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[dropcap size=small]The ongoing Syrian conflict has led to the displacement of millions of Syrians and the continuation of a life of uncertainty despite the prospect of a better life in a new country. Many are subject to exploitation at the hands of human traffickers and smugglers and even politicians.

Smugglers often have little regard for safe transport, leading many Syrians to drown while traveling by sea to European Union (EU) countries. While at least a portion of international aid for the Syrian refugees is exposed to corruption, some host countries, such as Turkey, use the refugees to leverage power with EU countries.

Ongoing conflicts in Syria have taken a devastating toll on the country’s people. So far, 11 million Syrians have fled their homes.[1] Most Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring countries and in more distant EU countries. Turkey is the most generous country, hosting 3.1 million Syrians, followed by 1 million in Lebanon, 660,000 in Jordan, and 242,000 in Iraq. The number of Syrian asylum seekers in EU countries is 996,000.[2]

In terms of smuggling and trafficking, Turkey has been a hotbed of activity. The country’s geographic location bridging Asia and the Middle East with EU countries helps to facilitate smuggling and trafficking operations. Also at play are endemic corruption within Turkey’s customs and law enforcement units, the country’s proximity to conflict regions such as Iraq and Syria, pervasive corruption in neighboring countries that leads to ineffective law enforcement cooperation, and porous Turkish borders. Of particular concern is human smuggling. Asian, African, and Middle Eastern illegal immigrants—Syrians in particular—have been smuggled on a route through Turkey and on to a variety of European countries.

Turkish human smuggling groups are active in global human smuggling networks. These groups began operating transnationally in the 1990s. In the past, Turkish groups took an active role in smuggling Chinese illegal immigrants through Jordan, Syria, and Turkey and then cooperated with Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Iraqi, Iranian, and Greek smugglers[3] en route to EU destinations. Today, the objective is to transfer Middle Eastern immigrants to EU countries in conjunction with mainly Iranian and Syrian smugglers. These prominent and well-functioning smuggling networks have attracted African illegal immigrants who have been alternatively transferred through Iranian and Turkish routes. The Mauritanian and Somalian illegal immigrants caught in Turkey show the diversity and broad scope of the networks used by Turkish smuggling groups.[4]

Well-networked human smuggling groups in the region have eased the smuggling of Syrians into EU countries as well. As seen in Figure 1, smugglers in Turkey use both sea and land routes to transport Syrians. A sea route that stops in four western Turkish cities along the coast of the Aegean Sea is the smugglers’ preferred option.

Figure 1. Routes used in the smuggling of Syrians. Source: Vox[5]
According to the Turkish statistics, around 3.5 million Syrians have found their way into Turkey, costing the country $25 billion so far on housing and other services.[6] Roughly 10% of these individuals live in refugee camps.[7]

The integration of Syrian refugees into the Turkish population has been problematic.  Although they have been in Turkey since 2011, Syrians face an increasingly negative social reaction that includes occasional demonstrations and attempts to lynch the refugees. The refugees are not well-educated, and their large numbers have created a huge burden for Turkish economy. For example, the Syrian refugees receive free health care services at Turkish hospitals. Their exploitation in the labor market has caused unemployment among Turks to rise. With no other options, the refugees are forced to work for low wages at jobs that otherwise would have been available to Turks but at a higher wage. A sizeable number of Syrians also lack adequate housing and beg in the streets.

Economic exploitation, however, is just one aspect of the plight Syrians face in Turkey. On the promise of marriage, some underage Syrians in refugee camps have been sold to Turkish customers. When they are divorced, the Syrians cannot go back to the refugee camps and are forced by the traffickers to work as prostitutes. The number of Syrians involved in prostitution has skyrocketed in Turkey.

Syrians in Turkey often have little education and live in economically poor communities, conditions that could push Syrians to commit crimes. As it has been seen in other diaspora communities in developed countries, the Syrians in Turkey are likely to engage in transnational trafficking. Statistics confirm that supposition. Data show that Syrians are more involved in drug trafficking than any other foreign minority group. For example, Syrians control 80% of the Captagon (one of several brand names for the drug compound fenethylline hydrochloride, an amphetamine) market in Turkey.[8] By 2014, Syrians comprised 86% of all foreign traffickers arrested in Turkey.[9] They also dominate the fraud and counterfeit-money sectors in Turkey and have become increasingly involved in robbery, prostitution, and the trafficking of antiquities.

