Izmir’s smugglers are getting worried. But it’s not the European Union’s plans to shut down their lucrative business that concerns them – it’s the arrival of the autumn winds.
Sea crossings traditionally dwindle in the winter months, when stormy weather whips up the waves in the Mediterranean. But several Izmir-based smugglers believe they have found a way to keep demand high: by offering seasonal discounts.
In a café in Izmir’s Basmane neighbourhood, a hub for would-be migrants, Abu Fuad, a Syrian smuggler, outlined his strategy: “In the summer, we charged $1,200 (£780) or $1,300 per person.
“In the winter, it will be $1,000 or $900 – cheaper but more dangerous,” he said.
He added that his network used the same flimsy rubber dinghies throughout the year.
Smugglers usually raise their prices in winter as demand declines. But Abu Fuad, as well as two of his colleagues, hoped that the cheaper cost would entice poorer refugees to attempt the riskier crossing. Several brokers plying their trade in front of Basmane station last week were already offering to transport refugees to Greece for the lower price.
“They say the price is $900 per person and that we’ll be in Greece after six hours. That’s far cheaper and far longer than we’ve been told,” said Isa, 25, from Aleppo, Syria, who was visibly worried.
“I don’t trust any of them, but if we don’t find anything better we’ll have to take the offer.”
The harsher weather has already claimed its first victims. Turkish media reported that 12 refugees died on Friday when their boat capsized near Canakkale, on the southern coast of the Dardanelles.
Earlier in the day, the Greek coastguard reported that one woman and three children had drowned in a separate incident.
In the summer, we charged $1,200 (£780) or $1,300 per person. In the winter, it will be $1,000 or $900 – cheaper but more dangerous
On Thursday night, EU leaders agreed on a draft deal that would offer Turkey financial aid to improve conditions for refugees, visa-free travel to Europe for Turks, and would unfreeze negotiations on Turkey’s EU membership in exchange for Ankara’s co-operation in stemming the refugee flow.
The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, will travel to Turkey on Sunday for talks with the President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Ms Merkel has suggested that the EU is considering a €3bn (£2.2bn) financial package.
On the Aegean coast, meanwhile, there is little evidence of the flow ending. On Wednesday, as many as 85 boats landed on the island of Lesbos, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
In Izmir, too, business is as brisk as ever: refugees fill the cafés and hotels, swap Turkish lire for euros and deposit their fares in so-called “insurance offices” that release the money to the smugglers once they have safely reached Greece. Along the main boulevard, clothing shops and even pizza restaurants sell cheap life-jackets and children’s floaties.
The smugglers, too, do their business in plain sight. Under the gaze of a dozen armed police officers, brokers approach Arabic-speaking travellers stepping off buses at Basmane Square, promising a safe and speedy passage to Greece. A few hours’ drive north, boats set off in broad daylight.
“The police are taken care of,” said Abu Fuad, waving at a nearby policeman who turned away with a sour expression.
Refugees, however, say the behaviour of the police towards them is not as lenient. Ahmad, a refugee from Yarmouk in Syria, who dreams of completing his physics degree at Oxford University, has twice tried to cross to Greece in the past month.
“Both times I was stopped by the coastguard,” he said. “And both times I had to pay the police €350 (£260) to be released with my family.” Ahmad was getting impatient. For 10 days, he had been waiting for the smuggler to call with the go-ahead for his third attempt. “Ten days ago, the sea was still calm. But it’ll be winter soon,” he said. “We have to hurry.”
Cooler, windy weather has already swept across the Balkans into Istanbul. To what extent it will affect the sea crossings to Greece remains to be seen.
Refugee crisis - in pictures
Refugee crisis - in pictures
Turkish gendarmes hold the body of a child on a beach in Canakkale's Bademli district on 30 January, 2016 after at least 33 migrants drowned when their boat sank in the Aegean Sea while trying to cross from Turkey to Greece
Ahmad Zarour, 32, from Syria, reacts after his rescue by MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) while attempting to reach the Greek island of Agathonisi, Dodecanese, southeastern Agean Sea
Syrian migrants holding life vests gather onto a pebble beach in the Yesil liman district of Canakkale, northwestern Turkey, after being stopped by Turkish police in their attempt to reach the Greek island of Lesbos on 29 January 2016.
Refugees flash the 'V for victory' sign during a demonstration as they block the Greek-Macedonian border
Migrants have been braving sub zero temperatures as they cross the border from Macedonia into Serbia.
A sinking boat is seen behind a Turkish gendarme off the coast of Canakkale's Bademli district on January 30, 2016. At least 33 migrants drowned on January 30 when their boat sank in the Aegean Sea while trying to cross from Turkey to Greece.
A general view of a shelter for migrants inside a hangar of the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin, Germany
Refugees protest behind a fence against restrictions limiting passage at the Greek-Macedonian border, near Gevgelija. Since last week, Macedonia has restricted passage to northern Europe to only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans who are considered war refugees. All other nationalities are deemed economic migrants and told to turn back. Macedonia has finished building a fence on its frontier with Greece becoming the latest country in Europe to build a border barrier aimed at checking the flow of refugees
A father and his child wait after being caught by Turkish gendarme on 27 January 2016 at Canakkale's Kucukkuyu district
Migrants make hand signals as they arrive into the southern Spanish port of Malaga on 27 January, 2016 after an inflatable boat carrying 55 Africans, seven of them women and six chidren, was rescued by the Spanish coast guard off the Spanish coast.
