Risking a watery grave for a European paradise

Illegal migration to Europe is shaking its politics and threatening the cohesion of the Union. Al Majalla spoke to those who made the journey, to understand how and why they risked their lives.

The crossings people make from the Middle East and North Africa can cost their life
Andrei Cojocaru
The crossings people make from the Middle East and North Africa can cost their life

Risking a watery grave for a European paradise

He comes from an influential clan in eastern Syria and has been living in the small German city of Düren for five years.

Aged 45, he is anonymous because he is explaining how some of his kin turned to people smuggling when Syria’s civil war broke out.

When the Syrian revolution turning to armed revolution and people began dying in the streets, some members of his clan got involved in kidnapping and extortion.

They relocated to Turkey and began smuggling Syrians to Bulgaria, before expanding their network and activities.

Members of other close tribes soon joined the operation, as did former army officers who had defected from the Syrian military and security services.

This tribal alliance quickly became a key player in the smuggling of thousands of Syrians through Turkey to Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia.

The smugglers proliferate

Testimony gathered by Al Majalla from refugees in Germany, the Netherlands, and France reveal the tragedies of the Syrian war.

It also shows how the ensuing chaos, social disintegration, and proliferation of so-called shabbiha (networks of thugs with direct connections to the regime’s security services) contributed to the emergence and proliferation of armed smuggling gangs.

Some were of a sectarian nature, as is the case of the shabbiha. Others gangs were orchestrated by families or tribes.

When Syria's revolution turning to armed revolution and people began dying, some clan members got involved in kidnapping and extortion. 

Initially, their activities were localised, but as the war progressed, their operations expanded to encompass other regions of Syria and eventually other countries, from Turkey to the Balkans and Europe.

The emergence of such gangs was not exclusively Syrian. Other countries ravaged by protracted civil wars such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon also spawned their fair share of criminal networks.

In Lebanon, the militia of the Shia Amal Movement grew in influence from the mid-1980s, attracting or using Shia immigrant families in Africa.


Their familial and organisational networks expanded and began trading in used cars and illicit activities in Germany, to where many Shias flocked.

In time, the criminal activities of Lebanon's Hezbollah networks far surpassed Amal's, stretching across the Middle East, Africa, Europe, even as far as Latin America.

The networks expand

By the Euphrates River, near the city of Deir ez-Zor, factions of the Syrian Arab Busaraya clan were among the groups to form an armed militia during the civil war.

From its localised beginnings, it expanded its criminal reach across Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Serbia to various parts of Europe, aided by the widespread presence of clan members across numerous countries.

The network, whose members are typically armed, runs vans and buses along the Eastern Balkans route, with guides leading migrants through forests.

Convoys then take them to multiple European countries, with Syrians referring to these networks as "the lords of smuggling". 

From a small and localised armed militia, they expanded their criminal reach across Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Serbia. 

From a small local militia, the Busaraya clan became an international smuggling gang, gaining recognition among the major criminal networks, such as those from Afghanistan and the Maghreb.

Family and tribal kinship are essential for establishing trust, while sectarian relations are important in the formation of other criminal groups.

This is the case with the Syrian drug-smuggling 'shabbiha' gangs, which operate from the Syrian and Lebanese coasts. Their operations extend to Jordan, the Gulf, and Europe, where they compete with the global cartels. 

Primary smuggling hubs

The data and testimonies gathered by Al Majalla show that Turkey, Libya, and Tunisia are the primary hubs for people who want to leave the Middle East, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Central Asia.

These gathering points, along with Greece, Syria, and possibly Lebanon, are the breeding grounds for trafficking mafias and networks, which members come from all over the Mediterranean.

Migrants stand in line after being detained by German police during an operation to prevent illegal immigration along the German-Polish border near Frost, Germany, October

Smuggling mafias and their networks do not work in a cohesive, interconnected system. Instead, their operations are sporadic and geographically diverse.

There are no direct connections or communications between groups in different countries, except through local intermediaries who use codes or encrypted calls. 

These distinct and covertly linked networks probably function in clusters, not unlike modern terror groups such as Islamic State (IS). Like IS, they also use social media to lure and coerce victims.