The illegal immigration of Syrians is one of the most serious issues facing not only Turkey but also other European countries. The lack of a vetting system, the probable propensity of Syrians to commit crimes, terrorism cases linked to Syrian individuals in European countries, and the potential economic burden of Syrian refugees all contribute to the reluctance of EU countries to host Syrians.

Faced with these issues, EU countries are under pressure to stem the influx of Syrians into member nations. It is a difficult task, as the number of Syrians who want to immigrate far exceeds the asylum capacity of the individual countries. Tragedies such as the drowning of Syrians, including children (see figure 2), along with the harsh attitude of customs officials and law enforcement officers toward Syrians in EU countries have tarnished the international image of the EU. Added pressure for individual EU members to accept Syrian refugees comes from EU countries Germany, which has accepted more than 300,000 refugees, and Sweden, which has accepted around 100,000 refugees.[10]

Figure 2. A drowned Syrian child. Source: New York Times[11]
Data also show that of the 856,273 illegal immigrants who traveled from Turkey to the Greek islands in 2015, 56% were Syrians.[12] In the same year, Turkey caught 30,889 illegal immigrants,[13] which translates into the capture of one immigrant out of every 27 immigrants. As a result, European countries that were fearful of a massive influx of Syrian immigrants made it a priority to prevent the smuggling of Syrians into Europe. The EU’s response was to strike a deal with Turkey in 2016. According to the deal, Turkey would take back Syrians who had immigrated to Greece and increase its efforts to prevent the smuggling of Syrians into EU countries. In return, a limited number of Syrians who had settled in Turkish refugee camps would be sent to EU countries, Turkey would receive 3.3 billion euros in aid, and the EU would accelerate the negotiation process for Turkey to join the EU. The Turkish government, however, complains about not being paid by the EU, while the EU complains about Turkey’s inadequate performance under the agreement.

Despite the growing issues arising from Syrians in Turkey, the refugee population has provided some leverage to Turkish politicians in dealing with the EU. The Turkish government, for example, has been able to blackmail the EU into allowing Syrian refugees in Turkey to travel to EU countries. Still, it is not clear how effective the 2016 deal has been in curbing ongoing smuggling from Syria to EU countries. According to some experts, the deal is bound to fail because well-developed and well-networked human smugglers will always find innovative ways to smuggle Syrians into EU countries. Failure also may stem from the Turkish government’s insufficient capacity to fight against human smugglers, given the extent of the problem.

The government’s current policy seems to rely on leveraging its power against EU countries. As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said in a February 2016 speech, “I can open the doors for Syrians.”[14] So, although Turkish policy fails to prevent the influx of illegal immigrants from being transferred from the country’s southern and eastern borders, the policy works in that it sends a message to European countries.



[1] “The Syrian refugee crisis and its repercussions for the EU,” Syrian Refugees in 2017,, accessed on January 5, 2018.

[2] “Syrian Refuge Regional Response,” UNHCR,, accessed on January 7, 2018.

[3] KOM Daire Baskanligi, 2004 Turkish Report of Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime, 26-27.

[4] KOM Daire Baskanligi, 2008 Turkish Report of Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime, 68.

[5] “The Syrian refugee crisis, explained in one map,” Vox,, accessed on August 8 2017.

[6] “Bakan Soylu, Türkiye’deki mülteci sayısını açıkladı,A Haber,, accessed on August 6, 2017.

[7] “Türkiye’ye sığınan mülteci sayısı 4 milyona ulaşacak,” Milliyet,, accessed on August 2, 2017.

[8] KOM Daire Baskanligi, 2014 Turkish Report of Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime, 18.

[9] KOM Daire Baskanligi, 2014 Turkish Report of Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime, 10.

[10] The Syrian refugee crisis and its repercussions for the EU,” Syrian Refugees in 2017,, accessed on August 7, 2017.

[11] “Image of Drowned Syrian, Aylan Kurdi, 3, Brings Migrant Crisis into Focus,” New York Times,, accessed on 7, 2017.


[13] KOM Daire Baskanligi, 2015 Turkish Report of Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime, 44.

[14] “Erdoğan’dan Avrupa’ya ‘kapıları açarız’ tehdidi,” Cumhuriyet,


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