Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 99

National pride remains an obstacle to improved security at Turkey’s notoriously porous borders, according to a recent report by the Turkish Dogan News Agency (DHA).

On May 21 DHA reported that Customs officials in Ankara were opposed to a proposal by the United States to install a special X-ray machine to screen containers being shipped to the U.S. from the port of Alsancak in Izmir on Turkey’s Aegean coast. DHA quoted an unnamed official from the Customs Under Secretariat in Ankara, who claimed that there were sufficient screening facilities at Alsancak, noting that the port already had an inspection hangar and X-ray machine (DHA, May 21).

“What good would another X-ray machine do? We made the investment and the European Union regards the current system as successful,” said the official (DHA, May 21).

Officials in Izmir, however, backed the U.S. offer. Alsancak is the main port of origin for Turkish exports to the United States. Nazim Butun, the head of the Customs Department in Izmir, said that he had already met several times with U.S. officials and was in favor of the proposal.

“Containers from Izmir are being kept in port at New York for too long, and a fee is paid for the inspection of the ship there. This means a loss of both time and money,” he said. “If the U.S. installs its machine, American officials will check the ships destined for the U.S. with the permission of Turkish officials or together with them. They will also put a security stamp on checked containers so that no time is lost at ports in the United States. There are some who argue against giving the U.S. the right to install the machine because customs areas are directly linked to a state’s sovereignty. However, the U.S. is seeking permission, and the inspections are only carried out if the host country agrees.” (DHA, May 21)

Butun’s superiors in Ankara, however, appear to regard the U.S. proposal not only as an infringement of Turkish sovereignty but as an insult to their competence and professionalism.

“We are exporting our own system and installing a similar one in Azerbaijan. Turkey sets the standard in customs security in the region,” a Customs official who asked to remain anonymous told DHA (May 21).

Few independent observers, however, doubt that much still needs to be done to improve the security of Turkey’s borders. Istanbul in particular is a major transit point for international terrorists, not least because of the city’s thriving black market in stolen and forged identity documents. Turkey also lies on one of the main routes for the trafficking of both narcotics, particularly heroin from the opium fields of Afghanistan, and illegal migrants into Europe. In 2007 the Turkish authorities seized 2.7 metric tons of heroin, up from 2.2 tons in 2006 (figures taken from the Turkish Customs Under Secretariat website, The heroin seized is believed to amount to only a tiny part of the total volume being trafficked through the country each year. Similarly, although the Turkish authorities detain and deport around 100,000 illegal immigrants each year, they admit that they are probably only catching a small proportion. In late 2007 a report by the Turkish Police’s Department for the Struggle Against Trafficking and Organized Crime estimated that the Turkish end of the trafficking in illegal migrants was worth at least $7 billion a year (see EDM, December 13, 2007).

“There are 25,000 customs officials in Germany, 32,000 in France and just 700 in Turkey, of whom 240 are in Istanbul,” Baki Simsek, the chairman of the Association of Customs Agents in Mersin, Turkey’s third largest port, told Jamestown. “Even if they were all the best and most honest in the world, there simply aren’t enough of them to be able to secure Turkey’s borders.”

Although there are undoubted customs officials who are conscientious and honest, corruption remains a major problem.

“There has been an improvement in recent years,” one Turkish exporter who asked to remain anonymous told Jamestown. “In the past, we used to have to pay a bribe just to get our containers into the port, never mind getting them onto a ship and out of the country. Now there is an automated computer system. What they used to do in the past was to refuse to process the shipment until we had paid a bribe. But now, once the shipment is registered in the system, they can delay it a little but have to come up with a good excuse not to process it at all. So, when we pay bribes now, it is usually because we are in a hurry and want to get the container through customs as quickly as possible.”

Even if the level of corruption has been reduced, the tortuous Turkish legal system means that those who give and receive bribes have little to fear from the courts.

“It is not unusual for a smuggling case to take nine or ten years,” one customs agent told Jamestown. “In many cases, it drags on so long that it exceeds the statute of limitations and has to be dropped.”

Another problem is simple sloth.

“Seven thousand containers were recently exported through Mersin and were registered as having been screened and checked by the customs officials here,” Simsek told Jamestown. “But, in reality, nobody had even looked at them.”