Inside Aksaray, Istanbul's human smuggling hub

Aksaray, a neighbourhood in the centre of Istanbul, is the first point of contact for many Syrian refugees looking for help to start a new life. CBC correspondent Nil Köksal takes a revealing look at the sophisticated, multi-billion-dollar human smuggling industry.

Smugglers offer 'all-inclusive' packages to refugees who want to get to Europe and Canada

Aksaray: Istanbul's human smuggling hub

7 years ago
Duration 2:20
Smugglers offer 'all-inclusive' packages to refugees who want to get to Europe and Canada 2:20

"Aksaray, Aksaray, Aksaray," the minibus drivers used to bellow in their baritone Anatolian accents.

The street-level boarding calls — phased out long ago — are still, in a way, being heard by people outside of Turkey, too.

Ever a hub, Istanbul's Aksaray neighbourhood is a magnet for newcomers looking for quick work and what used to be cheap housing.

The square here and its large fountain right outside the metro station are now a critical connection point in what is estimated to be a multi-billion-dollar human smuggling industry here, fuelled by the desperation of refugees — mainly from Syria.

Istanbul's Aksaray neighbourhood is a magnet for newcomers. (Turgut Yeter/CBC News)
Woven in with the locals rushing to where they need to go are parents and children sitting with suitcases on benches.

Men mill about the fountain and the metro entrance. Others huddle in groups on the patches of grass in the park.

In some ways, it is like a scene out of The Wire. But instead of Baltimore junkies and drug dealers, it's refugees and smugglers from several different countries, part of an intricate and highly-skilled network working behind the scenes to forge the documents people need to start fresh. 

Where the deals are done

Within a few minutes, it's clear that this is where the connections are made and the deals are done.

Turkish print journalist Sefik Dinç recently posed as a refugee here to find out more about the nuts and bolts of those deals.

"The easiest part was actually getting a passport," he tells me at his employer's office in Istanbul's Taksim district. 

A fake Finnish passport obtained by Turkish journalist Sefik Dinç. (Sefik Dinç/HABERTURK)
 The price started at 1,000 euros ($1,350 Cdn). Dinç said he couldn't afford that. The smuggler lowered it to 500 euros. An easier bargain to get, he says, because he was asking for a blank passport, with no exit stamps.

The forged credentials made Dinç a citizen of Finland "within two days."

The simplicity of that step can be deceptive.

Desperate for hope

Naim Lezieh used to live in Aleppo, Syria.  He is now in limbo in Istanbul, stuck here for more than half a year now. His wife and children are scattered across Europe. 

Smugglers swindled them out of a total of 32,000 euros ($43,350 Cdn) during several attempts to leave Turkey.

"You're looking for a light of hope and they say 'we're going to save you, we can do anything,'" Lezieh says, explaining how the smugglers gained their trust.

Naim Lezieh's family is split in three and scattered around the world. (Turgut Yeter/CBC NEWS)
"I made an agreement with a person in Aksaray," Lezieh tells me from his tiny room at the church that is sheltering him.

"They took us to Marmaris and from there with a yacht, they were supposedly going to take us to a Greek island.  We went, we paid the money and they ran away. They left us there."

Lezieh and his family were spotted by police but they managed to avoid arrest and returned to Istanbul.

The second attempt was more successful — but far from a happy ending. Lezieh didn't have enough money left for everyone, so he sent his wife and children and he stayed behind.

His wife and three children made it to Athens together, but were separated when authorities detained her.

Their oldest daughter — just 15 years old — went on to Germany by herself.

Lezieh's wife, younger daughter and six-year-old son are still in Greece.

Lezieh's third attempt to join them failed.  "Again, the money was lost," he says.

If you don't have money, he says, the smugglers have another solution. They offer refugees work, promising to pay them 50 euros ($67.50 Cdn) for every refugee they can convince to sign on with a smuggler.

An 'all-inclusive' package

Like Lezieh, the majority of Syrian refugees are looking to land in European Union countries.  Many have friends, family or contacts there and they believe stability and job opportunities will await them there that will guarantee them a better life.

For those reasons and based on his research, Dinç says Germany is at the top of many refugee wish lists. Scandinavian countries are a close second — their social assistance programs are a big draw, Dinç says.

Where does Canada factor in?  How much would it cost?

"Compared to Europe, Canada is lower on the list.  But there are still people who want to go to Canada," Dinç says the smuggler told him.

The complete, all-inclusive package from a fake passport and other documents for a flight to Canada — $15,000.

It is an expensive risk, and even with the chance of being caught, airline travel is seen as the safest option.

Those who can't afford multiple plane tickets for their families choose to make the now infamous ferry crossing to Europe.

In April, 800 migrants drowned off the coast of Italy in the deadliest shipwreck ever recorded on the Mediterranean.  The International Organization for Migration says the number of deaths this year is 30 times higher than in 2014.

Last month, a Turkish court handed down 30-year sentences to four people convicted of being involved in a separate deadly ferry incident in the Aegean in 2013.

'Legitimate' business

Dinç says some smugglers believe they are doing good deeds and feel they are legitimate businessmen. "The guy says 'actually, the government should give us a break, turn a blind eye. In a way, I see myself as a [legitimate] exporter.'''

Lezieh now knows there was nothing legitimate about the smugglers he was robbed by, but he knew he was taking a risk. 

Why would he so willingly put so much at risk?

His eyes barely dry from remembering everything they left behind in Syria, and what it took to get here, he answers, "We're already dead."


Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey in 2018.


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