A refugee holds two children as dozens arrive on an overcrowded boat on the Greek island of Lesbos
A child, covered by emergency blankets, reacts as she arrives, with other refugees and migrants, on the Greek island of Lesbos, At least five migrants including three children, died after four boats sank between Turkey and Greece, as rescue workers searched the sea for dozens more, the Greek coastguard said
Migrants wait under outside the Moria registration camp on the Lesbos. Over 400,000 people have landed on Greek islands from neighbouring Turkey since the beginning of the year
The bodies of Christian refugees are buried separately from Muslim refugees at the Agios Panteleimonas cemetery in Mytilene, Lesbos
Macedonian police officers control a crowd of refugees as they prepare to enter a camp after crossing the Greek border into Macedonia near Gevgelija
A refugee tries to force the entry to a camp as Macedonian police officers control a crowd after crossing the Greek border into Macedonia near Gevgelija
Refugees are seen aboard a Turkish fishing boat as they arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast to Lesbos
An elderly woman sings a lullaby to baby on a beach after arriving with other refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey
A man collapses as refugees make land from an overloaded rubber dinghy after crossing the Aegean see from Turkey, at the island of Lesbos
A girl reacts as refugees arrive by boat on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey
Refugees make a show of hands as they queue after crossing the Greek border into Macedonia near Gevgelija
People help a wheelchair user board a train with others, heading towards Serbia, at the transit camp for refugees near the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija
Refugees board a train, after crossing the Greek-Macedonian border, near Gevgelija. Macedonia is a key transit country in the Balkans migration route into the EU, with thousands of asylum seekers - many of them from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia - entering the country every day
An aerial picture shows the "New Jungle" refugee camp where some 3,500 people live while they attempt to enter Britain, near the port of Calais, northern France
A Syrian girl reacts as she helped by a volunteer upon her arrival from Turkey on the Greek island of Lesbos, after having crossed the Aegean Sea
Refugees arrive by boat on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey
Beds ready for use for migrants and refugees are prepared at a processing center on January 27, 2016 in Passau, Germany. The flow of migrants arriving in Passau has dropped to between 500 and 1,000 per day, down significantly from last November, when in the same region up to 6,000 migrants were arriving daily.
“Historically, sea crossings tend to decrease in the winter months, but the current situation is so dynamic that it’s difficult to make predictions,” said Abby Dwommoh, a spokeswoman for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Turkey.
As refugees have rushed to the Turkish coast in a last-ditch attempt to reach Europe before winter, the death toll has surged. In 2014, the Turkish coastguard recorded 69 deaths in the Aegean, but in the past month alone 71 refugees died, making September the deadliest month in two years, according to the IOM.
Greek authorities reported more than 100 refugees dead or missing in the last two weeks of September, as several boats capsized in high winds.
Abu Fuad, who claimed none of his customers had died, blamed the deaths on “irresponsible” smugglers operating in Bodrum. “They put 50, 60 people on tiny boats,” he said. One of his brokers chimed in: “We only put 40 people on!” “Fifteen,” Abu Fuad corrected him, with a stern look. Later, however, he admitted that his Turkish boss had ordered him to fill his eight-metre dinghies with 40 to 50 people.
The price offered to ferry refugees from Turkey to Greece
“The Turks don’t see us as human. They see us as money. This is not a man,” he says pointing at his broker. “This is $1,200.” For that reason, Abu Fuad also plans to leave for Europe next year, using what he called “the VIP method”: a forged passport and a plane ticket.
Abu Jihad, another Izmir-based smuggler, already had his ticket to Europe and was winding down his operation. He had heard his colleagues discuss possible winter strategies, from dropping the price to switching to larger boats.
“The small boats are too dangerous now. Some guys are working on getting big ships like last winter,” he said.
However, Ms Dwommoh of the IOM believed that a return of last winter’s “ghost ships”, when smugglers sent thousands of refugees to Italy on old cargo ships, was unlikely. “The border agencies have done a lot to crack down on that,” she said. “But due to the high seas it’s possible that we’ll see an increase in activity at the land borders instead.”
Mahmoud, a Syrian-Palestinian smuggler in Izmir, expected his network’s boat crossings to reduce by around 90 per cent.
“In the summer, we had 300 to 400 people a day. Soon, it will be only 30 or 40,” he said. But with Europe caught in the largest mass migration since the Second World War, it is unlikely that sea crossings will grind to a sudden halt.
According to the UNHCR, more than 475,000 have entered Greece by sea this year, including more than 153,000 in September alone. In all of 2014, the number stood at only 43,500.
Mahmoud believes that even as the weather worsens, some refugees may try their luck – with potentially deadly consequences.
“The weather will be bad, but people will always go. If governments really wanted to do something about this, they would send big ships to take Syrians to Europe,” he said. “I wouldn’t have a job, but it would be better this way.”