al-Khal "The Uncle"

Age: 38

Interviewed in: Izmir, Turkey

Date: September 20, 2015

Damascus, Syria
Izmir, Turkey

© Loubna Mrie

A version of this interview was published in The New Republic

“I just sent four boats to Greece,” a calm voice boasts on the other end of the phone line. “I've got ten thousand dollars in my pocket.” His customers know him as Malik al-Behar (The King of the Shores) or simply as al-Khal (The Uncle), a 38-year old Syrian who has built a sizeable human smuggling operation here in the ancient Turkish port of Izmir.

al-Khal organizes two to three trips a day to the Greek island of Lesvos, about 8 miles away from Turkish shores. He fits 30 to 50 people a raft and charges $1,000 to $1,500 a person. Each crossing costs him between $10,000 and $15,000. In the past two years, he claims to have made more than $2 million.

With nearly 400,000 people arriving illegally in Greek shores this year, the refugee crisis has been good to him. And he is not alone: the underground economy of human smuggling is thriving. According to some calculations, there are up to 2,000 fellow smugglers in the Aegean port, while the trade on European territory is thought to employ up to 30,000 people.

We meet at a café overlooking the beautiful bay in this, Turkey's third largest city. al-Khal shows off some of his merchandise, fake Turkish, Syrian, and European ID cards driver's licenses, and passports on his cell phone. Once trained as a detective specializing in forging documents, al-Khal assures us he sells some for up to several thousand Euros.

Before he was the King of the Shores, al-Khal was an officer in the Syrian military, rising through the police ranks to become a two-star general. As the Syrian war evolved, however, his appetite for profit gradually led him down a different path. In April of 2012, he received orders to shoot at peaceful demonstrators in the outskirts of Damascus, and chose instead to defect, along with 50 of his subordinates and join the Free Syrian Army in Homs. Once in rebel territory, he opened a weapons factory, which he says he still runs, supplying RPGs, GRAV missiles, sniper telescopic sights, Kalashnikovs, 9mm pistols, and other weaponry to a number of actors fighting in the brutal conflict. Al-Khal continues to fund an FSA brigade, though he considers the rebel forces to be in disarray and left the fighting behind in 2014 after suffering a serious injury in combat.

As we sip our Turkish coffees, al-Khal gets a call from an associate who informs him that 500 people trying to cross the land border with Greece close to Edirne have been turned back to Istanbul by Turkish police. He can't hold back a mischievous grin: a safe overland route would spell the end of his business.

He strides confidently and greets his agents on the streets as he walks us up Fevsi Pasha Boulevard in central Izmir to Basmane, the neighborhood where hundreds of refugees huddle on the sidewalks waiting for a smuggler to take them to sea. On one corner, a young man is helping his elderly mother try on a bright orange life jacket sold by a street peddler. You can find ones like it at most of the stores on the boulevard, even fashionable men's clothing outlets. They are manufactured in Izmir and not quite up to safety standards. Inflatable pneumatic tubes, waterproof pouches, and external smartphone chargers are also in good supply. Sordid hotels in Basmane offer a night's stay at inflated prizes, although many people simply set up precarious camps on the sidewalks, the squares, and the courtyard of the neighborhood's central mosque. A handwritten sign in Arabic adorns a tree: “We buy Syrian gold.”

The Uncle speaks quietly into our audio recorder telling us the story of his life and trade. He appears somewhat concerned about his safety, and asks to remain anonymous, but also relishes the attention and the opportunity to present himself as a benefactor to his clients. His tendency to boast, however, makes us take some details of his story with a grain of salt. Just as he indulges in his penchant for exaggeration he also merely hints at other aspects of his business like the bribes he is forced to pay to Turkish law enforcement agents in order to operate. He begins with a key event in his life, his defection from the Assad regime:

Why did you wait until 2012 to defect?

In the beginning, there was not so much serious killing. We were using other methods: tear gas and those types of things. It was only in 2012 that we started to get direct instructions to kill people.

