One would think it would be difficult to get in touch with people smugglers. Unfortunately, it isn’t the case.
Migrants first meet with smugglers in Iran. On a predetermined date, groups of at least 50 people are brought to the Turkish-Iranian border. Most of the time, authorities on both sides turn a blind eye – for a price, of course.
The groups walk for days towards Van city from Çaldıran, or sometimes Doğubeyazıt, in the neighbouring Ağrı province, and at some point along the way, another group of smugglers come and take over from the border smugglers. The migrants are stacked like sardines in trucks or minibuses with the seats removed to be brought to safe houses in Van.
They stay in the safe houses for many days, until other smugglers come to take them. Dozens of migrants have perished on these paths alone – their deaths are often never registered, or police put them down as traffic accidents.
Come nightfall, migrants are taken to Lake Van to cross over to Tatvan. After some days waiting in the Tatvan bus station, they are taken westward by cars. Sometimes the cars don’t come. In such cases, migrants then try to get papers from the Migration Directorate so they can travel from the border.
Lawyer Jindar Uçar from the Van Bar Association’s Refugees Commission told me that there is a criminal network that covered Turkey and continued into Europe. Countries were turning a blind eye to the issues migrants and refugees face at the hands of criminals, he said.
“What we stand against is refugees being left to the mercy of human traffickers. There was a U.N. office in Van for asylum applications, established in 2018, but it was shut down because it was deemed ‘unnecessary’,” Uçar said.
“So, migrants and refugees had to wait for years to get their applications processed. In the past, the office would process applications by political dissidents, artists and LGBT people from Iran rapidly, and get them their residency and work permits.”
Mesut Aslan from the Çukurova Migration Association visited Van last month after the migrant deaths at the lake. He said the state was responsible for the deaths and injustice the migrants faced.
“The biggest slice of the pie goes to the state for the migrants’ issues in Van. The state has a policy of leaving people on their own devices, whatever happens to them,” Aslan said.
He said the Turkish authorities continue to take European Union funding for refugees, who they use as a threat against the bloc.
“Looking at statements from smugglers, you can see the bloody face of all this. NGOs, bar associations should take responsibility where the state fails,” Aslan said.
“The governorate refused to meet us for the problems migrants face, and in our meeting with the Migration Directorate, they acknowledged that Van is a critical crossing point, but didn’t take any responsibility in my mind.”
The Van Refugee Solidarity Network put out a report on Dec. 5, based on their visits to border villages, interviews with witnesses and meetings with NGOs and political parties. It is full of stories of stillborn babies in mountain passages and melting snows bringing down long-dead bodies in the spring. A state worker told the network that they tried to help a woman who gave birth on the snow last winter, but soldiers didn’t allow it.
“I will take you in for trafficking if you help her,” one soldier told the state worker. The baby was stillborn.
Many perish out in the cold, and their bodies are buried under the snow, to be eaten by wild animals, according to another witness.
The report focused on how smugglers and traffickers are able to take groups of 50 across the border, which is peppered with army outposts, and pointed out that it was “impossible” to cross without commanders and other officials knowing.
“The penalties are not deterrent enough, and trafficking is very lucrative,” the report said.
“People arrested of trafficking spend only two months in prison with the new laws. They get out and just continue. Migrants who can get papers can at least have healthcare, but many can’t. First-level screenings can only help them so much because they don’t have enough equipment.”
Last week, there was a hearing in Van over the rape of an Iranian woman at a migrant detention centre. Both suspects were public servants at the centre.
According to the report, abused women have been coerced into silence with threats of deportation, while young girls were sold off as second wives.
The report also offered some solutions:
- Refugees must be granted safe access into Turkey, and the country must offer effective, transparent and accessible asylum procedures.
- Legal status for refugees must be resolved in a constitutional amendment, in compliance with international human rights standards.
- Trafficking investigations must be swift and effective.
- Trafficking must carry deterrent penalties.
- State workers in migration must be specially elected and trained on human rights and freedoms.
- Refugees must not be left to the whims of host countries, and United Nations commissaries must be opened again to process appeals for asylum.
- Racist, discriminatory language used by politicians and media must be corrected.
- Lake Van must be monitored by the coast guard.
- Hospitals must employ translators for languages refugees tend to speak.
- Refugees must be given first- and second-tier health screenings.
- Healthcare authorities must develop refugee-centric policies.
- Detention centres must include hygienic, well-equipped medical centres.
- Financial abuse of refugees must be prevented, and refugees must be provided with secure working conditions.
- Racist attacks and abuse of refugees must carry deterrent penalties.
- NGOs and other key partners must be allowed to join efforts for cultural, social and educational infrastructure building for refugees who wish to settle in Turkey.
- All refugee children, including undocumented children, must be given access to native language-based, multilingual, free and public education.
The world is turning into an open-air cemetery for migrants. People fleeing war, poverty and oppression find themselves caught in other great and ruthless conflicts. They walk an endless bridge that some either trip and fall off or are pushed. We don’t know who can complete cross the bridge. We don’t know what is harder: to stay or to leave. To live or to die.