As the day surrenders to darkness, Aksaray Square in the Turkish capital city, Istanbul, becomes a launchpad for the dreams of hundreds of Iraqis and Syrians desperately seeking a better life in Europe. The neighbourhood of Aksaray – or the small city of Arabs, as Turkish locals call it – looks like any busy neighbourhood in Baghdad or Damascus, with its cheap cafes and hotels filled with Arabs. And it is there that people smugglers meet with their clients to negotiate fares, and from there too, that would-be refugees are taken to the coast in order to make the illegal and perilous sea crossing to European shores.
I met there with three young men originally from the city of Mosul in northern Iraq; Mosul was taken over by the extremist group known as the Islamic State in June 2014 and has been controlled by the group ever since. Life is not good for residents of Mosul who don't agree with the draconian philosophy of the Islamic State, or IS, group and many locals have tried to escape. These three young men are among them and one of them is a friend, a journalist named Abdul Muhaymin Bassel. When we met, the trio had already negotiated with a Syrian people smuggler and were supposed to meet him near the train station in Aksaray Square.
“From death...to death,” Abdul called to me, joking as he climbed aboard.
The people smuggler had told them to buy life jackets, rain coats and to carry only a small sports bag of their belongings. These are the only things allowed on the boats that will be used to carry them from Turkey to Greece. The items are sold everywhere here, with pictures displayed on signs outside dozens of small shops in lanes around Aksaray Square.
The people smuggler's name is Tariq and he is in his late thirties. By the time he meets my friends, he has collected all of his clients for this journey after making a series of telephone calls. He left nine of them, including the three from Mosul, standing in the Square while another five were taken to an empty space underneath a bridge where he negotiated payment and departure dates in relative privacy. Prices are set by Tariq, who is successful, a big name in local smuggling circles, and non-negotiable – it costs US$1,300 for the trip and this includes the bus to the coast. Other people smugglers charge more per person – between US$2,500 and US$3,000 – and they say the would-be migrants will cross on a bigger boat. But this can often be a more complex process as the bigger boats are more likely to be stopped by the coastguard. Cheap rubber boats are faster and tend to encounter less official resistance, even though they are also more dangerous.
To hide his clients, Tariq divides them into three groups before they begin walking to the bus that will take them to the coast.
Tariq wouldn't allow me to travel on the bus with my friends. And Abdul waved goodbye as he boarded the bus. “From death...to death,” the 25-year-old called to me, joking as he climbed aboard. He was referring to the fact that he and his friends, Omar, 22, and Moheb, 30, had all escaped death in Mosul, where the IS group have killed many local journalists, but that they were now facing death again, as they attempted to get to Europe. They have left their families behind in Iraqi Kurdistan and also in Turkey. How Abdul sees it: This voyage is just another journey, another adventure, that he must survive.
At around 10pm the bus left, heading for Izmir on the Turkish coast. Abdul promises to keep in touch with me by phone and Internet.
Rumour has it there are gangs on the road preying on migrants, stealing their money and sometimes even body parts.
The bus drove for nearly five hours, Abdul told me later, and Tariq got off and on at short stops. More passengers joined the bus, including women and children, and Tariq would also stop and talk to drivers of small cars he met with on the road – Abdul assumed they were lookouts. “It was like we were being kidnapped,” Abdul said, referring to rumours that there were gangs on the road preying on migrants, stealing their money, possessions and sometimes even body parts, before dumping the corpses in remote areas.
The bus stopped in a dark and lonely place and the smugglers ordered the passengers off the bus, telling them to switch off their cellphones and not to make any noise. In one long line they all walked through a ghostly forest for about an hour. When they got near the coast, they were told to wait. The smugglers could see the lights of the Turkish coastguard but they were waiting for a signal of their own too.
As soon as they received that signal, they swung into rapid action, inflating a rubber boat, attaching an outboard motor to it, as well as tyres and ropes. Then they set off for Greece – there were 49 people on the boat, which was about ten meters long.