Why didn't you stay with the FSA?

The revolution is very chaotic. It is not organized. But this is not the main reason I left. The main reason is that I was injured in the suburbs of Hama. I was forced to go to Turkey to get treatment. When I was getting treatment in Turkey, they closed the border and the roads to Homs. While I was in Reyhanli, in Hatay, I started to get involved in the smuggling trade. My cousin was working in the business in Mersin, so I was helping him by sending people from Reyhanli [on the border with Syria] to Mersin. My cousin used to have a boat to take the people from Mersin directly to Italy. We organized nine trips, each time transporting around 150 people. We didn't lose a boat.

How much did he used to charge per person?

Roughly $10,000 dollars.

Where is your cousin now?

In Germany. When my cousin left to Germany I had to leave Mersin, because the Turkish government started to clamp down on human smuggling in Mersin. After that I came to Izmir to start my business again.

Do you need to a pay off Turkish people to do your business or can you control it on your own?

The Turkish government doesn't really get involved in this. But civilian individuals do get involved.

Who are those civilians?

The people who own the land that we use as point of departure for the boats. When you want to send a boat you have to first make a deal with the landowner. They get paid for every trip: $5,000, sometimes $6,0000, sometimes $8,000 dollars.

Tell me more about your expenses.

My work is special. I can send you the messages I receive from my clients when they reach Greece. I am really honest with people. That is why I am very popular here and I get more than 1,500 calls a day. I have six phones. My employees answer all the phone calls. And by the way, while we are sitting here my bodyguards are all around us. I have thirteen men who are keeping an eye on this place right now.

I bring the rubber boats from Europe. The price, including the motor, is $8000 dollars. I know I can get a cheaper prize, but I am concerned about the safety of my people. My reputation is the only thing I have. Other smugglers put 60 people on the boat. I try the keep the number below 45. When it comes to safety, I don't even trust my own people to tell me what is going on, I try to contact the refugees directly to ask them how many are going on the boat. And that's why I let them open the boxes. I also pay 500 dollars in total for the shipping, from Europe to Istanbul, and from Istanbul to the point of departure.

Roughly $10,000 dollars.

Every trip costs me between 10,000-15000 dollars. I have other expenses I cannot tell you about, around 5,000 per trip. And I charge 1,200 for every passenger.

Have you ever run into any trouble with the Turkish authorities or the police?

Well, we try our best to no get involved with them. We try not to make them angry.

Have you personally ever had problems with the Turkish police?

I am in a position of management. I have my employees who take care of things. My employees are in charge of taking the migrants to the points and putting them on the boats. They are 35 in total, and I pay them 1000 dollars a month each. I have a translator, an accountant, bodyguards, people responsible for getting migrants on the boats, taxi drivers, people to arrange for the hotels.

Sometimes I feel like I'm running a company.

So there is no way for us to see a boat depart?

Well, you could, but I will not be responsible for your safety. I'm sure the Turks would detain you if they saw you taking pictures there, because they treat those points as military territories. They are always protected by more than 50 armed men.

What kinds of people call you asking for your services?

All kinds of people. Everyone who is able to get asylum can go from here. For example: Iranians from Ahva, Iraqis, Pakistanis. People from any country where there is an armed conflict are able to get asylum and they can leave from Izmir.

What was the oddest phone call you've received?

A Syrian journalist who used to be on TV all the time talking about how the rebels would defeat the government and how they would kill all the Alawites. One day he called me and asked me for help to go to Europe. He was receiving death threats. After he reached Hungary he called me again and he told me had been mugged and all his money had been stolen. So I sent one of my guys there to help him out.

We ask al-Khal what he thinks about the business in Bodrum, the other main hub for smuggling in Turkey, 150 miles south of Izmir. The scenic coast in the Bodrum peninsula—one of Turkey's most sought after tourist destinations—is now tragically famous for the photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose drowned body washed ashore on a Bodrum beach earlier this summer.

