Migrant crisis offers glimpse of a world without borders

Five years into an odyssey by land, air and sea, spanning five countries, 23-year-old Afghan Majid R. arrived at a painful realisation on a pavement in Istanbul. “Like they say in Bollywood, Mere paas ek phooti kaudi nahin thi . [I didn’t have a single broken coin].”

He had washed cars in Karachi where he learnt Urdu and about Bollywood cinema, worked on construction sites in Tehran, spent several anxious hours handcuffed in darkness in the hold of a Greek military vessel, and suffered beatings at the hands of border police.

However, in 2015, his Afghan friends assured him that his luck would change. Thousands of Syrians, fleeing the conflict raging in their country, had arrived in Turkey, bringing millions of dollars that would jump start an entire industry dedicated to shipping people across the Aegean Sea to Greece.

Turkey to Greece journey

“My friends and I became agents,” he said, “After the Syrians, every one — Afghans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians, Somalis, Iraqis, Balochis, Iranis — was trying to cross from Turkey to Greece. We stayed in Istanbul and helped them cross.”

A year later, he had sent a little over $30,000 dollars back to Kabul through his hawala network, lent another $30,000 to a friend in need, and kept some money with himself for his daily expenses.

As refugee departures from Turkey peaked in mid-2015, he set up an Afghan restaurant to cater to those transiting through Istanbul. When Turkey signed a controversial refugee-return deal with the European Union (EU), he sold the restaurant, predicting that traffic along the Aegean Sea route would dip significantly.

Contemporary writing on the ongoing “migrant crisis” has focused on the collapse of border-patrols and asylum bureaucracies; the erosion of political mandates in countries like Germany; and the rise of xenophobia, creating an impression of a world in chaos. The EU’s deployment of warships and intelligence assets against agents like Majid suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the complex, and dispersed, networks of obligations and solidarities resulting from one of the largest migrations of humanity in recent memory.

Many refugees and facilitators like Majid recall the past year-and-a-half as a moment of intense, frenetic freedom when the restrictive border apparatus across a vast geography, from the fringes of the Indian subcontinent to the heart of Europe, temporarily retreated. Its place was taken by a robust network of Afghans, Turks, Kurds, Syrians, Iranians, and Pakistanis, snapped in place to ferry migrants from across the world to the European border.

“The contract was for seven lakh rupees, to be paid when I reached Greece,” said a young man from Lahore, in an interview in Saxony, East Germany. “We were taken Lahore to Karachi, then by boat to a small harbour in Iran, where a man picked us up and took us to Tehran by car. From Tehran [we went] towards Tabriz by car, and then up the mountains by foot.”

On the other side of the mountains was Van, in southeast Turkey, where a Kurdish man put him on a bus to Istanbul. There a Pakistani put him on a boat to Greece. “In Istanbul there are two types of agents: agents for boats, and sub-agents for people,” said Majid, the Afghan, “We were boat agents, we organised the logistics and offered 35 to 45 seats per boat to a sub-agent for a set price of between $400 and $500 per head.” The sub-agent would then gather travellers, offering them seats for the best price they could negotiate. In the early days, agents were charging up to $3000 a seat, he said, but by mid 2015 supply of boats increased and the price fell to $1000 a seat.

“The money is only paid if the client reaches Greece,” said Majid, “My sub-agent will hand over the money for the trip to a trusted intermediary. If his clients cross over safely, the intermediary gives me the money.”

Wave of payments

The sub-agent has a similar arrangement with his clients — their money is parked with another intermediary, sometimes in a third country.

So when a traveller from Lahore reaches Samos in Greece, he triggers off a wave of escrow payments — his family pays an agent in Pakistan, who maintains a running account with another agent in Tehran, who works with a Kurd in Van, who has people in Istanbul.

If the coastguard stops the boat, all payments are stopped. And what if a boat sinks?

“Thankfully, we sent over 30 boats last year, and didn’t lose a single person,” Majid said, “that’s because we used a captain.”

In journeys across the Aegean, the job of piloting the boat is handed over to a refugee who travels for free. Majid and his friends used a “captain” — who was paid $1500 a trip to ferry the refugees across.

But how did he come back?

“He registered himself as a refugee in Athens, and while everyone else headed into Europe, our captain took a bus to Evros in Greece and crossed over through the land border into Turkey.”

In 2012, the European Union’s border agency Frontex and Greek Authorities unveiled Operation Aspida (Shield) to seal the Turkey-Greece land border, but Majid said the border was a “non-return valve”. “Over land, it’s impossible to cross from Turkey into Greece, but from Greece to Turkey is very easy.”

Majid and his Turkish partner earned about $5,000 a piece for every successful sortie after costs. But another friend found himself $1,00,000 in debt.

“Every boat he sent was intercepted by the coastguard,” he said, “And then it becomes like gambling, you try harder and harder, and you lose more and more money.”

( New Delhi-based journalist Aman Sethi travelled to Turkey and Germany last month and filed the three reports in this series. The full version of each of these will be at Aman, who had previously worked with The Hindu, including as its correspondent based in Addis Ababa reporting on African affairs, is at )

The EU’s deployment of warships against boat agents suggests a misunderstanding of the migrant crisis

Refugees in Turkey recall past few months as a period of freedom as border controls retreated