Ghost Ships Turkey Becomes Springboard for Syrians Heading to Europe

Turkey has become a hub for human traffickers, with freighters picking up Syrians in the port city and smuggling them on to Europe. It's a lucrative business built on the hardships of others.

The short man told Sherko that he always had to be prepared. That's why Sherko is now sitting on the bed in his fluorescent-lit hotel room in Mersin, a port city on the southern coast of Turkey. He has packed the backpack next to him with the items he needs for his trip to freedom: 10 Snickers bars, canned tuna fish, perfume, a razor, dried figs, dental floss and a sponge for cleaning his shoes.

Sherko, 27, is from Damascus. He has a thin face, black hair and a beard. He has just finished law school, he likes singing Arab songs and he knows how to make the caps on beer bottles fly through the air when he opens them. He and 13 friends from the same neighborhood in Damascus have come to Mersin together. They include opticians, computer scientists, students and a man who works at a car rental agency. The youngest is 18 and the eldest is 45. Most are Syrian Kurds, and they have all fled to avoid military service.

Sherko is arranging his things in his backpack when the mobile phone of one of his friends rings. It's the short man who was hired to smuggle them out of Damascus so that they could start new lives elsewhere. They don't know his name, so they just call him the short man. "It's time to go," the man says. "We're going out to the ship." Sherko grabs the backpack, puts on his cap, throws his prayer chain around his neck and runs off with the others.

The freighter, which has been anchored a few nautical miles off Mersin for the last five days and is scheduled to continue sailing to Italy, will only wait for them one more night. This evening is their last chance. If they don't reach the ship, because of bad weather or coast guard patrols, they will have to wait weeks before the next ship arrives.

Sherko and his friends have been in Mersin for a month now. They pass their time playing cards in the bare hotel room, with its old carpeting and a neon sign outside the window. The short man has called them several times, and they have rushed out to meet him each time. Only once did they come close enough to see the freighter, a 60-meter vessel the color of rust. But then they were discovered by the coast guard and forced to turn around.

Sherko paid $2,000 (€1,760) for the voyage. Small, relatively unseaworthy boats usually sail from Libya or Egypt. The advantage of departing from Mersin is that larger ships and old freighters, which also sail in the winter, travel to the port.

Sherko returns only 10 minutes after rushing out of the room. He pulls open the door, throws his cap into a corner, opens two drawers and slams them shut again. His friend Saham, wearing a thick wool sweater, drops onto the bed. Another friend, Jon, wearing three pairs of trousers, tosses a handful of nuts into his mouth. "Shit!" the men shout. "Shit!" Once again, the short man has gathered them all together and then cancelled the trip, without explaining why.

A Brutal But Lucrative Business

It's been two months since Sherko and his friends left Damascus. Sherko says that he didn't want to kill anyone, which might have happened if he had been drafted and forced to fight for the regime. Twenty-two of his friends have already died in the Syrian civil war. His father sold the family home for $4,000 to pay for the trip. When he left, Sherko hugged his parents, his three siblings and the cat. "Will we see you again?" his mother asked. "Inshallah," Sherko replied. God willing. He wept and left his family.

They traveled in a minibus, bribing the soldiers at checkpoints. In Beirut, they boarded a flight to the Turkish city of Adana, and from there they traveled to Mersin on the coast. They were greeted by a man working for the short man, whom they had contacted through Facebook. That was also where Sherko later saw photos of the two freighters, the Blue Sky M and the Ezadeen, which had taken more than 1,000 refugees to Italy in late December. One of the travelers had taken a selfie of himself on the Ezadeen. It looked easy and safe. "Hurry up," the contact from Mersin wrote, using WhatsApp. "The ship sails in two days."

This is Sherko's first time in Turkey, where 1.6 million Syrian refugees have now found accommodation. They don't need a visa, and Turkish authorities are expected to issue a limited number of work permits soon. Still, says Sherko, he doesn't feel welcome. "We want to go to Germany to work," he says. There are 60,000 Syrians stranded in Mersin, which has become a new center for human trafficking since the land route via Greece became more difficult. The dreams of refugees like Sherko have created a brutal but lucrative business here in Mersin.

The short man's helper brought the Syrians from the airport to the hotel, which is at the main bus station. They met the short man, a slender Syrian with protruding blue eyes and light brown hair, in the lobby. He didn't say much, but he was to become their only contact over the next few weeks. The man didn't tell Sherko that the network of traffickers consists of both Syrians and Turks, that each person has different responsibilities and that he is only a tiny link at the end of a long chain.

It's Syrian smugglers who cast the net and constantly recruit new passengers. They create the Facebook pages and publish telephone numbers people can call to book their journeys. Then they pick up the passengers, house them and take them to the shore. The Turks load the refugees into fishing boats and take them out to the freighters, which are anchored in international waters 12 to 15 nautical miles off the coast. A large ship can remain at anchor for five days without running into trouble from local authorities.

The short man told Sherko that $2,000 (€1,765) was a good price. The trip on one of the two freighters, the Ezadeen or the Blue Sky M, costs between €5,000 and €8,000. Sherko had read on Facebook that the price depends on whether there are police checks, what the weather is like and how difficult it is for the shuttle boat to reach the freighters. He was told that his money would be refunded if the trip didn't work out. The refugee business has clear rules, but in the end it is based on trust. And what choice did Sherko have but to trust his trafficker?

The road east out of Mersin passes through fields and orange plantations. In Karaduvar, a fishing village, Murdock is standing next to the quay wall. He is wearing a fisherman's cap, and the word "Player" is printed in big letters on his sweater. It's his nickname, he says, and it's based on one of the main characters in the "A-Team" TV series. Murdock, a Turk, is one of the men to whom the trafficker will bring Sherko. He's the next link in the chain.

