Tiptoeing on the Turkey-Iran border: A day with a human trafficker

Hale Gönültaş reports: In Turkey’s Hakkari province on the border with Iran, the human trafficking networks are intricate, lucrative, and riddled with challenges: From freezing temperatures and animal attacks to ‘shock houses.’ Ali, a former-human trafficker, quite literally walks us through the mountainous region and the dangers these refugees face, and they don’t end at the border.

Hale Gönültaş / DUVAR

Photos: Volkan Nakiboğlu

We set off from central Van, an eastern province of Turkey, in the early hours of the morning to meet up with Ali, a former-human trafficker (his name has been changed), at a predetermined point on the highway in Turkey’s southeastern province of Hakkari. Ali drove his vehicle to our meeting point and we decided to continue the journey in our vehicle. Ali drove. In those first moments, Ali repeatedly told me that he had left this business some time ago, saying, “Dear sister, this is an ill-gotten gain. We take money from desperate people. There is no factory here, no agriculture. There are at least 10 children in each house. How is it possible to take care of these children on a minimum wage? There are no jobs here to earn money. The money we take from refugees does not have an ounce of value, so it is spent as quickly as it comes. These people are desperate. They are fleeing war. On one hand, we are taking them into our country, which is safe. But taking their money has started to make me very resentful. I was even put in jail for this. I served my time and then, I quit.”

While we were traveling on the Van-Hakkari highway, I asked where the people that want to cross the border are usually coming from. Ali told me that the Iranian border is often crossed by citizens from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and a small number of African countries, such as Rwanda, Ghana, and Nigeria.

Partners in human trafficking

Ali explained to me in detail how the system often works: “The person coming from Africa comes through Iran. There are local intermediaries and traffickers in Iran and Afghanistan who take them to the Iranian border. Iranians take care of the Afghanistan section, but traffickers in Turkey are partners with traffickers in Iran. In some cases, the trafficker from Turkey passes to the Iranian side to make an in-person deal with the Iranian trafficker. This deal can also be made through the phone. The Iran-Van-Istanbul route is 5,000 dollars. Let’s think of an Afghan refugee for example. He contacts a trafficker in Iran before he leaves Afghanistan. When they arrive in Iran, the trafficker meets them at a certain point and takes them to the border villages of Iran. After the refugees cross the border into Turkey, the trafficker in Turkey takes them somewhere to avoid being apprehended by Turkish security forces. For the border crossing alone, each refugee pays 1000 to 1500 dollars to the Iranian trafficker. The Iranian trafficker and the refugees wait for days in houses in these border villages. They serve them food. They wait for the best time to cross the border. The traffickers in Turkey do not work alone. Depending on the size of the group arriving, they may have five or six people helping them. When the refugees arrive in Turkey, they pay the main trafficker. The fee charged by different traffickers in Turkey also differs.”

He then spoke to some of the initial dangers the refugees face during this transportation stage saying, “Sometimes the refugees are taken to a place near the border. They are placed in ‘shock’ houses. Then they leave, or rather, they escape. They never come back. The refugees are left hopeless, and without food or water. This happens from time to time. Sometimes the trafficker in Turkey steps in and saves them. Sometimes they are helped to cross the border in smaller groups, or the trafficker in Turkey explains the route over the phone. Other times, the trafficker in Turkey calls a trafficker in Iran and asks them to go and pick up the group. All of this means the refugee must pay more money.”

We asked Ali to elaborate on these ‘shock houses.’ “We call the houses where the irregular migrants stay just before or just after they cross the border ‘shock houses,’ because they are like refugee camps. The people staying in these houses have left their countries, their homes. They have walked for days. They are hungry. Then they are put into these barn-like houses together. There is no comfort. They are really in shock when they stay in these places. Sometimes, after months of walking, they are staying in a house for the first time. There are carpets and beds in the house. According to the deal, they are given hot meals, bread, and water.”

Held for days in shock

The length of stay in these houses depends on the situation, the former trafficker Ali said. “Sometimes it’s three days, sometimes a week, sometimes 10 days, sometimes even one month. The main trafficker works with three groups of traffickers. The groups will meet at different points on the border. Maybe a total of 200 people will cross the border in three days. Let’s say 50 people crossed the Iranian border at one point while some used different secret crossings. Let’s say a group of 15 is left behind. The last group waiting to cross and the others who have arrived are accommodated in houses as close as possible to one another. There are several factors that determine the length of stay: If the roads are tightly controlled, if weather conditions are adverse, if security forces have detained a couple of traffickers, then their stay is extended. If there is snow, then they would use alternate routes to take them from the houses to more central locations in towns or cities.”

Suicide among women refugees 

I told Ali that when I had talked to refugees in Ankara, they told me that while staying at houses in these border villages they would be charged 50 liras for a small glass of milk. Ali responded saying, “There are good people and bad people in every profession. There are heartless people. When we were doing the job, we always provided hot meals. If there were babies or small children, we took special care. If a woman gave birth in the shock house, then the trafficker would host them for 40 days. The women, children, and family continued to stay.”