Those victims are typically displaced, adrift, living in refugee camps, and desperate to escape their dire circumstances, even if it means risking their lives and what little money they have.

Victims are typically displaced, adrift, living in camps, and desperate to escape, even if it means risking their lives and what little money they have.

The primary source of clandestine migration and asylum continues to be dictatorial states and regimes, fractured societies, and countries with no economic prospects.

Europe remains the favoured 'final destination' for most. It is a dream for people who have not been able to establish — and live in  — cohesive, democratic states at home.

Into this mix step human traffickers. Their networks and gangs flourish by exploiting their victims for financial gain and facilitating dangerous journeys by sea and land for profits comparable to those of drug traffickers and money launderers

Primary smuggling routes

These mafias use three main routes to smuggle migrants into Europe. The first is the Southern Mediterranean route.

This entails a journey by boat from the shores of Tunisia or Libya to Italian islands. The mafias that use this route are mainly Tunisian and Libyan, with some Syrian.

A group of Syrian refugees, standing on the side of the road near the town of Soufli in the Evros region, Greece, September 3, 2023.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, most illegal migrants who arrived in Italy in the first half of 2023 came from Tunisia (37,720) and Libya (28,558).

According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), 2,327 people died in 2022 in the Mediterranean Sea while being smuggled. Most set sail from Tunisia and Libya.

Investigative reports on clandestine migration reveal that migrants suffer persecution, torture, imprisonment, kidnapping, forced labour, and mass expulsion across borders.

In particular, Libyan mafias have been reported for their poor treatment of Africans fleeing Sub-Saharan Africa, yet still they come. In 2021, nearly 21,000 immigrants, most from Sub-Saharan Africa, gathered in Tunisia. 

Increasingly, migrant boats leaving Tunisia are carrying Tunisians, who have chosen to leave their country due to economic hardship, much like in Lebanon.

Increasingly, boats leaving Tunisia carry Tunisians choosing to leave their country due to economic hardship, much like in Lebanon. 

In Tunisia, emigration to Europe has been a long-standing issue, but it gained momentum after the Arab Spring in 2011.

So prevalent is it, that a Tunisian football club recently had to suspend its activities after most of its players migrated. 

Arguably, the situation is worse in Libya, which has been plagued by war, division, militias, and devastation for many years. It is not surprising that it has become a haven for criminal gangs that enslave and traffic refugees. 

From Turkey or Morocco

The second primary route used by the smugglers is the Eastern Mediterranean route, with Turkey at the heart of this dual maritime-and-land journey.

This challenging path leads first to Greece by sea, and then to Bulgaria and Serbia by land, commonly referred to as the Balkan Route. 

Eduardo Ramon

In the hands of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lay the fate of millions of Syrian refugees, but Turkey was gripped by an economic crisis, with anger fuelling the resurgence of supremacist Turkish nationalism.

He tightened the rope around the necks of Syrian refugees fleeing persecution and oppression.

Most made their way to Europe by sea or land, with 145,600 using the Turkey-Greece maritime route in 2022. Nearly as many went over-land via Serbia.

Those taking the Eastern Mediterranean route and Balkan route are mainly Syrians, alongside others from Afghanistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Congo.

On the Eastern Mediterranean-Balkan route it is mainly Syrians, plus some Afghans, Egyptians, Tunisians, Bangladeshis, Nigerians, and Congolese.

The third and final people smuggling route is the Western Mediterranean route, although in terms of numbers this is very much the lesser of the trio.

From Morocco, the route heads to Spain, either by sea via the Gibraltar Strait or by land via Ceuta and Melilla (the two disputed islands between Morocco and Spain). Last year, 14,582 migrants used it. 

Nevertheless, testimonies gathered by Al Majalla in Germany and the Netherlands indicate that this Moroccan or Western Mediterranean route, and a neighbouring Algerian route, are also used by a few Syrians.

The maritime graveyard 

When French poet Paul Valéry penned The Maritime Graveyard, little did he know that his poetic metaphor would become a tragic reality 100 years after publishing it in 1922.

