that lead to smuggling access points to check passengers' documents and ensure that all have travel permissions to travel within Turkey.

Coast guard patrols are active. When the authorities capture refugees in Turkish regional waters, they detain them for 24 hours and then release them to bus stations â€" and they return to the Turkish cities they started out from.

On the other hand, if the authorities capture the smuggler he faces a prison sentence of between one and 30 years and a penalty of up to $15,000.

What are your expectations for the coming season in terms of refugee numbers?

Despite decisions following the agreement between the EU and Turkey, migration is not going to stop, especially with summer coming.

You need to realize that Turkey doesn't offer much to Syrian refugees, so anyone who finds a small chance to leave and start a better life would immediately take it. We have been through similar periods, and smugglers always manage to find new ways to transport people to Europe.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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