And these migrants were lucky. They made it without any problems, Abdul told me later. “And when we got to Greece they gave us food and water, with a smile,” he says. From the coast of Greece, the trio of ex-Mosul locals were on their own. Abdul says the refugees share information with another continuously on social media and on messaging apps. He says their next moves were guided by one message telling them that the borders to Croatia are open but that there might be potential delays at the borders to Slovenia. “Be aware that the authorities may try and take you to the Hungarian border. To get to Croatia, buy a ten Euro ticket to the Serbian town of Šid then walk into Croatia. The nearest village is Tovarnik. There you will find help,” the message said.
After two days of non stop travelling, the three friends shared a hotel room for the night before moving onto Athens the following night, then to Thessaloniki on the border of Greece and Macedonia. At the train station there, Abdul estimates there were about 600 others trying to catch a train. The train, when they finally got on it, stopped at the last station on the Serbian border and then they joined a crowd of others and walked about another ten kilometres. The trio panicked when they saw Serbian troops – but in fact, Abdul reports, the soldiers were kind and told them which way to go. Then followed a taxi ride, a bus ride and then another taxi ride until the group reached Belgrade.
From Belgrade, they took a bus to the Croatian border, walked for five hours in a mountainous area and then at the Croatian border were hoping to catch the train. But the messages on social media were not private. “And we were so surprised to see about a thousand people all at the station waiting for the same train,” Abdul adds. The train was supposed to go to Slovenia and then Austria but instead it detoured to Hungary. Rumours about how harshly the Hungarian authorities treated migrants made everyone panic, as well as stories about how being an illegal immigrant could get you thrown into a Hungarian prison for three years – but their fears turned out to be baseless. After waiting several hours at the Hungarian border, the migrants were told that they could catch the next train to Austria, which would seat as many as 1,400 people and they were also offered a free lunch.
Many Iraqis who made the dangerous journey to Europe have decided their lives were better back home and they want to return.
Seven hours later, the trio were in Vienna. And it was here that they say they first felt some relief and some sense of the freedom they had so desperately been seeking, Abdul says. In Vienna they were told they could stay in Austria but that they were also free to leave. The trio decided they wanted to go to Sweden and after spending a night in one of the refugee camps in Germany, they travelled onwards. All three are now in Sweden applying for asylum.
Speaking to Abdul on Skype in Sweden, he is filled with optimism and describes the 13-day voyage as one of the most dangerous and most important in his life. He says that he and his friends were very lucky to have made it because they know plenty of other Iraqis who haven't been able to make this journey – either they were stopped by security services, or their boat floundered (leading, in some cases, to fatalities) or they were tricked by people smugglers.
However, Abdul counters, since arriving in Europe he and his friends have also met plenty of Iraqis who say they want to return to Iraq, or who are seriously thinking about doing that. Ahmed Jamal, the spokesperson for the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirms this, saying that 7,500 temporary passports have been sent to Iraqi missions in Europe in order to facilitate the return of Iraqis who want to come back voluntarily, who had changed their minds about staying in Europe; widely publicized decisions by some European governments meant that Iraqis didn't want to stay, and the passports were sent because often applying for asylum involves surrendering one's own passport.
Speaking to other Iraqis in Scandinavia who are hoping for asylum in Europe, it becomes clear that many of them realise that their situation is somewhat precarious. Those from the south and from the north of Iraq may have lost hope that their lives will ever get better in Iraq and there may be ongoing daily dangers to survive. But in general they are not considered to be in as much danger as, say, Syrians or Palestinians who are applying for asylum. Many of these Iraqis will eventually be denied asylum. Some Iraqis have eventually discovered that their lives in Iraq were actually much better than they seemed to be in northern Europe, where they cannot speak the language, are unemployed and dependent on local bureaucracy.
As yet my friend Abdul is not one of these Iraqis. Despite any hardships Abdul, who is currently in Malmo, Sweden, with a temporary residency permit, may face, he says he will not go back to Iraq - unless he is forced to.