A drawing of a migrant rescued by Médecins Sans Frontières from a washed-up rubber boat in the Mediterranean, shown when a 23-year-old Syrian man drowned from the boat.

The Mediterranean Sea has become a dangerous lifeline for those fleeing destruction and war in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and now Lebanon which — along with Turkey — hosts a massive refugee population willing to risk their lives to escape their predicament.

At a refugee camp near The Hague in the Netherlands, Ziad shares his treacherous journey across the Mediterranean with Al Majalla.

In 2012, after escaping a besieged Homs to Damascus with the help of a Syrian army officer, this 47-year-old made his way to Jordan, where he took a ferry from the Gulf of Aqaba to Egypt. 

When Paul Valéry penned The Maritime Graveyard, little did he know his poetic metaphor would become a tragic reality 100 years after publication.

He spent the next four years in Cairo, where his political activism in support of the Syrian revolution led to his arrest by the Egyptian General Intelligence Service twice.

Upon his release in 2015, he flew from Cairo to Istanbul, where he lived until earlier this year, working odd jobs in the hospitality and brokerage industries.

The Turkish government's changing attitude towards Syrian refugees prompted his decision to relocate to Europe.

He sold a piece of land in Homs and, together with his savings from Turkey, paid for his clandestine journey from Izmir to the Greek coast, which took 4.5 hours.

Smuggling networks in Turkey

Although Ziad communicated with smugglers via Facebook, others work from popular cafes in Istanbul.

The intermediaries are Syrians, Egyptians, and other Arabs. Turks, on the other hand, operate covertly.

Ziad paid $3,500, which is half the cost of his trip, to a financial services office in Istanbul.

This is normal. Those looking to leave pay half upfront. The remainder is only released through secret phone calls and codes after they complete the journey.

Syrians create these networks for the benefit of the Turks, says Ziad. Except for the odd raid or arrest, Turkish authorities turn a blind eye to the network's operations, which have now become a regular occurrence.

Ziad tells how Turkish intelligence arrested a Syrian who worked from an Istanbul café. They confiscated $350,000, imprisoned him for two days, then released him. Ziad lost the $3,500 he deposited with the man for a journey to Athens.

The journey to Europe began in Istanbul when a car was sent to pick Ziad up and take him to Izmir, the speedboat's point of departure.

There, he stayed in a beachside house with other prospective migrants for 4-5 days. The organisers were all Syrian.

Around 35 migrants (mostly Syrians, including women and children) were then crammed into a truck and, after an 8-hour drive, the Turkish driver dropped them at the edge of a forest in the afternoon, where Turkish smugglers were waiting.

Ziad paid $3,500. It is normal to pay half upfront. The rest is paid through secret phone calls and codes after the migrant completes the journey.

They ordered the would-be migrants to run into the forest, saying they would return soon to take them to the boat. But they did not return, and afternoon turned to night.

Terrified, the migrants had no option but to sleep in the open. The following evening, the smugglers finally came and led them in the dark for hours until they reached the beach.

They stepped into the water and walked a short distance to the boat, which then took off at breakneck speed, bouncing from one wave to the next for 4.5 hours over the rough Mediterranean in total darkness.

When the Greek shoreline finally came into sight, the migrants got off the boat and made their way through the water towards the Greek coast. 

Smugglers in Greece  

According to Ziad, the smuggling activity on Greek territory is orchestrated by local networks using intermediaries from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.

Greek drivers picked the group up and drove them to a rural mountainous area under the cover of darkness. They were given Greek SIM cards and left in the open until sunrise, still wearing their wet clothing.

Some made makeshift beds and slept. They hid in fear until noon when a man arrived, took them to a paved road, and transported them in batches to Athens in his car. 

The driver was an Iranian who spoke English. That evening, he picked up Ziad and others and drove them for eight hours.

Fearing that he might fall asleep at the wheel, a young Syrian woman started talking to him to keep him awake.

Greek drivers picked them up and drove them to the mountains in the dark. There, they were given Greek SIM cards and left in their wet clothing.