When we brought up the subject of sexual assault of refugees by traffickers, Ali said, “There are people who do that. Personally, I have never ever done it nor could I ever do it. My associates would not either. But there are incidents. For instance, if the woman is in a difficult situation and she wants to stay with the trafficker, sometimes the trafficker makes a mistake.” 

When I asked Ali to elaborate on that, he said, “Let’s say the woman’s husband died in the war and she has children. She came to Turkey, and in Van or in Batman she has no place to stay. She has no money. She is in no position to work. She does not have a work permit either. She is desperate. In that case, some men do wrong to these women. Such a woman sometimes stays with these men or, if they are very desperate, they kill themselves. There are such incidents.”

'She becomes his wife’

“So where are the bodies of the women who kill themselves buried? Do the security forces know about this situation? What about their kids? When these women’s families in their countries don’t hear from them, do they investigate what has happened to them?” I asked in response. Ali said, "I don’t know, sis. I’m telling you what I have heard. I don’t know the rest.” I asked if there were still refugee women staying with traffickers in the border villages. He said, “It happens from time to time. She stays in the village. She becomes his wife. He looks after her.” We wonder to what extent these alleged female suicides are reported to security forces in eastern and southeastern Anatolia regions.

Ali told us he needed to make a phone call to find out whether there are any groups of refugees walking in the mountainous regions we aim to reach. We made a turn and Volkan, our teammate, was now behind the wheel. It was a snowy, mountainous region. After Ali finished his call, he told us that a group of refugees got off a minibus about 15 minutes ago and that we just missed them. When I asked Ali, what the route of the refugees was, where they were heading, he responded, “The minibus cannot drive on the main road in the daylight. They are kept waiting somewhere. Sometimes in a vehicle, sometimes in a barn. Depending on the situation, the minibus drives slowly to Van. They are taken to Lake Van.”

We remind Ali that we have passed through three check points since we left Van, that the gendarmerie searched even our trunk. How can a minibus filled with irregular refugees drive on such a highway, we asked him. “We have watchmen. If a minibus is to drive on the highway then the watchmen wait for a shift change. They call the driver of the minibus. They drive just in that moment when there is no guard.” 

Ali called another trafficker to learn whether there is a group of refugees walking to cross the border. After his long phone call, he said there was a group who tried to cross the border three or four hours ago and they were shot by Iranian troops. There were deaths. The remaining ones fled into the mountains. Some traffickers were now searching for them in the area. It was 1 degree Celsius at that moment. The mountain region must have been below zero.

Freezing to death

We asked Ali whether the traffickers were really looking for the remaining refugees. He said they were. When I asked him whether this was to take more of their money, he said, “Of course they will also get their money. Also, there are wolves in these mountains. Wolves attack defenseless people. That is why I did not want to take you to the border. Foxes also attack people if they are hungry. Now it is daylight. If they still haven’t found the rest, if they have not frozen, if wolves or foxes have not attacked them, they are probably hiding behind rocks. The hiding refugees do not know any route in the mountainous area. These refugees are very scared. They do not come out of hiding. Most of the deaths happen in those hideouts. They either freeze to death or are attacked by predators. There are always many bones on this route in the winter and summer. Those who do not know assume they are animal bones. All of them are bones of humans eaten by wolves.”

It then started to become difficult to drive in the mountainous terrain. We got off the vehicle and started walking. Ali said there would be problems with phone reception as we walked up. He made his last calls to see if there were any refugee groups on the route. He said he called a couple of different teams. There were no groups on the mountain road now. “The gendarmerie is in a strict search. They are holding the refugees in shocks. They have not released them.” We kept on walking.

After making his phone calls, I sensed that Ali was uneasy. I asked him why and he said some traffickers were uncomfortable with his detailed questions. He believed they might have warned the nearby villagers, who might not let us into their border villages.

Ali and I were walked in front, while our colleague Volkan filmed. The ground was icy and slippery. The right side of the road was a cliff. Ali told me that many people had fallen off the cliffs to their deaths.

One of the reasons Ali stopped trafficking people was that, while he was in jail, the main dealer did not keep his promise to look after him and his family. When this happens, families and traffickers are in very difficult situations. “We are given a certain amount of money to drive the refugees to Van. When we are stopped and searched, often we are detained and then arrested. They never keep their promises.”  

We asked Ali who the main dealers or the chief traffickers were? Do they live in the border villages? In city centers? Or in mega cities? Do they also have other trades? Ali told us they were “big men.” He said he did not know any more, but that there was big money in this business.

