The December 10 sinking of an overcrowded boat carrying illegal migrants from Turkey to Greece has highlighted Turkey’s increasing importance as a transit point for illegal migrants seeking to gain entry to the countries of the EU. The issue has begun to strain Turkey’s relations both with the EU and, particularly, with Greece.
In the early hours of December 10 more than 70 illegal migrants are believed to have drowned when the 50-foot boat in which they were traveling capsized in heavy weather shortly after setting out from the fishing port of Sigicak, just outside the city of Izmir on Turkey’s Aegean coast. The boat was likely heading for one of the Greek islands, probably Chios. Only six of the estimated 80 people on board were rescued. So far, more than 50 bodies have been recovered.
The EU insists that Ankara must do more to stem the flow of illegal immigrants through Turkey into Europe, not least because of fears that, if Turkey is ever granted full membership, the subsequent relaxation of border controls would result in it becoming a platform for a massive influx of illegal immigrants into the rich countries of Western Europe. However, EU pressure has caused considerable resentment on the Turkish side, which insists that it is doing its best with limited resources to tackle what is essentially not its problem.
Much of the Turkish anger has been directed at Greece. On October 5, 2007, the Turkish General Staff (TGS) posted a statement on its website claiming that, instead of taking those on board into custody in Greece, the Greek security forces were increasingly towing boats carrying illegal immigrants that they had intercepted in Greek territorial waters into Turkish territorial waters and abandoning them. According to the statement, the Greek security forces had towed back into Turkish territorial waters and abandoned 3,047 illegal immigrants in the first nine months of 2007 alone, compared with 1,633 in all of 2006.
Turkish authorities claim that they already detain and deport around 100,000 illegal immigrants each year, most of them in transit from their countries of origin to Europe. No figures are available for the number of migrants who successfully find their way across Turkey and into the EU, but Turkish authorities admit that they are probably only catching a small proportion. A recently released report by the Turkish Police’s Department for the Struggle Against Trafficking and Organized Crime estimated that the Turkish end of the operation is worth at least $7 billion a year and that many of the organizations involved are also engaged in trafficking narcotics.
Turkish journalists quoted unidentified police sources as saying that interrogations of detained migrants suggested that there were considerable variations in the prices charged, starting at $2,000-5,000 for being smuggled into Europe by land and $4,000-5,000 by sea. The prices rose steeply for more distant destinations, with the UK costing $8,000-10,000.
The police sources said that there were three main trafficking routes. Migrants from Africa usually traveled by sea, hidden in containers on ships arriving at the ports of Istanbul, Izmir, and Mersin. Migrants from Arab countries mostly traveled by land across Turkey’s border with Syria. While migrants from Asian countries, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, gathered in Iran and were then smuggled across the country’s porous border with Turkey in trucks and buses. Once inside Turkey, the migrants were typically hidden in cheap hotels or warehouses until the transportation became available for the next stage in the journey. There were collection points in the province of Hatay, which borders Syria, and in Van and Agri, both of which are close to Turkey’s border with Iran. However, the main collection points were in Istanbul, mostly in poorer areas and the shantytowns that surround Turkey’s largest city. The police said that, although some of the migrants were then smuggled into Greece and Bulgaria inside containers on the back of trucks, most were subsequently transported to a port, either on the Sea of Marmara or the Aegean coast, where they were loaded onto small boats.
The length of the trafficking routes has often made it difficult for the various branches of the security apparatus to coordinate their activities. In Turkey, responsibility for domestic security is divided between the National Police, which is responsible for urban areas, and the Gendarmerie, which is responsible for rural areas, while the coast guard and the Turkish navy share responsibility for the security of the Turkish coast. In addition, the involvement of militant Islamist and Kurdish groups, such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – either to smuggle their own personnel or as a fund-raising exercise – has meant that other elements are often involved, including the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and the intelligence branches of the regular armed forces.
The Turkish Interior Minister has recently drawn up what it terms an “Integrated Border Manager Project,” which will seek to integrate the activities of all elements of the state apparatus involved in border security under a single coordinating body known as the “Border Security General Directorate.” The project is expected to be implemented in 2008. However, the Turkish security apparatus has a long history of turf wars, mutual suspicions, and a failure to share intelligence. It is currently unclear whether the Integrated Border Manager Project will have a significant impact on reducing the flow of illegal migrants into Europe.
(NTV, CNNTurk, Bianet, Vatan, Sabah, Hurriyet, Milliyet, Radikal, Cumhuriyet, December 11-12, Milliyet, Radikal, December 13)