They arrived at a public park in Athens, where the others had also been brought. The driver took a group photo of them and then left, saying someone else would come to pick them up.

Ziad then left the group, taking a taxi from the park to a district of Athens known as a hub for smugglers, prostitutes, drug traffickers, and organised crime.

There, he made his way to a well-known Syrian restaurant whose owner was involved in smuggling. The owner leased him a small room for a month.

At the restaurant, he met several members of the criminal network from Syria, Turkey, Iran, Greece, and Egypt. 

Stuck in Athens

An Egyptian smuggler arranged for him to fly from Athens to Spain. He asked him not to shave his beard for 10 days.

Then took him to a barber shop in Athens to change his look to match the photo on a stolen Spanish passport.

The smuggler told Ziad that the network hires gangs of Maghrebi youths to steal European passports in airports, on trains, and in hotels across Europe.

The cost of smuggling by air from Athens to a European capital with a valid stolen passport is $4,000 to $5,000. Ziad paid $4,500 for his promised trip to Madrid.

Just as he was about to board the plane, a Greek security officer became suspicious.

When he discovered that Ziad was Syrian and not Spanish, he expelled him from the airport, but without confiscating his Spanish passport. 

Ziad later learned that this was a common experience of migrants in Athens. Other Syrians he met there were similarly exposed at the airport.

Like Ziad, they were not arrested, nor were their stolen passports taken. They were just expelled.

Authorities in Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, try to push smuggling beyond their borders to avoid the legal and material consequences of granting them asylum on their land.

That is why Greek authorities do not arrest migrants with stolen passports and turn a blind eye in the hope that they leave for Western Europe.

Disagreements between European countries over immigration and asylum have become a contentious political issue across the continent, having already led to the downfall of several governments.

Greek authorities do not arrest migrants with stolen passports and turn a blind eye in the hope that they leave for Western Europe. 

The plane Ziad was meant to board for Spain had 15 other individuals from the same smuggling network onboard, he says, yet he was the only one singled out.

When he left the airport, he found the Egyptian member of the network waiting for him.

He retrieved the stolen passport and drove him back to Athens, assuring him that the next travel attempt would be a success.

A week later, Ziad returned to Athens Airport, this time holding a Turkish passport with a Schengen visa.

He managed to board a plane for Paris, but not before seeing an Iranian passenger being exposed at the gate, just like he had been a week before.

Unbeknownst to Ziad, aboard the plane to Paris was a Romanian member of the network. When they left the airport, he approached Ziad and asked him to wait. He returned with two Syrians who had been on the same plane as Ziad.

He asked them all to hand over their stolen passports and keep their original Syrian passports, then took them to a Paris bus station and booked them tickets for Amsterdam, which they reached eight hours later. 

Filling in the blanks

Younes, a 32-year-old Syrian refugee, spoke to Al Majalla in late August at a refugee camp near Düren in Germany. So horrific were his experiences that he could not remember some of it.

"My mind is like a sieve," he says. "I cannot seem to distinguish dates. When did we leave Lebanon and where did we board the boat? How and when did we reach Turkey?

"I recall the name Mersin, but I cannot visualise or remember the place at all. My eldest son is around two-years-old now, but he was only a few months old when we left. Our youngest was born in Turkey. He's nine months old now.

"Remembering what I experienced is challenging and overwhelming. It leaves me in tears.

"We endured enough injustice, displacement, and racism in our Arab and Muslim countries." Yet, from fragmented memories, we piece together his story.

In Lebanon, he worked odd jobs in the Bekaa region, rarely getting his wage. In the village where he lived, he was harassed by young men and children because he was Syrian, but had to endure their abuse in silence.

So horrific were his experiences that he cannot remember some of it. "My mind is like a sieve," he says.

Two or three years later, he and his wife fled to Turkey with their child after paying $1,600 to a Lebanese smuggler in Chtaura.

The smuggler crammed 15-20 Syrians into a bus and drove them for hours, every now and then phoning Syrian contacts likely operating in Turkey. 