Ali further explained to us how the trafficking system worked: “Apart from the main trafficker, there are about five people. The top person makes the negotiations. The main dealer has separate deals with his Iranian counterpart depending on the situation. The place the refugees would be handed over and whether the terrain is mined, affects the deal. If the Iranian trafficker does not want to come to the border then another team member crosses the border and meets up with the group. Sometimes on donkeys and horses, but sometimes just walking. In some places, you need to crawl. Since the crossings are usually done at night on cold days, they often must move all the time to avoid freezing and predators. It usually takes three or four hours to walk to the border villages, so they arrive exhausted. Another trafficker takes them to the shock houses, which are prepared beforehand. When the main dealer says they can go out, they leave the house. Arranging vehicles, weather conditions, and security force measures are all important. Recently, there has been a lot of pressure from security forces. The police and the gendarmerie are not letting anything slide. For this reason, the traffickers often change the locations of the shock houses, because they fear raids by the gendarmerie.”

When we mentioned the fortified security stations, thermal cameras, night patrols, border village guards, and troops to Ali, and asked him whether they were ever intercepted by the gendarmerie in their night walks, he said, “Of course, we are. A trafficker once was intercepted by the gendarmerie at Yüksekova. They fired shots in the air and everyone started running. They hid among trees, but even in the summer there are animal attacks, and in the winter, they can freeze to death.”

COVID-19 measures

While we walked on the mountain road, Ali explained to us the different refugee paths and transfer points. During the pandemic period, security measures, strict controls, and raids have increased and trafficking businesses have been affected. “When this pandemic started, the number of refugees decreased. We could have come across many refugee groups by now before the pandemic. This is true in all countries. A person coming from Africa must cross many countries to come to Iran. The maximum size of a group is now is 10 to 15 people. When you put them in a shock house, you do not know who is infected. The trafficker can also get infected. The minibus drivers do not take more than six or seven passengers and the traffickers have to divide up the groups.”

Human trafficking is an industry in which huge amounts of money can be earned in a very short period of time. Refugees do not carry cash because of the risks they face while traveling. Ali explained to us that a kind of money changing system is used in which the refugees give money to the moneychangers in Afghanistan, who are generally jewelers. When the refugee arrives in Iran, the moneychanger in Afghanistan and the moneychanger in Iran contact each other. A refugee from Africa also contacts the Iranian moneychanger when he arrives in Iran. As the refugee proceeds on his route, the fee is paid. The trafficker in Turkey does not want his bank account to grow at an unexplainable rate, so he works with moneychangers in Iran and Afghanistan. Some couriers go to Iran and take the money or jewelry to bring back to Turkey. Allegedly, the Iranian troops know of the system and are bribed from time to time.

While we climbed to the top of the hill on the mountain road, we checked the GPS and saw that there was only a short distance left between us and the border villages. From the hill, we could already see a village. We went down the other side and walked behind the village. This road was one of the routes used by refugees. Because of the geographic conditions, it was a protected area. Minibuses generally waited at the foot of the mountain, but where do they go next?

Ali explained, “Depending on the circumstances, if they can proceed, they can go as far as Van, Ağrı, or Tatvan. If they cannot proceed, they stay where they are. The main dealer decides. Sometimes, the refugees walk directly to Van.”

What happens in Van?

Ali reported that those refugees who are able to get all the way to Van are taken to the shock houses in a neighborhood just outside the city center. “I have repeatedly dropped off groups of refugees at the shock houses in Van. Now, those houses are half-full due to the coronavirus. They are two or three-story houses with basements, which are packed with refugees in the summer. These houses have huge iron doors. Each iron door has a different pattern. The buildings and iron gates are different colors and patterns so that refugees can find them easily.”

When I asked Ali how long the refugees stay in the shock houses in Van, he answered, “They are extremely tired when they arrive in Van. After months of walking, they reach these houses. They don’t want to walk in the mountains anymore. Van is the riskiest place for them to get caught. If they are caught, they are sent to the Repatriation Center. Lake Van has been used for years to take them out of Van. They leave their homes in small groups and are dropped off at various points on the shores of Lake Van. Fishing boats wait for them there and take them to the Tatvan side. If they have paid a good amount, they are transported to big cities, but this is very expensive. A refugee who has crossed the Iranian border has to pay at least 5,000 dollars to get safely all the way to Istanbul.”

According to Ali’s narrative, this system can only happen through falsified documents. Ali said he did not want to go into that subject, saying he did not know much about it. It is well-known that traffickers provide fake ID cards, passports, and bus tickets through their social media accounts.

As we went down out of the mountainous area, we saw three all-terrain vehicles heading for the mountainous road. After a while, they reached us. There were civilian officers and special operations personnel inside the vehicles who asked us several questions. They said our presence in the area posed a risk and told us to leave. Thus, our opportunity to reach the border village was gone. The officers were determined that we leave the area. We took the shortest road back to where we left our vehicle.

After we dropped off Ali back on the Van-Hakkari highway, we went to downtown Van. We arrived at the neighborhood where the shock houses were and they were exactly as Ali described: They had two or three floors; they were located on a couple of streets; and each had large, impressive, and specially designed steel doors. We took photos and videos of them without leaving the vehicle. Turkey’s imposed coronavirus curfew was about to start. In the early hours of the morning, we will make our way to the Tatvan district of Bitlis to find stories about the refugees who were taken from Lake Van and left on the opposite shore.