Tarik Namik, the accused leader of a Turkish smuggling network, was finally arrested in January 2023, more than 5 years after first appearing on a watchlist
Skipper Ben Squire found them in the early hours of a freezing December morning, approximately 30 miles off the UK’s Dover coast in the English Channel.
The 31 migrants were huddled together for some heat from their bodies in the 1-degree C (34 F) weather, some wearing only T-shirts and flimsy lifejackets. Squire’s crew scrambled to save them, throwing ropes into the dinghy.
The men, women, and children began crying out in fear. The dinghy was concaving, taking on icy water.
The rescuers redoubled their efforts. They brought the migrants off the sinking dinghy, but four would perish from exposure.
Crossroads of A Crisis
At the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, Turkey is home to one of the largest global networks of smugglers of migrants. They also target the largest refugee population in the world, including 3.6 million Syrians.
In areas such as Istanbul, Izmir, and Bodrum, smuggling groups consist of a head leading between 20 to 30 “ribers” finding, exploiting, and transporting the migrants and refugees. Once the smugglers have drawn in the targets, another member of the criminal network will transport the migrants and refugees to “safe houses” dotted across Turkey. There they are stripped of their independence and free will, with passports seized, and sometimes held for weeks at a time. Some are forced to comply with the demands of gang members under the influence of drugs.
Most of the migrants and refugees, given falsified papers, are instructed by the smugglers to cross the Aegean Sea for the shores of Italy and Greece. Whilst the distance between Turkey and Greece is only about 50 nautical miles, the rough and unpredictable waters makes the journey treacherous, especially when the boat is little more than a rubber dinghy.
The risk of death is covered by the smugglers’ declaration, “Accidents can happen but we explain how dangerous the journey is and we have them sign a consent form.”
One Turkish gang, headed by “Al-Sultan”, charges each migrant or refugee between $2,200 and $6,600 for transportation. Some networks reportedly get up to $17,000. Profits from the smuggling fuel further criminal activity including the selling of drugs and weapons.
Mustafa, an asylum seeker, described the “threatening” behavior of the smugglers who viewed the people as nothing more than cargo in a business deal.
Targeting Migrants Rather Than Smugglers?
In April 2013, Turkey passed its first domestic law concerning asylum seekers. The UN High Commission for Refugees welcomed the measures to address the surge of migrants and refugees from Syria.
The regulations sought to prevent fradulent marriages and to ensure that applicants met visa criteria. However, they also established the path to a work permit, which a migrant or refugee could seek with a stay in the country of longer than 90 days.
But 10 years later, with the Turkey in economic trouble, the system for the almost 4 million refugees is cracking. Tensions have increased with hostility in some communities towards Syrian and other foreigners. In July 2022, an online poll found 54% of Turks considered refugees a problem.
Rather than taking on the smuggling gangs, Turkish authorities have targeted migrants and refugees, pursuing deportations.
Ankara says it is working with the UK’s National Crime Agency to curb people smuggling, but the tracking and arrest of gang members is lengthy and laborious.
In 2017 Tarik Namik, 45, first appeared on the NCA watchlist. He was believed to be the head of one of the largest networks. However, he was only detained on January 21 when he landed at Manchester Airport on a flight from Istanbul.
NCA branch commander Richard Harrison said, “Namik was a prolific people smuggler whose crime group put vulnerable migrants at great risk while he reaped the profits. I’m delighted that he will now face justice for the offences he committed.”
Meanwhile, the other networks continue to operate.