The smugglers' boat threw them and other Syrian migrants onto a beach near Mersin. They were arrested, interrogated, and assaulted by Turkish police, who then expelled them to the "liberated" Syrian areas via the Tall Abyad border crossing.

A Turkish boot in the face

Younes made four unsuccessful attempts to cross the barbed wire to Turkey with his wife and child, enduring months of torment in the process.

During his last attempt, a Turkish soldier in military boots kicked him in the face.

He lost his front teeth, suffered inflammation in the mouth, and spent several days in a hospital.

Getty Images
Migrants, who arrived on the island in recent days, wake up in their camp in the port of Mytilene on March 4, 2020.

Finally, he paid $800 to a Syrian smuggler who led him, his wife, his child, and a group of other Syrians to a location near the barbed wire, where they were met by another Syrian smuggler who cut the tape for the group to cross into Turkey. 

Younes spent about a year in Turkey, trying to find work with the support of relatives. The discrimination he faced there almost made Lebanon appear tolerant.

He pleaded with sheikhs to help him pay the hospital bills for his wife's C-section and his newborn's incubator. One sheikh even asked to meet his wife first.

Enraged, Younes insulted him. Thankfully, his relatives in Turkey and Syria stepped in and raised enough money for his wife and newborn child to be discharged.

A Turkish soldier in military boots kicked him in the face. He lost his front teeth, suffered inflammation in the mouth, and spent days in hospital.

Despite having paid six months' rent in advance, his Turkish landlord kicked him out in the fourth month. He had to labour on a barn in a distant village, gathering dung in exchange for lodging in a connected room.

He moved from one farm to another, fleeing the mistreatment of owners, who often withheld his wages.


He decided to leave Turkey for Europe with the help of a Syrian smuggler, who recommended that he seek the help of a Turkish sheikh to cover his expenses for the journey over land to Bulgaria.

Younes told his wife to wear a veil and brought her to meet the supposedly devout sheikh who, upon seeing Younes's wife, said: "God, those eyes are beautiful." Younes grabbed his wife and left, then began to cry.

Going it alone

After more months working on a barn, he decided to try to cross the Turkish-Bulgarian border with his wife and two children, along with other Syrians.

Their first two attempts failed. On the third, he went alone with just his family. At the border, they pleaded with the Bulgarian soldiers, saying they were fleeing oppression.

Suddenly, a Turkish K9 unit appeared. The patrol chief told Younes that if he fled to the "land of the infidels", the infidels would take his wife. He then threatened to unleash the dogs on them.

Suddenly, a Turkish unit appeared. The patrol chief told Younes that if he fled to the "land of the infidels", the infidels would take his wife.

Younes then sent his wife and children back to the Bekaa refugee camp in Lebanon and fled alone along the lengthy Bulgarian land route with the aid of Syrian smugglers.

He spent 12 days trekking through Bulgarian forests with other Syrians. Each smuggler passed them on to the next, collecting $400 from each person before they left.

After travelling with Syrian and Turkish smugglers in many vehicles to many places and taking train after train from one European city to another, Younes finally arrived in Germany, having spent some $3,000.

Outside a Dusseldorf train station, he met a Yemeni man who offered him accommodation for the night. The next morning, he took him to the refugee camp near Düren.

One last dialogue 

Abdel-Ilah, 50, a Syrian, arrived at the camp a few months earlier. He heard part of what Younes had to say.

At the end of our conversation, Younes commended the German and European treatment of migrants, which stood in stark contrast to the racism and monstrosity of criminal gangs in Arab and Islamic countries, he said.

At this, Abdel-Ilah spoke. "I know a doctor who migrated to Britain. There, they tried to pressure him into performing sex change surgeries. He refused and returned to Turkey.

"We are guests here. One day, their governments will force us to do things that go against our beliefs, which could lead us back to our country."

Younes responded: "Here, they separate politics and religion. People practice their religion in their hearts. And who said that Christianity is not a religion?"

"What is the purpose of your life without Islam?", asked Abdel-Ilah.

"I am Muslim," Younes said. "I am a Muslim who escaped from the land of monsters to remain a Muslim."

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