IZMIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Demand has never been higher for the services of Turkish smuggler Dursun, who has taken migrants to Europe for more than decade, and he says nothing short of an army could stamp out his illicit trade.
The EU is counting on Ankara to stem the flow of migrants to Europe after more than a million arrived last year, mainly illegally by sea from Turkey, in the continent’s worst migration crisis since World War Two.
But the task of policing Turkey’s coastline may be beyond its stretched security forces, even with the help of Western allies. NATO sent ships to the Aegean on Thursday to help Turkey and Greece stop criminal networks smuggling migrants.
“Turkey would have to put soldiers on all the beaches,” said the burly Dursun, 30, who has spent three short prison spells in Greece for piloting motor boats full of migrants into Europe. “You have to put thousands of soldiers on the beaches,” he said in the coastal city of Izmir, declining to give his last name.
The Turkish government is under growing pressure from the EU following a 3 billion euro ($3.3 billion) aid deal for the country last year, aimed at slowing the flow of migrants. Thousands died making the crossing in 2015, and the exodus has also strained security and social systems in some EU states and fueled support for anti-foreigner groups.
Ankara has stepped up patrols of its 2,600 km Aegean coast, deploying more coastguard and police and increasing the punishment for the smugglers it catches, especially if their actions led to the deaths of migrants.
While Turkey boasts the second-largest army in the NATO alliance, it is also fighting Kurdish militants in the southeast and has a heavy military presence on its border with Syria where a civil war has raged for five years, the main source of the current refugee crisis.
Namik Kemal Nazli, governor of the Ayvalik district near Izmir, said a big problem facing authorities was the fact that much of the coastline was remote and relatively unpopulated, with many places where smugglers could hide.
“It is hard to control the entire coastline and they are exploiting this,” he said.
Western diplomats are sympathetic to the difficulties of managing a jagged coast line with plenty of blind spots. But they say Ankara can still do more, both with policing its shores and in tracing criminal gangs. They also say it should do a better job of deterring illegal migrants, especially as some have been caught multiple times trying to make the crossing.
Illegal migrants are usually fingerprinted after being caught. Depending on their nationality, many are released, free to try to reach Europe again.
Turkey, which has taken in more than 2.6 million refugees since the start of the Syrian civil war, says it needs more help from the West. Its Minister for EU Affairs Volkan Bozkir said last week that solving the refugee crisis was not just Turkey’s job, urging European countries to cooperate with Ankara on border controls and information sharing.
Yet the flood of refugees only increases, with more than 80,000 arriving in Europe by boat during the first six weeks of this year - mainly from Turkey to Greece - and more than 400 dying as they tried to cross, according to UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency.
More than 2,000 people a day are now risking their lives to make the journey, UNHCR said last week. The cold winter weather can mean cheaper passage but a more dangerous journey.
Smugglers are taking riskier sea routes to avoid the police crackdown, said Abby Dwommoh of the International Organization of Migration.
“When interdiction measures go up, smugglers and the migrants tend to find ways around them,” she told Reuters. “The numbers are overwhelming for any country to deal with.”
When Dursun started out, there was only a trickle of refugees from Eritrea and Somalia; there were no Syrians and only a few smugglers. Now, the courtyard of a mosque in the rundown neighborhood of Basmane in Izmir where he operates is filled with Syrians trying to make deals with smugglers - just a few blocks from a police station.
Even though police are more vigilant, Dursun said there was nothing they can do unless a smuggler was caught on a beach with a group of refugees. As he spoke, he pointed out other smugglers walking past. Locals say it has become a popular occupation, to which neighborhood drug dealers have switched.
Still, the native of Turkey’s Black Sea coast says he’s become more cautious and no longer captains the boats, despite the lucrative payment of 2,000 euros a trip.
Instead, he brings the migrants and refugees to the setting off points by minibus, coordinating with others in a chain that includes lookouts and those who assemble the groups of refugees.
“If the driver is alone and gets arrested, but nobody saw him transport refugees and there were no refugees in the car, he will be out again straight away,” he said.
Punishments have become much harsher. Recently, two ring leaders were sentenced to 15 and 20 years in jail, he said.
On a recent stormy day, the hotels in Cesme, about an hour’s drive from Izmir, were filled with migrants who were waiting for the weather to break before setting out from Europe.
One hotel manager, who declined to give his name, said even if NATO “shut down the sea” to stop smugglers, that wouldn’t deter migrants from seeking to reach Europe.
“Of course they would look for other ways.”
Additional reporting by Melih Aslan; Editing by David Dolan and Pravin Char