I don't recommend anyone to travel from Bodrum because there are strong currents there. All the sinking has happened there. My point is very special and close to the Greek islands. It only takes 20 minutes to cross. I send my people to Mytilene (Lesvos).

Bodrum, and the other points on the Aegean coast are very dangerous. On those points the boat is able to hold 40 men. But most smugglers there load almost 70 people onto the boats. But here in Izmir shipwrecks are very rare. Most people who leave from Izmir reach Greek land safely.

Do you organize trips during the day?

Yes, I don't like to travel at night, only during the day.

Until when do you think you will be a smuggler?

I am doing other things. I am in the investment business as well. There are only ten days left in this season to organize maritime crossings. After those ten days I am going to focus more on my investment business. I am trying to open something new: like a mall or a big restaurant.

How much money do you have?

That is none of your business. After you finish recording I will tell you. I have so much money but I try to donate as much as I can to Syria. And I have other investments as well in several Turkish cities. I have small restaurants, one in Reyhanli, one in Antakya as well as a carwash in Antalya.

Do you send children on the boats?

Yes, I try to help everyone. When I see someone whose money was stolen by a smuggler, I try to help him and send him for free.

Why do you think that the Turkish police are not trying to stop the smuggling?

In the beginning the Turkish government was getting lots of benefits because of the Syrian refugees: All the aid and funding for the Syrian people in Turkey used to come through the Turkish government. You have to understand also that some Syrians came to stay in Turkey. They sold everything they had and they came to spend it here in Turkey. It's very expensive to live here

Recently, Turks started to feel that the Syrian refugees were not so good for the country, especially after the bombing in Reyhanli and the chaos on the border. And the Kurds started to attack the Turkish government again. And all this chaos was due in part to the Syrian refugees.

So when the Syrians decide to leave Turkey, the Turkish government is not going to stop them. It's a way out of the problem, especially now that the Turkish economy is taking a downturn. The Turkish government just turns a blind eye on the smuggling. There are 1.5 million Syrians registered as refugees with the government. But most Syrians here don't have IDs and are not registered with the government. So probably we have 2 or 2.5 million Syrians in the country.

There is lots of chaos. If there is a bombing or something, they started to blame Syrians and start to attack them. That's why the Turkish government is trying to reduce the number of refugees here so they can restore order, especially in the border towns.

Don't you think the EU is pushing Turkey to control their borders?

No. Europe wants the Syrians. In my opinion, Syria before the war had a very good and secure situation. You could travel anywhere in the country and no one would stop and ask for your ID. As a former police officer I can tell you that Syria was a very safe place. The West made this revolution; it did not come from the people. I don't believe in the Arab spring. I don't believe it was the people's decision. I think this is the West's plan to control the Middle East. Looked what happened in Lybia, which is divided now in three parts. And also look at Egypt: You can see the chaos everywhere in the country. Look at what is going on in Iraq. Look at the Middle East, how it is all divided now: This is exactly what the West wants. They want the big countries to be divided so that they will be easier to control in the future.

Now the West wants to empty Syria of its young men. And everyone wants to leave, which is understandable considering that most of Syria is now under the poverty line. So, sure, the people will leave and go to Europe after all these tempting salaries the West is providing. They are providing a house, salaries: freedom. What do you expect from people whose biggest dream before was a trip to Lebanon? Now they have a chance to go to Europe or Sweden. Yes, of course they will do it. Most of the Syrians who have made it are just sitting there doing nothing. They spend their time on Facebook and playing cards and in nightclubs with girls. At the end of the month they get money from the government.

Why are you helping the people to go then?

I am helping them because if I didn't, they would just find another smuggler. I am not able to change their minds. If all those pictures of the people drowning couldn't change their minds, I am not able to change their minds. Look at my Facebook page: all my status updates are about how we should not leave our land, not go to Europe.

And there's also the money of course.