Making a Business Out of the Hardships of Others

"I organize the boats that go out to the big ships," says Murdock, a composed man who rarely smiles. He walks up the steps to a restaurant where a violinist is playing on the upper floor and a man is singing in Arabic. He orders Raki and fried fish. He will spend the next four hours talking about his life and the trafficking business.

Murdock, 45, is from central Anatolia. He used to smuggle cigarettes into the barracks for soldiers, and he has also sold diesel fuel tax-free on the high seas. Then he entered the refugee smuggling business, taking Iraqis and Palestinians to Cyprus. He has always made a business out of the hardships of others. Then the Syrians arrived.

He had a large cargo four weeks ago, says Murdock: 400 refugees brought to Mersin from all over Turkey by various Syrian traffickers. He says that he met the group and, shortly before midnight, had them picked up by fishermen at three different locations along the coast and taken out to the freighter. But he too has taken the refugees out with his boat on two occasions, he adds. "They danced and clapped after their departure," says Murdock. "They had been waiting for that moment for so long."

Murdock doesn't know the names of the ships. But it is quite possible that one of the freighters was the Blue Sky M or the Ezadeen.

According to shipping registers and traffic systems, the Blue Sky M, an 81-meter (265-foot) vessel owned by Romanian shipping company Info Market SRL, departed from Körfez in northeast Turkey on Dec. 14, 2014, allegedly bound for Croatia. It passed through the Sea of Marmara and, starting on Dec. 20, began traveling erratically and at high speeds in waters between the southern Turkish coast and Cyprus. On Dec. 21, between 2:22 a.m. and 8:00 p.m., the ship was located south of Silifke, near Mersin, traveling at only 0.5 knots, slowly enough to take passengers on board. For two days it sailed along a curved route toward Syria and back. On Dec. 31, it reached Italy with 797 refugees on board. The captain, a Syrian, tried to blend in with the refugees, but he was discovered and detained.

During his interrogation in the Italian city of Lecce, Sarkas Rani said that he had been hired under the pretense of carrying a cargo of lumber and iron to Egypt. He said that after delivering the cargo, he had been called to Mersin, where he was forced to transport refugees to Italy. But there are many indications that Rani was lying. According to investigators, he had downloaded weather information prior to his departure, and he had also taken selfies of himself on the ship and taken relatives from Syria on board.

The Ezadeen, a so-called ghost ship, completed a similar voyage. The 74-meter livestock transport ship, with a Syrian captain and eight crewmembers on board, departed from the Cypriot port of Famagusta on Dec. 10. Because the on-board tracking system had been switched off, the Ezadeen did not transmit any data for the next few days. Shipping experts suspect that the freighter was in Syria during that time. On Dec. 22, the ship was drifting off the northern coast of Cyprus, south of Mersin. It didn't transmit any signals for five days -- until Jan. 1, when it arrived in Italy with 359 refugees on board.

'I'm Doing the Syrians a Favor'

Because the coast guard primarily monitors shipping traffic farther west, toward Greece, smugglers have shifted their activities eastward.

Murdock squeezes a lemon over his fish and pours some more Raki. He has become more talkative. "I'm doing the Syrians a favor," he says. New refugees are entering the country every day, and there are now simply too many of them, even for Turkey. The authorities in Mersin are not seriously trying to stop the trafficking activities, he says. In fact, he adds, the police and coast guard accept bribes for information and for looking the other way.

According to Murdock, the smuggling ships are 65 to 85 meters long and can carry 800 people. They are either unlicensed or are sold for a song under the table. Or they are licensed freighters owned by shipping companies that only exist on paper -- ghost companies for ghost ships. There is no sign of Uni Marine Management, the company that supposedly owns the Ezadeen, in Tripoli, Libya, where it is allegedly headquartered. No one there has heard of the company, either.

Suddenly Murdock's brother comes rushing into the restaurant in Karaduvar. He has bad news, he says. The coast guard has busted a trafficking ring that had been taking refugees on board a ship in the harbor since the early evening -- in full view of the fishing village. That was apparently too brazen for the authorities.

Waiting for the Voyage to Freedom

"My men keep an eye on the place for a week before one of my boats leaves Karaduvar," says Murdock. The men he refers to are 10 villagers who sit in their cars at night, drinking beer. If the police show up, they jump out and start fighting to distract the officers. If everything is quiet, the men call Murdock and say: "The weather is good. You can go fishing."

Then Murdock calls the captain of the large ship. One of the leaders of the trafficking ring is usually on land and simultaneously dispatches a middleman, known as the "Tutu." The Tutu has half of the passengers' money in his pocket. The refugees contact him once they have arrived on the large ship, and only then does he pay the money to Murdock and his crew -- about $1,000 to $1,500 for each refugee.

Each day, Sherko waits for a call from the short man, who in turn is waiting for a call from middlemen like Murdock, who are waiting for a call from the captain.

On the next day, Sherko feels confident enough to venture out of the hotel for two hours. He walks along the shore, wearing a purple sweater and jeans, with the volume turned up on the iPhone in his pocket. He is thinking about the ship he saw a few days ago -- the vessel that has probably left again by now, headed for Italy. The sea is rough, but Sherko already knows that, because he looked up today's wave heights with an app called SeaConditions. The short man, who also uses it, had told him about the app.

Sherko is restless. He has just quarreled with a friend who thinks he shouldn't leave the hotel, because he might miss the call. But Sherko says he doesn't want to wait any longer. He hasn't washed his jeans and his sweater in a month, worried that the short man will call and his clothes will still be wet when his voyage to freedom begins.

By Onur Burçak Belli, Manfred Ertel, Hasnain Kazim, Katrin Kuntz and Walter Mayr

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan